Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Singapore has my heart: what to do in less than 24 hours

6am pickup, 8.50am flight - when will I get some sleep?!

I was VERY excited to spend 24 hours in Singapore - it was a very unexpected little treat but THE BEST treat. I am now officially in love with the place and am about 80% serious when I say I am going to move there.

We arrived around midday (7 hours ahead of UK time) pumped and ready to see as much of the city as possible. I'd done a fair bit of research so knew of a few places worth a visit. We decided against booking any accommodation; our flight was at 10am.

First things first, transport. The MRT is a must - it's fast, reliable and the stops are really not far from one another at all. For a 1 day unlimited tourist pass it is 10 Singapore dollars (plus a $10 deposit which you can redeem from the ticket office between 6am and midnight when you've done with the pass). I would definitely recommend getting a day ticket as it is the most efficient and effective way of getting around.

We were given a map so straight away planned our route. We decided on Little India, Chinatown, The Mustafa Centre, The Marina and Raffles as our stop offs - I would definitely recommend a visit to all of them. And you need to go to a Hawker Market - foodie heaven and crazy cheap!

Taiwanese pork and rice for about a pound - WOW!

So, we hopped on the MRT...

If you travel SE Asia you usually end up meeting somebody that's been to Singapore - with this in mind, I asked where to go. Little India was a common recommendation, but after visiting, I wasn't overly impressed. It wasn't exciting or nicely decorated - it was a dull, boring place with restaurants and a lot of people. The main reason I did want to visit, however, was for the Mustafa Centre - a shoppers heaven. They sell EVERYTHING and I mean everything. From electronics to toiletries, sports equipment to suitcases - anything you need, they will have it here and it will usually be cheap. I went purely for the electronics - I was adamant I wanted a keyboard for my iPad to make my life easier while I'm away (typing these blog posts via touchscreen is unsurprisingly irritating)

So, we walked for around 15 minutes (using our trusty map) from the NET stop to the Mustafa Centre and it was a million times bigger than I anticipated. We eventually located the electronics section and I soon found myself a Bluetooth keyboard. Now, I will warn you - (it may sound obvious) but the products aren't genuine Apple. Cameras, phones etc you are fine, but most things aren't genuine products. I tested out the £30 Bluetooth keyboard with my iPhone and it worked a treat and, so far, it still seems to be working. Also, while you are there, stock up on any toiletries you may need - so much cheaper! 

From Mustafa, we headed back out towards the MRT stop via a little Indian market. Mostly selling saris but also western clothes and accessories, things are very cheap here so it's worth a look if you are after a bargain. 

Next stop - Marina Bay. This was something I didn't know about or what to expect when we arrived but if I can say one thing about it - you HAVE to go to Marina Bay Park. A shoppers heaven with the high street brands like Zara to my personal favourite luxury brand Chanel, everything is here. There's also Singapore's version of the London eye and the beautiful Marina itself that had amazing views if the skyscrapers and a few lovely hotels and restaurants around the water.

There's a really nice vibe round here - really relaxing and the buzz of people walking around, deep in conversation and excitement. It's also the home of Olympic Walk...

We loved it here and spent a while walking around, sitting admiring the view and taking pictures.
From here we headed to the very famous Raffles Hotel. Everybody I've spoken to about Singapore said a visit to Raffles is a must, even if just to use the toilet. It's a hotel that's been around forever and has a fabulous reputation for being grand and very impressive.

Unfortunately we had to make the decision to opt out of a Singapore Sling - at $27 we decided we would rather go to Chinatown and eat ourselves into a Dim Sum coma.

We had a little wander round before heading back onto the MRT Chinatown bound. I was most excited about Chinatown, mostly to lose my Dim Sum virginity but also because I knew there would be markets, lanterns and cheap tat! My favourite! 

It was just as I'd hoped - the beautiful smells of food everywhere and lantern lit streets. We sussed out the three main streets, surrounding Smith Street (where we ate at the nicest Dim Sum restaurant).  We browsed the market but our inner 'I need food every two hours' reared its head and we caved...

We ate at the incredible Tak Po and for around 7 pounds each we had enough Dim Sum to feed a small tribe and a beer watch. Head to Smith Street, eat here - you will not regret it, I promise. 

We wandered round the market for a while, impulse buying kimonos and debating what random purchasing urges counted towards holiday fever or not. We caught the last MRT back to the airport and managed to get our MRT card deposits back just before the kiosk shut.

We had a very jam packed day but it was amazing and a good example that you can have limited time, get the best bits done and discover some unexpected but brilliant things to do.

Until next time, Singapore 


Saturday, 26 October 2013

Just Checking In

Okay, so I admit it...I've been a bad blogger recently. We have been on Gili Trawangan for the past three days, one of the islands just off Lombok. It's absolute paradise - perfect blue water, white sand, walking around barefoot all day and no traffic other than horse and cart or bicycles. 

So, back to my terrible lack of updates - the wifi has been absolutely appalling for around a week now. To the point that I can't even load Facebook most of te time. Shock horror!

But please do bear with me - I have Singapore to tell you about (which was incredible, might I add) and my time in Bali. We arrived in Kuta, spent a few days there before checking out Seminyak, Ubud, Senggigi (in Lombok) and now we are on our lat day in Gili T before heading back to Kuta tomorrow. 

Luka and Katie leave on Monday (sad face) and myself, Vicky and Nadia have another 6 days before we fly to Perth. I can't believe how quickly time is flying!

Stay tuned, I promise I will have something interesting for you soon!


Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hangover Hell: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh

3am came and it felt pretty much like a nightmare. We had our flight back to Ho Chi Minh ready for our stop over in Singapore then on to Bali. Catching a plane hungover is probably one of the worst decisions I've made...ever but an experience all the same.

We stayed in Thanh Hostel again, the same as last time because of it's cheap, clean rooms and excellent location. We had a biiiig long sleep until late afternoon before heading out for a wander round and a browse around the markets. I have been to the most ridiculous amount of markets but somehow seem to enjoy it every time.

We went to Ben Thanh market this time which hosted the same souvenirs as the rest of Asia but the market itself was a winding, labyrinth of hustle and bustle and all the pointless, pretty tat I like to buy. Unfortunately, we had been told this was a night market but around 6.30-7pm, everything started shutting and the huge street food area clearly had no intention of opening up - bummer! We headed back in search of food and came across Cam Tam Cali - GO HERE! The food is cheap and absolutely delicious; they offer broken rice dishes, the best BBQ pork I've ever had, amazing veggie options and combo dishes which are excellent value for money and you get A LOT of different foods.

After food, we headed back towards our hostel to visit the shops nearby, ones we had visited before. I'd pinky promised the most adorable Vietnamese girl (that also makes incredible dresses in her shop) that I would buy a pretty, handpainted lantern. She was there and thrilled to see us and twisted my arm and I left with a beautiful lantern - slightly impractical as I have a backpack and rucksack and it's very fragile!

We had another early flight tomorrow to Singapore an, after the state we started our day in, bed was calling our names...well, shouting in my case!


Saturday, 19 October 2013

All Aboard! Halong Bay

Second to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Halong Bay was second on my list of 'if I don't do this while I'm travelling then I will not be happy' list. I'd seen the pictures and the idea of spending a night on a boat somewhere so peaceful was something I knew I would love straight away.

At $74 for two days, one night on a superior boat (don't go economy - they're renowned for being unclean with not so good tour guides). The trip includes a visit of an incredible cave (a second UNESCO site), kayaking around the bay, a trip to a pearl farm and possibly some of the best food I've had during the whole trip! (All the food included and you get A LOT of it) We were picked up from our hostel at 8am and began the three and a bit hour journey to the bay.

We've already come to terms with travel in SE Asia - they have poor concept of time; nothing is EVER on time whether it be pick up, arrival, journey duration - they're pretty bloody useless. So it took us four hours in the end with a stop off in the middle - which is always appreciated as there's ALWAYS ice cream.

We arrived at the port and waited for our mini boat to take us to the main boat. After five minutes we were boarding our main boat and being seated for lunch. We managed to fit in a quick look around (rather impressed, I have to admit!) and popped our bags in our rooms. The boats offer one triple room and double rooms; we also realised you can fit three in a double room as the rooms are quite small and it would be near impossible so if there's an odd number, be prepared to have one of you share with somebody else as the triple room is snapped up quickly!

We were seated for lunch as we sailed further into the beautiful bay and treated to the most amazing seafood lunch - clams with a pineapple salsa (which I normally hate because of the texture but they were gorgeous!), fresh fish with soy and ginger sauce, squid (which I passed on), steamed rice, chicken salad, fresh fruit and various other yummy things. There was LOADS and we were all ready to pop and left thinking 'what are we possibly going to be fed later?!'

After lunch we hopped back on our mini boat and set off for the caves and kayaking the bay. By this point, I was flagging a little bit; the previous few days of non-stop travelling and activities had left me tired and in need of a rest. The cave was beautiful and really impressive but I didn't take it all in nearly as much as I should have. After a lot of steps and walking around, we headed back on the boat to the kayaking area of the bay. I paired up with Katie, a kayaking virgin! We had a lot of fun and a near fall-in on her part but it was incredible to kayak around, take in the view and just appreciate the experiences we were fortunate to be having during our trip. After an hour, we headed back to the main boat for an hour of rest time before yet another HUGE meal.

Honestly, for a food lover like myself, paying $74 for this boat trip was more than worth it for the meals alone. For our evening meal we had a mixture of fresh salad and vegetables, ingredients to prepare our own fresh spring rolls (using carrots, noodles, lettuce, pork, spring onion and a garlic/chilli oil, all wrapped in rice paper - this is something I absolutely love and I know I will make them all the time once I'm settled in Australia and cooking for myself), breaded white fish, steamed prawns with lime and seasoning, steamed rice and too many other amazing things to remember. We had fresh fruit for dessert again and a few Hanoi beers to wash it all down.

Obviously, on a boat, you have to occupy yourselves in the evening, After dinner we had a little go at squid fishing - something which we were all pretty useless at. Earlier that day a little Vietnamese lady had rowed up to our boat on her teeny tiny boat full of snacks and drinks and sold us a few bottles of vodka. She hadn't charged a great deal but, a warning to you, if the boat staff see you, they will sting you with a service charge per bottle - even for soft drinks! The American boys on our trip bought theirs through their bedroom window and poured it into empty water bottles so avoided the charge - DO THIS. Paying $10 service charge for a bottle of vodka and two bottles of soft drinks is not only annoying but makes it unnecessarily more expensive. Oh, and the vodka will probably be at least a year out of date but we drank it and lived to tell the tale (seriously though, I would love to know how vodka can go out of date- so any of my readers, care to share if you know!). We headed up to the top deck, spirits in hand and as well as teaching each other drinking games, witnessed magic tricks (that are still baffling Katie) and spent a great deal of time discussing the American/English accent, funny words and phrases and mimicking said words/phrases, This is one of the things I love about travelling - you meet so many people from different places and it's always interesting to hear about the differences in accents and lifestyles.

We called it a night in preparation for our 7.30am breakfast - what delights would there be...

Breakfast was distinctly average - toast, eggs/omelette and fruit but I FINALLY had a proper cup of tea; something I had been really missing since being away.

Our final morning on the boat allowed us to get a couple of hours of sunbathing in (finally!) and a trip to a pearl farm. 

We were lucky enough to have another big,tasty lunch after having a demo from our guide how to make spring rolls (we have expert status after our Cambodian cooking class and Halong Bay practice now!)

Around 12pm we headed back to land and made our way back to Hanoi. By the time we had got back from Halong Bay it was around 5pm but the others had caught up with us and booked us into a hostel with them - Central Backpackers.

Central Backpackers was must more lively and sociable than our first hostel so I'd definitely recommend staying here when visiting Hanoi. 8 bed dorms again so two of us were in with the others and three in the dorm downstairs. The bar downstairs offers free beers between 7.30pm and 8.30pm but the drinks are ridiculously cheap anyway. Hanoi was a weird one - not a great deal of nightlife but even less so as there was a state funeral over these few days. We still managed to sink a few beers and head out for a while - wise move when we arrived back around 1am and had a 3am pick up for the airport...

Do Halong Bay, stay at Central Backpackers - there isn't a huge amount of stuff to do in Hanoi but make the most of your time there, even if it's just for the shopping.


Thursday, 17 October 2013

Puppets and a street for everything: Hanoi

After our 20ish hour sleeper bus extravaganza from Hoi An (amazing place!) to Hanoi, we finally arrived around 8am

We had booked into the Hanoi Hostel which was basically a travel agency with a few dorm rooms upstairs. The rooms are all 8 beds, which is fine by us. This time of year in SE Asia is low season, so reeeally quiet, so we only had one other girl in with us who didn't arrive until around 11pm. The room was cheap, no more than $5 per night each and relatively clean. I'll admit, it isn't the cleanest or nicest place we have stayed but it had A/C, clean sheets and lockable cupboards under the bunks for your bags and valuables which is all that is important in my eyes (I feel like a changed woman - who'd have thought 6 months ago these would be my requirements for a trip away - normally swimming pools with a swim-up bar or a lot more my thing).

Most people travel to Hanoi for either the famous water puppet shows or as a one night stay before travelling three hours North to the amazing UNESCO site of Halong Bay - we were here for both these reasons (the puppets less so but Luka said her oldest brother recommended not missing out on them!) Halong Bay trips offer one day, two day (one night stay on the boat) or three day (one night on the boat, one night in a beach bungalow of the island) trips. There are three types of boat; economy, superior or deluxe. We opted for the two day, one night stay on the superior boat which cost $74 (USD) each. We were told by our hostel receptionist that the economy boats aren't recommended as they are often found to be dirty with poor service and tour guides who don't speak particularly good English. We booked our tour for the next morning with an 8am pick up; it takes 3-4 hours to travel by bus from Hanoi to Halong Bay so an early start is necessary.

After booking our boat trip, we headed out to see what Hanoi had to offer. As we had driven in, we saw the main area; a lake surrounded by restaurants and shops with balloons in the air and a Japanese pagoda - we decided a little wander round was what we fancied after a few days of none stop travelling and sightseeing. We headed down to City View point to get the the cafe at the very top to get a view of central Hanoi. We spent a full day walking round and booked our Puppet Show tickets for the 8pm showing - the ticket office is on the opposite side of the road to the Japanese Pagoda and has a really good coffee shop next door, The prices are a little steep but they do the most incredible Iced White Chocolate Mocha which, in my opinion, is worth spending that little bit extra on.

So, puppet show verdict - erm, interesting. Obviously, the whole thing was in Vietnamese so, at times, it was hard to follow but that made it really amusing. It was actually really clever how they did it all and the show itself is no more than one hour. I would definitely recommend experincing it for yourself as it really is something Hanoi is famous for and the tickets aren't expensive at all; a couple of dollars at the most!

After the puppet show, there was the option to go out but you'll find everything in Hanoi normally shuts between 11 and 12 - either by choice or because the police shut everything down. We had a little wander around the shops, which was an experience in itself - every street has a theme - hat street, shoe street etc - really good and they will have everything you would ever require! I think that's the one thing I've found with Asia - you can get the same things everywhere so if you miss out on buying things, chances are, you can about 90% guarantee you'll get it in the next place.

I'm a lover of tat and, what we have called, 'holiday fever' buying - things you think you love now but they're either hideous, only appropriate for travellign/backpacking or you just get caught in the moment and will NEVER wear/use/want said thing again. Beware of holiday fever! If you can spot it/avoid it, I promise you will save yourself a lot of money.

Here's an example of holiday fever;

When would I ever need a Vietnamese hat? Is this really practical when backpacking? How did I intend to transport it? It looks bloody stupid. "Oh, it's only a dollar!" - No, no, NO! It's safe to say this made it to Halong Bay and back to Hanoi and was accidentally (fortunately!) forgotten in the our second Hanoi hostel.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Lanterns and bicycles: Beautiful Hoi An

After a fabulous time in Nha Trang, soaking up some sunshine and catching up on some well overdue R + R we headed to Hoi An.

Vietnam had slowly become my favourite place so far during our travels which surprised me as I already fallen in love with Cambodia after Siem Reap and our trip to Angkor Wat. I didn't think too much to Ho Chi Minh, with it's busy streets,the hustle and bustle and the same vibe I got from Bangkok (a place I have now visited more than once and still can't come to like the place despite a better experience from Khao San Road this time). Nha Trang was much needed - sunbathing, mud spas, smoothies, good food and lots of fun.

Then we arrived in Hoi An...

The place is absolutely beautiful - a lantern lit town (finally, a place where I don't feel unsafe on the roads!), separated by a river running through. The buildings, despite appearing old, are painted and almost 80% have bright, handmade lanterns (Hoi An is famous for these!) hung outside. I do think lantern appreciation is more of 'a girl thing' as the boys couldn't quite agree how 'cute' the place is. Hoi An has so much character and is like nowhere we have visited until now which is why I found it so special. We only spent one and a bit days there due to running out of time but I would definitely recommend 2-3 days.

The second thing Hoi An is famous for is tailoring and I would 100% recommend getting your own clothes made here - I had three beautiful, well made dresses made here for 20 USD each (an absolute bargain for good quality fabric and pretty near perfect fit). The choice of fabrics is ridiculous - there are hundreds, so do make sure you set aside plenty at least a half hour to an hour gap to choose carefully. They have endless designs to choose from, for men and women - dresses, shorts, playsuits, high quality suits and ties (JT would be content) - and it's all super cheap for the quality and fit. Convinced yet? WELL, if that hasn't convinced you, almost every tailor offers the option of shipping your clothing back home or, if you're backpacking, to your next or final travel destination. 

We stayed at the Hoa Binh Hotel, which had an excellent location with a 5-10 minute walk to the riverfront where all of the shops, boats and restaurants are. We chose a superior room which included and ensuite and two big double beds (conveniently fitting 5 of us in). This also included a free buffet breakfast each which was actually pretty good - fruit, cereals, eggs, pancakes AND omelettes - everything to set you up for the day. There's even a small indoor swimming pool, should you require it...which you may do after my next suggested activity.

My 'must do' in Hoi An, other than having clothes made is hiring a bicycle, The best way to see Hoi An and appreciate the lovely little town is by cycling around, meandering through the streets, crossing the river to the island, getting lost in the Old Town and cycling down the loooong road to the beach. Opposite Hoa Binh Hotel is a bicycle hire shop, $2 a day per bike - see why it's a must do now? Not only is it cheap, it saves you time, saves your feet and is pretty fun.

That evening we made our way to the riverfront, crossed over the Japanese style bridge and ate at a restaurant overlooking it all. There are a lot of restaurants down there, all with very similar menus, prices and quality so I would recommend picking one with the best drinks offers - these will usually already be up on board somewhere but they're often open to a bit of haggling if there's a group of you.

The next morning we got up early in search of the markets in the Old Quarter, The one close to the crossing to the island is okay but quite local, if it's jewellery, art, chopsticks - all that kinda stuff, head a little further a long down by the river (to the right of the bridge) and you'll find it all down there.

Unfortunately, our morning was a big rush as we had to catch a 1,30pm bus to Hanoi - 3-4 hours on a minibus then 17ish on a sleeper bus. Yep, ridiculously long journey but it's the most cost effective way to do it and saves on a night of accomodation. They aren't completely horrible but they're not 5* luxury so don't get your hopes up too much.

We drove through Hue on the first bus which was actually really nice - very mountainous with pretty views, I've been told there isn't a great deal to do there but, having had more time, I'd have at least liked a day to explore. There's also the option of doing the famous Top Gear motorcycle ride from Hoi An to Hue, which a few of our friends did and said was fantastic. So if you have time, maybe consider that. Vicky and I have definitely considered revisiting next year to do that (and so I can stock up on a million and one pretty lanterns - when will I learn?!)

The long journey wasn't so bad and it meant I'm now on season 5 of Breaking Bad and closer to understanding the world's tweets of it being 'the most amazing finale of any TV show, ever!'

Stay posted to hear about my Hanoi adventures - it's an interesting place!


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nha Trang

From Saigon/HCMC we travelled to Nha Trang, a highly recommended stop off for backpackers - right on the beach, lively nightlife and cheap cheap cheap!

As I told you in my orevious post, the sleeper bus was pretty horrendous and when we arrived in Nha Trang at 7.30am we were all more than thrilled to be off that bus.

We got a taxi to our hostel (VERY expensive for the way we were taken so try and find out where your hostel is!) We had booked into True Friends hostel, a recommendation from one of Nadia's friends, and I can see why we were told to go there. Straight away the staff were so welcoming and friendly and I felt like we had been there for a few days already! We checked in and were shown to our room, which even had its own balcony! The hostel cost us $10 each for two nights in a six bed dorm with an ensuite. You get your own lockable cupboard (bigger than a 65 litre rucksack) to lock your things away so it's incredibly safe.

We had already we were going to check out the Thap Ba mud baths and hot spring centre - so many good reviews on trip advisor and I can completely see why after a trip there!

We got a reasonable priced taxi and arrived at the spa, thankfully 5 minutes before a huge bus trip! It only cost us around $4 or $5 for a 20 minute mud bath, mineral shower, half an hour hot spring bath and access to a huge swimming pool and mineral pool. I've been to a lot of spas but this one was very relaxing and incredible for the amount we paid. Unfortunately, it started raining quite heavily so we couldn't take full advantage of the swimming pool.

We went back to our hostel, via the Lil Shack - you must go if you can, they do the best fish tacos I've ever had and they're just over a dollar! The rain persisted so we headed back to the room for a nap before having food and a night out once the others had arrived that evening.

We got ready and the others arrived, all of us hungry, we headed to Oasis and had our meals on the roof to seating. The cocktails were all half price so we managed to make our way through several buckets each. We also went to Why Not? Bar, quite nearby, which was definitely one of the stranger experiences we've had so far during our travels. It was packed full of locals, who dance very...erm...passionately? Very weird and amusing but we had a good time! We decided to head down to the beach, with every intention of watching the sunrise but with two hours to wait, we all flakes and headed to bed.

The next day, we were all feeling a little worse for wear so stayed in bed late and had an afternoon on the beach. It didn't stay sunny for long but after a smoothie from the mini mart (mango madness is a must!) and a breakfast burrito from the Lil Shack, our hangovers seemed to disappear!

That evening we went out, in search for the night market...but got a little lost and ended up finding an Indian, called Omar's, which had a deal on - 150,000 dong (20,000 dong to 1 dollar) for a starter, poppadom and chutney, a curry main, rice, a naan and a drink. Could we refuse that? No, we couldn't.  As expected, far too much food but excellent value for money. Yet again, the rain reared it's ugly head! Luckily the hostel was literally next door so we ran back and chilled in the room. 

The next day was check out day *sad face*. I really liked Nha Trang and although the weather let us down, I would definitely come back here (obviously during a season with more sunshine!) and take advantage of the beach and trips on offer here. Not only does Nha Trang have a lovely beach, there is also a waterpark (Vin Pearl) and trips to do white water rafting, elephant trekking, easy rider bike tours and numerous other things, including the mud baths and hot springs (that I 100% urge you to go to!)

Our final day in Nha Trang consisted of taking advantage of the air conditioning in Iced Coffee after a hot and sweaty trip to the day market (which, unfortunately, isn't worth venturing to - very small, very smelly and nothing worth buying unless you're in search of fruit). We found a great bar called Tarantino, which was showing Pulp Fiction (what a coincidence!) in the afternoon which was a nice way to relax before getting our 8pm sleeper bus to Hoi An! I've now been shown how to download tv series to my iPad now so am armed with Breaking Bad, New Girl and Homeland for the bus. Hooray! 


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Ho Chi Minh City

After our lovely afternoon on the beach and Mexican meal, I was disappointed to have to leave Sihanoukville - the relaxation felt long overdue.

We were all very ready to get to Vietnam though and it really is going to be a whistle stop tour as we only have around 9 days because of longer travelling times earlier on in the trip and an extra night in Sihanoukville because of the full night bus!

We were picked up at 7.45am for a four hour drive to the border to go through border control and cross over to the Vietnamese side.

We had another case of 'you can't use dollar' but we politely declined the currency exchange offer and told them we already had Vietnamese Dong (not falling for that one again and being millionaires for 10 days! I'm still trying to ditch my Cambodian Riel!)

We had to wait quite a while to be picked up to be taken to the coach station but eventually a happy little man arrived and we were safely deposited at the coach. Now, we've been on a sleeper train during this journey but never a bus and I have to say, sleeper buses are definitely the way forward! Check this out...

Why would you ever travel any other way?! The one thing that always gets to me when travelling is leg room - I'm quite tall at 5ft 7' for a girl and nothing infuriates me more than not being able to stretch my legs out or put my feet up; how do people sleep sat upright!? So this was definitely my preferred method of transport now and at $22 for a 9 hour journey, I didn't really care! I was able to sleep comfortably, listen to music and not get irritated by anybody next to me! The only fault? All we had eaten allday was a tube of Pringles each and some nuts. There were no stops along the way to get food, only toilet stops so, as you can imagine, we were all craving something nice to eat that evening!

I had booked us into the Thanh Hostel for the night, just off Bui Vien which is a very similar atmosphere to Khao San Road in Bangkok, minus the street sellers! It actually ended up being really nice for the money. We were directed down a very...interesting side street; brought crowds of locals enjoying various types of street food. The hostel was all locked up which was the strangest thing but a nice Vietnamese lady came to our rescue, showed us to the correct door and banged on the shutter. We we're let in and shown to our rooms by the sleepy hostel worker and threw our bags in. It was now around half 11 at night so we quickly headed out in search of food. We decided on a little Italian place a few doors down from our hostel (on the main road) which was distinctly average. Don't opt for a Panzanella salad in Vietnam, it will not be what you expect! My hunger had passed and my decision making skills were definitely switched off at this point!

After food we headed back as we were all exhausted, had a few people to skype and just wanted some rest.

The next day, we had to be checked out by midday so got up kinda early and went to purchase our bus tickets for our journey to Nha Trang. We then got caught in the heaviest rain I've possibly ever seen; the street flooded and water was up past our ankles in the space of 10 minutes. NIGHTMARE! Moral of the story? Always carry a PAC-A-mac and/or umbrella!

We raced back to our hostel to dry off and book our Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh flight. Unfortunately our time in Vietnam is very rushed as we fly to Bali on October 13th for our final two weeks in South East Asia. All booked with Vietjet for around £38 - not bad and a real time saver! 

The rain died down a little so we grabbed a bite to eat then got a taxi to see The Reunification Palace and Notre Dame (yep, one here too!). We'd previously done a bit of research, and as far as I can tell, there isn't a great deal to do in HCMC. I got similar vibes here to Bangkok, a city I don't particularly like, so my enthusiasm for HCMC was pretty low unfortunately. Maybe I've just not embraced the place properly? 

Anyway, we headed down there and...as expected, the palace wasn't too thrilling. I didn't feel there was any strong history to it - our guide basically said '4 different presidents lived here', we were taken round, shown every room (all reminding me of Mad Men) and that was that really. There were a couple of tanks outside and a helicopter on the roof and that's about as exciting as it got I'm afraid. From there we walked down to Notre Dame, another less than impressive tourist attraction, situated on a very busy road and you couldn't really get a proper 'feel' for the place because of the hustle and bustle of the area. So Ho Chi Minh really wasn't living up to my expectations at this point.

We headed back to the road near our hostel to check out some of the shops (venture just round the corner from Bui Vien) and you'll find a few cute little shops selling bracelets, lanterns, clothes and other souvenirs! From there we grabbed something to eat before getting our 8PM sleeper bus to Nha Trang.

8pm came and we patiently waited for our bus...when it arrived, our hearts sank. We were told the people before had been on this bus for 31 hours and we were getting straight on it. The bus itself was very dirty and scruffy with fabric seats rather than the usual leather seats every other sleeper bus has. The thing was vile and as the journey continued, the cockroaches joined us.

As you can imagine, it was a very disappointing journey (to describe it nicely) and I couldn't wait to wake up in Nha Trang, knowing the beach was a five minute walk away from our next hostel.


Monday, 7 October 2013

Koh Rong and Sihanoukville

Leaving the hostel at 7.30am, we had until 2pm to get to the pier for the once a day boat to Koh Rong. Plenty of time right? Wrong. Since being in Asia, we grasped pretty quickly that pick ups are always late, travelling time is always at least an hour longer due to poor roads and things rarely leave on time - oh, this boat was the only thing to leave on time in the nearly four weeks we've been here.

So, when we eventually made it to Sihanoukville we had around 55 minutes to get boat tickets, find an ATM (there are no ATM's, shops, even roads on Koh Rong island) and get to the pier. The tuk tuk driver managed to take us to, not one but two, closed ticket offices so Vicky had to run up the street to buy tickets - guess what, he had also taken us to the wrong pier! The right pier? 15km away from this pier and tuk Tuks aren't the quickest mode of transport where hills are involved. 

It felt like something out of a film - Vicky hopped in, we shouted to the driver to put his foot down and raced across Sihanoukville! A place that was weirdly quiet and also somewhere we had been told to avoid?! (I think people like putting worry in backpackers even when places are okay to visit).

We made it to the pier with two minutes (literally!) to spare and were happy to bump into the others from our last two hostels! We had a lovely, slightly choppy, two hour boat ride to take us to Koh Rong.

We had been told by numerous people 'you MUST visit Koh Rong!' So we listened and we did. We arrived to a tiny pier and a tiny beach front. We already knew this place was basic and only had power from around 6pm for 5 or 6 hours so we were quite excited for a sense of 'Island life' and back to basics living for a couple of days.

We all rocked up to Bunna's Place, the hostel we had booked on hostelworld which had a 75%+ rating and were...less than enthused by the place. We were greeted by an, erm, interesting bunch of individuals - an Irish girl, two American girls and an English guy - all completely hammered and downing cans of beer after slitting them with a knife. Fine, drinking games, we're all young etc etc but it was 5pm in the afternoon, they were all shouting various offensive words and the place looked like an absolute shithole (the only word to sum it up!) we checked in anyway; we were stuck here now anyway as the next boat was at 8am.

We were shown up to our room and, genuinely, if we were an hour closer to shore, I'd have swum back to Sihanoukville. It was dingy (obviously no lights yet but still horrid), smelt like damp and urine, was dirty and although a wooden 'shack' as expected - it may as well have not had any walls at all. But we were stuck here and decided, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and headed for the nearest bar (away from our 'interesting' hostel residents). 

We headed down to Coco's bar, which was actually quite nice. The 11 of us ordered food, cocktails, beers and took full advantage of happy hour and 2 for 1. The electricity came on and there was a frantic flurry of travel adapters and iPhones thrust into plug sockets - we were going to be needing our new torch function on iOS7! 

That evening we drank the night away, played drinking games and forgot about the awful rooms we all had to go back to. We made our way back, torches at hand and somehow managing not to injure ourselves on the ridiculously steep steps up to our shack room. That night, we didn't sleep well. The bed was just snap and horrid, ever movement sounded like somebody was either stood over you or in the room. I swear there were also rats scurrying around and, in general, we were just uneasy.

We had been told about something going on on the island by one of the bar staff, something I am not going to speak about..but the next morning, for many reasons, we left the island on the first boat we could get and headed for Sihanoukville.

It's safe to say, none of us will ever be ready or want to re-visit Koh Rong.

We got to Sihanoukville and all of us found rooms at @home down by the beach for $7 a night (3.50 each - cheapy!) and grabbed a much needed shower. We headed down to the beach, pleased to be in a different environment and got a table of the beach for food, Angkor beers and cocktails. The food was great - barbecued beef steak, jacket potato and salad. We didn't stay up too long, mainly because Vicky had downloaded the first episode of the new series of Homeland. Sad right? But we love it!

The next day involved a visa run to the embassy - in Vietnam, you have to get your visa sorted before, either from Bangkok, Cambodia or online. It costs around $60 which is much more money than I anticipated after reading about it online. The bonus of going to the embassy is that we were given our Vietnamese visa within 20 minutes! It couldn't have been easier - our tuk tuk waited outside, we walked in, filled in a form, handed over the form, passports and money and within 20 minutes had the okay to visit Vietnam!  

We headed back to the hostel to meet the others for breakfast and get down to the beach - the sun was out, the sunbeds were free and I was not missing a tanning opportunity! The weather has been pretty terrible during our visit to Cambodia. Silly really, it is rainy season but you never expect quite so much rain! 

The afternoon breezed by and it was lovely to get some relaxation in after so much moving around. The only thing, on Serendipity beach - the beach sellers are keen and wear you down. I ended up having my legs and eyebrows threaded (pain!), bought a bracelet and a 15 year old Cambodian girl made me a friendship bracelet. These girls were sat with us for at least an hour and although they were doing it to make a living and make money from easily persuaded tourists like myself, their English was brilliant and we really got to chat to them properly.

That night, the others left for Vietnam (we unfortunately couldn't as the bus was full, which meant an 8am day sleeper bus!) by 8pm the rain was terrible so we headed for the closest restaurant to our hostel - a Mexican a few doors up! Definitely the food I had been craving the most since being here; the veggie burrito I had went down a treat! 

Vicky and I then headed for a massage. $7 for an hours full body massage was music to our ears and I could have easily paid for a second hour as it was so good! That's one thing you must do while in Asia; make the most of the massages, manicures, pedicures and various other treatments you can have done - they are soo cheap compared to the prices you'd pay at home!

Shortly after that (and a cheese fondue and cocktail - yes, bizarre as it sounds), we headed up to bed before another 7.30am pick up to take us to the Cambodia/Vietnam border to make our way to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Siagon).

I actually really enjoyed Sihanoukville and wish we could have spent an extra day there instead of in Koh Rong but at least we can say we've been there and I can share my experience with you. It just goes to show, you can't always trust the advice of the travellers you meet - their idea of fun or paradise can be VERY different to your own.