Explore | Halong Bay, Vietnam

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SONY DSCHalong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.

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Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning.  I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.SONY DSCI made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.

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SONY DSC SONY DSCThe adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set.  I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.

SONY DSC SONY DSCI awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.SONY DSC SONY DSCIt turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country.  However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness.  I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!

Explore | Halong Bay, Vietnam

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SONY DSCHalong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.

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Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning.  I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.SONY DSCI made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC SONY DSCThe adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set.  I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.

SONY DSC SONY DSCI awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.SONY DSC SONY DSCIt turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country.  However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness.  I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!

Explore | Imperial City, Huế, Vietnam

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The Imperial Palace complex, a designated UNESCO site since 1993, designed with the principles of Chinese geomancy (yes, finally my Asian Art background makes sense!) was home to the Nguyễn family, is surrounded by mountains, lush greenery and locals selling delicious rambutan.  Surrounded by a moat, the main buildings are set within 2.5km-long walls, which make for difficult navigation but, trust me, it is worth it.

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Rooms filled with original blue & white porcelain, mother-of-pearl adorned tables and artefacts the royal family themselves used. Weaving between buildings, I came across countless gardeners happily tending the sumptuous flora as I sought refuge from the humidity in ornately decorated rooms. They’re all wearing 3-4 layers and are working away: I had 1 layer on and almost melted.  To enter some rooms, you must cover your shoulders, remove your shoes and refrain from photography as a sign of respect to the ancestors

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The complex was devastated during the French and American bombing of Vietnam, with only 20 buildings surviving. However, in 2012, the government approved a US$61 million restoration proposal. By the time I visited, the majority of the complex had been restored to its intended glory. Hue, which until the mid-20th century served as the capital of Vietnam, was my favourite city in the country, and I would happily return.

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Coffee Break | Càfê RuNam, Hanoi, Vietnam

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Located between a Buddhist Temple and the enormous St Joseph’s Cathedral, RuNam, afforded me my first experience of Vietnamese coffee. Have read about the role of the humble coffee bean in transforming the Vietnamese economy, I was eager to try some for myself.

With an extensive menu including matcha lattes, iced coffee and a variety of loose tea, I opted for the traditional Vietnamese style coffee. Served with condensed milk on the side, the coffee had a very unique taste and smell – almost smoked, if you like.  I do not care for sweetened hot drinks but with the intensity of the coffee, the addition of condensed milk was delicious (and necessary).  The staff members were very friendly, happy to speak to me in English about the cafe and just really welcoming. Given my jet-lagged, I’ve-only-been-here-for-14-hours look, I really appreciated when the one of the employees came over to me with the newspaper written in English without being asked. These little moments of kindness and inclusive weave through my Vietnamese adventure. Although I only happened upon the café because I had been at the temple, it seemed clear to me that RuNam is firmly on coffee lovers radar.

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The cafe was filled with a cultural mix of tourists and locals and, just to put it in context, the cost of my coffee and biscuits was the same price as I paid the previous night for dinner of a bowl of chicken pho and a beer. By the time but convert to pounds it’s very inexpensive but pretty prices by local standards.

The company have another branch in Ho Chi Minh City, roast their own beans and they have a lovely selection of “high-end glassware coffee and tea available for purchase. I thought that this kind of café – offerings and décor – wouldn’t have been out of place in London. If you’re in Hanoi, stop by!

Càfê RuNam
13 Nhà Thờ, Hà Nội
+84 (4) 39 286697

Explore | Photo Diary, Hanoi, Vietnam

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As I wrote in a recent blog post about Cambodia, it has become rather apparent to me that my travel experiences have been somewhat limited.  As the New Year approached I, like so many others, decided I needed a change. I visited a local travel agent, explained that I wanted to visit Asia during the summer and was completely open to recommendations. Though India and China were, and remain, top of my list, the climate during the summer deterred me.  I decided on Vietnam there and then and, in order to push myself further outside my comfort zone, I added Cambodia and Thailand to my agenda.

 

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My understanding of Vietnam was limited to its tragic history; its role as the “pearl” of the French Empire, the implications of Nazi Germany’s occupation of France on the colony and the horror of the Vietnam War. Oh, and a few titbits from my manicurist who cursed me out last year for going to Singapore without stopping in her country! Whilst this is all thoroughly interesting stuff, it can be pretty depressing and, moreover, I wanted to know more than I was taught, more than I had read – I wanted my own Vietnam experience.

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I spent my first two days in Hanoi, dodging motor bikes and trying to maintain some control over my hair in the intense heat and humidity. I celebrated my birthday with a busy day of excursions including trips to the colossal Roman Catholic St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Buddhist temple, the calming Temple of Literature (blog post to follow) and discovering the delights of local ice cold beer and ferocious red chillies.  This was the start of a wonderful three-week break in a beautiful part of the world. Here is my photo diary.

Coffee Break | Books & Brunch, Bruges

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IMG_0319-edited SONY DSC SONY DSC IMG_0321-edited IMG_0322-edited IMG_0325-edited IMG_0324-edited SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSC SONY DSCEarlier this year I spent 4 days in Bruges, a town I hadn’t visited for over 10 years. Not much had changed, which is all part of the charm; the quaint shops, abundance of churches and museums and cobblestone pedestrian streets.  As it was low-season, the streets were empty of tourists. Locals walked by, smiled and always said hello. It was so cold! I pretty much lived in my wool coat and barely removed my accessories.

When I happened upon Books & Brunch, I couldn’t quite believe my luck! Surrounded by literature in French, Dutch, German and English, I sipped several Flemish cappuccinos, indulged in a slice of home-made flan Brésilienne for breakfast and read a book.  Even the wallpaper in the bathroom resembles pages of a book. The clientèle all seemed to be regulars – chatting away to the lovely owner as orders for brunch and rather delicious coffee orders came in. It’s really calm, homely and unpretentious; just what one expects of a village café.

Books & Brunch
Garenmarkt 30
8000 Brugge
Belgium

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