Hello Hội An!

Our next stop in our travels North to South of Vietnam was to the amazing Hội An! Sadly we were only there for a very short period of time, so we didn’t really get to see much of the area. But what we saw was truly gorgeous, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Lonely Planet (my Bible whilst I travel) describes it as ‘Graceful, historic Hội An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town’.IMG_5514Hội An, which translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999. This is due to the Old Town, which is a particularly well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port from the 15th century to the 19th century. During the 18th century the town was considered by both Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination in southeast Asia for trading. Indeed the Japanese even believed that the heart of all Asia (the dragon) lived beneath the earth of Hoi An. However, after the 18th century the prominence of Hội An fell until it was almost forgotten. The positive to this decline however, is that the town remained practically untouched by change for the next two centuries.

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My number one recommendation for anyone visiting this area is the night market. Even if you only have one day to explore make sure you pay it a visit. During the day Hội An provides an incredible insight to the history of Vietnam, and walking down the streets of Old Town you could almost imagine yourself transported back in time. But like so many places, night is when the town truly comes alive! Suddenly there are market stands and lights everywhere, and more people than you thought possible. As you walk along the river there are dozens of women selling small candle lanterns, which float along in the current. The night market stretches along the streets selling everything you can imagine, from souvenirs, to food to brightly coloured lanterns for you to take home.IMG_5495IMG_5547

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Another spot that is definitely worth a visit is the Japanese Covered Bridge, dating to the 16th – 17th century. The bridge gets its name from the fact that when it was built, it divided the town and marked the boundary of the Japanese settlement there. The bridge is also interesting since it is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side. But be warned, you’ll have to fight all the other travellers for a good photo of this spot!

IMG_5660Hội An is also famous for another, completely different reason – its tailors. Strolling down the streets you will find dozens of shops where you can have clothing custom made in just a matter of days. When I visited Vietnam a few years ago with my family I had a jacket made. I quite literally drew the design I wanted, was measured, picked the fabrics and then within two days it had seemingly magically appeared. However, I would recommend staying in Hội An for at least a couple of days if you’re planning on having anythin made. It’s definitely worth going back for a couple of fittings and making sure that all the details are to your liking. Another option is to send your measurements over along with instructions for what you want. This is exactly what both my parents did whilst I was there this summer, which is how I somehow managed to find myself in a Vietnamese tailors picking out the fabrics for my father’s work suits – not a situation I had imagined myself in when I first started planning this trip!

 

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“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

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Pagoda #1 – the first of many!

Not only was Hué home to our first imperial enclosure but also our first pagoda – compulsory viewing for anyone visiting Asia! The first of many, Thiên Mu Pagoda is located on Hà Khē hill, a short taxi drive away from the royal residence. Built in 1601 by the then governor of the area now known as Hué, Thiên Mu is the tallest religious building in Vietnam!IMG_1870

For those who don’t know, a pagoda is a type of tower with multiple eaves, although they are built in a range of architectural and cultural styles. Modern pagodas are an evolution of the Indian ‘Stupa’, built to hold religious relics (such as the remains of Buddhist monks or nuns) and were also used as a place of meditation. Some pagodas are also used by Taoists as a house of worship. The word itself can be slightly misleading however, as due to the French translation, the English word ‘pagoda’ is used more as a generic term as a place of worship.

Thiên Mu is certainly an awe inspiring place to visit, and the area surrounding it is equally as beautiful. Whilst there you can walk around the gardens which, as we saw whilst we were there, are tended by the Buddhist monks who live at the site. If you are interested in the history of Vietnam this is also an excellent place to visit as it house the Austin motor vehicle used by Thich Quang Duc in 1963 in his self-immolation protest against the Diem Regime. As someone who didn’t learn anything about Vietnamese history growing up, seeing this car for the first time and learning the story behind it was a truly shocking experience.

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“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

Hue’s Imperial Citadel

Our first visit to an imperial site was definitely an impressive one! Hue’s Imperial Citadel (also known as the Imperial Enclosure) was the home and capital of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty between 1802 and 1945. The complex included not only the royal residence, but also its temples and palaces. The interior of the Citadel, the Purple Forbidden City, was reserved solely for the royal family. Sadly a visit today doesn’t really provide the full experience of the site since much of the complex was destroyed in bombing raids during both the American and French wars. The extent of the loss is made incredibly clear when you learn that out of the 148 buildings that once existed, only 20 have survived to the modern day.

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Sadly once you’re inside the complex it’s actually pretty difficult to tell what building is what as there aren’t many signs provided. Personally I found it was more a case of ‘I recognise that from a picture I’ve seen’ rather than any real understanding of what the buildings were. Despite this, the site is absolutely stunning and it’s not difficult in the slightest to imagine it as the home of a royal family! 

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“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst, and then I remember to relax and stop trying to hold onto it and it flows through me like rain and I can feel nothing but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life. You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure, but don’t worry. You will someday.” – American Beauty

A boat trip to Ha Long Bay

A trip to Vietnam could never be called complete without visiting the amazing location that is Ha Long Bay! ‘Halong’ translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, with local legend stating that the landscape was created when a mountain dragon raced towards the coast, its tail gouging out the landscape as it moved. When the dragon dived into the sea the whole area was filled with water, producing the amazing scenery seen today. As a great lover of magical creation myths, I happen to prefer this story much more to the scientific explanation of erosion! 

Just over 100 miles from Hanoi, Ha Long Bay is a great place to visit for a couple of days, although a day trip is also possible. Personally I wouldn’t advise it as I think a day trip doesn’t give you enough time to truly see the area, and plus, you’d miss the sunset and sunrise! The area was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994 and after seeing it, it’s not difficult to understand why! 

IMG_1385Having been to Ha Long Bay before, I knew that one day there wasn’t really enough time to see this site. There are a huge number of boat trips which pick you up in Hanoi and then allow you to spend one or two nights in the bay on the boat itself. I did a load of research looking at reviews and other travel blogs, and eventually came across ‘Lily’s travel Agency’ which I would absolutely recommend to anybody who wants a reasonable price for this trip. The company offers a small variety of boats for different costs, depending on the size of the boat and the activities included. As a group travelling on a student budget, this was by far the best option we came across. 

We chose the boat that cost £65 ($85) and I think this was one of the best decisions of the entire trip! Part of the package included being transported to and front Ha Long Bay, which is quite a relief as it’s a reasonable distance to travel on public transport. The boat we sailed on wasn’t massive, which I personally preferred since a bigger boat simply means more people! Meals were included in the price of the trip, as was a free bottle of water. The only additional cost was for any drinks you had, but obviously these were pretty cheap.

IMG_1376And so our adventure began! e sailed out into the Bay, and you begin to realise just how many other ships are there as well! I couldn’t help but worry that maybe there would be too many and our experience would somehow be ruined by crowds etc. But in reality, Ha Long Bay is such a large place that you don’t really notice other people in the slightest! Our first activity of  the trip was climbing to the top of one of the tallest mountains in the area. This was a totally optional activity and wasn’t that tall in reality since it was only a few hundred steps. I will admit however, that it’s a lot of stairs to deal with in the heat and the humidity! But in my personal opinion, completely worth the sweat. If that’s not something that you want to do, there was a gorgeous little beach at the bottom of the path and the water was incredible – especially after all that exercise! 

IMG_1480We were then taken to see a cave complex. The boat provided a tour guide who took us around the caves, explaining what each of the rock formations was called and what it was supposed to look like. It’s amazing to me how many animal shapes can apparently be spotted within one cave! The whole system was lit up with crazy lighting which made it feel as though we were walking through a live action version of ET or some strange alien planet. 

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In the early evening we also had the option to kayak around the Bay. There was a guide showing us a rough route (which was probably a good thing since most of the rock formations looked pretty similar to me!) although we could of course just go off on our own. It was a really relaxing way to explore part of the Bay, and it also gave us a different perspective than of the boat! I did take my g0-pro with me but sadly I am, as of now, unable to upload the photos onto anything. But hopefully I can change that soon!

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What we thought was brilliant about this tour was that everything I have mentioned was included in the price of the trip. It’s always a bit of a worry that there might be some hidden costs whilst on the trip, but we were happy to learn that for once this wasn’t the case!

One of the questions i’ve been asked when telling people about this trip is what was my favourite part? And for once, that’s an easy question to answer! Watching the sunset, and getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the sunrise (which people find quite surprising considering that i’m not really a morning person). You hear people describing something as ‘magical’, but in this case it truly was. The kind of awe inspiring, goose bump raising experience I personally think every traveller is after.

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On our second (and final) day of the trip we were taken to see a floating pearl farm. Our guide took us around the complex and explained each step of the process of how the farmers grow the pearls. It was actually surprisingly interesting! We were even given access to the room where the workers place an artificial piece of ‘sand’ into the oyster to attempt to stimulate the growth of a pearl. Admittedly the smell in the room wasn’t particularly pleasant but it was amazing to watch how delicate a process it is! We also had time to have a look around their shop, although sadly I decided that since I’m on quite a tight budget this summer buying pearl jewellery probably wasn’t the best decision I could be making! 

 

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So there you have it, our trip to Ha Long Bay! It was one of our most expensive day trips, but it is something that I would 100% recommend to anyone travelling to the country (in case you hadn’t already guessed). It is unlike anything I have seen anywhere in Vietnam, or the rest of the world. Even if you’re not particularly interested in geography, or swimming, or any of the activities i’ve mentioned in this post you should still go. It is quite simply, stunning. Sitting on one of the deck chairs, listening to my music and watching the scenery sail by, was one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I have ever done. 

“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Mary Ritter Beard

Vietnamese Water Puppets!

Well anybody who visits Vietnam must see one thing in particular – the water puppet show! 

IMG_1347A little bit of history about the show. Water puppetry dates back to around the 11th century in Vietnam. It’s thought to have originated in Northern Vietnam in villages along the Red River Delta. The tradition started when rice paddy fields became flooded and villagers would produce their own entertainment.  The villagers would stand in waist-deep water with their puppets on long bamboo poles, performing shows to the rest of the village. Whilst puppetry may be a traditional art form in Asia, Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique version of it! 

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The show is, in my opinion, a definite must for all visitors to the country! Watching in English does have the downside of not understanding the musical lyrics, or the plot lines for the individual puppets, and going from the reaction of the local audience members, it seems that there are often jokes which you miss. But really, that doesn’t matter. Experience traditional Vietnamese music live is amazing and for the most part you can either guess what is going on in the show or it doesn’t really matter. You can simple sit back and enjoy a show totally unlike anything you have ever seen before! Even though this was my second time seeing the show I stilled loved every moment, and it’s definitely something that can appeal to all age groups. 
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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

And so the adventure began…

Once again I seem to have managed to get horrendously behind in my blog posts! And yet once again I have my excuses. Bad wifi connection in more hostels than I want to remember, a VPN that refused to work, TEFL paperwork to fill out, a dissertation to start reading for. But now that I have some additional free time and some of those excuses have been completed it’s time to start catching up! 

The adventure this year began in Hanoi, Vietnam! The journey over took around 24 hours and three flights, so by the end of it I was very glad to reach our first hotel. Once again I’ve gone through trusty Hostel World to find all my accommodation and once again things seem to have worked out pretty well. In Hanoi we stayed at ‘Hanoi Old Town Hotel’ which I would definitely recommend. Cheap, free breakfast, nice clean rooms, towels provided and really helpful staff, so overall a really good place to stay.

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Our first evening we simply went out for a quick meal and then all collapsed into bed – although with the six hour time difference from England we quickly found that sleep wasn’t as easy to get as we were hoping! 

 

 

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Our first full day in Hanoi began with a visit to see Hoan Kiem Lake, and the beautiful bridge there. We then walked around the lake up to Hoa Lo Prison. A tip for anyone visiting Hanoi, the tour books and websites all told us that the prison would be closed on a Monday. However, since Monday was our only day in Hanoi we decided to visit anyway to see if it was open by any chance – and it was! I can’t be sure that this means it’s always open on a Monday, but this does make me wary of information to do with opening times.

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Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton is one of those places where it’s incredibly interesting to see, and yet you feel as though you shouldn’t enjoy seeing it. A piece of history that shows the terrible way that the locals were treated by the French. There are signs there in English which is helpful for learning about the history, although of course these do present a very Vietnamese view of events and act as political propaganda. But it’s definitely a site I think everyone should see whilst in the city.

Our next stop of the day was to the Temple of Literature. This is a gorgeous Temple of Confucius built in 1070, and became Vietnam’s first national university. It’s a beautiful building to walk around and the history of the site is amazing to me.

IMG_1256I was last in Vietnam with my family when I was 17 years old. This temple is one of the things that I remember most clearly from my visit then and going back them reminded me exactly why that is. Maybe I simply like Temples, maybe there’s something about it being a Temple of Literature specifically that interests me. Whatever it is, I know that this is one of the first places I will always think of when I think about Vietnam! 

“Traveling isn’t something you’re good at. It’s something you do. Like breathing.” Gayle Foreman

Summer travels 2016

Oh dear, my attempt to ‘brush off the cobwebs’ didn’t go very well! In my defence, university and exams essentially dominated my life for the last few months and so everything else had to wait its turn. Unfortunately, this did mean that I didn’t ever write about my trip to Italy in Easter. After up to eight hours of walking around studying historical sites and museums each day, returning home to cook dinner, write up my notes, work on my essay, and attempting some revision, blogging was honestly the last thing on my mind.

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Maybe at some point i’ll catch up with my Italy trip!?

But now it’s the summer! Which means that whilst I will still be busy, I should (crossed fingers) be able to write far more than I have previously. At least that’s the plan…

Summer travels begin this year on Saturday. Well, to be precise, they begin at 3:05 pm when my plane leaves English soil (hopefully!) First I’ll be flying to Vietnam, which I will be exploring with three university friends. We will be visiting Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Ho Chi Minh, as well as a trip to Ha Long Bay. We will then be travelling into Cambodia and are visiting Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Sadly, that’s where I have to cut short travels with my friends and won’t be seeing the rest of Cambodia or Thailand. On the other hand, I am flying over to Shanghai to work as an English teacher for around two months so I think that that can be forgiven! And besides, I’m determined to explore Asia again soon.

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My summer travels…

As for China, my travel plans still really remain a mystery. As I said I’m working in Shanghai for two months, and at the end of the trip I know that i’ll be spending about five days in Yangshuo which I am so excited about it’s kind of absurd. I’ll be flying back from Hong Kong and thanks to some very generous family friends who have offered me their spare bedroom, it looks like i’ll be exploring the city for about a week! But the rest of my time in China is still waiting to be organised.

In all honesty, i’m not sure how much time i’ll have to do my blog whilst I’m out there as  I am technically working, but I’m determined to do as much as I can. So stay tuned and even if I don’t write much, my instagram will always have new things to see!

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” –  Terry Pratchet