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! 


KOTO 
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.

A sense of belonging in Ubud – part two 

There is SO MUCH to do in and around Ubud. I actually found it quite overwhelming initially, because as per my previous post on not being a box ticker, Iwas torn between doing the sights and just wandering. Luckily, I had enough time to do almost everything I wanted. 


Here’s a bit of a breakdown on what I got up to:

Eat, walk, shop

Ubud is the perfect place to wander, eat great food (see previous post) and shop. 


The famous Ubud art market is everything you want an Asian market to be; colourful and chaotic. It’s a a great place to haggle – I got a tan real leather backpack for the equivalent of £20. I also bought two ‘silver’ rings which have sadly tarnished, so I recommend that people rather go to a proper shop and ask to see hallmarks when parting with money for jewellery. Beyond the market, there are so many gorgeous shops in Ubud selling beautiful clothing, jewellery and crafts. I had to exercise restraint on a daily basis! I also bought myself a shiva enscribed necklace from Yin Jewellery, which specialises in spiritual and chakra balancing jewellery. There are also some really wonderful bookshops/second hand bookshops to while away an afternoon in, and art galleries to peruse – the area is known for its artists. 

I spent hours wandering up and down its streets, giving myself regular breaks to sit and read and drink tea, which I now just fully accept is just my all time favourite past time wherever I am in the world (except possibly drinking gin). 


Periuk Cookery Class

Mom and Dad paid for me to do a cookery class and have a spa day as an early Christmas gift (thanks mom and dad, you da best) and on recommendation from a friend, I chose Periuk cookery class. I had the most incredible day! 

The cookery school is at the back of a family compound and has lovely jungle and rice terrace views. After being picked up, we were taken to a local food market in a small village on the outskirts of Ubud where we saw locals selling their wares and had different types of exotic fruit and veg explained to us. 


We were then taken to the rice paddies and told how rice is harvested, before being taken to the family home and shown how they make their own coconut oil. 


Then came the cooking! Now, all of you will know I’m not particularly proficient in the kitchen and rather a real fan of three for £10 M&S ready meals, which is ironic given the fact my parents are both amazing chefs who refuse to own a microwave. Both of my sisters can cook too, it’s really just me who doesn’t particularly enjoy cooking or have a flair for it. 

However I loved every minute of this experience. We made everything from scratch, crushing the peanuts for our sate and chillies for our sambal. 


Our host explained it and demonstrated every step, so even for a novice like me this was fairly straightforward! The food was absolutely to DIE for! We made steamed tuna in banana leaf, chicken and coconut milk curry, sticky tempe, Balinese vegetable salad, chicken sate, steamed rice and coconut pancakes. 

I have a recipe card and now like to think I’ll cook for family when I’m back at home (although lesbehonest, will probs need Julia to be my sous). 


Campuhan ridge walk 

I decided to do the soft hike along the Campuhan Ridge Walk the morning of my spa day. It was a beautiful but hot day so I got started early. Of course, I got lost and ended up walking about 20 minutes in the wrong direction down an increasingly narrow river path. In hindsight I probably should have realised sooner that this was not a ridge of any description. 

I came around a bend in the river, starting to wonder where on earth I was, when I was extremely surprised to find a stark bollock naked man, who was easily 90, standing knee deep in the river. In my state of slightly lost panic I didn’t really register he was naked fully until I had started asking him for directions in the form of: “ME LOST. CAMPUHAN?”. Then, dear readers, he thrust his manhood in the direction opposite me saying CAMPUHAN CAMPUHAN repeatedly while laughing cheerily. Yes, I was given directions via the medium of penis because WHO NEEDS A COMPASS anyway. I wasn’t vaguely threatened by this little old naked man but only when I walked away in a hurry did the ridiculousness of what had just happened hit me. It’s a sight I believe I will never fully unsee and of course I have had to wonder whether this is all part of a ploy for a pervy old man to get his kicks or whether he was just having a wash and his penis directions were genuine.

Once I was on the right path and only faced with non naked people, I found the hike really enjoyable (but very sweaty). I took my time and the whole walk took me about two hours. The views from the ridge are beautiful! 



Karsa Spa

At the end of the ridge walk lies Karsa Spa, and it is an actual dream. I had a perfect day there courtesy of my parents, quite possibly my favourite of my trip so far. 

It’s no secret that while I really don’t mind slumming it I do love a bit of a pamper, and this was such a luxury from start to finish – especially following my morning hike! The surroundings provide utter peace and tranquility and every tiny detail had been thought of. 


I had a day spa package which included a whole host of amazing treatments using natural, organic products and a focus on balancing the body and spirit – a facial, a chakra tuning reiki, a full body massage, a hair wash, a mani pedi and, my favourite, a Balinese body scrub and bath in essential oils and rose petals. THE DREAM! 

Visit http://www.karsaspa.com if you’re ever in Bali and want to visit the most amazing spa ever 😊

Telegelang rice terraces and Tenegunan Waterfall

These are a bit of an iconic must see while in Bali. Jenn and I visited as part of a  I thought they were jaw droppingly beautiful, but others at my hostel said they felt underwhelmed by them (I suspect those people have seen too many rice paddies in their time). We got there early to avoid the midday crowds, climbed down to the bottom and back up again – but the views from the top are by far the most amazing. 


I was less enthralled by Tenegunan Waterfall down the road. The waterfall itself and its jungle surrounds are actually really beautiful but the whole entry area is full of tacky souvenir shops which spoils the nature vibes somewhat. That being said, I took the opportunity for a dip (and a 20 photo photo shoot under the waterfall, obvs. Thanks Jenn!) 



Paradiso 

I LOVE this concept – a vegan cinema with great films and great food just off Jl Hanoman. For 50,000 IDR you get entry to a film night and can also redeem that cost towards a vegan meal while watching the film – we watched Caramel, a Lebanese chick flick which I actually really enjoyed, and i ate delicious lemongrass and coconut tofu with greens and steamed rice. 

Yoga 

When in Ubud, yoga is a must – it’s really the yoga capital of Bali and many come here just for that. 

I didn’t do as much yoga as I’d planned in Ubud as, unlike Canggu, I had a lot of other things I wanted to spend my time doing, but did enjoy a few visits to the infamous Yoga Barn (which is lovely) – and used a class pass during my last weekend at Gentle Flow, Restorative and Kundalini classes. I also went to a soft evening flow class at Radiantly Alive, which I think I actually preferred as a yoga studio as it was smaller class sizes and I felt less intimidated (seriously the yogis at Yoga Barn are like super human yogis, I’ve never seen such beautiful bodies!). 

A visit from Ness 

Ness and I spent three days in Ubud and two in Uluwatu. I can’t even express how much I loved and valued her company, to be with someone who truly knows and gets me and is one of life’s special people for me meant the world. We swam in our huge pool, talked each other to death, cafe hopped and walked rice paddies (and did more shopping). It was all perfect, thank you for coming to see me Ness 😘 – I’ll blog about Uluwatu on my next post! 

Reflections on Ubud
There aren’t many places in the world I have found myself internally plotting how I can give up my life, up sticks and move there. Apart from New York, and what a contrast this is! 


Yes, in many ways it has become pseudo spiritual and yogi but I’m not sure that outweighs the authenticity of the spirituality of the place. It feels like somewhere that, As well as sightseeing, people visit to live their best lives not just ‘be on holiday’. It is refreshing and full of good energy, it is Bali’s heartbeat and the Balinese culture embodied, the people are truly wonderful, the surrounding nature is gorgeous. I could go on! I felt truly relaxed into myself in Ubud and found it difficult to leave. 

Next post – Uluwatu, a day in Seminyak and on to Vietnam! 

A sense of belonging in Ubud (part one)

This is the first of two posts dedicated to my time in Ubud, which I totally adored.


But first, a weekend in Canggu 

Back on the mainland, I first spent a weekend in Canggu. This time I stayed in a dream, bed bug free hostel that was basically a luxury villa. The guy who owns Waterborn jacked in his corporate life to run a hostel in Bali and he seriously has it down a T – it’s beautiful, clean and oh so comfortable. 

Waterborn Hostel

In Canggu I spent my days lazing by the pool and went back to Serenity for a yoga class, feeling a little rusty after not having done any yoga since Lombok. I met Radana, a friend from home in Bali with her boyfriend on holiday, for a dreamy lunch at the Lawn. It was pricey by backpacker standards but they did amazing frozen rose cocktails and had dream beach views. 


I also met some really wonderful people at Waterborn (hiiii Hanna and Lisa 😘) the same kinds of kindred spirit travellers I had met at Captain Coconuts, and had some GREAT dinners and drinks (I covered Canggu food in a previous post but check out Echo Beach fish barbecue and, if you’re dying for a “real” coffee like I was, get yourself to trendy café Crate).


I also got up at 5am one morning to watch the sunrise and it was spectacular, just us and local fisherman (and a couple of keen morning runners) on the beach. 


Being back in Canggu felt super chilled and staying at Waterborn felt like such a luxury. I could quite happily have spent the entire final fortnight of my trip there  but Ubud was waiting!

Initial impressions of Ubud 

I deliberately saved Ubud til last because I had a feeling I’d fall in love with it. Not only is it Eat Pray Love brought to life, but everything about it that I’d read appealed. Set amidst the lush jungle, with waterfalls and rice terraces and countryside cookery schools and coffee plantations only a 10 minutes drive away, and a busy, buzzy centre packed with art galleries and craft shops and yoga schools and spas and amazing restaurants – it sounded like utter perfection.

Putu, my very first Bali driver, picked me up from Canggu and took me to Ubud. I’m going to be honest and say that my heart sank a little when we first drove into Ubud and I was confronted with crazy busy roads, traffic and what seemed to be endless crowds of people. Momentarily, it felt like the magic I had conjured up in my own mind was nowhere to be seen. This can’t be it, I reasoned to myself. And luckily, I was right. 

Yes, Ubud is busy and yes, tourists visit in their throngs (and I am proudly one of them; it always amuses me when backpackers begrudge a place for being touristy when there is clearly a reason they have visited that very place). That scene in Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts cycles along a deserted, leafy, pedestrianised street to Wayan’s shop? Not sure where it was filmed but it sure as hell wasn’t central Ubud. Ubud’s centre is full of vertical, busy roads with a lot of traffic and a lot of people and a LOT of taxi touts – “TAXI” shouts one man, “no thank you” I sweetly reply, “TAXI” shouts the man sitting next to him as if his cry of taxi would somehow appeal more, “no thankyou” I reply, “TAXI” cries the man a metre further a long… and so the saga continues, everywhere you walk).

 But you know what, once I had gotten used to dodging mopeds and rebutting taxi offers, none of this actually bothered me in the end. Hello, this is Asia – and if I can’t handle Ubud then I sure as hell won’t be able to handle Hanoi. What I quickly learned is that tranquility is everywhere in Ubud. You only need to step away down a side street or through an ornate doorway and you will find temple enclosures, beautiful peaceful gardens and fountains with trickling water. You could spend an entire afternoon peacefully browsing in one of Bali’s art galleries or bookshops – and sometimes, I did. Walk ten minutes along the main road and you will find yourself in peaceful rice paddies as far as the eye can see, with not so much the beep of a moped horn. Incense and offerings are at every turn and while I was there, the Hindu festival and public holiday Galungan was celebrated so ornate decorations adorned the streets, making even the busiest of roads beautiful. 


So, you see where this is going. Within 48 hours I had fallen head over heels for Ubud, and that’s why I stayed there the best part of two weeks.

NB: I did a lot of stuff in in Ubud and have a lot to say, a lot of recommendations and a lot of reflections, so I’m going to split this into two posts. First I’ll cover off where I stayed and what I ate , then I’ll cover off the amazing things i got up to in post two. 

My digs 

I stayed in three different places in Ubud.

Inn Between Hostel

I generally liked this place because Jenn was staying there and I met a couple of cool down to earth Brits. It was really well located and situated down a lovely tree lined path – it had a pretty traditional Balinese exterior, pool and a banana pancake breakfast from the renowned Mama’s Warung was a mere 20,000IDR (£1.20). The room itself was the cheapest I stayed in in Bali, at the equivalent of only £5 a night. However, while the room was clean, it was cramped and the bathroom was damp and smelly. I found myself feeling a bit hostelled out in Ubud, I think sometimes the introvert in me just wants to be alone – fully alone – and that can be difficult in a tiny room. I also find not being able to unpack even some of my things a bit of a pain in the arse. But while I didn’t fully love my stay, I’d certain recommend staying here overall for budget central Ubud accommodation with a pool.

Uma Capung Mas Villa and Cottages
Ness, one of my oldest and best friends in the whole world now living in Brisbane, came out to see me for 5 days and it was amazing (more on that next post). We ventured out of town in search of more tranquil accommodation and stayed in the beautiful Uma Capung Mas Villa – we felt like the only people staying there and most days had the huge infinity pool overlooking jungle trees to ourselves. Wayan, our host, was an absolute delight. Our room, at £27 a night, was spacious and clean but the highlight was breakfast on the terrace overlooking the rice paddies (and drinking an Aussie red wine that Ness kindly brought over me overlooking the same view at sunset)! 

Bale Bali House 

I spent my last three days here and it was utterly delightful. My favourite type of Balinese accommodation is the traditional homestay, I just love seeing families going about their daily lives. This one was so so pretty, and as previously it was a luxury having my own room and bathroom and little terrace area even if it was at the steeper end of my budget (£14 a night). It was only 5/10 minutes walk from my two favourite Ubud streets Jl Hanoman and Jl Gootama (GREAT name).  

Food in Ubud 

Ok, I don’t even know where to start with this because food in Ubud is utterly brilliant. I’ve tried to narrow it down to my favourites:

Cafes 

Clear Cafe has to be seen to be believed. It is utterly beautiful. I totally fell in love with it and ate there a few times for brunch, always spending hours and hours there – their Buddha Bowl with grilled veg avocado and tofu and their jamu juice was excellent.

Cafe Pomegranate and Sari Organic are both bohemian cafes a short wander off the main road and through the rice fields – Ness introduced me to them as she’d been with her family in May. We only had drinks and nibbles at the former and a cup of excellent Balinese tea at the latter but it’s worth going for the views and tranquility (and lack of wifi!) alone. 

Warungs 

Ubud has no shortage of really good, cheap warungs and traditional restaurants. Mamas Warung do great pork belly and rice (and if you’re lucky you get to meet the delightful Mama herself!), while I sampled my cheapest and most delicious Mie Goreng for 20,000 at Don Biu Warung. Try Hongalia for amazing home made egg noodle and dumpling soup and the popular restaurant Bebek Bengil, where you must order their world famous a crispy roast duck, steamed rice, vegetables and sambal. I’m going to be controversial and say I’ve has better duck in Chinatown in London but it’s still totally worth a visit.

Restaurants (and an Eat Pray Love encounter) 

Jenn and I were craving a pizza so went to Buonasera on Jl Gootama. The pizzas were REALLY good – think huge woodfired pizzas piled high with speck, salty ricotta and rocket – but what really made the visit was the company. We met Pedro at Buonasera, a Brazilian (we guessed in his sixties) who had been travelling for 40 years for his import export trade. He was the most fascinatingly interesting man I think I’ve ever met. We talked about how Ubud had changed since Eat Pray Love, although he hasn’t read the book or watched the film, he said. ‘I was shocked when Jose first said it was him in the movie’ he remarked flippantly. Woah woah woah, Jose is the real name of Felipe, THE Brazilian who helps Liz keep her balance in Bali at the end of the book. Turns out Pedro and Jose/Felipe were old friends, mainly from being in the same trade and being part of the same expat community in Ubud. I tried to keep it cool but naturally ended up grilling him and loved how totally nonplussed and non braggy he was – almost bemused by my fascination and interest. 
Other higher priced, more western eateries I enjoyed I visited with my friend Lisa from Canggu were ambient eatery Kismet, who had a huge cocktail menu, and Watercress, where we ate insane tuna sashimi. I thoroughly recommend both but neither are for the budget traveler! 

Next on the blog: a cookery course, a dream spa day and an unexpected naked man…!

A tale of two islands, part two – Gili Trawangan

The final leg of my Bali and Lombok island hopping adventure took me a short trip across the sea from Gili Air to Gili Trawangan. The biggest of the archipelago of three Gilis, Gili T has made a name for itself as the livelier island and the place backpackers go to party (over the course of my 5 days there I saw a very beautiful island that is far from ‘just a party island’, more on that later).


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