EXUMA

IMG_7414pigbhammccccffinIMG_7232excmtrbwfijccproffhamcatccmandjewatbjrumhammthjbtccbccr

We arrived at Staniel Cay Yacht Club from Nassau by tiny prop plane, a trip that’s only made less terrifying by the incredible views. Below – spidery turquoise estuaries bleed into brilliant white sandbars; ahead – unbroken views of sky and sea.

Staniel Cay Yacht club sits in the middle of the protected Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and is one of the few places to eat or stay within, well, a very large radius.  Luxurious but unpretentious, the hotel is made up of nine pastel-coloured wooden cottages, each with its own little balcony over the water where nurse sharks regularly come to visit. Guests are given their very own little boat to explore the pristine and secluded beaches and cays that surround the area. If you’re missing lunch to go out and explore (meals are included), the hotel can pack you a picnic basket and beach chairs so you can have your very own castaway picnic.

Staniel Cay is also the perfect home base for attractions like swimming pig beach and Thunderball Grotto. Named after the Bond movie that was filmed there, Thunderball grotto is a stunning underwater cave that has amazing marine life notwithstanding the hundreds of people that visit daily. At all hours of the day the sunlight filters through in beautiful patterns while snorkelers weave their way through hundreds of tropical fish.

Just a few minutes away by boat is Swimming Pig beach (Big Major Cay). While you’ve no doubt seen the pictures, it really is a surreal sight to see enormous pigs swim (quite gracefully) up to your boat in the crystal-clear ocean demanding food. They are utterly unperturbed by humans and very, very cute, especially the babies.

Still unconvinced by the tiny planes, I managed to find (after several desperate rounds of emails and phone calls) a boat tour that agreed to pick us up at the club on their way back down to Great Exuma, our next stop. It ended up being a great idea as we caught the end of the tour, which stopped at Great Guana and Leaf Cay. Apparently, the latter was bought by Nicholas Cage in 2006, but he subsequently discovered it couldn’t be developed as it was home to hundreds of Northern Bahamian rock iguanas – a critically endangered species. The island is currently on sale for $7,000,000. Any takers?

We only stopped on Great Exuma for one night before we set off on our Out-Island Explorer kayak tour of the Exuma Cays. We wanted to do the two night, three day tour so before we set off we had to stock up on camping gear (all provided by the tour company), food, and a heck of a lot of water.

The first slog from the setting point to the first island in the chain, Jimmy Cay,  is by far the longest and hardest. As soon as we turned out of the sheltered mangrove we were hit by a ferocious oncoming wind from the North. I’ve never paddled so hard in my entire life and yet it seemed like we were getting no closer to our target island. I very almost called it quits and went straight back but J kept pushing me on. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t witness our demoralising pace, and eventually, after A LOT of cursing and drenched to the bone, we finally got to Jimmy Cay. I’m so glad that we powered through because little did I know that this was going to be the best travel experience of my life.

It was like we’d kayaked to a different country. While the water at the start was choppy and turgid, as soon as we turned in behind the islands (where the water is protected from the Atlantic side by the islands), the water was the bluest, clearest and stillest we’d ever seen. The paddling was now a breeze. The first island we stopped at was Cluff’s Cay, which features a once beautiful and now totally abandoned and dilapidated house, and some enormous resident iguanas. We got off to explore the eerily beautiful house and abandoned garden and then continued on our way to choose which cay would be our home for the next three days.

After kayaking past several islands, each more stunning than the last, we came across Lily Cay, and we knew straightaway that this was the one. The water was incredible and the island was separated by rocks into three parts, which became our campsite, sunset bar and washroom. The water is so crystal-clear and shallow here that you can walk out for miles, even to a small nearby island. There wasn’t a soul in sight. We swam to wash up after kayaking, set up our tent, and explored our island while we gathered wood for the fire. In the evening we had a sunset aperitif at our bar followed by a three-course, gourmet meal of pasta, tinned mackerel and chocolate mousse-pot. We listened to music from our phones and portable speaker (yay for solar chargers), and looked at the stars. I’ve never seen so many.

The next day we explored the islands further up the chain. The whole area is so remote and the water so clear and calm that apparently it’s easy to catch fish to cook fresh on the fire, but unfortunately we’d forgotten to bring our spear gun. We spent most of the day chilling, looking for lobster, collecting sand-dollars and rod-fishing on as many of the stunning islands we could muster up the energy to kayak to. The only people we saw this entire time were two fishermen in the distance. If it wasn’t for running out of food and drinking water I’d have stayed here forever.

Great Exuma

We stayed at the very southern tip of Great Exuma, in secluded Williamstown. Since Williamstown was once separated from the mainland by a small toll-bridge, it has very much a small community feel of its own. One of the only activities to do here is to fish off the bridge for Tarpons, which are huge, tasty fish that our lovely cottage owner at Gunhill Bay Villas quaintly described as ‘fine fellows’.

I’m not sure if we caught turbulent weather or if the ocean is always rough in Williamstown, but our cottage was battered by the crashing Atlantic waves the entire time. We spent most of our time on the balcony, and occasionally we’d go out to the mainland or take the short ferry trip to Chat’n’Chill, a shack-like bar and grill on nearby Stocking Island. A favourite with the yachties, Chat’n’Chill sits on a beautiful beach with hammocks and picnic tables, and has resident rays and sharks that swim in the shallows. If you’re game to wade over a channel there’s also a beautiful hike that crosses over on the Atlantic side and ends with a view at the peak of Stocking Island, which boasts gorgeous views of Great Exuma.

After the hike I recommend heading to Chat’n’Chill’s conch salad bar, where they make a particularly good example of our favourite Bahamian dish. Deliciously citrusy conch salad is made with fresh conch plucked directly from its shell, cut to soak up the juices, and then combined with a mixture of diced peppers, onions, lime and hot sauce.

But our favourite meal of the trip was the seafood platter back in Williamstown, seemingly in the middle of nowhere at the GunhilI Bay Villas restaurant. Williamstown is also famous for its bakery, where local ladies make delicious rum and banana cake. We happened to be visiting during Easter so we were also lucky enough to try their famous hot cross buns. We bought them still hot from the oven and had them on our balcony with coffee, watching the Exuma-blue waves crash onto the shore.

ELEUTHERA

ttqmldfbskhbprlhblilhwindftrbtacsvussbmopkalzfalbvmdriblhbfasubffawifmtbhtrbtmtsjviljpbellibvfdrvtsmwispwellbeachottfi

We left for Eleuthera on the ferry from Potter’s Cay, a gritty market dock on Nassau featuring sun-bleached conch shacks, shipping containers and a distinctly rough but authentic vibe. The ferry only takes about 2.5 hours, which is more than worth it not just to avoid airport hassles (and tiny prop planes) but for the view of stunning Eleuthera rising up from the ocean.

The ferry docks on an island at the Northern tip of Eleuthera, at a small harbour town called Spanish Wells. Surrounded by blindingly emerald-green waters, Spanish Wells is made up rows of pastel-coloured clapboard houses and picket fences that look as if they’ve been transported directly from a New England fishing village. It’s like Maine on prozac. Stephen King would have a hard time setting one of his brooding novels here.

We stayed in a tiny rental cottage in Palmetto point with its very own beach, picnic table and fire pit, which we used one night to make foil-wrapped one-eyed-jack that we bought straight off the pier in one of the neighbouring fishing towns.

The best thing to do on island is to rent a car, turn up the music and drive. Eleuthera is a long, narrow strip of land that stretches 110 miles. The only highway – the Queen’s Highway – will take you past casuarina pines and coco plum bushes with flashes of brilliantly turquoise sea-views in between. Palmetto lies pretty much right in the middle so one day we would drive North, and the other South, stopping at whatever spectacular view we happened to come across. At the very southern tip of the island, down a long, dusty, dirt track, is Lighthouse Beach. Though I’ve lived in the Caribbean for the last five years, this is without doubt the most spectacular beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is pristinely white and powdery, and the water is studded by endless miles of reef, creating a kaleidoscope of brilliant blues. The best view of both the beach and reef is from a rocky limestone promontory, at the end of a short trail to a beautiful, disused lighthouse. It’s hard to imagine that a place so beautiful could be so sleepy, but we saw about a handful of tourists the entire time we were there. This is all soon set to change though, as the Bahamian government has just finalized a deal with Disney cruise lines to add Lighthouse Beach to their list of destinations. Disney will be ‘developing’ 700 acres of land.

The ‘capital’ of Eleuthera is Gregory Town, a tiny settlement with a few sleepy restaurants, a couple of bars, and a grocery store, where imported goods are so expensive that the onions are individually priced at about a dollar. About a five minute walk from the grocery store is one of the prettiest public libraries I’ve ever seen – a pastel pink-and-white colonial building surrounded by swaying palm-trees and dreamily peaceful views out to the sparkling ocean. The most action Gregory Town sees is at the popular Friday fish-frys, and every evening at dusk when the sharks come out to hunt in the shallows.

On the Northern tip of Eleuthera it’s a short ferry trip to the perennially popular Harbour Island. The two neighbouring islands could not be more different. While Eleuthera is dusty, sleepy, and fairly ramshackle, harbour Island is a buzzing, pristine tourist hub. Tourists in golf-carts zip past postcard-perfect, pastel-coloured Caribbean cottages, making their way to the eye-wateringly expensive restaurants and cafes on pretty Dunmore Street. Harbour Island is famous for its pink beach, but I can say without hesitation that it does not hold a tiny birthday-cake candle to any of the beaches on Eleuthera. What’s more it’s a lot more crowded.

The drive from Gregory Town to the Harbour Island ferry dock will take you past Eleuthera’s most famous photo-op spot, the Glass Window Bridge. From the bridge you can at once see the angry dark blues of the churning Atlantic on one side and the calm and turquoise waters of the Caribbean on the other. One day when we were swimming at some beautiful, unnamed beach where the bath-still water was perfectly silent, we noticed a dull roaring sound coming from somewhere in the distance, and we realised that it was the crashing of the waves coming from the other side of the narrow island. We walked over (about 15 mins to Surfer’s beach) to views of enormous waves, rugged coastline, and sand dunes. Apart from some sea-sprayed surfers, we hardly saw a tourist all day in one of the most beautiful locations we’d ever seen. 

A STROLL THROUGH PARIS

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetDA04A70A-4ED3-4B25-8A0E-1AF432FA10E7Processed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 preset

If you’ve only got a few days in Paris, you’d have a coronary trying to fit in all the ‘must-see’ sights and landmarks. Personally, I think the best way to see Paris is to stroll it – you can’t get lost and even if you do, there’s something beautiful to see around every corner. If you’ve already seen all the Parisian sights, take this as an opportunity to simply amble round what must be the best walking city in the world, sans pressure to tick off any obligatory cultural must-sees. 

We stayed in a tiny sun-dappled attic-floor Airbnb with views of the back of the Sacré-Cœur, and spent most of the time admiring the view from the bed and occasionally popping down the six storeys (most traditional Parisian apartments don’t have an elevator) to our nearest Carrefour for delicious $2 pate and brie.

When the guilt of the laziness got too much we’d stumble out after our third croissant and just ..walk. We were just below Montmarte so it made sense for us to start there. We looked for the narrow, lamplit staircases that lead up to the ‘bee-hive’ basilica and tiny bohemian Montmartre with its terrible souvenir shops and spectacular views of the Paris skyline. From here we headed directly south to the beautiful Jardins du Palais Royal with its distinctive black and white pillar installation, and then continued south to the museum of all museums – the Louvre. Whether you choose to go in or not depends on how tight for time you are, but I find the striking modern architecture of the museum’s facade against the surrounding classical palaces just as incredible as anything inside.

From the Louvre we took a meandering river-front walk past the Pont Neuf and the antiquarian bookstalls (bouquinistes) selling used and unique books with their delicate, sun-bleached pages and protective plastic. Here you’ll get the best view of the very heart of Paris – Île de la Cité. From up high you can see the island and its characteristic pointy tip surrounded by the glittering Seine, without the throngs of crowds and souvenir shops. Île de la Cité is popular for a reason – as well as being where it all started (Paris sprung up here originally as a Roman fortress), it’s also home to one of the most spectacular examples of gothic architecture in the world – Notre Dame Cathedral.

From here we headed north to the bohemian and charming Marais district. Here you’ll find ivy-adorned bistros with the classic wicker chairs and tiny round tables that are just big enough to fit two café-au-laits and a croque monsieur. From Marais you can return south into the less crowded (and I’d say more charming) of the two islands this side of the Seine – Île Saint-Louis. With its medieval alleyways and traditional boulangeries and cafes, Saint-Louis feels more untainted than its more glamorous neighbour, and has a village-like pace of its own that makes it seem somehow cut off from the rest of Paris. On Point de la Tournelle is where I found the best view of the spidery gothic buttresses of of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The remarkable thing about areas of Paris like Île Saint-Louis is that you can realistically imagine that you’ve stumbled onto the stage-set of a movie – a small béreted boy shouts bonjour as he scuttles by on his bicycle, a handsome student reads (or poses with) a leather-backed edition of the Les Fleurs du Mal, and an elegantly dressed couple carrying paper bags of baguettes opens the huge wooden door to their Haussmann apartment..but fortunately this isn’t the only side of Paris. Paris is not just elegant boulevards and gilded buildings, and it’s precisely this uncompromising realism of a sprawling, wizened city with a rich and turbulent history that makes Paris so intriguing. The sometimes relentless grey weather, ubiquitous graffiti and famously rude service that can bring on the so-called ‘Paris Syndrome’ is what makes Paris real and for that reason, sexy – like a modern-day Godard rather than a listless romcom. A description of Paris’ ultimate symbol – the Eiffel Tower – as looking like ‘iron lace’ seems apt as a description of Paris in general.

From Île Saint-Louis we walked through Saint-Germain-de-prés to reach the inner city oasis that is the Jardins du Luxembourg. We crossed the bridge over to the heart of Paris’ literary Left Bank, where authors and artists once lived and frequented the cafes. Still existing are the famous Café de Flore – a favourite with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Picasso, and the Deux Magots, preferred by Hemmingway, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Though it’s not the original bookstore frequented by authors like James Joyce, Shakespeare and Co. (1951) is a beautiful oak labyrinth of a bookstore selling antiquarian, used and new books and is a free reading library open to anyone. It also houses aspiring writers in exchange for help around the shop; since it’s opening, more than 30,000 people have slept in beds tucked in between its maze of bookshelves.

From here, by now evening, we strolled down the tree-lined boulevards of Saint-Germain-de-prés and searched for dinner down the crooked cobblestone corridors of the Latin Quarter.  Evening is the perfect time to visit Saint-Germain, as it’s harder to see the glaring souvenir shops by lamplight.

Obviously this is an ambitious stroll to do in just a day, but if that’s all the time you have or you’re up for the challenge, it’s a half-hour post-dinner stroll to the beginning of the Champ de Mars where you can see the Eiffel Tower at night, when it lights up and sparkles dreamily over Paris for five minutes, every hour on the hour.

HONG KONG

IMG_2306_SnapseedIMG_2332_SnapseedIMG_2338_SnapseedIMG_2317_SnapseedIMG_2279_SnapseedIMG_2353_SnapseedIMG_2375_SnapseedIMG_2377_SnapseedIMG_2378_SnapseedIMG_2410_SnapseedffIMG_2417_SnapseedIMG_2324_SnapseedIMG_2329_SnapseedIMG_2270_SnapseedIMG_2255_SnapseedIMG_2250_SnapseedfisedIMG_2179_Snapseednumbed

It’s a cliche’ that’s used for a lot of places, but in this case it’s undeniably true – Hong Kong is the ultimate city (or territory) of contrasts. A favourite maxim – ‘where East meets West’- highlights the region’s Chinese roots and the western cultural elements it gained from its time as a British colony. This fusion of cultures can be seen in the architecture, lifestyle, and perhaps most clearly in the food. While sterile, ultra-commercial dining options like Mcdonalds or Starbucks abound, you can also wonder through chaotic market stalls past spiky, strange-looking fruit, desiccated, undefinable fish-things, and dark-coloured eggs that look like they’re boiling in tar.

One of Hong Kong’s most interesting contrasts is its symbiosis of an ultra-modernized lifestyle with traditional Chinese customs. Ancient concepts like Feng Shui – the Chinese art of positioning objects or structures so as to harmonize with nature – has firm roots in the city’s culture. In fact the plan and design of a building in Hong Kong is determined as much by Feng Shui masters as it is by engineers and architects. Often, buildings lack any floor number with a 4 in it, due to its similarity to the Cantonese word for ‘death’.

Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical and thus (I think) beautiful aesthetic is forged by determined efforts to reconcile the city’s origins as a humble fishing harbour and its current status as one of the most fast-paced powerhouses in the world.  Flashing skyscrapers tower above immutable colonial buildings like the Old Supreme Court and the ancient-looking junks that timelessly cruise Victoria Harbour. The glittering, glass designer storefronts of the North Shore lie in stark contrast to the dingily romantic, slum-like noir of the alleyways of Kowloon. Kowloon is itself a microcosm of contrasts. Dark, empty backalleys are filled with the discarded trash from business back-exits while thick, tangled electrical wires hang like some sort of urban python. The wires feed the kaleidoscope of neon signs in the chaotic main streets of Kowloon, piercing fluorescent colour onto otherwise dreary, beige-grey towerblocks.

The hard-edged rectangles of these ubiquitous tower blocks are juxtaposed by the graceful, dimly-blue mountain peaks that surround the city. Though it boasts the status of most urbanised city in the world, country parks actually account for 40% of the total area. Hong Kong’s urban planning is necessarily one of the most meticulous and strategic in the world, but the nature around it remains wild, rugged, untamed. The hiking and coastal walks around the territory offer some of the most impressive views in China.

But you don’t need to head to the outskirts to find incredible views. Any high-rise hotel or apartment block will likely offer aerial views of the city and the perennial mist below. Standing amidst the clouds you feel strangely close to nature, at the top of a concrete tower-block, in a room 10 sq metres across.

Walking around at night feels like being in a Sci-fi movie or videogame. Some areas of the city – the functionally named Central and Mid-Levels – connect vertically rather than horizontally, reached by a network of interconnecting outdoor escalators, with drop offs on the way so as to access poky-looking noodle or dim sum stalls with flickering signs. I could picture Bruce Willis eating at his favourite floating noodle joint in Fifth Element. The view from Victoria’s peak on a misty night (almost always) is a scene directly from Bladerunner, with the fluorescent lights of the sprawling city piercing hazily through the inky Hong Kong fog.

It’s surely no coincidence that so much Sci-fi literature is based in Hong Kong. The territory’s various contradictions, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new, allows it to effectively present the message of a utopian, familiar past and a lonely dystopian future. The city offers nostalgia, while simultaneously existing in a shiny, futuristic realm. This uniqueness makes Hong Kong unlike any other fast-paced, commercial city. Singapore, for example, is just as corporate, just as ultra-modern, but it struggles to conceal its corporateness. For me at least, it simply doesn’t feel as exotic or seductive as the inky mist of Hong Kong City.

 

 

 

BEIJING and the Great Wall

IMG_1951_SnapseedIMG_2028_SnapseedIMG_2038_SnapseedIMG_1995_SnapseedIMG_2036_SnapseedIMG_2034_SnapseedIMG_2042_SnapseedIMG_2045_SnapseedIMG_2052_SnapseedIMG_1998_SnapseedIMG_2053_SnapseedIMG_2054_SnapseedIMG_1941_SnapseedIMG_1976_SnapseedIMG_2057_SnapseedIMG_2061_SnapseedIMG_2006_SnapseedIMG_2067_SnapseedIMG_2071_SnapseedIMG_1980_SnapseedIMG_2073_SnapseedIMG_2077_SnapseedIMG_2078_SnapseedIMG_2081_SnapseedIMG_2114_Snapseed

WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING:

We pulled into Beijing after a 20-hour train journey from Zhangjiajie surprisingly refreshed, hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Doufuchi hutong where our guesthouse was. Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient and steadily vanishing residential areas, made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses.

STROLL THROUGH THE HUTONGS

The hutongs have resiliently defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into the old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave precariously through the crowds, shopkeepers peddle their wares, and groups of elderly men gossip and play the ancient game of Mahjong – note the victor’s faces rippling into a sea of creases as they smile. All the while the sundry smells of street-cooking saturate the air – steamed Baozi, fried Youtiao and spicy Roujiamou are common fixtures.

But once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey residences (Siheyuan), the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns, a welcome respite from the chaos of the Beijing’s huge and trafficked streets.

When the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-Century as an imperial residence, the city was planned so that the palace would sit at the centre while the hutongs expanded outwards in concentric rings. The inner rings would house the luxurious aristocratic residences, becoming more and more basic as they neared the outskirts. The hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City, Qinhai and Gonjian, are some of the most popular to visit.

JINGSHAN PARK

Having heard how expensive it was and how ridiculous the queues were, we decided that instead of visiting the complex itself, we’d view the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park instead. Not only is there a sweeping birds-eye-view of the imperial palace from the hilltop pagoda, but public parks in general in China are a great way to get an insight into the culture.  Go early to catch locals practicing Tai-Chi as the sun rises, or later in the day to witness all kinds of social activities. You’ll see groups of men taking turns to sing traditional Chinese songs into portable karaoke kits, kite-flying, exercising, and even elderly couples ballroom dancing – with or without music.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

To see one of humanity’s greatest ever feats of engineering for the first time was one of the most unforgettable moments of our Asia trip. Having heard so much about this legendary, quasi-mythical landmark growing up I was almost surprised to see that it looked exactly how I imagined.

Originating in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and then across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain. Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2000 years, and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

Having done our research on the best sections of the wall to visit (Thrifty Nomads have a great overview) we decided to go with Jinshanling, which seemed like a good compromise between accessibility from Beijing and being relatively uncrowded. It probably would have been a great choice, but we made one cardinal error – we unwittingly decided to go over a Chinese holiday. We also made another major error – we waited at the wrong bus stop…for ages.* By the time we got to Jinshanling and waited in the ridiculously long ticket line, our bus driver warned us that we didn’t have much time to explore before he returned to Beijing. We started off stressed and trying to rush, but when we paused to look around at where we were, at the the beauty of the ancient wall undulating over the hills and disappearing into the hazy distance, we decided to take our time, miss the bus, and figure out a way home somehow or other. We stopped rushing, admired the incredible views and tried our best not to roll headfirst down the steep, timeworn steps. In the end we shared a long cab journey back with some friends we’d made at the mistaken bus stop.

*If you get the bus to Jinshanling from Wanjing West station, make sure to cross the road into the bus depot instead of waiting alongside the road. You’ll know you have the right place as there are loads of buses departing to different destinations all the time.

WHERE TO EAT

Kou Rou Ji

Technically a halal restaurant that specialises in mutton dishes, KRJ has a huge menu with pretty much anything you could want – including the obligatory Peking duck. We ordered the duck, mutton skewers and cold cucumber and chilli salad and they were all incredible. Right on the Houhai lake and nearby the most extensive collection of hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing , it’s also perfectly located for an after-dinner stroll.

The Grandma’s

Located on the top floor of a modern shopping mall, this one seems like a dubious choice for a Beijing first-timer. But looks are deceptive – not only is the interior really cosy, but the food is genuinely some of the best we had in China. To top it off the portions are huge and the prices amazing considering how expensive a lot of Beijing restaurants are. For all these reasons it’s very popular, which is why you tick your food order off on a list while waiting in line to be called to your table. This is where the location comes in handy – order your food, take your number and go shopping while you wait.

WHERE TO STAY

Unlike the food, hotel prices in Beijing are pretty decent, even for some of the more luxury ones like the Four Seasons. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more character and still luxurious, the VUE hotel Hou Hai is in a traditional Siheyuan-style building and overlooks the Houhai lake. Yangfang alley and the surrounding area are fun and lively in the evenings, too.

We stayed in a traditional courtyard house in Doufuchi hutong which cost us about $15 dollars a night. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but there are hundreds of these rooms about. Download the Trip app (previously Ctrip) and go through the myriad options. This app will be your lifesaver in China. Since a lot of Western sites are banned in the country, Ctrip has a lot more options for both transport and accommodation, and they do everything for you (provide schedules, rates, availability, bookings etc) so you don’t have to go through the terrifying experience of attempting to speak mandarin over the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZHANGJIAJIE

IMG_1921_SnapseedIMG_1905_SnapseedIMG_1827_SnapseedIMG_1888_SnapseedIMG_1880_SnapseedIMG_1781_SnapseedIMG_1883_SnapseedIMG_1876_SnapseedIMG_1870_SnapseedIMG_1862_SnapseedIMG_1851_SnapseedIMG_1826_SnapseedIMG_1806_SnapseedIMG_1798_SnapseedIMG_1898_SnapseedIMG_1774_SnapseedIMG_1773_SnapseedIMG_1766_SnapseedIMG_1762_SnapseedIMG_1743_SnapseedIMG_1740_SnapseedI’m tempted to just let the pictures speak for themselves. It’s difficult to describe this place in words. The most succinct thing I can say is that the views I saw from Zhangjiajie National Park in China were not just the best of our Asia trip, but the most spectacular natural views I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

Yunnan

IMG_1344_SnapseedIMG_1361_SnapseedIMG_1392_Snapseednc4nc3china3china4china6china7china8IMG_1471_SnapseedIMG_1473_SnapseedIMG_1691_SnapseedIMG_1705_SnapseedIMG_1476_SnapseedIMG_1478_SnapseedIMG_1492_SnapseedIMG_1494_SnapseedIMG_1504_SnapseedIMG_1507_SnapseedIMG_1514_SnapseedIMG_1521_SnapseedIMG_1527_SnapseedIMG_1531_SnapseedIMG_1534_SnapseedIMG_1538_SnapseedIMG_1544_SnapseedIMG_1549_Snapseednc1IMG_1567_Snapseednc2IMG_1601_SnapseedIMG_1652IMG_1648_SnapseedIMG_1684_SnapseedIMG_1675_Snapseed

While most of our South East Asia trip was on the quintessential backpacker route, our next leg, through Yunnan, was decidedly not. In fact it was probably the first time on all my travels where we were the only western tourists for days on end, making us feel like intrepid explorers. Even in the most remote of my travels to date I had some basic foreign language skills to get by, or I’d find someone who knew a tiny amount of basic English. At the very least, the street signs and menus were in characters I could recognise. South-west China provided none of these options, and it was exciting.

We were determined to travel overland from Sapa into Yunnan on the train to see the beautiful mountain scenery and avoid flying (which I hate with a passion). More importantly, the more remote, undeveloped towns we wanted to see were on the train route and nowhere near a major airport hub. While we eventually managed to arrange a train from Sapa (Lao Cai) into China be warned that if you’re keen on doing the same, China DOES NOT make this easy. It’s much easier to travel into the country if you have dated entry and exit plane tickets. But I’m going to have to do a whole other blog post on how to get a Chinese visa as it’s a total ballache.

Jianshui

Our first stop in Yunnan was Jianshui. This was where we most clearly witnessed  modern and ancient China side by side. Cobblestone streets and beautifully faded frescoes intermingled with shiny sportswear and gadget shops. I’ll never forget a crinkly old lady who looked like she was pushing a hundred sitting proudly in front of her sex toy shop.

It’s obvious when travelling through China that it’s a massively booming country. When the taxi from the train station to our hotel was taking forever and seemed to only be going past huge deserted fields, I remembered reading that it’s common practice in China to build train stations miles away from city centres, as planning authorities expect such a huge population boom across all cities.

The landmark of Jianshui is the first sight you see upon entering – the ancient city gate (Chaoyang tower). Built in 1380 during the Qing dynasty, it’s just older than Tiananmen in Beijing, and looks remarkably similar. The imposingly red three-story building is made up of tall wooden pillars and those quintessential hip roofs with gilded tiles. We went exploring in the evening when we heard music and saw dozens of elderly couples ballroom dancing underneath the lit-up gate 🙂

Another main attraction in Jianshui is Zhu’s family garden. This Qing-era private mansion is made up of 218 intricately decorated dark-wood pavilions separated by a maze of 42 pillared courtyards covered in blossom trees. The main courtyard features a beautiful, over-the water outdoor theatre. You can actually stay in one of the rooms in the extensive garden grounds.

Jianshui also boasts China’s third-largest Confucius temple. With it being relatively expensive and us becoming objectively poorer, we decided to skip it. However if you’re not on a backpacker budget it’s said to be well worth a visit, supposedly being the best preserved Confucius temple in China.

Shaxi

As it was with us, a trip to the Yunnan countryside is often seen by tourists as a chance to see China as it once was, and Shaxi was the one place we travelled to that’s remained relatively pristine. For this reason the town sees a lot of Chinese tourism, but while new guesthouses continue to mushroom in the outskirts, the centre remains pretty much untouched.

Shaxi is most well-known for being the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Yunnan into Tibet. With its cobblestone streets and ancient, crumbling alleyways, walking around town felt like stepping back in time. Shaxi consists largely of four alleys and a central marketplace, both lined with little cafes with low roofs and charming courtyards. A crystal-clear stream runs down the length of the main street towards the Ming-era Sideng theatre, which was probably the most beautiful ancient building we saw throughout China. On our only evening there (the town is tiny) we listened to traditional Chinese music in one of the marketplace cafes. Walking back to our room in the rain under the light of the ubiquitous red lanterns hanging from the trees made us feel like we could have been back in the days of the tea trail.

Dali

In the shadow of the Cangshan mountain and on the shores of the Erhai Lake, Dali is a popular destination for Chinese city-dwellers desperate for some blue skies and fresh air. Even though there were plenty of people, knowing that we were at the very border of mainland China and the furthest extremities of the Himalayas made Dali feel mysteriously remote, like a pit stop en route to the mythical Shangri La.

Dali is beautifully uniform, with characteristic white buildings with slate grey rooftops that stretch for miles. One of my favourite memories is hanging our laundry on the rooftop of our lovely Dragonfly guesthouse, where we could see the looming Cangshan mountain on one side and the endless rooftops on the other. The ancient town is amazingly well-preserved, with a typical water-stream that tumbles peacefully down the treelined streets that lead into the old town, where the buildings are framed by the surrounding mountain range.

Dali was also where I happened to get the worst food poisoning of the whole Asia trip. If that’s what it even was, as it was the strangest food poisoning I’ve ever had. The smell of anything that wasn’t artificial would make me unbearably nauseous, even boiled rice or fruit. Chinese food is my favourite in the world and I couldn’t eat a bite of it. This meant that when it came to our most looked-forward to activity in Dali – trekking the Cangshan mountain, there was no way I could humanly do it. We tried for the funicular that goes up to Zonghe temple, but it was closed for renovations. Disappointed, we attempted to start the trail, but about three steps in I was close to passing out. We aborted and decided to admire the mountains from our rooftop, J with a Dali beer, me with a green tea staring enviously at his beer.

Lijiang (UNESCO heritage site)

With it’s 12th century Cobblestone streets, canals, alleyways, and old Naxi houses, Lijiang is undoubtedly beautiful, but this beauty has also ensured that it’s incredibly crowded.  I’d never come across it before in any of my travels, but in Lijiang there’s an entrance fee just to get into the old town, and it’s not cheap. The stores that line the beautiful old streets all sell the same stuff and blare out quite literally the same song, over and over. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. At specific times of the day the underwhelmed shopkeepers do a ‘traditional’ dance. I actually quite liked the surreal, theme-park edge that all this lended the place, but if you’re looking for authentic China, this is not it.

The most popular walking route in old Lijiang leads to the Black Dragon Pond Park, with its spectacular view of the region’s highest mountain, Jade Dragon Snow mountain. The backdrop of the mountain against the white marble bridge and Moon-Embracing pavilion is particularly stunning to see.

Seeing the Jade Mountain from Lijiang town was somewhat bittersweet, as we’d intended to take the cable car to the snowy peak at Glacier Park and the next day begin the 3 day-hike to Tiger-Leaping gorge. As it was, I was way too ill to do either. The air is so thin at Glacier Park that it’s recommended to take oxygen cans to the top, and I could barely climb a few steps without wheezing my lungs out. This meant that we spent most of our time in our traditional courtyard guesthouse, which fortunately had a terrace view of the beautiful Naxi rooftops against the snowy Yulong mountains.

Missing out on the gorge is one of the many reasons that I know I’ll be travelling back to China in the very near future. Carved out by the raging rapids of the Jinsha river, the Tiger Leaping gorge massifs peak at almost 4000m above the river, making it one of the steepest canyons in the world. If you intend on doing this incredible-sounding trek then Nomadasaurus have a great review of their trip here.

Chengdu

Chengdu is actually the capital of the Sichuan province, slightly outside Yunnan, and is one of China’s fastest growing mega-cities. Despite this, the city has a relaxed, laid-back vibe. One of the most traditional things to do here is to go to a teahouse, many of which are set in peaceful, lush courtyards. On our first day there it was typically grey and damp (there’s a saying that in Chengdu you’ll see more teahouses than sunny days), so we went to the Lao Dianying Tea Garden, where we drank Bamboo Green Tea and listened to the the steady beat of the rain on the teahouse rooftop. Locals chatted, read the paper and played cards.

On our second day and last day in Chengdu we went to the region’s most popular attraction – the stiltedly translated Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It’s popular for a good reason – these animals are just as adorable and ridiculous as you expect them to be. We were told that since Pandas are super fussy eaters that refuse to eat anything other than bamboo, they don’t get enough energy from their food, which explains why they eat lying down and quite literally roll their furry selves from place to place. They have high standards for their food too – not only does it have to be a specific species of bamboo, but it also has to be super-fresh. They’ll turn their noses up at wilted leaves or stalks that are the wrong kind of green. They are essentially ridiculously spoiled bundles of cuteness.

If you want to see the pandas when they’re not simply rolling from one snoozing spot to another (we saw one that was contentedly sleeping with half its body on a wooden slat and its lower half just dangling below),  it’s a good idea to go in the morning when the handlers bring out the first meal of the day.  You’ll see them happily munching their breakfast, playfully wrestling, climbing trees and especially falling off them. You’ll also have a head-start on the crowds.

Another major highlight of Chengdu is the food. The famously spicy, oily Szechuan food isn’t for everybody, but it has to be tried at least once. We went to Tian Tian restaurant in search of the most traditional fare. Already huge fans, we decided to go for the weirdest options possible, which is really not difficult when it comes to Szechuan cooking. Some of what we ate was a revelation, some was borderline stomach-churning (I’ve discovered I’m not a fan of food served in bowls of cold, previously cooked oil), but it was all definitely a unique experience.

SAPA

s6fs7fs9fs12fs15fs4fs17fs18fs34fs22s22fs17fs26fs27fs31fs33fs35fs37fs38fs40fs8fs16fs19fs23s28fs32fs36fs1fs2fs3f

We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.

At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.

We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.

Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.

There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.

We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.

I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.

The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.

At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.

WHEN TO VISIT:

March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.

HOW TO GET THERE:

From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.

The Train:

The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.

You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.

The Bus:

The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.

WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.

WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.

THE STREETS OF HANOI

IMG_0598_SnapseedIMG_0582_SnapseedIMG_0906_SnapseedIMG_0630_SnapseedIMG_0618_SnapseedHat Man in HanoihansfIMG_0599_SnapseedIMG_0594_SnapseedIMG_0546_SnapseedIMG_0530_SnapseedIMG_0499_SnapseedIMG_0517_SnapseedIMG_0484_Snapseed

I’m not sure that there are enough adjectives in the English dictionary to describe Hanoi. Hanoi is all the adjectives – it is an an absence of negative space. It has no time for the superfluous or irrelevant – it is constant energy and never-ending chaos. Yet the chaos is not random, it serves a purpose, it’s systematic.

The traffic never stops. The meaning of Hanoi is a ‘city inside rivers’, and the rivers are its traffic. It is a continuous flow and non-existent ebb of infinite streams of motorcycles. Sometimes the stream narrows into the rivulets of the alleyways, only to pour out again into the ocean of vehicles that is the main road. In Old Hanoi especially; lights, signals and rules don’t exist. A break in the din of the horns sounds louder than the horns themselves. But just like a stream, the flow of motorbikes is reactive, weaving gracefully around whatever object is put in its way. Crossing the road in Hanoi definitely takes patience for a novice, but it never feels truly dangerous.

I fell hopelessly in love with the Old Quarter in Hanoi. Wandering down its impossibly tangled alleyways felt more revealing than visiting any national museum. The history is told by the faded, french colonial buildings that flank the streets, and the incongruous baguettes served at the ubiquitous Bahn-Mi stands. Hanoi’s even confusingly dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ – presumably these days because of its charm rather than aesthetic similarity. The culture is revealed by countless lives that are largely lived outside. Shop and general life activity spills out openly into the narrow, suffocating streets. Shop-owners, merchants, kids, business men and women chat, shop, work, cook, eat and drink out on the pavements.

Unrelenting smells range from motorcycle fumes to freshly chopped lemongrass to sewage to infamous durian to heavenly pho.

The end result of this sensory assault is (or was for me) an overwhelming sense of calm. Weaving through the interminable traffic, skipping over puddles of indescernible liquids, desperately trying to avoid burns from scalding motorcycle exhausts – here the focus is on staying alive and not getting hopelessly lost in the identical-looking, ancient streets. There is no time for overthinking or introspection. The focus is no longer yourself, but the people you’re sharing this precious little space with.

Efficiency is obligatory to cut through the chaos. Many of the streets of the old quarter are named after the products they sell. Cotton street, Leather street, pickled fish street, clam worm street, and excitingly, charcoal street. If you plan on your phone dying whilst travelling like I did, then do it in Hanoi. Rationally fearing that fixing my Iphone would put a huge dent in my backpacker budget, I went to a local store suggested by one of the unfailingly friendly locals we met. After about half an hour where we watched the phone be fixed in front of us (they had live-feed screens for ones that had to be fixed round the back) I had a fully functioning phone and a wallet only five dollars lighter. If Vietnam is a socialist country, then they’ve obviously found the magic formula.

THINGS TO DO IN HANOI

If you’re desperate for a break from the chaos, head to peaceful Ho Hoan Kiem Lake and take a stroll around the well-kept grounds. From here it’s a short walk to Cafe’ Pho Co, one of the most popular spots to try Hanoi’s famous egg coffee. Invented in 1940 when there was a milk shortage in Vietnam, the drink consists of thick black Vietnamese-style coffee topped by a creamy-soft foam of beaten egg-yolk and sugar. The hot version comes in a small bowl of warm water to keep the temperature.

Cafe Pho Co is slightly more expensive than similar cafes as it boasts a view over Ho Hoan Lake. It has something of a speak-easy feel – entrance is through a silk shop that leads to a beautiful Chinese-style courtyard complete with a resident rooster and enormously fat cat. It can be hard to find but don’t give up, the silk shop is currently called Cicada Silkli.

The biggest regret of my Asia trip was not having done this tour. There are so many street food spots and cafes that it would have been great to have someone knowledgeable scope out the best and most unique ones (although the street food is all pretty amazing). The reviews are exclusively great and I can’t bear to look at pictures as the food looks so good!

  • Fake shopping

The Old Quarter in Hanoi has hundreds of fake designer shops (especially sports gear) that actually sell some pretty well-made stuff. I’m not sure I could say it’s as good as the real thing but I’ve been wearing my ‘North Face’ jacket non-stop. You’ll see them everywhere in the Old Quarter but the shops tend to concentrate around Hang Gai.

Set in lovely picturesque grounds, this serene ‘temple’ (originally a Confucian University) is another place to get away from the crowds. Walk through ancient courtyards and landscaped gardens in this age-old place of study.

WHERE TO EAT:

I recommend doing the street food tour at the beginning of your trip so that you can go back to your favourite places. All of the street food is pretty amazing in Hanoi but here are some of the best spots we stumbled on;

For Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a Vietnamese dish of pork meatballs served with a bowl of rice noodles and loads of delicious fresh sides – crisp lettuce, plenty of fresh herbs, a variety of pickles and dipping sauces. This place was always packed and was mainly frequented by locals. So, so good.

For beef pho. Absolutely ram-packed with locals at all hours of the day. The pho is handed out assembly-line style by a lady who takes her delicious beef pho very seriously. We went here three times.

Hanoians are huge tea and coffee drinkers, and I’m convinced that it’s partly because it’s so fun to sit and drink on those tiny plastic stools while watching the bustling world go by. Cong Ca Phe is a military themed chain that happens to serve the most delicious coffee drink I’ve ever had in my life. I’m not normally a sweet tooth but the blended iced coconut with coffee is perfect after a humid day walking around the city.

 

A Laos diary

Laos slow boatMonk in Luang PrabangIMG_0246_Snapseedmpkf1ksfff (1)Sunset on the MekongGirl in Kuang Si fallsKuang Si fallsIMG_0233_Snapseedgirl in Luang PrabangIMG_0318_SnapseedKuang Si fallsIMG_0253_SnapseedIMG_0218_SnapseedksfhIMG_0183_SnapseedIMG_0194_SnapseedIMG_0432IMG_0345_SnapseedIMG_0221_Snapseedlonfskuangd

We travelled to Laos from Chiang Rai on the slow boat. ‘Slow’ boat, in this case, is not figurative; the trip takes two days with a one night stopover in the tiny town of Pakbeng.

My expectation of the slow boat trip was of a romantic, languorous glide over the earthy waters of the Mekong river, reading the history of Indochina on cushioned seats and eating lunch with a floating view of timeless, wholesome villages. The reality very soon dawned in the queue to get on the boat (you have to buy the tickets beforehand of course), when I very quickly noticed the yawning discrepancy between the size of the boat and the colossal crowd of people waiting to embark. Suddenly everyone was Usain Bolt’s new-found competition, racing to the front to try to get a seat by the water. The runners-up managed a small, wooden bench facing the other passengers, and finally came the overwhelmed and the oblivious, the latter foolishly thinking they could linger over their breakfasts before the long two-day trip to Laos; they got the floor.

Fortunately, one of the best qualities about people – especially backpackers – is that most have a way of making the best of a sweaty, cramp-inducing situation. In the end there was a lot of laughter, a lot of drinking of over-priced, deliciously cold Beerlao, and some engine-deck smoking of the local produce. One French couple even managed to retain the romance like an oasis amongst the dunes of rowdy backpackers, with the boyfriend reading French novels to his serene and closed-eyed girlfriend for almost the entirety of the trip.

The views on the other hand were exactly as I imagined. Tangled jungles gave away suddenly to a village of thatched huts balanced precariously on wooden stilts and occasionally to the tip of an elaborate temple. On one side of the river women washed and children played on the banks, whilst on the other herds of wild water buffalo sleepily grazed while fishermen diligently untangled their nets.

We arrived in Pakbeng just as it was starting to get dark. It was in this tiny half-way town that we had our most memorable Laotian culinary experiences: Lao Lao and Laap salad. The former was voluntary torture, the latter a revelation. Lao Lao is a 45% Laotian ‘whiskey’, except the undertones are more moonshine antifreeze than smoky peat. If you can brave the taste, you can get yourself a bottle for one dollar and have yourself a pretty good time (no guarantees about the following day). Laap salad on the other hand is delicious – you can make it with almost any type of meat but we thought we’d try the local buffalo. Laap is made by simply browning minced meat in fish sauce and then tossing in loads of fresh herbs; usually mint, coriander, lemongrass, lime juice and spring onions.

Luang Prabang, especially if you’ve just come from Thailand, is like Asia in slow-motion. Hidden high amongst the mountains of Northern Laos, it feels like a land that time forgot. Perhaps because of its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Luang Prabang has avoided the kind of rapid modernisation seen by its neighbours, and, to a a degree, other cities in Laos. The hotels are boutique, often repurposed colonial buildings, and the restaurants likewise. The result lends Laos an otherworldly kind of nostalgia. We spent most of our two days there languidly strolling down hot, dusty streets flanked by French colonial-era buildings, visiting whatever glitteringly gilded temple we happened to come across. The French influence is still keenly felt here – so that you might find yourself eating a freshly-made croissant at a Parisian style cafe whilst watching novice monks playing in the Nam Khan river, taking a well-earned break from their daily Theravada studies.

WHAT TO DO:

Kuang-Si falls:

We went to Kuang-Si falls with the benefit of knowing absolutely nothing about it. Less than an hour’s tuk-tuk drive from Luang Prabang are the most glorious serious of plunge pools and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. They’re not huge, but the texture of the layered levels and unearthly colours make them uniquely beautiful. Topaz-coloured water tumbles from the forest cliff of one single waterfall, feeding a series of smaller falls and swimmable pools below. When we saw the first of these, the lower pools, we were stunned at the beauty – we thought that this was the whole site. Walking further up you’ll come across more plunge pools until you finally get to the surreally stunning main waterfall. This is made up of three tiers – the main fall at the bottom, a middle tier where there is a secret pool which you’ll likely have all to yourself, and the top tier in the jungle where the water originates.

We took a look at the secret pool when we hiked past but since I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, we decided to give it a miss. If you’re keen on braving it past the warning signs then Nomadic Matt has a great guide to finding it here. Past the middle tier, it’s a steep and slippery jungle hike to the top, but well worth it for the views and lack of tourists. Here you can get intimidatingly close to the edge on a bamboo bridge and swing over the surprisingly still water that feeds the rest of the falls.

There are plenty of blogs that cover how to get to Kuang si in detail. We took the tuk-tuk from in front of the post office in Luang Prabang. All the options allow you to take in the scenic rural countryside, but this one is cheap (it should be about 50,000 kip or $6 dollars if sharing), safer than a scooter, and allows you to stay at the falls for as long as you please, unlike the shared minivans.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5:30 pm

Kuang-Si bear sanctuary:

The sanctuary is dedicated specifically to rescued Asian black bears, who are illegally poached for their paws and bile. You can watch them swing from their hammocks or play on their tires. 1pm is feeding time, when meat is hidden around the enclosures so that the bears can ‘hunt’ for their food.

Consider giving a donation or buying some merchandise as the fund doesn’t receive any money from ticket sales at the park.

Visit Wat Xieng Thong:

With it’s gracefully sloping rooftop and elaborate gold gilding, it’s easy to see why Wat Xieng Thong is the city’s most visited temple. At the back of the temple is a colourful glass mosaic of the tree of life, a Buddhist symbol of the interconnectedness of nature.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

Hike Mount Phousi:

Whether you choose to go at sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, you’ll get amazing 360 views of Luang Prabang – its temples, rivers and across the surrounding countryside to the mountains in the distance. You can even admire the view from Wat Chom, the beautifully simple temple that sits on top of Mount Phousi.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 5:30 am – 6pm.

Attend the alms-giving ceremony:

In Luang Prabang, the alms-giving ceremony, or ‘Tak Bat’, is a ritual that has taken place for over 600 years. At sunrise, locals will take their place on the sidewalk with their bowls of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and wait for the procession of monks to silently pass. Watching hundreds of monks silently glide through the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang at sunrise has unsurprisingly received attention from tourists, but as countless blogs have pointed out, the tradition is a serious one. If attending, it’s advised to keep a respectful distance, turn off the flash, and avoid making noise.

Visit the Luang Prabang night market:

The night market in Luang Prabang is lively, has amazing street food, and unlike some other markets across Asia, offers some beautifully made, high quality goods. There are bars and restaurants in the area and generally makes for a fun evening.

The market is in Sisavangvong Road, behind the National Tourism Office.

Opening hours: 5pm – 10pm every evening. (Technically it closes at 11pm but most stalls will have packed up by then)

Cross the bamboo bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan:

Made entirely out of bamboo, the bridge is such a simple structure that it’s taken down every year before the wet season and put back up for the dry season. Cross to explore the other side of town (or get to Dyen Sabai bar and restaurant on the other side) or to visit the paper and weaving villages.

There is a small fee of 5,000 kip ($0.60) to cross.

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

Utopia:

Famous with the backpackers, this bar is built on stilts directly over the Nam Khan river, and has cushioned mats and pillows for seats. Admire the river views or join in the daily yoga sessions. We came here one night after too much Lao Lao and went bowling with a group we’d met on the slow boat. For some reason it’s a tradition for everyone to go to the nearby bowling alley after closing time.

Bamboo:

This little restaurant was on the way to our hotel and was our favourite place to eat while we were there. Just off the centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we saw, and while the food is basic it’s also deliciously cooked. Try the seafood Pad Thai and chicken in lemongrass.

Khaiphaen:

Amazing food at a good price and is also for a good cause. The menu is full of creative twists on the local food. Try the grilled beef salad with Szechuan peppers and crispy frangipani flowers.

WHERE TO STAY:

I can’t find the name of the place we stayed at. We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere for our trip to Luang Prabang so we just wandered around until we found a local guy that said he could offer us a room for $10 a night. Obviously we took it. The room had a shared bathroom on a separate floor and the only furniture was a bed, but I loved it. Made entirely of wooden slats, the sun would stream through at all hours of the day and the view was of the Nam Khan river. Cold River guesthouse was directly opposite and made a lovely breakfast at a ridiculous price.