On being somewhere in inbetween

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog (hi, by the way). It’s been another amazing year and life continues to be good to me – but lately I’ve been wondering what on earth you do if you feel like you’re somewhere inbetween in life, and I decided to write about it. It feels like the logical next part to the story of my blog.

It’s just that I feel a bit caught in the middle. A bit lost. I think it’s actually symptomatic of many of my other friends in their 30s – single and not – to have these moments of WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE, so I know I am not alone.

Last year, I set off on a four month solo travelling trip. I anticipated that this would be the whimsical journey of self discovery I had daydreamed about while I was unhappy in my 20s. I thought everything I still longed to find out about myself and what I wanted from life would make itself magically apparent when I had some time away from the mundanity of the daily grind. I thought I would come home fulfilled and ready to settle down and be a proper 30-something. It was all decided – I’d give myself this year to root back into London and during that time I would properly dedicate myself to dating so I could meet a nice, non-fuckwit man to drink coffee and read the Sunday papers with – and eventually settle and have babies with – and then I wouldn’t feel so left behind every time someone else got engaged or announced a pregnancy. I would work out exactly what my five year career plan was and I would do all of the things necessary to succeed in climbing the ladder. I would save enough money for a flat deposit and do the done thing of getting on the property ladder (why are there so many ladders?). It all seemed so clear and obvious to me when I set off that this is how the next 18 months of my life probably would pan out.

Ok, so part of this grand plan ended up happening – my trip was indeed a journey of self discovery.

And that’s about all of the above that has happened as I’d hoped. You see, the main thing I learned about myself on that trip was that I’m not sure I want any of the things I thought I wanted. More to the point, I don’t know what I want at all – or I rather I want everything and probably can’t have it all.

I had always admired my Grandma and Auntie Pauline’s sense of intrepid adventure and fierce independence. Little did I know this trip had awakened my own. I came back feeling overwhelmed with the possibilities of different ways to live my life and slightly resentful of my past for not enabling me to start this discovery sooner.

Those emotions have intensified significantly over the past 8 months and the time has come to admit – I really don’t know what to do with myself. I feel excited but totally baffled by the choice I have in front of me. Being a white middle class woman with a decent income and no trouble getting into employment, as well as having parents who have taught me to always follow my heart and live life according to its possibilities, I am acutely aware that I write from a place of extreme privilege and that not many are afforded this. Some parts of society have, for the most part, woken up to the fact that women are no longer expected to simply produce offspring but that we can have fulfilling careers, travel, have children AND do what the hell we bloody well want and I feel lucky to be able to take advantage of that.

While I was away the way I viewed my own life changed drastically the more I met people who just lived life differently. Men, women, of all ages and walks of life. Some like me were on career breaks or holidays and returning to their ‘normal’ lives. But for many, this was their normal life. Some of you might recall mine and Jenn’s meeting with Pedro from Mexico at a pizza restaurant in Ubud who had quite literally spent his 65 years on the planet finding creative ways to live in different places. He had seen so much of the world. He had loved and lost and parented and travelled. He had some questionable views about tomatoes originating from Mexico but other than that, he remains my hero and my conversation with him lit a bulb In my head that refuses to go out. It had never occurred to me until that point that I did not need to follow society’s deemed path for my life. It might not be that throwing on a backpack for four months at a time is a sustainable way of life but I have become so aware of the world that is available to me and when I think about the things I could do/I want to do I am thrown into a blind panic about running out of time to do it all.

Here’s an insight into my mind any given week:

  • I love living in London so much that I cannot foreseeably see myself ever becoming rooted anywhere else – it feels like home more than any place ever has. These people are mine, this city is mine, and I’m not quite sure I could live without it for very long. I live in the most amazing flat with a wonderful flatmate in the BEST part of London (Tooting) and I am so content. It just feels right to be here and if someone told me I had to leave I would crumble. If you would like to read more about my love affair with London and why I ran back from my trip towards it with open arms, click here.

  • There is nothing like the freedom of setting off out into the world on your own with a backpack on. There is no feeling like the emotions I experienced when motorbiking around Vietnamese mountains with my heart feeling like it could explode out of my chest with adrenaline and gratitude and joy. There is nothing that humbles and grounds you more than venturing off the beaten path and getting to know real locals and their life stories and realising that as humans we are all fundamentally the same in spirit. I couldn’t bear it if those four months were a one off. I am going to need that time again…. and again, and again.

  • But backpacking all the time doesn’t feel sustainable and I know I craved routine and familiar ground after a while when I was gone. So – what if I went and lived and worked somewhere else? Other than London, the other place in the world that has my heart is New York City. I once said that my dream come true would be to go and live there and work for the UN, but it was only this year that I stopped dismissing it as a dream and realised it was obtainable. I’ve worked really hard over the last decade to build a career I love and it’s conceivable that I can continue to do this in a different country rather than hold myself back by taking intermittent mini gap years. I feel passionately about humanitarian issues and want to do my bit and use my skills to make a difference. But if I want to go and work in New York (and indeed at the UN) I need to be making big career leaps now and not putting that off. I have become comfortable in a job I truly love – but that doesn’t mean it’s the right job or organisation forever.
  • Or what if I didn’t work in PR anymore? I recently read Kristin Newman’s book ‘What I was doing while you were breeding’ and it turned my whole life outlook entirely on it’s head. What if I went and rented an apartment in Buenos Aires and got a job in a backpacker bar and just dedicated three months to learning Spanish and the Tango? What is so inconceivable about that? Maybe I could do remote copywriting to tide me over. Maybe I could even keep my career ticking over and start contracting/consultancy and in my contract breaks that is exactly the kind of thing I could spend my time doing. Why not?

  • I want to meet someone but there are reasons I haven’t. Firstly, when you have been badly hurt and spent a fair bit of time working out who you are again, it’s terrifying to imagine settling down properly and entrusting someone to be responsible for matters of your heart again. What if I put all my energy into making a home with someone again with the same hurtful consequences of having to pack a life into two and say goodbye to the other half? Secondly, I’ve become quite accustomed to being selfish and having fun on my terms. I like my life and have done well not to allow any room for a significant other in it. But of COURSE I actually want to meet someone. There’s a reason I often drunkenly cry at my friends “why doesn’t anyone love me”. I write this perched at a wooden tapas bar in Tooting Market drinking white rioja in a nice dress – happily alone but very noticeably surrounded by couples. It’d be nice to come here with a boyfriend. Some have suggested my stipulations might be getting in the way – age is irrelevant to me and so is wealth and status, but world view, interests and morals are non negotiable. I want it to be someone who looks at life the way I do. I want them to be ok with the fact I might need to go off and do my own thing every now and then – maybe for months at a time. I want them to love travel, to feel alive from seeing the world like I do, to love literature and politics and music festivals and really good food and dancing to Beyoncé – and to be passionate about equality, rights and humanitarian causes. I want them to tolerate that I am a person of contradiction (they’d only have to read this blog to know that) and not be embarrassed by my feminist rants, tendency to salsa dance in public, inclination to always having one too many tequila and refusal to go home at a reasonable time, ever. But also to be totally accepting of my moments of introversion and need for total silence and solitude. I want that person to really love life and want to seize it with me, because I spent 7 years with someone who did not love life and made me feel terribly guilty for doing so. I want to enjoy living in London alongside or with that person and then I want to travel the world in some capacity with that person. I don’t give a shit about marriage (though if someone really wanted to, I might) and no, I don’t bloody know if I want children but the thought of discovering I do want them and then not being able to terrifies me. So it would be nice if that person is willing to at least indulge the idea of maybe having children with me one day – but not be alarmed when I say I don’t want them until I’m in my late 30s or even early 40s (and no, I’m not naive enough to think this won’t be without its challenges – see point below). I should be dedicating more time to finding that person rather than just blundering through each year doing things that satisfy my soul selfishly, spending all my time and money with my friends, choosing to sit in the pub with colleagues on Wine Wednesday rather than go on another unfulfilling Tinder date and in all honesty not paying much attention to who else is around me. And every month I resolve that NEXT MONTH I will join Guardian Soulmates and dedicate my time to the pursuit of love. But somehow, it just doesn’t happen.
Flying solo at another wedding 😉
  • When I hold my friends’ babies and smell their lovely soft powdery heads I feel a swelling in my heart and I get tears in my eyes like no other feeling. I think this is broodiness. I have been known to have extremely vivid dreams about being a Mum to a tiny little baby and then wake up the next day and ACTUALLY feel tearful at work all day because even though it was just a dream it felt real, it feels like I’ve had something natural and wonderful ripped away from me and I genuinely don’t know if I’ll ever have it. This tells me that perhaps I do want children, but I haven’t met the right person. But if I was to fall pregnant tomorrow, I can’t honestly tell you whether I’d go ahead with it because, as per above comments, I am not ready or willing for my life to change. Children are not on my immediate radar. I recently looked into egg freezing and this is something I am genuinely considering. I know it only gives you a slightly heightened chance of conceiving later in life and it’s expensive, but it feels like a small price to pay for having slightly less weight on my shoulders or around my heart when it comes to the unanswered black hole question of whether I will have children. Adoption is also not out of the question for me. I will report back on how I progress with this in a future blog.

  • And sometimes, I remember how important it is to my wellbeing to have a place to call home. I have two lovely homes – my own in Tooting and my parents’ in Worcester. I do also look at my friends and families’ beautiful homes and lovely lives with their partners with admiration and envy and love, and imagine what it would be like to own my own place one day (I mean, this is largely unheard of for a single person in London but one can dream). I look at Scandi design boards on Pinterest and think about how I would decorate and think ‘maybe if I just grew up a bit I could afford real art to put on my walls’. I remember when I lived in my old house in Worcester I would spend an entire Sunday, every Sunday, cooking and cleaning and feel entirely content. And I would get so excited about buying new rugs and curtains and appliances – and somehow that life still appeals. I sometimes think if I just stopped going on holidays, if I hadn’t done an £8k trip last year, I could actually save up enough money to put a deposit on a home somewhere that isn’t London and I could make some of these things happen and enjoy a quieter, more grounded life.

So, what do you do if you feel like you want it all and at the same time have no idea what you really want?

Life coaching/therapy is the practical answer but with 33 looming in January, I feel acutely aware of the need to stop letting these ideas swim around my head and take ownership of them. I spend a lot of time worrying about which of the above I want to put my energy into and little time actually getting the wheels in motion. After my divorce I felt like I had become quite decisive and I made all sorts of wonderful things happen for myself. Now I don’t feel like I’m in that place at all. I told myself I’d let myself just ‘be’ this year but it turns out that doesn’t suit me – I have itchy feet and I feel like my life needs to change but I don’t know how. Most of my blogs have a conclusion but this one doesn’t – other than to reinforce the fact I don’t know what to do next. I meditate and I chant and I talk to certain people about my options until they make more sense – and I also accept that a lot of this is normal, and it’s okay not to feel like you’re on a steady path. I’ve got a two week solo trip to India booked in November during which I’m not expecting to have a radical moment of clarity but which may help me make some decisions. In the meantime, answers on a postcard?

Seven things I’m missing about travelling life

I’ve been back from travelling for about four weeks. It’s been a whirlwind of joyful reunions, catch ups, new baby cuddles, raucous drunken nights out and birthday celebrations. I’ve loved every minute. I also can’t express how grateful I am to the friends who have been helping me out since I got back. London is just as glorious as I remembered, and my heart is bursting with love for the people in my life. You’ve all made my return to reality the absolute best (see below for evidence of just how great it’s been)!

But the past few days, a flatness that is more than just your average case of January blues has started to creep in and I just can’t shake it. I’ve caught myself staring out of rain stained windows and dreaming of the sun on my face. I’ve felt myself zoning out of conversations struck by a memory or simply wondering why I’m now here when I was there. I find myself feeling anxious and I’m not sure why, I think it might just be life sinking back in.

Guys, I miss travelling. I miss the freedom. I miss the simplicity of my days. I miss being stretched out in the sand alone with only my book and my thoughts. I miss those moments of complete and utter dreamlike contentment whizzing around deserted mountain roads on the back of a bike.

Here are some of the things I’ve been pining for:

Striking up conversations with strangers

“You’re never alone long when you’re travelling alone,” the saying goes. And it’s true. There’s always someone to talk to on the road, if that’s what you want.

Gone are the days of walking into a cafe, hostel common area or restaurant and striking up conversation with a stranger. If I did that here I’d undoubtedly be met with hostility because God forbid anyone should even make eye contact with each other on the tube at rush hour (and yes, I am one of those people who puts my head down in the paper every morning for fear of interacting with other humans before I have to). I’m already missing the openness of other people and the quick, meaningful connections that were made on a daily basis, the rigmarole of ‘where have you been and where are you going?’ and talking to someone new over dinner almost every night.

I find myself wondering where the people I met are and what they’re doing, thinking about the laughs we shared and conversations we had about life around campfires, on city rooftops, in jungles and in hostel beds. I wonder what Pedro the Mexican that Jenn and I met over pizza in Ubud is doing right now. I wonder how the Danish girls who I lazed by the pool and shared tropical fruit plates with in Mui Ne are. I think of my Captain Coconuts family, the sunsets we watched and the nights we spent lying under the stars and my heart twinges.

I think about all the conversations I had about life and love and the dilemmas I shared with relative strangers – I wonder if I made an impression on them like they did on me.

A non-routine

I wasn’t away long, but I forgot what it was like to set an alarm every day. To know you have to be on the tube by 7:53 to get to work at a respectable time and still have time to stop off at Pret for coffee. To have a vast wardrobe of outfits to choose from every day and to actually have to think/care about your appearance rather than just whipping your hair into a bun and putting on your denim shorts – again (although I’m not going to lie, I’ve enjoyed being reunited with my curling tongs). To have a diary and make plans and have to know what you’re doing at the weekend and have people ask what you’re doing next week, next month and the third weekend in July. To have the panicky, anxious heart in your chest feeling I get so often here.

I’m not entirely sure I will ever have appreciated enough being free from all these things for a substantial amount of time and living life totally on my terms and time. I felt healthy and I felt rested and I felt like anything was possible. It was precious.

Not jumping on the back of a moped to get everywhere

Ironic because I had two moped accidents, but I’m really missing jumping on the back of them (and also rattling around in tuk tuks). Yes, Uber serves the purpose of getting you from A to B and but it’s just not the same as clinging on to a moped for dear life with the wind in your hair and the smells and sights hitting you in the face as you weave through traffic and up pavements in Vietnam.

Holiday food and alcohol consumption

It suddenly dawns on you that you can no drink beer at any hour of the day, justifying it because it’s 75p and ‘you’re on holiday’ (for four months). Realising how fun it was to be able to say yes to that extra bucket of gin with straws because being hungover on a Tuesday while travelling is perfectly acceptable. You really start to miss eating chilli ketchup on absolutely everything and being able to give less of a shit about what you eat every day because you sweat out the calories anyway.

Bartering for everything

I am so used to bartering, it’s easy to forget that I can’t march up to the till in M&S with my posh ready meal and offer them 50% of the price then pretend to walk away until one of you caves (usually me).

The sun

Oh my god, I never realised it was possible to be homesick for the sun. But here I am, daydreaming of it daily and thinking wistfully of all the amazing sunsets I saw every single day. I miss watching the sun sink beneath the clouds with a beer in my hand. I miss watching my hair get blonder and my skin get darker every day. BRING ON SUMMER!

The lack of order

There were times I angrily and tearfully berated the lack of order you find travelling around Asia. There were times the chaos was too much, the traffic and noise and staring were too much. For example, the inability to queue drove me to the point of madness. I bloody love a queue, and being away and coming home again has reminded me of that fact. It is orderly and it is just so and it is polite, and god forbid you should accidentally graze the back of the person in front of you with your shopping basket, but even then you’ll both apologise profusely then go back to the wondrous order of the queue. No jostling, no elbows, no incidents like that time at Bangkok airport where an entire planeful of Chinese tourists just barged me out of the way at immigration and nearly made me miss my connecting flight – although admittedly getting to work on a weekday morning is not too dissimilar. But you know what, I think I even miss not queuing.

It’s bloody lovely to get timely public transport again but is it weird that I even miss the loooong buses and boat journeys, sometimes sharing with livestock or boxes of glassware piled dangerously tall next to you?! It’s part of the fun of travelling and I almost look back fondly on my many delayed bus journies.

I find myself yearning for the total unfamiliar, the kind of chaos that makes your heart plummet then soar back up in the space of five minutes. I miss my life less ordinary. I miss waking up some days with no idea of what would come and the luxury of being able to choose to do whatever I wanted (sometimes that choice was as difficult as ‘shall I lie by the pool or get a £2 manicure?) I miss being free to spend an entire day roaming a city with all the gear (I.e. a map) but no idea. I miss learning things about myself that surprised me. I miss being reduced to silence, or even tears, by a view or an encounter or an experience.

I miss it all.

To conclude, I really don’t want to get into any kind negative spiral feeling sorry for myself after this trip that I was so lucky to be on. I’m so grateful for my life here and being so loved and supported by my family and friends. I’ve found a new flat to move into and I am honestly so excited about spending this year settled in London.

I just thought it would be cathartic to write this down and remember just how much I have treasured every part of my trip, the good and the bad, when on days like today it feels like a world away. And for any fellow travellers who went home recently (I know a fair few of you!) reading this, this is kind of for you too.

On a positive note, I received exactly the same two pieces of advice from two special people in my life today who, like me, are free spirits caught between the rules of real life and a desire to travel and be out in the world (shout out to Tatjana and Nina, love youuu). It made me feel ten million times better. They reminded me that travel is never off the table. It’s not going anywhere. Just because I had this one big, life defining trip, it doesn’t mean it’s over and that there won’t be more or that similar experiences can’t be sought in a week or weekend away somewhere. So, I choose to focus my energy instead on that – the next trip/trips (however small), the sunshine, people, culture, chaos and whatever else awaits.

An ode to London 

Disclaimer: I wrote this when I was away and seeing London through heavily rose tinted hues. On my second horrific commute this week, feeling overwhelmed by my return to reality and a bit like crying, I found myself needing to read this to remind myself of just how much I love living here (it worked). 

During my time away, I felt myself bristle when a Belgian girl at my hostel declared to a table of people that “if you don’t like the royal family what’s the point of going to London. Like, what’s even there?” 

WELL, I felt my back straighten and elbows jut out slightly in that way they do when you get defensive, ACTUALLY IT’S THE BEST PLACE ON EARTH. 

Earlier this year, when I first decided to take this trip, it occurred to me that I might not want to come back to London. It was a difficult time in my life which had led me to stop seeing the positives of living here. It reminded me of how I felt when I first moved – lost and invisible in a city I couldn’t keep up with. 

I considered going home, to the familiarity of a small town where everyone knows each other. I considered moving to Bristol (which I still really do want to one day), to enjoy culture, art, food and friends without the hefty price tag and stressful commute. But as I wrote in September, over the summer, I fell back in love with London all over again and decided my time here wasn’t over. Practically, I was also offered a permanent job which helped seal my decision. While I was away, despite seeing and experiencing the most wonderful things, I did sometimes pine for the city I’ve come to call home.

London can grind you down and swallow you whole, and I understand why many want to run for the hills from it. We certainly all need a break from it, and that’s the very reason I went away, but it’s funny how the moment you’re away, you stop dwelling on the negatives. 

You don’t really stop and think about the grey mornings and greyer buildings, the swell and sway of angry commuters on the Northern Line, the fact you’ve probably never walked home past 10pm without your keys between your fingers and a quickened heart rate or to work without being barged out of the way by a jumped up banker with a briefcase. You forget the months where the last few days before payday you’ve had to live off Aldi tinned soup, the fact a pack of Marlboro Lights from Smiths at the station now costs £14 and the average pint will set you back a fiver. 

You laugh off the genuine distress you felt at finding out your Uber rating was only 4.2 (then remember it’s probably because you tried to kiss your Uber driver that time you drank an entire vodka luge at Kensington Roof Gardens – working hard to get it back up, we are slowly but surely making progress). You choose to forget the horror that is flat hunting in London (£800 for a room the size postage stamp you can’t swing a cat in) and string of terrible Tinder dates with men who proudly claim to be eternal London bachelors or, in my case, neglect to tell you they’re married. You also forget the days when, despite having a great group of friends around you, you feel utterly alone in this sprawling metropolis. You try and blank out the time your phone died on a night out so you waited hours in the dodgy bit of Elephant and Castle for a night bus feeling terrified, the fact that at least once a week in the summer you feel like passing out on the tube because it’s so hot or the hours of your life you’ll never get back while trying to get to work during a TFL strike. 

You dwell instead on the things you miss and can’t wait to get back to. You smile fondly at the determined lack of eye contact you share with fellow Londoners and the fact you all moan every time you have to queue for brunch at a trendy restaurant but do it anyway because helloooo, fancy baked eggs. 

The list of negatives pales in comparison to the way London makes your heart soar. 
The tap of an Oyster. Trying to read Time Out pretty much on the back of the person next to you. The summer before last most people laughing out loud on the tube would have been listening to My Dad Wrote a Porno (tell me you haven’t been there). The solidarity, kindness and love we share in times of terrorism and fear. The shared anger we channel into protesting Trump, cuts to the NHS, Brexit, period tax, climate change, equal pay – and the privilege that we can actually leave work and go and join a protest about these things because they take place on our doorstep. The shared love we have for Sadiq Khan (and Prince Harry, what a lad). 

Mastering make up application on public transport. 7am pre-work breakfasts with your best friend, who is the only person you will joyfully and willingly bound out of the house at 6:15 for. Your bootcamp instructor, Graham, who against all odds got you to not only love exercise, but exercising outdoors. At the crack of dawn. Sometimes in the rain. Learning to walk at a quickened pace and mastering the weaving around people, but also realising your tolerance for slow tourists has completely disappeared. Knowing there’s always somewhere to go if you want to keep the party going til sunrise – even if it is the Swan at Stockwell or Mosquitos on Clapham High Street. The times you’ve been out with your work friends for one drink and it really was said with good intentions but then someone says “TEQUILA?” and it all goes to shit. The subsequent work hangovers that are only made bearable by the fact everyone else feels the same and only managing to battle through it with the help of shared rehydration salts and Berocca. 

The deer and Autumn leaves in Richmond park; the sun setting over the water and lilies in St James’s; the rose gardens in Regent’s Park; eating ice cream on the deck chairs by the Serpentine on a sunny spring day; Kew Gardens (just full stop); muddy stomps up Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath and on through Hampstead Village; Clapham Common and its throngs of shirtless twenty somethings playing rounders in the summer. 

Making memories for Grandkids and being unashamedly in love with the Victoria line (those are for you Harriet). The way the morning sun falls on the juxtaposed architecture of old buildings like The Bank of England with new buildings like the Gherkin in the City. The pastel town houses of Chelsea and the treasure troves off Portobello Road. Jazz at Ronnie Scott’s until 3am on a random Wednesday. Gigs of music from your youth at one of the o2 Academies. A film at the Ritzy followed by Jamaican food in the arcade, or a film on a rooftop in Peckham, or a film in an old converted church, or on a fake beach – they really do make the most of space in London don’t they?! 

Women of the World Festival – enough said. Getting a grounds pass to Wimbledon after work in the summer and watching centre court on the screen from hill eating Strawberries and feeling thoroughly British. The joy of Soho during Pride weekend or Ladbroke Grove during Carnival. Tinnies of cider and Pimms after work on a warm summer night. Walking from the Globe along the Southbank and STILL getting excited at the view of St Paul’s Cathedral. Similarly, the spring in your step when you walk across London Bridge over the Thames to work and think “yay, I live here!” (After three years, I still do). 

The fact that Thursday is the new Friday, and Wednesday is the new Thursday, and that basically every night is a party if you want it to be. The art, the exhibitions, the comedy, the theatre at your disposal. The richness of British history everywhere you turn. 

That you can go to 80s dance classes, Beyoncé dance classes, disco Spin in the dark, hip hop yoga and boxing/HIIT to beats if a regular old gym just doesn’t float your boat. The times I’ve danced with strangers on a tube platform or that time we happened upon a random Bob Marley street party near Oxford Circus (and OBVIOUSLY joined it).

The Christmas windows and the Christmas lights and the Christmas markets and the Christmas ice skating at Somerset House and the Christmas baubles in Covent Garden and CHRISTMAS IN LONDON IS THE BEST (I genuinely missed it). 

Walking around Liberty stroking fabrics in the haberdashery and picking up handbags you can’t afford for hours on end before buying some pencils and a postcard from the stationery section just so you leave with something in a little purple bag. (My Grandma worked there in the 40s and I love imagining what it would have been like then, too). Platform 9 and 3/4 at King’s Cross station – if you haven’t queued with huge crowds of Spanish schoolchildren on a school trip to pose for a photo pretending to jump into the wall have you even lived? 

The food – oh my god, the food. The brunches, the lunches, the bottomless boozing, the late night dining, the fact you can get a dosa for £3 in Tooting but will also gladly spend £50 on eggs and coffee at the Chiltern Firehouse (they balance each other out, surely?). The fact a really good pub with a really good Sunday roast is only ever 5 minutes walk away. The best afternoon teas in the world on your doorstep. Beer gardens. Chinatown. Amazing coffee everywhere that makes it really hard to stick to your New Years resolution of not buying coffee anymore 🙄. The steaming food markets of Borough, Camden, Spitalfields and beyond. 
(NB: yes the following are all brunch photos – The Ivy, Chiltern Firehouse and MILK Balham – because apparently that’s the only food I photograph). 

The rows of tightly packed terraced houses and terracotta chimney pots that steam in the winter. The dull murmur of traffic, the rattle of a train, the buzz of the Heathrow airpath overhead. The newspaper seller at Bank who cries GEEET YOUR EVENING STAAAANDARD like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. The local newsagent owner who knows my name and raises his eyebrow and says ‘ASOS?’ every time I go in (I mean he’s not entirely wrong to assume that). The most calming tube announcer in the world at Stockwell station, who MINDBLOWINGLY is not a Jamaican woman but an Indian man. The Uber and cab drivers who you can have a good old chat about life, love and politics with. 

The fact we can all be who we want to be and love who we want to love and dress how we want to dress, free from judgement. 

The fact this city brought me closer to my oldest friends and brought me wonderful new people who I now can’t imagine my life without. 

How I wish all of this had sprung immediately to mind when that girl wondered out loud what on earth the appeal of London beyond Buckingham Palace was. London, you wonderful, eccentric, eclectic, unique city. It is so good to be home. 

Falling in love with Cambodia’s coast: Koh Rong and Otres 

Another day, another bus journey gone wrong. Akriti and I been promised an early bus from Phnom Penh in order to get to Sihanoukville to catch the 2pm ferry to Koh rong, but as we were quickly learning Cambodian time is a law unto itself. Everyone will depart an hour later than it’s supposed to and you always need to add two hours on to the projected time (i.e. “The bus will only take four hours” actually means “the bus will take six if you’re lucky”).

We therefore had time to kill in seaside port town Sihanoukville while we waited for our 5pm ferry. The pier area is a bit of a dump, full of construction and tuk tuk tours, but thanks to a recommendation from Merel we killed time at dreamy vegan restaurant Dao. With the vegan fritters, fancy juices and sea views I could almost have been back in Bali. 

Koh Rong 

A fairly painless hour long speed boat ride took us over to the island of Koh Rong. It stopped first at Koh Toch, the busy backpacker part of the beach, and then onto smaller bays around the island. We had elected to stay on the quieter side of the island at Coconut Beach, which was super secluded and away from it all. 

Let me start by explaining that Koh Rong was only discovered by tourism a few years ago. People say it’s like Thailand was 30 years ago and it’s hailed (rightly so) as total paradise. There are no roads on the island yet so the only way around is either by boat or a pretty rough trek through the jungle that inhabits the middle of the island. For this reason, it really is different from anywhere I’ve ever visited – and by far Coconut Beach felt like one of the more remote place I’ve stayed, excepting perhaps the Malawian safari camp I stayed at with my friends a few years ago where we only had each other and elephants for company. There are no shops, just a couple of bungalows dotted in the hillside overlooking the sea, and a couple of small cafe shacks that have now sprung up to serve the tourists that stay there. Needless to say, despite its remoteness, there is of COURSE wi-fi because, I am learning, there is wi-fi absolutely everywhere in the world! Which sort of makes me sad, but also forever grateful to be connected. 

Akriti and I had booked into the aptly named Coconut Beach Bungalows, and it was the best decision we could have made. After our time in Cambodia’s cities we really needed to chill. Coconotbeach is a simply gorgeous, rustic place tucked away at the end of the shoreline. Run by host Robbie and his lovely family, it is honestly the stuff dreams are made of and I my time spent here was one of the absolute highlights of my whole trip. 

When I emailed Robbie my initial enquiry he explained that we could stay in a bungalow, a no frills cabin or a tent on the seafront – with slight trepidation and zero research, we decided to be adventurous and chose a tent. Neither of us actually thought to look at the pictures so both envisioned arriving off the ferry some glorious white glamping yurt. But no, of course this was indeed your regular camping tent but set up off the ground on a wooden platform with a rain/anti mosquito canopy and a mattress, sheet and pillows inside it, so not totally roughing it! You used shared bathroom facilities and had no electricity in the tent, as you’d expect from a proper campsite. It was utterly amazing falling asleep to the sound of waves and waking up and pulling the zipper open to see the sea crashing on the shore through the trees on our first morning. 

The beaches on Koh Rong were probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, perhaps with the exception of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. They even surpassed the Nusas and Gilis of Bali. The feel of squeaking powdered white sand under your feet, the coconut trees blowing in the breeze and water that was the clearest blue, plus the seclusion and lazy island vibes, make it one of my favourite places I have ever visited. 

Secluded it was, but Robbie and his family were keen to ensure their were comfortable and happy at all times. The food was delicious and served in a gorgeous wooden restaurant at the top of the hill overlooking the sea – with its own well stocked library, much to my delight. At this point we were both sticking to veggie food and it was all really good. I will say that Cambodian food did not blow me away; had it not been sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand where the food is so amazing and unique, it might have. And I did really enjoy Amok, their traditional coconut milk curry, and some delicious breakfasts at Robbie’s. 

On the Sunday, we spent a lazy day on the beach, lying out in the sun until the sun started to go down – I think my favourite time of day to lie on the beach is that lovely, balmy, hazy late afternoon time when the sun softens and the sky starts to darken. Sigh. At 6, when it got dark, Robbie lit a bonfire and invited all the guests staying there to sit around it and drink beers (and listen to Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton which was seemingly played on a loop, they really bloody LOVE that song in Cambodia). We then sent off lanterns into the sky (and made wishes obvs) and watched fireworks. I think the best part of this was the reaction of the Cambodian schoolchildren staying at the camp, who screamed with elation every time a firework went off. 

Later on, Robbie turned off all the lights so there was no light pollution and we went into the sea and swam with bioluminescent plankton! I’ve never done this before and it was absolutely beautiful. We then lay under the most beautiful starry night I have ever seen before having an early night in our tent with only the sound of the sea lulling us to sleep. We both agreed it was probably the most romantic night of our lives, more romantic than we have had with any guy (if anyone is looking for a rustic honeymoon spot this would be a DREAM)! But there is no one one I would rather have spent it with and it honestly was one of my favourite memories of my whole entire trip. 

Koh Toch 

After almost four days of total seclusion and laziness, we decided to head to Koh Toch, the busy backpacker strip of the island – mainly to meet some other travellers and have a few drinks. For meeting people and eating at some good restaurants/finding some decent bars, it was great, but that was about the extent of the charm of Koh Toch for me. The most unappealing part of this small strip of beach is that there is no sewage system, so big blue pipes just spew sewage into the sea – it is honestly such a shame and makes me so sad that such a beautiful beach is being so polluted! We heard stories of travellers getting nasty infections from going in the water there so stayed out of it. If you want to swim in Koh Toch, think again – you’ll need to walk to 4K beach or get a taxi boat to one of the other beaches on the island. 

‘People go to Koh Toch and never leave’ warned one traveller I met in Siem Reap. And it’s true that there is a small expat community of people who seemingly visited the island and never left. While I understand the appeal of living on a tropical island, I have this fascination with this particular type of expat that ends up in places like Koh Toch as the lifestyle I observed many of them living isn’t one that appeals to me in the slightest. I am absolutely not saying everyone does this but from what I see, there’s just a lot of daytime – and night time – drinking, a lot of smoking weed and not a lot else to while away your day doing if you decide to live there. One Australian woman working in a restaurant there served us drunk and proudly told us she’d been drinking all day and gone to work anyway. It just felt like a bit of a bizarre place and we observed that a lot of these Western people seemed a little bit out of it and a little bit lost – but I guess that’s what you get if you visit one of the drinking hot spots of Cambodia? 

Take island “legend” Richie Rich, who heckled us from a bar stool outside his bar to join the “biggest ever Koh Rong pub crawl” on Tuesday night. We were hesitant, and didn’t join it officially, but ended up going along because the strip of bars was so small it’s just where everyone who went out that night ended up anyway. 
Ok, you all know that I can get wild and crazy and let my hair down and many people reading this will have been witness to some outrageous behaviour, but let me say this here now – I am officially over organised pub crawls. I just can’t relax into them. I find the forced fun/big group of people thing utterly overwhelming and the way people behave horrifies me to the point I’ve realised I might just be becoming a proper, boring grown up. There’s a reason most of them are full of young backpackers and at 21 I would have LOVED a lairy pub crawl with a bunch of strangers (in fact I did, does anyone remember Carnage in Cardiff?! Those really were the days). But that side of backpacking isn’t for me. That night, between us we saw three couples doing bits VERY publicly (including two women on a pool tables upstairs, much to the delight of the group of men who had gathered to watch and were behaving like a pack of rabid dogs), one guy we genuinely thought had died because he fell and smacked his head and there was blood everywhere and arghhhh (I really hope he ended up being ok), people vomiting and pissing in the street. Etc etc, you get the picture. 
That said, I’m kind of glad I went believe it or not because we made the best of it, laughing at ourselves and some of the drunk people we met. It’s not partying or having fun or drinking a lot of tequila I object to, I just find the carnage that comes along with these events really disrespectful to local cultures and communities – especially in a town where there are signs saying please don’t wear a bikini in the street and please don’t drink in the street. I KNOW I sound like a boring old kill joy but this blog is for my reflections and these are my reflections on pub crawls. So there you have it. 

My only photo from Koh Toch….

To summarise, I would go back to Koh Rong in a heartbeat but would skip Koh Toch and head straight for Coconut Beach to read books in the sun and drink margaritas at lunch and wake up to waves crashing on the shore. 

Otres Beach 

Situated about 10k West of Sihanoukville, Otres Beach won Akriti and I both over instantly and we both wished we had longer there. 

Let me explain that everything in Cambodia is slightly rough around the edges so this is not a pretty little village – when I had heard that most of the businesses were Western run I think I conjured up a European seaside town in my head. But of course, Otres has got the same dirty dusty roads and random piles of rubbish and cows hanging out in the street and ramshackle buildings that grace the rest of Cambodia. But something about it just charmed us both and the beach itself was beautiful and clean.

The vibes are far more laid back than Koh Toch – there are a lot of expats and older travellers there, it’s very hippy and VERY chilled. Everything just felt nice and slow in Otres, I think it helps that pretty much everywhere on the beach is 420-friendly (I couldn’t possibly comment on whether we made the most of that or not but I was verrrrry relaxed by the end of our stay here). We stayed in a really nice bungalow (Whitemoon Bungalows)  in Otres Village run by a lovely family, but hung out on the beach at Otres 1. Our favourite spot here was an Italian restaurant/beach bar called Papa Pippo where I had my first pasta in four months and it was my favourite – simple, al dente spaghetti with good olive oil, garlic, chilli and black pepper. YUM. 
Is definitely recommend skipping and Sihnoukbille and heading straight for Otres and the islands. 

Reflections on Cambodia 

And just like that, mine and Akriti’s time in Cambodia – and together – was over. We headed back to Phnom Penh together so she could head back to London and I to Thailand. It was really hard for me to say goodbye as not only did we get much closer (inevitable when you’re camping in a tent on the beach in hot season) but with Christmas just around the corner I sort of just wanted to jump on the plane to London with A and see everyone. 

We reflected together a lot on Cambodia so let me summarise. We absolutely loved it. Something about it totally got to me and I think knowing about its history only made me appreciate it more. 

But it is not an easy country to travel; kudos to Akriti for using two weeks of annual leave for what was probably quite a tiring trip, with lots of disjointed and long journeys, mishaps and amusing ‘this could only happen in SE Asia moments’ (for example, the time we waited an hour and a half for our dinner and every time we asked when it might arrive were told with a shrug “maybe soon, maybe later”). Luxuries like hot showers and air con are out of the question on a backpacker budget, in fact after Siem Reap we never had one. AC – and indeed electricity – isn’t a given everywhere. Unlike Bali and Thailand it is a proper developing country. 

When people scoff at Cambodia for being dirty or poor or boring I would urge them to consider why. We would have agreed that, unlike its slap-you-in-the-face-with-culture neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is sort of lacking an identity, as well as some of the dramatic scenery . It feels like a country that doesn’t quite know itself and is catching up with itself. Of course it is. When you look at what happened here, you understand why that is and forgive it those things and appreciate it for what it is. You look a little deeper. You notice things like there aren’t many old people in Cambodia – because most of them were killed. You find yourself looking at the people you meet and wondering how they were affected. You forgive it its poverty and, in a non patronising way, you are amazed at the way it has done such a brilliant job at recovering just forty years on and building a tourist industry which is growing year on year. 

You see the beauty in its temples and its stunning, relatively undiscovered islands and its warm people and you love it for those things. I would never discourage anyone a visit and, if you missed it on a SE Asia trip you’d be doing yourself and a recovering country a massive disservice. 

Cambodia’s cities, ancient temples and a sad history 

It’s generally very easy to travel overland to Cambodia from Vietnam but because I was going to Siem Reap in the North, not Phnom Penh which is closer to the border, I decided to fly (on a vehicle which resembled a tin toy plane with propellers).

My journey from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap almost went without a hitch, but on arrival at the airport I was told that even though I was told by my agent my already very expensive flight included luggage, it didn’t. I had to fork out £55 in excess baggage fees even after putting on as many items of my clothing as I could manage and waddling through security like the Michelin man – £55 doesn’t seem like a lot but for the budget conscious backpacker, it is! 

Bad budgeting 

At this point I’ll admit my budget was getting seriously tight; after three months of virtually doing what I wanted I was having to watch every penny I spent. I’ve tried really hard to budget carefully for this trip but made a crucial error in not budgeting any contingency/emergency money or researching inter country travel and visa costs and including them in my budget – so after a couple of hospital visits, only one of which I was able to claim back on insurance minus significant excess, funds were running low. Luckily, I only had three and a half weeks left – and I now fully accept that I am going to be flat broke for the first two months of 2018. Hurrah! But hey, I tell myself any initial hardship when I get back will have been totally worth every experience I’ve forked out for on this trip. 

Initial reflections on Siem Reap 

Money woes aside, I arrived in Siem Reap to a gorgeous sunny day. Now before I get going on my opinions, I wanted to explain that of all the travellers I’ve met Cambodia is the place that has divided the most opinion. Some people flat out hated it, others labelled it boring and others absolutely loved it. I was intrigued to see this country that no one could seem to reach a common ground on. 

As we rattled through the streets of Siem Reap on a tuk tuk, I liked what I saw. A small, bustling city with lots of colour and life. Many were surprised I would be spending 5 days in Siem Reap, as most come in and out just to see Angkor Wat and in all honesty there’s not much else to do there besides the market. But as I’ve iterated in previous blog posts,I really like to base myself somewhere. Vietnam had been a whirlwind and I’d been on the go every 3 days so 5 days in one place appealed, and I decided to go there and wait for Akriti, my friend from home who was joining me for a couple of weeks. I really really liked Siem Reap – it was a great place to wander, eat, drink and chill and the locals were so kind and friendly.  

It helped that I stayed in the best hostel of my whole entire travels while in Siem Reap, Lub D. While Captain Coconuts was the most aesthetically pleasing to date, Lub D just had everything a backpacker could possibly need to not just be comfortable but feel like you’re really living the high life. After my Vietnam accommodation, I really needed it. The dorm beds were huge and even he top bunks have their own little stairway (not, thank god, a bloody ladder) with a curtain and charging point, light etc. The bathrooms were clean and had hot water and washing machines so you could do your own laundry. There was a travel desk to help with booking tours and bus tickets on to other parts of the country. It wasn’t a party hostel at all but there were loads of social events on that you could take part in – night market visits, pub crawls, cycling to the local village. The restaurant was amazing – I was delighted to find Bircher muesli on offer for breakfast. There was a huge pool area with sunbeds and great music where it was super easy to meet other travellers. 

I quickly met Michelle, from Scotland and Sarah and James, an Irish couple, who it was great to while away the day chatting and comparing travel stories with. Hi guys!  Michelle and I had an amazing dinner at a restaurant called L’Annexe, which was proper French cuisine. I had my first glass of red wine in months and months and it was wonderful. The French food in Siem Reap is truly fantastic. 

I also met up with lovely Rita, who I had met on my Halong Bay cruise, for dinner at a great Cambodian restaurant called Try Me. It was lovely catching up! 
A UK Visitor! 

Akriti got in touch back in November and said she had some holiday to use and was thinking of travelling to Cambodia in December and would our dates match up. I knew she was a pro at backpacking and would have no qualms about roughing it, spending entire days on buses and taking a more adventurous approach to travel (necessary in Cambodia) while also being one of the most chilled out people I’ve met, so it was an absolute no brainer to meet up and, as you’ll read, we had the best time ever together. I miss you A! 

She arrived late afternoon on the 6th and I was ELATED to see her. I love meeting new people but it was so nice to be with one of my own, someone who gets me and will be quiet with me and also doesn’t mind if I have a total emotional breakdown about losing my flip flops then find them under my bag. Akriti’s luggage had been left behind in Bangkok but luckily the airline and hostel cooperated to get it to us that evening. She was pretty exhausted after 20 hours of travel, and we had to be up at 4am to visit Angkor Wat so we chilled at the hostel and went to bed early (not before a mammoth catch up). 

Akriti and I work together at a charity in London, so naturally spent our first few hours talking about work and because I always need to know everything about everything I asked a million questions, but we decided after that to put a ban on intense work chat as neither of us particularly wanted to focus on it. But let’s say I’m feeling more than prepared and positive about my return to the office!

Angkor Wat

Let’s talk temples. I’m a huge fan. There’s something so beautiful, calming and spiritual and awe-inducing about a good temple. Many travellers you meet in Asia talk of being templed out, and I have felt the same at times, but was so so excited to see Angkor Wat (which for some reason I can’t say without going Angkor WHAT?! Lols). I’d been waiting for years and years to make it there and it really didn’t disappoint. 

We booked a tuk tuk driver for about $16USD for the day (everything in Cambodia is paid for in US dollars), and then an additional $37 for entry to the temple site. Many people take a three day pass as its impossible to see all the temples in one day, and you can actually cycle around rather than use a tuk tuk if you have the time or inclination. We only had a day, so got a tuk tuk and chose the route with the main attractions on it – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom (the tomb raider temple, probs my favourite). 
We were up at 4am to make the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was truly truly beautiful and worth the early start to see the sun slowly rising above the silhouette of the temple, with the orange and pink hue tinged sky reflecting in the water. However there’s no denying that the huge volume of crowds, which we were of course part of, jostling, waving their cameras around in your face and in front of the view do at times detract from the beauty. Below is the side you don’t see on Instagram! 

After sunrise was finished, we wandered around Angkor Wat. It truly is beautiful. The temple complex is the largest of its kind in the world, and dates back to the 12th century, and is now a UNESCO World Herotage Site. we stopped off at numerous temples, some small and others more majestic, including beautiful Bayon, which is richly decorated and the official state temple, and Ta Phrom, now best known for it’s starring role in Tomb Raider. It was my favourite by a mile, I found it so atmospheric and beautiful with the towering trees climbing out of ruins. 

If anyone is planning to visit Angkor Wat I recommend our driver Mr Seng (google Mr Seng Siem Reap and you’ll find him). He was really sweet and helpful. He isn’t a tour guide but as we were on a budget we were happy to just do our own thing wandering around the temples. The whole site is just really beautiful and leafy and a great place to spend a day – or several! 
A night on Pub St

After a power nap at our hotel, we headed out for the evening in Siem Reap. The town is buzzing at night because of the market and token boozy backpacker street – aptly named Pub Street. We ate Amok for dinner (Cambodian curry, similar to Thai but doesn’t pack quite the same punch), shopped for souvenirs, then went for a 2 dollar foot massage at a street massage shop – the foot bit was most pleasant but at the end they turned us over and started cracking our backs and pummelling our shoulders which is ALWAYS fun in full view of an entire street. Akriti’s massage was most definitely done by a very dolled up lady boy. I’m not insinuating that every lady boy is a prostitute, but There’s definitely some obvious sex tourism present in Cambodia – though not quite the same level as Thailand, I can see it going that way. 

Then we hit the booze. We were both ready to meet some other like minded backpackers and have fun, and I imagined it being a similar vibe to Hanoi’s beer street. How wrong we were! 

We had a GREAT night because we were together and laughed about everything, but Pub St on a Wednesday attracted some real characters. From the old Indian guy who approached Akriti and asked how much she charged for a night (the outrage!!!), to the 7ft tall South American giant who literally threw me around the dance floor to Despacito against my will (I love Despacito more than life but I have my own set of carefully crafted moves that don’t involve your overactive hips or crotch thank you very much mate), to the weird starey men who just sat on bar stools and bore holes into the back of our heads for hours, then felt it appropriate to whisper in our ears that they’d been watching us, it was all just a bit TOO weird. 

Nevertheless, we were out til 3am with our new friend Ria, a young girl from Mumbai who was taking full advantage of being away from home and her conservative upbringing for the first time by chain smoking and drinking margaritas, which of course in the name of personal development we supported. We woke up the next day with sore heads, which was ideal when we had a 6 hour bus journey to Cambodia’s capital, Phnomh Penh. 

Phnom Penh 

Neither of us were looking forward to Phnom Penh. All I’d heard from everyone I had met was that it was an unpleasant, unsafe city. So many people I know had bad encounters there – bags ripped or cut off them, mobiles snatched, knifepoint robbings and women being harassed on the street. We were both nervous about visiting but we’re glad to be together and staying in a well rated hostel in an ok part of the city. We were uber sensible and locked everything we could manage in our safe in the room – we didn’t take phones or purses or bags out with us at all. I simply did the old money in the bra trick. And we felt absolutely fine and had absolutely no hassle – so i guess we were lucky but being sensible helped. 

The reason tourists visit is that it’s a gateway to the genocide museums and memorials which we felt we had to see to really gain a true understanding of Cambodia, and I think any traveller considering bypassing it should re think. Keep your wits about you and you will be fine, it would be a crime to visit Cambodia and not visit these sites and learn its history in my opinion.

Our day started badly when our bus left without us. For the first time on this whole trip, I lost my shit at someone. It’s funny how when you really tell someone off you shock yourself SLASH realise you really sound like your mother when she was bollocking you for bunking off school when you were 17/being mean to your sisters/turning up to work at her restaurant drunk that one time. 

I’d just had enough of general SE Asian indifference when things go wrong and her non bothered shrug and ‘you just go tomorrow, is no problem’ made me see red. IT BLOODY WELL IS A PROBLEM, I AM A PAYING CUSTOMER I heard myself bellow AND I WILL BE ON A BUS TO PHNOM PENH TODAY AND YOU WILL MAKE IT HAPPEN. 

My rant had absolutely ZERO effect and she did nothing to help us but luckily the guy at our hostel was not indifferent, he was mortified, and managed to get us a last minute spot on a new bus. Alas this was not the big air conditioned coach with reclining seats wifi and air con we had initially booked, but we were piled into the back of a tiny mini bus with no leg room. At least it did the job and got us there – we finally arrived in Phnom Penh late that night, shattered and both regretting our alcohol consumption the previous evening. 

The Killing Fields and S21

It’s hard for me to find the words to write about what I saw and heard here. It doesn’t feel appropriate to describe it in detail, simply because it was so awful, so raw, so unimaginable and so horrific. I didn’t take a single picture. 

But I want to ask anyone reading this – did you know what happened here in the 70s? Because I had a vague idea but absolutely NO idea of the level of devastation Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted. I’d ask all of you to read up on what happened and understand how awful and defining it was for this small, humble country. Please see here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399 

 The Killing Fields were the Cambodian genocide’s equivalent of concentration camps, while S21 was a school turned war prison where innocent civilians were taken, tortured and killed for ABSOLUTELY NO VALID REASON. Two of the things that could get you imprisoned or murdered, for example, were wearing glasses or having an education. It’s unthinkable. These dictators, specifically Pol Pot and his maddened ideology, are utterly unthinkable. 

A quarter of the entire population (2 million of 8 million) of this country was killed between 1975 and 1979. And this happened just 40 years ago! It wasn’t reported in Western media because the West, of course, had no fucking interest in it because it didn’t involve oil or land or money or anything they could claim from getting involved. It was also largely overshadowed by the Vietnam war and closed borders made accurate reporting difficult in any case. 

In S21, I found myself standing in one spot for a long time, staring into the eyes of a young Cambodian man on his mug shot picture on the wall, in the room he was found tortured and dead in after the coup when the prison was abandoned, with tears uncontrollably running down my face. I really don’t know why, and appreciate this may sound a bit weird, but the only words that came to my mind were ‘I see you’, over and over again. Probably because there is so much sadness and desperation in their eyes, but no one saw it. No one saw them as people. No one cared and they were treated like sub humans – but they were people, individuals, with lives and loves and families. And they died needlessly. 

This visit and the trip to the museum in Saigon have brought up a lot of emotion for me about war and conflict and hate in the world, that I will be honest and say I’m really struggling to process. I find it difficult to accept that the world hasn’t learned lessons from awful conflicts past and that innocent lives are still being lost in war. I’m getting upset even writing this and remembering what we saw in Cambodia, and I feel it’s best to leave it there, but please do read up on the history of this country, especially if you plan to visit. For Akriti and I, it gave so much context to the country we saw (more on that in my next post). 

Leaving the city 

After an emotional and sobering day, we decided to go for dinner at a ‘nice’ restaurant. Oskar’s, a super sleek, beautiful, modern bar near our hostel, was literally the most random place we could have ever found in amidst dirty, polluted, developing Phnom Penh and I said to Akriti that I felt like we were having post work drinks in central London. 

We drank good wine and ate amazing tapas style food surrounded by well dressed Westerners – men in suits and women in heels. I felt like a bit of a tit in my Havainas and beach dress to be honest. There must be an expat side to Phnom Penh, but again the clientele appeared to largely be Russian, I’m not sure if there is a large Russian expat community in Phnom Penh like there was in Mui ne… answers on a postcard?! 

And that was our time in Cambodia’s cities over. The next day we headed, with great relief, to the paradise island of Koh Rong. 

Crazy houses, Russian towns and Saigon reunions 

My final leg took me to Southern Vietnam, namely Dalat, Mui Ne and Saigon. 


On arrival in mountain town Dalat, when my rip off merchant taxi driver finally found my homestay, I was greeted with the friendliest smile from my host Mr Huong


Tucked away down a quiet street beside a canal, Scimitar Easyrider Homestay was a welcome sanctuary from another busy town and it ended up being one of the loveliest places I stayed on my trip (and coat me a mere £3.50 a night). 

Sharing a home with Mr Huong and his wife, two of the warmest, kindest most hospitable people I met during my time in Vietnam, instantly made me feel brighter after my slightly off few days. It was just me and one other Dutch guy staying there and it truly did feel like home. I spent the afternoon drinking artichoke tea (delicious!) and learning all about Mr Huong and his life. He is a Buddhist and lives by the principle of treating others as you wish to be treated, so naturally is a gentle mannered, kind and smiling soul. He runs the homestay and works as an Easyrider (does anyone else feel the urge to burst into singing EITHER Easy Lover by Phil Collins or Cool Rider from Grease 2 – two of the best songs of all time – when they see/say this? asking for a friend) and his wife is a teacher. I had dinner with the family that night and we ate home cooked vegan Vietnamese food and chatted about their lives, their children and their views on the world (which were surprisingly liberal and progressive – Mr Huong believes in equal rights for women and letting his sons live a life they choose. GO MR HUONG!) 

I only had two nights and one full day in Dalat so on the Thursday Mr Huong took me out on his bike. Dalat is a great town – quirky, fascinating, odd architecture, rich history and beautiful country and mountain surrounds. We went to see the old Soviet era railway station, the Buddhist temples and the beautiful Datanla waterfall, which was SO much fun as you access the waterfall via a self drive mountain rollercoaster! The mountain roads offered breathtaking views. We also visited the infamous ‘Crazy House’. Built by famous Vietnamese architect and eccentric Đặng Việt Nga using Gaudis work as inspiration, it truly is a sight to behold and a real experience to get lost in its nooks and crannies.

We returned mid afternoon and I headed to a cafe called One More Cafe, which had been recommended as it served good and varied Western food in rustic surrounds – and by this point I really needed some comfort food. I was beside myself when I read the menu and it took me about half an hour to decide what to order – baked potatoes, cheese ploughmans, lemon drizzle cake with mulberry jam and banana bread with almond butter were among the traditional English wares on offer. And, what I chose in the end, smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich on actual nice brown bread not white sugary cardboard bread. The best thing was they did real tea – not the weak ass Lipton stuff that’s everywhere in Asia. I had a pot of strongly brewed Earl Grey and honestly could have died and gone to heaven. I adore local cuisine and the food in Vietnam is some of the best I have eaten in my life, but after two months and a tough couple of days I felt well within my rights to enjoy some smoked salmon and proper tea. 

I didn’t really want to leave Dalat, as I had spent such a wonderful time with my homestay host and finally started to feel relaxed. But the beach, and finally some good weather, were waiting and so I got the early bus to Mui Ne on Friday morning. 

Mui Ne 

Mui Ne might just be one of the strangest places I have stayed on my travels. I took it with a pinch of salt – I was there to enjoy the sunshine, the sea and my relatively nice beach house hostel (Mui Ne Ocean House) and not do any exploring, so I could just about come to terms with its weirdness. 
I think what makes the town so odd is that it is totally populated by Russians. The signs are in Russian and most of the staff speak Russian. There are Russians everywhere. I really hate to generalise nationalities and cultures on these trips and it makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable when I do, but I’m afraid in some instances you end up doing it and the overpowering presence of Russian culture in this tiny Vietnamese seaside town just felt WEIRD. 

However, there is a small backpacker scene in Mui Ne – I think many, like me, head to the area in search of some sunshine and R&R at a beach club after a few weeks on the activity intensive backpacking scene in Vietnam. Beyond the slightly soulless facade of Mui Ne there is a great kitesurfing scene (which, needless to say, I did not participate in) and are also some beautiful white and red sand dunes that are worth a visit at sunrise, which I loved. 

I managed to easily pass away 3 days here reading books and chatting to the girls I met at my hostel, so if you are after a pit stop on your way to Saigon, I wouldn’t totally discourage a visit. 

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon 

I travelled the 6 hours by bus from Mui Ne to Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh) with trepidation. I’d had a nice solid week off city life and was prepared to hate Saigon when I first arrived like I did Hanoi – but I absolutely loved it! I probably wouldn’t have wanted to spend more than 3-4 days there but I really did have a great time. It’s so different from Hanoi – it’s more modern, more clean, more cosmopolitan. I felt very comfortable there, although ultimately it lacked the charm of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. 

There is a financial/retail district with Chanel and fancy hotels and big banking buildings, there are some great green spaces, some fantastic markets for shopping and a second to none restaurant scene – not to mention the history. Rooftop bars a plenty and a gaudy backpacker street (as featured in every Asian city) offer plenty of booze options. The only thing that was a big shock for me was the traffic. I laugh in the face of The Ceri who couldn’t handle Hanoi traffic because Saigon is a total game changer. So many lanes, so many motorbikes, so many traffic directions and a total disregard for pedestrians. Crossing the road is not for the faint hearted, and neither is taking a Grab bike taxi. Sanne (who I met up with again yay) had to drag me across the road while I closed my eyes and made pained noises, much like you might need to do with a toddler. 

I had a busy, social few days in Saigon and loved every minute. Sanne and I did what we do best and were so elated to see each other again had one of our wild nights out on the town when one Long Island iced tea becomes several and you feel a bit like dying the next day. We made friends with a couple of Brits, a group of guys from Houston and two lovely young Vietnamese girls in the bar we were in whose salsa hips put me to shame (and I really pride myself on my isolation, guys). 

I will spare you all the details but getting home that night to our back alley hostel was a challenge when we discovered that past 1am they lock not only the alleyway entrances but ALL the hostels and it’s really hard to get in (even if you repeatedly push the doorbell). I guess Ho Chi Minh is not safe at night but we were genuinely shocked at how inaccessible hostels RIGHT off the notorious drinking street were! 

We shopped the next day and discovered the very best thing we could have hoped for for our hangovers – French influence in Saigpn abounds and there are beautiful artisan bakeries everywhere. Tous des Jours did not disappoint and we ate pretty much everything we could manage / cheese twists, focaccia pizza, crispy pork buns, cream cheese puffs and sugary apricot croissants. 

Sanne and I said our farewells on Wednesday when she headed badk to Holland and I felt so sad when she left. Sometimes you just click with a person and feel like you’ve known them for years and I am so so grateful we met as my trip to Vietnam wouldn’t have been the same without her. I truly believe we will travel together again somewhere in the world one day! 

On Thursday, the heat was seriously intense and the thought of walking around the city for a day didn’t appeal, so I went in search of a 5 star hotel with a rooftop pool to spend the day at. I found The Rex, a glossy hotel in the business district, with two outdoor pools and a horrendously expensive rooftop bar and restaurant. I probably shouldn’t have gone there when my budget was starting to get seriously tight but I did and I had an amazing day playing fancy despite feeling very out of place. 

Where to eat in Saigon 

I had nothing but amazing food in Saigon – the restaurant scene is exceptional. In addition to the baked goods I mentioned above. 

I ate a tofu and aubergine clay pot of dreams at Garlik just off Bui Vien, exceptional (and cheap) Bun cha and spring rolls at the aptly names Bun cha, and Pho to die for at Chicken Coop (washed down with some seriously good craft beer). This was the night I was absolutely delighted to meet up with my old friend Alan from Sanctuary, who was travelling with Adam (who also works there), for rooftop beers followed by this pit stop at the Chicken Coop. We reminisced about all things Worcester and it was so lovely to talk about home-home with people who love Worcester like I do – even if a tad bizarre doing it in crazy old Saigon.

My culinary highlight, though, was my dinner at Secret Garden with the lovely Merel who I had met in Gili Air and is a teacher in Saigon.

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t take a single photo there, but that was because we were too busy having a big old life catch up and stuffing our faces. Secret Garden is located at the top of an apartment block down an alley way and through a motorway car park; it looks a little daunting on the approach but once you persevere up the eight flights of stairs you find an actual oasis – think outdoor dining, greenery, fairy lights and lanterns ad a generally buzzing ambience. We ordered seemingly endless plates of food – pork with ginger sesame and chilli, stirfried okra, salt and pepper squid and seafood fried rice – and did our best to finish it all. Afterwards we headed to Broma bar for more craft beer on a rooftop, listening to a live band sing Tracy Chapman covers with the warm city breeze blowing. 

It was all just delightful and I am so eternally thankful for old and new friends in unfamiliar places, and the Saigon evenings I shared with you all. 

Vietnamese War Museum 

On my last day in Saigon I visited the Vietnamese War Museum, which is essentially a collection of photography that tells the story of how the war unfolded. I had been warned it wasn’t for the faint hearted. I was always aware of the Vietnam War but it is here you truly learn the scale of the atrocities of the war and the needless civilian devastation caused by US and French forces. I can’t unsee the brutal images I saw; for me the most shocking thing was the use of chemical weapons (named Agent Orange attacks by the US army) and the images of the human affects of these gases. I was in tears throughout and had to take myself away from the exhibition a few times to compose myself, but despite this would urge anyone visiting Saigon to visit and understand the sad history of this beautiful country. 

(I also visited the post office to ship some stuff home that day and it’s a beautiful building!) 

I had to make the decision not to visit the Mekong Delta or Cu Chi War tunnels but I understand both are worth visiting. For me personally, by the end of my time in Vietnam I had just decided I had had enough of tours and day trips and would prefer to spend some time in Saigon walking and taking in the city. I also needed to do some life admin and just catch up with myself a bit. Had I had more time in the South, I would definitely have visited both. 

Farewell Vietnam 

Vietnam and I had our ups and downs but it was ultimately an incredible (almost) four weeks in a truly fascinating place. By the time I left Saigon, I truly felt a lot of love for this country, its ever changing landscape and its people. Also the food and the cheap beer, obvs. 

And something slight changed in me while I was there. I have never felt so self sufficient, resourceful, adventurous and free. Mum always told me “you have everything you need inside yourself”, and in Vietnam I learned that was true. Often I bat away being told I am brave but in Vietnam I FELT brave because I was so totally out of my comfort zone most of the time and everything just worked out in the way it was supposed to. I’m not suggesting I was some fearless intrepid traveller battling the wilderness of Outer Mongolia – Vietnam is totally backpacker friendly which I am grateful for, but I definitely had some personal challenges to overcome. There was an openness to the travellers I met there that made me want to be more open minded, take opportunities and live life a little differently – not just while I’m away, but when I get home. 

I met some truly beautiful people and saw and did some awesome things. Thank you for the adventures Vietnam; because of them, I’m not sure I will ever quite be the same. 

From scenic Sapa to the South

After a quick pit stop in pretty Ninh Binh, where we visited Tam Coc, temples, rode bikes and took a boat trip through rice fields and caves, Sanne and I said our goodbyes. She headed south to Hoi An and I went north to Sapa. 


For those who were there, imagine Glastonbury 2016 mud. How it either clung to the bottom of your Hunters and sucked you in or you slid and slipped around the top of it before you eventually fell arse over tit. This is what I spent a day trekking in in the remote mountains and valleys of Sapa, but without pints of Brothers cider and Adele singing her lungs out on the pyramid stage to make it all Better.

It was a test of physical endurance to say the least but it was probably one of the best days of my trip so far. 

After hearing night bus horror stories, I booked an early 6am sleeper bus through Inter Bus Lines. You have a little sleeping compartment (and by little I mean, suitable size for borrowers), charging socket and wifi. I prepared by downloading as many episodes of Suits as my phone could store and a new book for my Kindle. It was supposed to leave at 6 and arrive before 12 but in the end left at 7:30 and arrived just before 2. My plan had been to arrive in Sapa, drop my stuff and head straight to the Bat Ca Sunday market in a nearby town, but because I was late I wasn’t able to do this. 

My guesthouse was clean and comfortable but the on the edge of Sapa town was unremarkable and had I done better research I would have avoided being near the town altogether. 

That being said, I was only using it as a base to trek from and given that it was so cold in Sapa, I was so grateful for a hot shower and own room after my trek. The trekking homestays aren’t amped up for tourists, you are literally living the way the tribe live. From the one I’d been shown on my own trek, to others I had spoken to, who had rats in their homestay, no water, a rug on the floor instead of a bed or a pig sharing their sleeping space, I think that may have tipped me over the edge after my day trekking in the freezing rain. 

My trek 

I booked my trek through Sapa Sisters after careful research. It wasn’t cheap at £35 but they seemed by far the best company and I really liked their ethos. 

I was paired up with a delightful guide, Jane, who spoke perfect English and became my friend (slash hand holder) throughout the day. We also joined up with another few small trekking groups for the day too. 

I was advised to opt for the easy-medium trek given the weather. The mud made it difficult but I think I could definitely have just done a medium trek in normal weather. Amusingly (and, some might say, in a further tribute to Glastonbury) I was told not to bother with hiking boots and wear their wellies instead – later I found that this was because in some places, the mud would be almost up to my knees. 

We trekked around 15k in total, down into the foothills of the valleys, through rice terraces and up the other side of the mountain again. There were places that the path wasn’t muddy or we’d hit the main road/dry grass for a short time, and this was a god send. On the way we walked through tiny rural farming communities, horses, pigs, cows, chickens (and puppies!!!), past children playing, women grinding rice maize. 

We stopped for lunch in a modest local house and I was served welcome steaming hot plates of ginger and garlic water spinach, tofu, pork, runner beans and rice. However, when I said I was full after two bowls, this wasn’t accepted. I was told I should finish all the food (enough for about 7 people), literally force fed around 6 bowls of rice and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so full in my life (except maybe the time I ate so much at a Spanish buffet restaurant when I was 13 that I was sick – it was the all you can eat ice cream, tell me you wouldn’t do the same). 

After lunch, we continued trekking – you could either opt for the same route back into town or keep trekking for another couple of hours further into the mountains and get a motorbike back to Sapa. I opted for the latter so we could see a different route, and thinking the motorbike back would be an adventure. Of course, on beginning this journey back in cold mountain rain and zero visibility with a driver who thought it was sensible to overtake other vehicles on narrow mountain roads in these conditions, I wondered if I should have taken the easy option. There aren’t really any times on this trip I’ve genuinely panicked and feared for my life, but as we skidded around bends next to a sheer cliff drop, this was unequivocally one of those times. In the end I just closed my eyes, repeated my auntie Pauline and Mum’s mantra ‘all will be well’ and clung on for dear life while getting pelted in the face by rain. And here I am!

The Hmong tribe – and Jane 
The Sapa region’s ancient black Hmong tribe are fascinating and I asked Jane as many questions I could, as long as I could breathe, while we trekked together. The women wear black clothes accessorised with bright, patterned home dyed and stitched fabrics, elaborate headwear and plenty of jewellery. Most women in the Hmong tribe go out to work while the men stay at home and clean the house, cook etc. Women are highly respected and held in high esteem. Riiiiiise! They live modest lives and work hard, but the irony of ancient and modern worlds meeting as Jane took calls on her smartphone while we trekked through remote Vietnam was not lost on me. This slow and slightly jarring merging of the East into the West is apparent everywhere you turn in Asia, and this was just one prime example. Jane was different from other Hmong women, though. She was full of questions about my travel because, it turned out, she wanted to travel too. She had married at 18 but, now at 23, didn’t want kids yet. She felt she had more life to live and spent the little free time she had trying to see more of Vietnam. “My family want and my husband to have children now, but we dont want. We want to explore Vietnam and take trips. I work 7 days a week and in my time off, I go on holiday,” she said frankly. Jane was the first woman in her village to have ever taken time off to go on holiday, having visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba and Hoi An with her husband, much to the distaste of many of her fellow villagers. It was Jane’s ultimate dream to fly on a plane to another country. Somehow I think she’s going to make it happen. (If you couldn’t already tell, Jane is my hero). 

Sapa town

Sapa town was grim. Perhaps foolishly, when I read about the lake, church and square I imagined some lovely quaint French market town in the mountains. It was so foggy and rainy I could barely see a thing, but what I could see was that the town was a construction site, polluted, ugly and soulless. I found one nice restaurant to eat in but the rest of the town left very little to be desired. Most people don’t go to Sapa to see the town, so it’s not a big deal and shouldn’t put anyone off going to the area to trek. It’s just one of the few places I’ve ever visit that I have been really pleased to leave! 

Hanoi home truths 

It’s not all sunsets and life changing experiences and euphoria when travelling, although that’s what Instagram might suggest. Sometimes things go wrong and it’s shit, especially when you’re alone. I was looking forward to going back to Hanoi. I planned to spend the afternoon buying north face stuff for my family and posting that, and stuff I didn’t need anymore, home – then buying a new backpack and repacking (my old faithful backpack sadly died a death, much to my devastation) before having a relaxing evening wandering the Old Quarter. 

Instead, I had a difficult 24 hours when seemingly everything went wrong. I hadn’t slept for a few nights before hand, then spent 7 hours on a bus which was, as usual, two hours late arriving. I had booked a well rated private room so I could rest and sort all my stuff out. When I arrived, the receptionist beat around the bush for about half an hour, serving other guests, offering me coffee, bananas, water, before finally saying that they had double booked and I had to go somewhere else. “But don’t worry!” She smiled cheerily. “We have a motorbike ready to take you there. It’s 5 minutes away and a very nice hotel!” It wasn’t. It was 15 minutes drive, the other side of the lake. And it was a shit hole – it was an actual construction site on the inside with only the top floor of rooms suitable to stay in. I should have moved hotels again, but at that point I was too exhausted to walk the streets trying to find somewhere and didn’t trust the hotels on booking.com to actually have availability. I had to get my shit done so I decided to suck up the room as inside it was clean and at least private, but the construction went on all night. I tried to say I didn’t want to pay the full price the next day, I was met with a hostile, aggressive reaction and they refused to give me my passport back until I paid. 

When I headed to the airport to fly to Da Lat, My taxi driver drove like a maniac and then threw my stuff from the boot onto the floor when I refused to give him more than a 20,000 tip. In Dalat, I was ripped off further by a different taxi driver who promised me one fee before I got in his car then doubled the fee once I was in the car, before getting lost for an hour. When I put my brand new backpack on the baggage belt at the airport, one of the back straps completely snapped – yet again, despite extensively examining every zip and strap, I’d been ripped off and paid well above the odds for a cheap fake backpack which had broken (and I may as well just have kept my old one). In this 24 hours, I also realised I had lost my precious crystal bracelet my mum gave me for protection on my trip. By the time I arrived in Dalat I was a bit of a tearful wreck. 

I generally hate complaining about things on this trip. I am fully aware that none of the things that happened above are going to harm me in the long run. I am aware of how lucky I am to be on this adventure, so feel guilty and berate myself when I start to feel sorry for myself. I repeat the mantra “at least i don’t have to go to work” to myself if I start to feel this way and generally that snaps me back into positivity. I remind myself that when I get home I’ll laugh about the all the mishaps and misendeavours as the bad days will pale compared to the good. And they already have!

But I did have to admit to myself at this point that solo travel in Vietnam was starting to wear me down a bit. Being constantly on the move, the cold, wet weather in Hanoi and Sapa (Ninh Binh was actually sunny!), the long days travelling, not sleeping because everywhere I stayed was a construction site and being repeatedly ripped off, all without a travel partner, justifiably made me feel a bit wobbly. 

You see, travelling alone is not a holiday. In fact it pisses me off when people at home describe it as that, although I know it’s usually in jest, as while it’s AMAZING it could not be further from a week in the sun in Europe or a sightseeing weekend break with your mates. There is an abundance of relaxing and beautiful and exhilarating moments, yes, but it’s much more convoluted than that. Being alone, especially as a woman, navigating foreign and unfamiliar countries; always needing to plan your next move, think on your feet, keep safe and be resourceful; constantly checking your budget, checking your map, checking your backpack, checking your valuables; being your best self because you’re meeting new people; having time to really think about your life and face up to some home truths about yourself, relationships, friendships, money and work – it can all be a challenge. And it’s especially a challenge when you have anxiety and tend towards introversion for at least 50% of your life. And I think it’s ok for me to admit that, knowing fully now that after every down comes an up, and they totally make every challenging moment worthwhile. It’s just part and parcel of this wild and wonderful experience. 

Part of this involves taking matters into your own hands, so I decided to head down to south Vietnam, where the sun was shining, for just over a week then cut my time there short and head to Cambodia ahead of Akriti arriving. I’m so beyond disappointed to miss Hoi An and central Vietnam but the rain hasn’t stopped in two weeks and Hoi An flooded again. And I absolutely made the right decision as my week and a half in the south was one of the happiest and most relaxing of my trip! I will blog about Dalat, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh next. 

Boating, biking and hiking Halong Bay and Cat Ba

My favourite part of my trip to Vietnam has, by a mile, been the time I spent cruising around Halong Bay and staying on Cat Ba island. Halong Bay is, without a shadow of doubt, the most beautiful place I have ever seen. 

Halong Bay cruise 

When I met Sanne in Hanoi, she had already booked a 2 day 1 night trip to Halong Bay with Vega travel, and after a quick scout around of their TripAdvisor reviews I was sold. Choosing a tour is overwhelming – there are hundreds of operators and varying prices/quality. At £100 for 2 days it wasn’t particularly backpacker budget friendly but to be honest it was worth every penny. The company were brilliant and our tour guide Binh was so friendly and funny. 

We arrived in Halong town for our boat pick up at around 12 on the Saturday. Our boat – or junk as they’re known – wasn’t majestic but was really lovely, with clean, comfortable private cabins overlooking the water, a spacious dining area and a sun deck. In our group were four solo travellers including me and Sanne, and four couples – all late 20s/early 30s. 

What followed was the most amazing two days – Binh tried really hard to help us beat the thousands of other tourists that flock to Halong Bay every day and the weather was perfect. 

When the boat docked we kayaked around lagoons, cycled around islands, explored caves, hiked through the jungle (this included rock climbing, or in my case falling up and down the mountain) and climbed to the top of the viewing platforms for breathtaking views of the bay. 

We ate fresh seafood for lunch and dinner, and in the evening drank beer and swapped stories with our fellow guests playing some amusing drinking games (uni friends, a Vietnam equivalent of the late night cardboard box game which I will aim to recreate at New Year) Before bed, we unsuccessfully tried our hand at squid fishing (though we found out later that no one had actually ever caught squid off the back of a tourist boat…. the sentiment was there!). We fell asleep as the boat rocked gently and I woke up to uninterrupted views of the bay from my cabins. SO wonderful! 

I find group tours a *bit* much, I won’t lie. I’m just not very good at being herded around from one activity to the next in a big group of people, and following someone else’s activity packed itinerary. However in this case, I had a really nice chilled group of people and everything we did was so exciting that I really didn’t mind. 

The views and area are iconic for a reason. Ok so there are hundreds of other sailing boats but that kind of added to the charm for me! Most of them are traditional junk sailing boats and not unattractive cruise liners. The water is the most vivid turquoise blue, huge leafy green rocks and mountains tower above the sea, and you find tiny coves and lagoons at every turn. There are tiny villages on stilts in the water and people who live on their boats to fish, which we sailed past with fascination, while monkeys clamber on trees high above the water. 

Cat Ba 
On the Sunday night, our boat docked on Cat Ba island, which everyone who had been to Vietnam had told me I should visit. It’s got a thriving backpacker scene, is super chilled and really cheap – and indeed we stayed in a hostel (Dolphin backpackers, basic but clean) for £2 a night! 

Sanne luckily is a bit of a motorbike pro, so  we rented a bike which she drove around the island (and I, obviously, posed for a photo shoot on)! I actually think that day motorbiking around the winding mountain roads of Cat Ba with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces was one my favourite moments of my trip. I have never felt more free, more alive or more lucky – the views are breathtaking on Cat Ba and there’s just something so liberating about being on a bike to see it all. We even ended up on another accidental hike in Cat Ba National Park, which I recommend visiting if you have the stamina! 


I really shocked myself on this part of my trip. Generally I like sedentary holidays and have never done particularly active tripsbut I have found a new love for the great outdoors and especially hiking that I hope never leaves me. I feel like I have Sanne to thank in part for being fearless and fun to travel with. What I’m learnings this tripis that life is about saying yes to everything, getting outside of your comfort zone and embracing the unknown. 

We had some good food and drink in Cat Ba – most notably Like Coffee on the main boulevard which serves incredible coffee. We also met a French guy called Gael in Cat Ba and the three of us had a great drunken night out in some backpacker bar on the seafront, including laughing gas balloons which are on offer everywhere in northern Vietnam. 

That night, we were out until about 1am and then thought we’d hop in a taxi home. We thought wrong. There was one taxi at the taxi rank and the driver was asleep. Our hostel was about 40 minutes walk up and down steep hills on the other side of the island. We were ready for a long drunken walk home, but Gael explained our predicament to a hot dog seller on the street. She took sympathy on us, abandoned her hot dog stand, took Gael first then popped both me and Sanne on the back of her bike and took us back before returning to sell her hot dogs. Funny, chance moments and the kindness of strangers are what make travelling for me, as well as the beautiful views and exciting trips (also, Cat Ba may I suggest you sort out your taxi options post midnight). 

We decided to treat ourselves to a final night at Cat Ba beach resort in our own bungalow. I’m learning that, unlike Bali, unless you pay a serious premium quality is hard to come by in Vietnam. The bungalow was nice ish and we were glad it was private, but the resort’s customer service was seriously lacking and I had the weirdest massage of my entire life here. 

Massage gate
Yes, it deserves its own section. Sanne and I cried with laughter talking about it afterwards but at the time I wasn’t entirely sure I saw the funny side. 

We saw they offered spa services and decided to treat ourselves. You could have a massage in your room, or on the beach – we chose our room for privacy. I went first. 

When my time came there was a knock on the door and there stood a tiny elderly Vietnamese man holding a bottle of johnsons baby oil. He didn’t speak much English other than ‘ok? Ok?’ But luckily did understand when I told him to stop. 

I wouldn’t describe what I experienced over the next hour as a relaxing massage, more a weird semi violation. After slathering me in baby oil, his chosen massage techniques were poking, prodding, slapping (including just giving my bum a good old slap for the hell of it) and what I can only describe as a Chinese burn on my arm. When my back was done, he asked me turn over. “BREAST MASSAGE”, he said. I mean, I had had this in Bali but WHY I didn’t say no instantly given the way he had massaged my back I don’t know. So there I am, lying on my back pretty much naked while a small Vietnamese man starts quite roughly kneading my boobs as one might a loaf of sourdough. “OK STOP”, I said forcefully, while he looked perplexed. “MASSAGE NO FINISH YET”, he insisted. I managed to communicate that I didn’t want any more boob massage. He then changed technique. “STAND UP”, he told me. 

We then stood back to back and without any warning he hoiked me onto his back and started doing vigorous lunges across the room to try and crack my back. If anyone had looked into the room, what they would have seen was me, top half naked, tits akimbo, on the back of this man who was easily half my height being carried around the room. At this point, I decided the massage was over. 

I warned Sanne, she had one anyway but ensured he kept firmly away from the breast region. We both sat on our bed in stunned silence for a while afterwards, before concluding that this man was probably just a janitor they drafted in and that we would laugh it off as another adventure. I don’t THINK he was a pervert, he seemed like a naive smiley old man who had absolutely idea what he was doing. 

Since speaking to other travellers I do understand that Vietnamese massage is not a relaxing experience and does involve a lot of slapping and prodding, so might I suggest that, to avoid our misfortune, you pay more to get a massage somewhere that specialises in other types of massage. 
I’ve since had an aromatherapy massage at a nice spa in Hanoi and that was far more enjoyable!

Weird massage aside, Cat Ba was brilliant – such a welcome and relaxing break from the madness of Hanoi, but we all headed back to Hanoi as we were using it as a base to explore further or move on – in my case to visit rural Tam Coc and Sapa, which I’ll blog about next. 

Learning to love hectic Hanoi

Well Hanoi, you are something else. 

If you can imagine Bali as being a feast for the senses, arriving in Hanoi was more of an assault on them. Yet over my 13 days or so using it as a base to explore the rest of Northern Vietnam, I have become rather fond of this big, utterly mad city. 

I decided to throw caution to the wind and not plan ahead too much for Vietnam. I didn’t even know if I was going there, until a few weeks before as my original plan was to go to Myanmar. But it didn’t sit right with me to visit a country where ethnic cleansing is being blindly ignored by its leader to have a jolly around temples, so Vietnam rose up the ranks and I booked a flight to Hanoi on a whim, planning to travel North to South. I didn’t do too much research and figured I’d work it out when I arrived.

However, this meant that on arrival in Vietnam a) I wasn’t really prepared for Hanoi’s chaos and b) I hadn’t paid attention to what the weather would be like in Vietnam (really cold and wet in the North, In case you were wondering), which c) included the huge typhoon that has flooded parts of central Vietnam, causing loss of life and real damage. Hoi An, the lantern laden town in Vietnam I basically came to the country to see, has been worst affected. All of this affected my plans and made me wish I had been SLIGHTLY more organised. It has required a bit more thinking on my feet now I’m here and I decided a few days ago that, rather than my original linear North to South route, I would (perhaps nonsensically for a country of this size) dart around more than planned on the off chance that Hoi An will have dried out by the very end of my trip. After Northern Vietnam I’m heading south to Dalat, Phan Thiet, Ho Chi Minh city and the Mekong Delta before coming back up to Hue and Hoi An – I can catch a flight from Hoi An’s nearest airport directly to Cambodia where I’m meeting my friend Akriti, so it’s actually worked out quite well. 

Arrival in Hanoi 

I felt like an absolute deer in the headlights when I arrived in Hanoi after gentle Bali. The city is sprawling, the roads from the airport are huge, it is heavily polluted (you can literally feel the smoke entering your lungs and clinging to your skin) and a low, eery fog hung over the city the day I arrived. It then rained for four days straight (and has continued to rain across much of Vietnam ever since). 

Then there’s the traffic. Let’s take a minute to try and understand the madness of Vietnamese traffic. There are no sides of the road, mopeds whizz past in both directions, on both sides, with no apparent regard for pedestrians. They are usually piled high with bananas, boxes or families. I’ve had several near miss collisions and been clipped by a couple, and it takes some seriously gritty reserve and determination to cross the road. Some advise to cross the road slowly, as then they’re forced to slow down, and others advise you just get across it as quick as you can. I’ve tried both and neither make me feel particularly more convinced my life is valued by drivers on the road! 

Yet exploring the Old Quarter on my first day, with its steaming street food stalls, narrow maze of streets, constant beeping of horns, throngs of Vietnamese and western people drinking beer in the street, low wires and crackling neon signs, I realised THIS was everything you imagine a crazy Asian city to be and started to perk up a little more. Since then I’ve embarked on a little love affair with this part of the city. 

I have taken my time exploring the area, taking in the colours and smells and atmosphere and huge array of street food (more on that later). Women walk the streets selling bananas, fried fruit snacks and rice hats, while men stand in front of their beer restaurants trying to usher you in. Everywhere you turn, there are shops and markets selling souvenirs, elephant pants and trekking gear (there’s a lot of North Face which is apparently genuine as their main manufacturing factory is here, though I’m not sure I believe that. I bought an insipid pink North Face rain jacket for £3!). 

The real plus about Hanoi, despite the crazy, is that I feel really safe and not at all hassled here, apart from the ferocity of the scooters. I’ve wobbled home on my own as late as 2am and the streets have been busy and I’ve felt totally at ease. 

My digs 

I have stayed in two hostels – Old Quarter View Hostel and Cocoon Inn. I prefer Cocoon simply because the rooms are nicer and more private, but both are clean, in prime locations, and proper backpacker joints set up to help you travel as comfortably as posible (I didn’t really find any of these types of hostels in Bali) with a mixed clientele. You’ve got your 18 year old gap year kids fully primed for drinking games night after night, you’ve got your 65 year olds on a late life adventure, you’ve got people in their 30s trying to find themselves who might also be fully primed for drinking games on the odd occasion (ahem). 

Dorm life continues to be a mixed bag for me, some days I don’t mind it and other times I hate it. Other travellers can be really selfish (7am loud phone calls in bed, deciding to turn on the lights and pack at 3am, etc) and you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. In Vietnam I’ve had less of the space and quiet time I have spoken about needing in my previous blogs, and that’s just something I’m learning to deal with.   

Old Quarter View especially was a great place to meet people if you needed to – I swapped many stories with fellow travellers over breakfasts or beers. On my first night I met a lovely Dutch girl Sanne (who quickly became my travelling BFF and I subsequently travelled northern Vietnam on and off with for 12 days – I MISS YOU SANNE!) and two German guys, and we went our for Bia Hoi on the aptly nicknamed Beer St. The street is packed with pavement bars, where you perch on tiny little low-down stools to eat or drink while locals eat their chicken feet and Pho chien (yes, dog really is a thing here) around you. Bia Hoi is as locally brewed as you get, and costs 5000VND which is precisely 16p. So naturally I had to have several. We then moved onto gin, which was 40,000VND (£1.20) for a double and, again, I had several. 

And just like that, party Ceri, who I was pretty sure I had left behind on my leaving do in London (the very same leaving do which saw me get pushed to the tube station in a pushchair by a tramp) was back and LOVING LIFE until 2am. I mean reeeeeeeally loving life, dancing to Euro Pop/every song Pitbull has ever released and drinking shots with people I had never met but were of course my new best friends. The next day I experienced my first travelling hangover and it was truly horrendous. I rolled out of my room for an egg baguette at 9 then went back to bed until 1, whoops. Hanoi is a fun place to party, and I’ve had some ridiculously good nights here now but the hangovers are raging and I’m not sure I can manage any more! 

What I did in Hanoi (besides drinking)

I can’t put my finger on when Hanoi grew on me, but it suddenly became familiar and I have enjoyed every single day spent there in between trips and tours. On the whole I’ve found Vietnam a mixed bag – lots of beauty, lots of adventure, but also long days travelling and terrible weather and places I really haven’t liked (like Sapa town) – but Hanoi, for all its crazy, has been fairly consistent. 

Old Quarter Hanoi

I’ve summed up why I love the Old Quarter above but it’s a great place to walk, shop, eat, mingle with locals. On Friday and Saturday nights they close of the streets to traffic (thank god) and everyone just walks and mingled for hours on end, street musicians play, children play. It’s when Hanoi is its most vibrant and wonderful.

The lake

The lake offers a great sanctuary from the rest of the city and is great for an early morning or late afternoon stroll, a bia Hoi and game of cards or a peaceful cup of tea overlooking the water. 

Vietnamese Women’s museum and the French Quarter 
Full of French influence, as it’s name might suggest, this area is packed with boulangeries (I was delighted to find an almond croissant here) and is also home to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I found it really fascinating to find out more about the role Vietnamese women have played in their culture – they are powerful figureheads of their society and not shrinking wallflowers expected to stay at home, put up and shut up. I learned about how women were revolutionaries and guerillas in the Vietnam/US and civil wars, as well as typical traditions involving women, like marriage and childbirth. It’s definitely worth a visit! 

My uncle Graham recommended this place to me and I’m so glad I went. KOTO stands for ‘know one, teach one’ and is a social enterprise restaurant designed to get children off the street and into employment. The front of house and kitchen staff are all streetkids. For 250,000VND (£8) I had an amazing set menu including soup, fresh spring rolls, baked king prawns and coconut cheesecake. All served with the biggest oF smiles. The. Dream. 

St Josephs Cathedral 

Really lovely Cathedral square. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t actually go in the beautiful, classically gothic cathedral but to a rooftop gin bar overlooking it – the Mad Botanist. I met Louise, who I had done yoga with in Bali, for Friday night drinks. It is an absolute revelation and reminded me of Mr Foggs in London, through sweeping red curtains you enter an actual gin chamber with hundreds of ACTUAL gins and posh tonic water. They serve their gins in proper gin goblets. I was in my element, not quite believing this was Hanoi and that rather I was in some posh Barcelona bar in the Gothic quarter!  

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum 

Ok, so I didn’t go here because while I’ve been in Hanoi the man himself has been off in Russia getting embalmed! But apparently it’s well worth a visit. 

Food and drink in Hanoi 

Omg the fooooooood in Vietnam! The food! Where do I begin? But basically, Hanoi is THE place to eat. I’ve tried it ALL – banh mi (baguette with chargrilled pork or chicken, salad, coriander and chilli – and the bread is actually really good in Vietnam, it must be the French bakery influence!), DIY hot pots and barbecue with an array of meat, seafood and veg, Pho (I have Pho coming out of my ears), Bun Cha (my absolute favourite – little pork patties in a sweet, spicy broth with lemongrass, galangal, garlic and chilli and heaps of noodles), egg and chilli sauce sandwiches, soy barbecue skewers from street vendors, fried spring rolls, fresh rice paper spring rolls. The list goes on!

The coffee in Vietnam itself is a work of art. I’ve limited myself to one traditional condensed milk coffee only every 2-3 days because that stuff daily cannot be good for you. They also specialise in coconut coffee and, my favourite, egg coffee – it’s literally coffee with a whipped sugary egg white on top and totally not what you’d think it would taste like. Like a really sweet, frothy cappuccino! 

My main recommendations for food in Hanoi, other than street food and street cafes, are Koto, Blue Butterfly (where I ate the bun cha above) and Note Coffee, the sweetest little coffee place ever that so cheered me up on a homesick day! 

I’m going to be honest and say, around the 8 week mark, noodle fatigue has started. I’m really craving some wholesome, simple food. Pho just about does the trick but ideally something without rice, noodles and not unhealthy western food. Believe it or not, I would give anything for a nice salmon fillet and some broccoli! On the flip side, I’m also really craving cheese. I drunkenly rung my friend Rosie the other night and cried ACTUAL TEARS over wanting cheese, you guys. So if anyone knows a good cheese supplier in Vietnam hit me up! If not I’m holding out for Julia to make me the Christmas cheese board of all cheese boards come my return home on 28th December.

Initial reflections on travelling in Vietnam 

Food ramblings aside, I’ve now been in Vietnam almost a fortnight and travelled around a lot already. Travelling this country is really different from anything I’ve ever experienced and I’ve really had to change the way I approach things. My slow travel approach, lazy lie ins and beach days of Bali feel like a distant memory, and I’m definitely ticking boxes more than I usually do but that’s because a) I met a great travel buddy whose approach to travel made me want to see and do more and b) there really is so much to see and do and take in in Vietnam. I’m not seeing even half of the places I could visit yet I’m still on the go a lot. 

My sedentary six weeks (excepting the odd yoga and soft hike) feel like a world away. You’re up early to seize the day and go on tours and hike up to viewpoints as the sun is rising, before the crowds arrive. I’ve kayaked, canoed, trekked, rock climbed and motorbiked around mountain paths. I’ll share more about this in my next blog as I’ve loved it ALL.

I haven’t fallen in love with Vietnam yet the way I did with Indonesia. It’s a fascinating, beautiful place but the weather and needing to change my plans so drastically has definitely affected my overall morale and if I didn’t have my visa and flights to Cambodia all booked I would have seriously considered going to Laos instead. Does that mean I wish I wasn’t here? Absolutely not. Im just trying to enjoy every day and throw myself into every opportunity. It’s difficult to feel unsure or miserable for long when you live life that way, I just haven’t yet felt Vietnam ignite my spark!

What next 

Having just completed my Sapa trek (which was wonderful), tomorrow I leave Hanoi for the last time to head South and explore Dalat and Mui Ne. I have some blogs almost ready on Halong Bay and Cat Ba (which I LOVED) and Sapa, so will refine and share those soon! 

Hidden beaches in Uluwatu – and farewell to Bali 

Before I left, I really wanted to get to the Southern tip of Bali, where the most beautiful (and famous beaches) lie. So, Ness and I headed from Ubud to Uluwatu, where we spent a couple of nights staying in a sweet little guesthouse on the hilltop above Padang Padang beach. 

Uluwatu beaches 

Uluwatu is best known for its surf and views.The beaches are by far superior to those in Canggu and Seminyak, which despite their great sunsets, are long stretches of greyish sand and fairly unremarkable water. If you want unspoiled white sand, clear blue water and hidden coves framed by dramatic cliffs (that really reminded me of Mediterranean beaches), head down South pronto. We visited and loved Padang Padang beach, but it’s pretty popular so was busier than our favourite beach Suluban Beach, right under the infamous Single Fin beach bar. You descend what feels like a million rocky steps then access the beach through a slightly hidden and narrow cave (I would like to say I handled this with grace and pragmatism but we all know that’s not true, and Ness had to deal with a fair bit of huffing and puffing from yours truly along the way😂). This and the sudden sweeping arrival of the tide can make it a tricky one to arrive to and leave so it’s not as popular or busy (yet). There are no facilities or luxuries like umbrellas and loungers but it is by far the most beautiful, peaceful and interesting beach in the area and there are still women selling ice boxes of Bintang and grilled corn, what more do you need? 

Fittingly that evening, as I neared the end of my time in Bali, I saw the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in my life above Uluwatu following a couple of sundowner g&ts at Sigle Fin. The pink and orange sky quite literally blew me away. Sigh. By the way, I can see why Single Fin is so popular. The drinks are good, the atmosphere is great and the views are unreal. I never made it to their legendary Sunday party but from what I saw it’d be a lot of fun. 

A comment on the Uluwatu area generally is that it’s a bit of an odd set up. There’s no real main town or village, it’s just spread along a really long stretch of road where every 500m or so you’ll find a couple of cafes. Public transport is pretty hard to come by so you really need a scooter if you’re there for a while to see it properly – ness and I managed to get a taxi and walk most places as neither of us felt confident navigating the steep roads on a bike but it’s just not that easy to do either of these things. We found some great spots for for food and drink along these roads that being said – including Padang Padang breeze for a Balinese fresh fish BBQ, trendy smoothie bowls, bacon eggs and avocado and dream coffee at Suki Espresso. 

After Uluwatu we had a quick pit stop in Seminyak. I actually didn’t mind it, the shopping was great and the spas were cheap and cheerful. I think its bad rep is slightly unfair and it still retains some Balinese charm.
Farewell to Bali 

After Ness left –  and I lay on my bed crying for two hours – I spent some time in Ubud (all covered on my previous post) and then begrudgingly left Bali in the middle of the night on Monday 6th. 

I feel like I’ve summarised pretty well in my posts while I loved my time in the small part of Indonesia I travelled but, mainly for my benefit, here’s a reminder.

The people 

People in Indonesia are open, kind and warm. They aren’t all out to get something out of you and make money (though of course some are). They believe in karma and treat people as they would want to be treated and this shows in everything they do. They are eager to practice English and will talk the hind legs off you, and they are always, always smiling. The people I met there made my heart want to burst – my driver friend Putu for your honest, kind advice and checking in on me every now and then, Edy in Lombok for taking me into your home, showing me your life and singing to Bob Marley with me on repeat, Irwan in Gili T for your incredible hospitality and looking out for me and looking after me when I was at my lowest point, the pineapple seller who saw my burn, abandoned her wares and went in search of aloe leaf to break and gently help me dress it with (NO PHARMACY, JUST ALOE, she insisted), Made the carpenter from Ubud who believed I would be the next prime minister because I had ‘such a big brain for a woman’ (LOL) and gave me a tiny Buddha from his wood carving shop for free simply because I spent an hour talking to him. I will always, always remember you all in my heart. 

Of course there were my fellow travellers too – I can’t possibly name you all but thank you thank you thank you for sharing your time, advice and experiences with me. Before I came away I genuinely worried that I would not meet anyone on this trip I would gel with but I was proven so very wrong. I truly hope we meet again! 

The scenery 

The sweeping mountains and dense green jungle of Lombok, the endless green rice terraces and dramatic waterfalls of central Bali, the white sand beaches of the Gilis, the breathtaking blue lagoon of Lembongan, the sunsets of Canggu and Uluwatu. I have a whole new appreciation of nature thanks to things I have seen. 

The food  

Ok, there were times when I’d had enough of ride and noodles and banana pancakes but the food in Indonesia is next level. In six weeks I didn’t eat anything I didn’t enjoy. I am in love with sambal and want to eat it with everything. Beef rendang, Nasi and Mie Goreng, crispy suckling pig and piles of steamed Bok Choy, seafood to die for – plus of course all of the amazing trendy health food on offer. And Bintang. I will always love Bintang! 

The ease of travel 

It’s so easy to travel Bali – get a number of a driver and they’ll always be happy to ferry you around for a modest fee. 

That being said, I found the taxi system slightly confusing. There are app based taxi services in Bali. Grab and Uber are abailable but actually illegal and I was never sure if should be using them – in Ubud and Uluwatu there are huge signs saying NO GRAB NO UBER. Bluebird app is cheaper than using private drivers but even they aren’t available or allowed everywhere (despite being the legal taxi firm!). 

The way it made me feel 

There were definite downs but Bali was mostly full of the highest highs. Being alone away from my familiar life and the people in it is not easy for me, neither is not having a routine or a plan. In Bali I started to realise that it’s ok not to have a plan and that things don’t fall apart when you go with the flow. It has been eye opening and wonderful to know that it’s possible and that I can actually even do a trip like this, finding happiness in such simple things. Towards the end of my trip to Bali I found this wonderful sense of calm, contentment and life free from worry which really meant a lot to me, as these are not emotions I often experience at home, and made it especially difficult to leave. 

What next 

I wish I could say I was full of excitement when I boarded my first flight for Vietnam but to be honest, I had a total wobble during my journey over via Kuala Lumpur. I had really really loved Bali, as you can tell, and at that point, felt so rested and so content that I just wanted to go home full of those emotions. I wasn’t prepared for a fresh wave of culture shock and had been warned that Vietnam is a more challenging place to travel (mainly because of its size and the sheer amount to do and see) and that a non box ticker like me might find it difficult to adjust to after slow paced Bali. 

During this wobble, I texted Julia from the airport: ‘Ok, would it really be so bad if I just ended my trip here, came home now and spent the next two months on your sofa cuddling Daisy?’ (Daisy is the dog and her face is so cute it makes me cry). ‘You can’t do that. Off you pop to Vietnam Muhr,’ she replied. And so off I went.