Italy: Cinque Terre, Massa and Lake Maggiore

For our July trip we decided to head to Italy to visit my Dad. Massa had transformed from the quiet beachside town that we had visited in February to a bustling seaside resort! The first day was spent on the beach relaxing, soaking up the sun and enjoying some Italian food and wine.

The following day, armed with our backpacks, we set off on the train to walk between the coastal fishing villages of Cinque Terre. We got the train from Massa to La Spezia, then a bus to Portovenere to start our walk. Our first stop was to be the town of Riomaggiore, which was five hours walk from the start point. The views were absolutely spectacular along the way, with large parts of the walk being along the coastline and there were hardly any tourists on this stretch. Unfortunately the paths aren’t well labelled, so we somehow ended up following coloured arrows down a “short- cut”, which was pretty much a vertical slope downwards that we slid and skidded down before having to crawl up the other side on our hands and knees! 


After five hours of walking in the heat we finally made it to the first village of Riomaggiore. By this time it was quite late in the afternoon and we were keen to continue onto the next village of Manarola where we had booked our accommodation. The Italian tourist board however, had usefully forgotten to mention on our map or in the tourist office that the cliff side walk connecting Manarola to the villages either side had eroded away years ago. This left us with the option of climbing back up the mountain we had just walked down for a further two and a half hour walk or getting the train. Having already walked 33,000 steps and climbed the equivalent of 255 storeys, we chose the latter! We arrived in Manarola and at our lovely Guesthouse “Da Paulin”. We got some beers and olives at the local deli and enjoyed relaxing by the harbour, enjoying the beautiful sunset over the colourful village. 


The following morning we got up early to start the next leg of our walk. This took us via the cliff top village of Corniglia to Vernazza where we had booked to stay the night at La Perla Della 5 terre. The stretch between Corniglia and Vernazza was packed with people, and bus loads of tourists walking this part. Unfortunately the number of people somewhat ruined the tranquility of the walk, but it was enjoyable all the same. After relaxing on our balcony, we headed to the harbour for some drinks and dinner.


Our final days walk was a mere two and a half hours to Monterosso al Mare. The town is split into an old part and a newer part with a tunnel connecting the two. After buying a sun umbrella, we headed to the free beach of Fegina and lazed on the beach enjoying the sea, the view of the huge statue of Neptune and resting our legs. After an enjoyable day, we hopped on the train back to Massa.


The following weekend, we went on a road trip to Lake Maggiore and over the border into Switzerland to visit my Dad’s aunt and cousin. The lake sits on the south side of the Alps and is surrounded by beautiful green mountains. We had an enjoyable couple of days catching up with family, eating dinner while being serenaded by acts at the Moon and Stars festival in Locarno and strolling around the lake edge.



We had a fantastic ten day trip and managed to combine the perfect amount of travelling and activity with relaxing beach days in between. A beautiful part of the world to visit.

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Rwanda and Uganda: Gorilla Trekking and safari

We found it a tough choice on where to go for our June trip away. Phil’s brother had given me the Lonely Planet book “Where to go when”, and this inspired my desire to see Gorilla in the wild and May/June was considered a good time to go. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realised the accompanying price tag. So after much “umming and ahhing”, and parting with an eye watering amount of cash, we took the plunge and booked our last minute tour of Rwanda and Uganda with Gorilla Trek Africa.

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We flew with Ethiopian airlines, which was cheap but comfortable and after a stop over in Addis Ababa we arrived in Kigali to start our adventure and what would become the trip of a lifetime. Our first morning was depressingly spent in the brilliant genocide museum – a sobering yet thoroughly worthwhile experience.

A summary of the Rwandan Genocide 

In Rwanda there are two main groups of people, the Hutu and the Tutsi. These groups were present prior to the colonial era, but these distinctions were institutionalised by the Belgians when they took over Rwanda in 1933. Identity cards were issued that categorised people according to their ethnic group (Hutu or Tutsi). Despite the Tutsi people being only a small part of the population, the Belgians gave them all the leadership roles, and this naturally led to animosity between the two ethnic groups. By the 1950s – 1960s, the Hutu people had demanded and won independence from Belgium, leading to violence towards the Tutsi and large scale refugee movements of the Tutsi people into neighbouring countries.

In 1988 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was founded in Uganda, with the aim of repatriating exiled Rwandans and reforming a government that would share power between the Hutu and Tutsi people. Attacks on Rwanda and rife propaganda ensued. In 1993, the Organisation of African Unity along with the governments in the region signed the Arusha peace agreement, which appeared to bring an end to the conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people. However, with delays in implementation, human rights violations became widespread and the security situation again deteriorated. Extremist Hutus campaigned to exterminate Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

In April 1994, the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash caused by a rocket attack, and this led to weeks of systematic massacres. Soldiers, police and militia executed prominent Tutsi and Hutu military to ensure they would not assume control of the country. Road blockades were set up and anyone with Tutsi on their identity cards were killed. These forces recruited Hutu civilians to arm themselves with machetes and make shift weapons and instructed them to rape, maim and kill their Tutsi neighbours. An estimated 250,000 women were raped, and 800,000 people were massacred. The RPF managed to seize control of the country and the genocide ended in July. The UN and western countries stood by during this horrific genocide and the French government were accused of allegedly supporting the Hutu government after the genocide had begun. The developed world have a lot of answer for.

Rwanda is a country in recovery after a horrific recent history – HIV spiked from the use of rape as a weapon of war, many children were orphaned, infrastructure was destroyed and depopulation crippled the economy. The RPF dominated government led to many Hutus fleeing the country and grouping in refugee camps along the Rwandan borders. This has led to military incursions led by the RPF government into neighbouring countries and the first and second Congo wars. Through international aid and strong leadership the economy is now booming, communities are building a liveable peace and there is hope for a better future.

After that somewhat depressing piece of history, the rest of the blog post is full of animal photos and spectacular views!

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Our guide and driver Arthur drove us from the capital Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park, where we stayed at the Mountain Gorilla View Lodge and were welcomed with some local entertainment!

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The journey through the countryside was phenomenal, lush vegetation, mountainous landscapes and tarmaced roads (something which we would come to miss when we reached Uganda!). The French called Rwanda ” The land of a thousand Hills” and it is here in the Volcanoes National Park that golden monkeys and mountain gorilla reside.

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Unfortunately, due to Rwanda increasing the price of their Gorilla permits to a whopping $1500 per person just before we arrived, we amended our itinerary to see Gorilla in Uganda, so instead used our time at the Volcanoes National Park to trek the even more endangered golden monkeys. We were very fortunate to be placed in a small group of Yale students led by the eminent Amy Vedder, (an ecologist and primatologist whom helped to create Gorilla tourism in Rwanda). We all set off with a guide on our trek into a bamboo forest, dodging elephant dung and trying to ensure we didn’t get the infamous “monkey golden shower”! The golden monkey is on the ICUN Red List of endangered species, so it was a real privilege to get to watch and follow these cheeky monkeys eat their way across the forest!

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After our walk, our short time in Rwanda was already over, and we crossed the border into neighbouring Uganda and drove to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for our first night in the fantastic Bakiga eco lodge. In the morning,  we gathered at the park head quarters for our briefing – this was it, the main purpose of our trip, we were trekking to see the gorilla! Excitement does not even come close to describing how I felt that morning and the experience did not disappoint. We were at the park on the day the permit prices increased (from $450 to $600pp), which incredibly meant that we only had three of us in our trekking group! We paid for two porters who carried our back packs, which proved useful later as mine stopped me sliding halfway down a hill and helped me through the thorn bushes, but wasn’t strictly necessary. However, it is nice to know you are supporting the local community, so for this reason alone I would recommend paying for one. Our group consisted of a guide and an armed guard at the front and back of the group to scare away any wild elephant or gorilla. Prior to us leaving the headquarters, a tracking team had already set off to try to locate one of the habituated gorilla families for us to trek to.  The initial walk was on a well trodden path, but before long we were climbing through nettles and thorns down a steep hillside. Radio contact had ceased to be a useful means of identifying the trackers location and instead bird noises were used to and fro to try to help determine the right location to walk in. It wasn’t long before our guide excitedly whispered “there!”. Our first glimpse of a young blackback male gorilla strolling down the hill to the left of us. After following him to the valley below, we found the rest of the Bitukura group; silverbacks, females and babies all enjoying a spot of lunch.

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Words cannot describe the feeling of awe at being so close to these magnificent creatures. This habituated family were so at ease with our presence that they would stroll casually past us to get to a particularly tasty leaf and one of the babies even tumbled down the hill into Phil! We spent just over an hour watching and admiring these mesmerising creatures and learning their unique habits. Was the experience expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? It was truly a once in a lifetime, unforgettable experience and I will never forget the feeling of staring into the eyes of these amazing animals.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon being told about the local community projects; visiting a local orphanage (and getting serenaded for an uncomfortably long time by the children) and visiting a local Pygmy tribe who demonstrated their traditional way of life, (they have had to move from living in the forest to living in the village due to government conservation measures to preserve the gorilla habitat).

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The following day we set off to the Queen Elizabeth National Park and stopped en route at Ishasha to view tree climbing lions! After a disappointing start to the game drive we finally found a heavily pregnant female sleeping in a tree and posing beautifully for us!

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After lunch at our lodge, (Mweya Safari Lodge which had fantastic views), we took a boat cruise along the Kazinga channel where we saw herds of hippo, water buffalo, crocodiles and lots of different birds. In the evening we watched buffalo drinking from the river below and even had a water hog right outside our bedroom window!

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After breakfast the following day, we set off on an early morning game drive, managing to see lots of different types of antelope, wallowing hippo, warthog, a herd of elephant, monkeys and birds. We then transferred to Kibale and the Crater safari lodge which had stunning views and a lovely balcony!

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We awoke early the following day for chimpanzee trekking! We were placed in a group of six and begun our pleasant stroll through the forest, listening to the notorious chimpanzee screams and trying to follow the groups. Our guide seemed to be getting a little frustrated at one point, as we seemed to be passing between two groups and not getting close to either of them. However, Phil soon noticed that we had a straggler at the back of our line, and a rather handsome alpha male chimp had been following us! He quickly proceeded to pull some modelling poses – he clearly loved the camera! A nearby mother and baby were a little more shy and kept to the trees while the male continued to flaunt himself for us tourists!

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After a picnic lunch we went to a local wetland area for a beautiful guided walk, where we caught glimpses of lots of different birds and monkeys. It was scorching hot at this point, so most of the animals were hiding away, but we really enjoyed our afternoon stroll and learning about the different species.

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The following day we set off to our final National Park – Murchinson Falls, where we stayed at the Paraa Safari Lodge. Here we got to see even more elephant, hippo, antelope, water buffalo, warthogs, birds and monkey, stalk a male lion in our Safari jeep, see loads of giraffe and catch a glimpse of a leopard! We took a small boat to the base of the impressive waterfalls, where the Nile river is forced through a tiny gap in the rocks. Along the way there was plenty of wildlife, including a swimming male elephant!

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The final leg of our journey was to the Ugandan capital Kampala. En route we stopped at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where we took a short walk to find some rhino! We managed to see two different female rhinos with their calves and followed them until they escaped the sun by sleeping in the shade of the bushes. Uganda does not have any rhino in any of the major reserves, but the plan at the sanctuary is to release them into the larger reserves once they have sufficient numbers.

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We stayed at the lovely Le Petit Village in Kampala and enjoyed the delicious food at their restaurant on our last night. Our final day was spent on a city tour visiting the Namugongo Catholic shrine, the Uganda Museum and the Bahai temple before our final local lunch and trip to the airport.

Our time in Rwanda and Uganda was an absolute whirlwind and our itinerary was extremely action packed, but even the long drives were amazing with phenomenal views. This was a once in a lifetime holiday where I got to fulfil my dream of seeing gorilla in the wild and a whole host of other animals too. I’m so pleased we made the decision to splash out on the holiday of a lifetime.

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Vietnam: Part 4

The final leg of our journey was to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as the government prefer everyone to call it. From Mui Ne, we got a taxi to the nearby train station of Phan Thiet. The taxis in Mui Ne seem more expensive than the rest of the country and the half an hour journey cost us 200000D. Our accommodation had booked us our train tickets for 150000D each and the journey to Saigon was about four hours. Our carriage was actually quite comfortable, air conditioned and we had some good views along the way. Once in Saigon we took a taxi to our accommodation Ailen Garden Hotel; basic and without breakfast, but set down a quiet side street around the corner from the main restaurant and bar area of District 1. Saigon has lots of amazing places to eat at, a few of our favourites being: Bun cha, Saigon Bagel, Royal Saigon Restaurant, Hum Vegetarian Lounge and restaurant, the ABC bakery for breakfast and the hungry pig for breakfast (English builders tea and a fry up!). 


Before arriving in Saigon we had already booked a tour for the following day to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels with our guide Tam. This cost $25 each for a private tour, which was pricey, but after our disasterous group experience earlier in the trip we felt it was worth it! The tunnels are a huge network located just outside Saigon and are part of a much larger network that underlie lots of the country. They were used by Viet Cong soldiers in their resistance to American forces as hiding places during armed combat, living quarters, communication and supply routes. The tunnels are very claustrophobic and it is amazing to think people spent days living in this tiny cramped labyrinth. After an initial propaganda style video about the war, Tam took us around the rest of the site, explaining the war, the boobytraps used against American soldiers and the general life of the local people during this time.


Following our Cu Chi Tunnel tour, we headed to the war museum in Saigon for the afternoon. It was difficult to differentiate propaganda from the truth, but really interesting to see history from the Vietnamese governments viewpoint. The museum had horrific images of agent orange victims, so isn’t for the faint hearted

For anyone who needs a summary of the Vietnam War see below….

Brief history of the Vietnam war

In the late 1800s France took control of Vietnam. In the 1900s, dislike for the French governance emerged and Ho Chi Minh, a prominent communist leader, led large scale nationalist movements through a militant nationalist organisation called the Viet Minh. During Wold War II, when France was under Nazi occupation, it lost its foothold over Vietnam and the Japanese took control of the country. The Viet Minh resisted the Japanese and at the end of WWII when Japan surrendered, Ho Chi Minh’s forces took hold of Hanoi (in northern Vietnam) and declared Vietnam to be an independent country. However, France refused to recognise this, and returned to Vietnam driving Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces into the north of the country. Ho Chi Minh asked the U.S for help, however the U.S distrusted communism (they were involved in the cold war with the communist USSR at the time), and so decided to aid the French instead. Fighting between the French and Ho’s forces continued until a peace settlement was sought and Vietnam was divided into the communist North and South Vietnam (under a French backed emporer), with a demilitarised zone between. 

The U.S believed that communist North Vietnam would trigger the whole of SE Asia to fall to communism and so offered their support to the anti-communist politician Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem took control of South Vietnam and subsequently cancelled the scheduled elections. Diem’s regime was unpopular and corrupt but the U.S continued to support him for fear of the communists taking over South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh started a resistance against Diem’s regime in the south known as the Viet Cong. The U.S president JFK backed a coup to overthrow Diem, and installed a new equally as corrupt leader. The next U.S president Lyndon B. Johnson pledged to continue JFK’s work in Vietnam but not to get too involved. However, North Vietnamese forces allegedly attacked U.S Navy ships and the U.S retaliated by starting bombing campaigns and deploying troops to the area.  

The Viet Cong’s guerrilla tactics and sparsely dispersed population left the U.S with few bombing targets, so they used chemical weapons such as Agent Orange to try to make headway. In 1968, the Viet Cong and the Northern Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive – a campaign that attacked South Vietnamese cities and U.S targets all at once. Although the U.S army resisted these advances, the media portrayed the event as a defeat and public morale for the war dropped. Anti war protests took place across the U.S. President Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon promised to slowly withdraw U.S troops from Vietnam but at the same time went behind the U.S congress and authorised bombing of Viet Cong sites in Cambodia and Laos. Political pressure from these illegal actions led to the formation of a cease fire in 1973 and the withdrawal of U.S military personnel. The U.S government continued to provide financial support to the South Vietnamese army, but this soon dwindled and in April 1975 the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese who reunited the whole country under Communist rule. 

Following the reunification, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese were sent to languish in reeducation camps, children of South Vietnamese fighters were prevented from attending the best colleges or getting the good jobs. In Vietnam today, we found no one willing to discuss what happened after the reunification of the country, one can only assume for fear of the repercussions from the government.

We wanted to visit the Mekong Delta whilst in Vietnam, but time was fast running out and we had read that unless you stay overnight, the day bus trips are a bit of a disappointment and a tourist trap. So instead we decided to go on a day bike tour of the Mekong delta with Sinhbalo adventure travel – our trip was to Cai Be on a small group tour (8 people). We left in the morning and were driven to our starting point from where we cycled through villages and alongside fruit orchards, our guide stopping intermittently to give us various facts. We arrived at the river and boarded a boat to journey through the floating market. Most trading had stopped, but we could still see how people live and the boats laden with various goods. After cruising through the market we went to another island to start cycling again. We had an absolutely beautiful bike ride through different communities and along narrow river paths and over bridges, which for a novice cyclist like me was a little dicey! En route we had a few stops to try some local fruits, visit a coconut candy factory and a puffed rice factory and got to learn how they are made and have some tasters! Our lunch stop was right on the river in a stilt building and was a simple but delicious meal.  Our bike ride continued until we reached the boat to take us back to Cai Be and from there we transferred back to Saigon. It was a fantastic day out, and a way of avoiding the tourist crowds around the Mekong – I would definitely recommend this trip.


Our final days in Saigon were spent exploring the sites of the city; the Saigon opera house, the Central post office, Ho Chi Minh square, Notre dame square,Nguyen Hue street and the amazing cafe apartment block (a must visit – each flat has been turned into a small shop/cafe). We visited numerous markets, ate our way around the city and visited the Bitexco financial tower viewing deck on our last night. We had a great last couple of days in Saigon and has some amazing food in this city!

Vietnam:Part 3

To save time, we took another internal flight from Danang airport (near Hoi An) to Dalat. We had read mixed reviews about Dalat, but we had a fantastic couple of days and would recommend a trip. We had booked to stay in Lavender Tim which has great rooms at a cheap price – the only down side being that they don’t serve breakfast. The owners were very helpful, and after arriving late morning, they helped us maximise our time in Dalat by booking us onto an Easy Rider motorbike tour for the remainder of the day. The cost was $30 each including lunch and the tour ended up being one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam. It was a beautifully sunny day and the scenery on the tour was breathtaking. 


We stopped off at the Linh Phuoc Pagoda, a flower farm (Dalat has plenty of these), a silk factory (where our guide explained the process from start to finish which was fascinating),  the bottom of a hill which we walked up to get panoramic views of the area, the happy Buddha temple, the Elephant waterfalls, a minority village, a weasel coffee farm, (fantastic views but not so wonderful coffee!), a place making rice Vodka, the old train station in Dalat and other European style city buildings and scenic stops along the way.


 Our drivers imparted lots of useful information, including: how to escape from a cobra by taking your top off and throwing it in the snakes direction, how to escape from a python by putting your arms straight in the air as it wraps around you, waiting for the tail to come near your mouth then biting hard and it will release you, and drinking snake blood to cure back ache! My driver also recounted stories of his time hiding out in the forest during the Vietnam war, although interestingly did not discuss at all what happened once the Americans pulled out and the northern Vietnam forces took over. There are clearly some things that people are too afraid to openly discuss.



The following day we had booked to go canyoning with a company called Viet Challenge. It was $45 each including lunch and a pick up and drop off service to Datania Falls. I was nervous to say the least! There were probably about 18 people in our group (although we had been told there would be a maximum of 12) and after a brief explanation we set about abseiling down our first sheer rock face! The trip involved 10km of adventure activities set within a beautiful pine forest. Our first abseil was down a dry 18m cliff, then we walked and waded through water to a natural water slide area where the solo slide was fine, but the partnered slide with Phil ended up with me bashing my lower back and spending the rest of the day feeling bruised and battered!  Our next stop was abseiling down a cliff with pouring water, then came a leap of faith into a pool below. I just did the 7 metre free fall, but Phil went back up and did the 11 metre jump too! At this point, I did start to become quite cold as it was an overcast day, so I would recommend wearing a rash vest under the wetsuit top they give you. Our final horrendous task was the aptly named “washing machine”. Thankfully I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for – essentially you abseiled down a cliff face for a couple of metres until the rock caved inwards and you could no longer climb down, then you lowered yourself into a powerful waterfall, got tossed and turned and spat out like a drowned rat at the bottom – the closet feeling to drowning I’ve ever had! After a lunch stop, we hiked back up a huge hill to our transport – an exhausting but exhilarating day!


On our last evening we visited a famous bar called 100 Roofs Cafe. This is quite possibly the most crazy bar I have ever been to. From the outside it appears quite normal, and once you step inside you are asked to buy a drink at the front desk before entering further (trust me you’ll need it- you might never find the bar again). I can only describe the interior as Alice in Wonderland meets Hogwarts. It is essentially a giant maze with bizarre interior decoration, tunnels, small stairways, tucked away seating areas and narrow corridors -basically a hide and seekers heaven! 

The following day we left Dalat and had booked onto the An Phu bus to take us to the coastal town of Mui Ne. Our accommodation booked us the tickets as we didn’t have time to get to the ticket office, (I think it cost us about 100000D) and we were picked up from right outside our accommodation in a perfectly fine air conditioned bus. Having already read that the drive up and down the huge hills was spectacular but a vomit inducing rollercoaster ride, I took a motion sickness tablet that consequently knocked me out for most of the four hour journey! We had booked to stay at the lovely small hotel Shades Resort which was a short walk from the An Phu bus stop and we had a beautiful room with a balcony and sea view. The next couple of days were spent having some well deserved R&R on the beach and by the pool. Mui Ne has a lot of tourists, but this does mean here are plenty of restaurants, bars and live music and for some beach down time it is a great place to go.

Vietnam: Part 2

From Hanoi we flew to Hue on Vietjet airlines. We arrived at our accommodation (Hue Nino Hotel) mid afternoon, and after refreshing ourselves, we wandered along the river to the small night market and explored the surrounding streets. We had been recommended the Mandarin Cafe to eat in – the food was average, but it was fascinating to talk to the owner Mr Cu and look through his amazing catalogue of photography. We even got given some freebie postcards of his work! 

The next morning we had arranged a private car to take us to some of the nearby tombs. The car cost $34 for the day, however we had been told that the $13 per person tours usually involved 50 plus people, so thought that although we didn’t get a guide it was worth the extra dollars to be on our own schedule and set off before the tour buses. Our first taxi stop was the Imperial Tomb of Dong Khanh – an amazing tomb set at the top of a lot of steep steps. A ticket for multiple sites can be purchased at the ticket booth and is cheaper than paying for each site individually. En route to the tomb are huge numbers of statue soldiers and large statue elephants which makes for entertaining photo opportunities. The tomb itself is extremely intricate, with beautiful decorations covering the walls and ceiling. 


Our next stops were to the Tomb of Minh Mang, (set within beautiful symmetrical gardens with lakes) and the Thien Mu Pagoda, (a seven storey pagoda overlooking the Perfume River). The pagoda is also home to the Austin Motor vehicle in which the Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon in 1963 and burned himself to death to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.



Our final stop was to the impressive Hue Imperial City. Hue was once the capital of Vietnam and this UNESCO heritage site consists of a palace and citadel. Unfortunately a lot of the site was destroyed during the Vietnam war and restoration is being carried out to restore this site to its former glory. By this point in the day we were feeling a little templed out and with fast approaching gloomy rain clouds, we did a speedy tour of the site before rejoining our driver for a lift back to our hotel. If you are short on time, one full day in Hue is enough to see the major sites.


The following morning we hired a car and driver to take us from Hue to Hoi An via the Hai Van pass. The weather forecast wasn’t great, so we decided to avoid going by mototaxi and instead have the inside comforts of a car. The car cost $50 for the day and took us on the long drive, stopping at various photo spots, sites and the Marble Mountains along the way. The Hai Van pass was made famous by Top Gear who described it as one of the best coast roads in the world and is renowned for the amazing scenery. At the top of the pass we got out the car along with crowds of other tourists. It was freezing at the top, with gale force winds and we had the entertainment of watching a couple pose for their pre-wedding photo session. Bizarrely this is something we have seen across Asian countries – the bride and groom to be, dressed in their wedding outfits, pose for dramatically staged photographs. Some people even travel to far flung countries with their photographers for these shoots!




On arrival in Hoi An we checked into Qua Cam Tim Homestay. The accommodation was amazing value for money and only a short walk from the Ancient Town. Everyone who has been to Vietnam always raves about Hoi An and I can see why. Yes it is touristic and can be crowded, but it is stunningly beautiful, atmospheric and filled with colourful lanterns, quaint shops and is famed for its wonderful restaurants and tailors. The Ancient town is pedestrianised, so you only run the risk of being mown down by cyclists or delivery motorbikes – a welcome break from the chaos of Hanoi! I think the cost of entering the city was 120000D (approx $6) and allowed entry into various museums and sites anytime during your stay in Hoi An. There are a lot of people online saying there is no need to pay for this and no one checked their ticket, but in all honestly I think for the small fee they charge to maintain the UNESCO heritage site it is a bit tight to avoid paying.


The old town is lovely for a wander and there are lots of tiny little museums to explore. The arts centre puts on a cultural performance in the evening and there are plenty of art galleries and niknak shops to keep you occupied. Every evening local ladies offer boat trips up the canal and try to sell you candle lit lanterns to put on the river. The effect?- a town lit up by the reflection of lanterns on the water and coloured lanterns strung arose the streets – beautiful! 

There are lots of restaurants in Hoi An, and one we had been recommended was called Morning Glory. We had an amazing late lunch there on our first day and so decided to repeat our experience on our last night, however we were extremely disappointed due to poor food and service as the restaurant was too full and the staff could not cope. So do go here, but just don’t go at peak times!

One of our days in Hoi An involved us getting up early and borrowing bikes from our homestay to join a free cycle tour. We booked with Hoi An Free tour, which is run by students. When you arrive at the start of the tour  you give the tour guide 50000D each which is to pay for a return boat ride and  given to different local families along the way as a donation. It was a drizzly day so not many people turned up for the tour. We cycled through town and caught a small boat across the water to a nearby island. Once on the island, we cycled through the country side getting to see farmers at work, a temple and a boat making yard, with our student guide explaining local life and answering our many questions. We also had stops where we received lessons in weaving and rice paper making (each family was given some of the money we had given at the start). It was a fantastic tour and we all had a brilliant time despite the rain! 



The following day we booked a trip to a nearby site called My Son – a cluster of abandoned ruined Hindu temples dedicated to the God Shiva. Our homestay had helped us book on a trip for 10$ each which included pick up, a tour of the ruins, a boat ride with a basic lunch and a return to town. Unfortunately, this was the worse trip we had ever been on! There were about 50 people on the tour, a very dull guide and a stop off on the return boat journey that no one had signed up for to visit several tourist shops to try to make everyone buy souvenirs. The My son ruins themselves are quite impressive, but as the guide wasn’t great, we didn’t learn anything interesting about them. Despite this, the day was enjoyable and we enjoyed the boat ride! 


Hoi An was really good fun, and although a little bit of a tourist trap it is definitely worth a visit!


Vietnam: Part 1

For our March/April trip, we decided to jump on the bandwagon and join everyone in visiting Vietnam. We spent just under three weeks in this magical country, which allowed us a whistle stop tour from the north to the south. If you’ve never seen a map of Vietnam take a look – it’s far bigger then you expect. We used a combination of internal flights, buses, taxis and trains to get around and we came away feeling we had seen and eaten our way across the country. Make sure to get your visa from your local embassy in advance as it saves time at the airport.


Our itinerary was as follows:

Day 1-4 Hanoi

Day 4-5 Halong bay

Day 5 -6 Hanoi 

Day 6 -8 Hue

Day 8 – 11 Hoi An

Day 11-13 Dalat

Day 13- 15 Mui ne

Day 15- 18 Saigon 

Hanoi

Our first taste of Vietnam was in the old city of Hanoi – a chaotic city where just crossing the road is an act of faith! We arrived on an early morning flight, and after leaving our bags at our hotel (we had splashed out and stayed at the Essence Hanoi hotel and Spa in the heart of the old quarter), we went for a wander around Hoam Kiem lake. On the weekends, parts of the old town is pedestrianised so there was plenty of people watching to be done, especially in the morning with Tai Chi classes, ladies with typical Vietnamese conical hats selling goods and children riding around in mini motorised cars. After a visit to a trendy coffee shop, (coffee is bizarrely expensive in Vietnam – similar prices to the U.K), we headed to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. Although the various floors and exhibits became a little repetitive, the museum provided a real insight into everything from women’s involvement in the arts, family life, fashion and their role in the war. After a delicious Papaya salad and some Hanoi Spring rolls at the museum cafe, we headed back to our hotel to crash out for a few hours before heading out for the evening. 


Our hotel was right in the heart of the old quarter and on beer corner! The streets around this area came alive at night and were packed full of low tables and tiny nursery school chairs.  This was a brilliant place to relax with a beer and watch the world go by. Our first meal was at New day restaurant – delicious street food and cheap to match – I’d definitely recommend a visit! Beer in Vietnam is cheaper than bottled water, so expect to drink a lot of it!

Tip: We use the Water-to-go filter bottles when travelling abroad to save having to buy multiple plastic bottles in countries where the tap water is not safe to drink. These are a fantastic investment and one filter in the bottle lasts three months – you just fill the bottle with water from any tap/stream/river and the filter purifies the water for you!

The following morning we decided to wake up early to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Unfortunately, with it being a Sunday, the queue to enter was huge. It took us half an hour of walking to get from near the front of the queue to the back! By all accounts, people have told me that we didn’t miss out on much. We decided to walk to the temple of Literature instead. This was Vietnam’s first national University and is a relatively large complex containing courtyards, gardens, halls and pavilions. It was here that we got our first taste of Vietnamese people practicing their English with us. In any public place in Vietnam, if you sit on a bench, groups of students will approach you to ask to practice English – so be prepared for lots of small talk! After a lunch stop at Quan An Ngon restaurant, we continued on to visit the Hoa Lo Prison – the “Hanoi Hilton”. Originally built by the French in the 1880s to house Vietnamese prisoners, it was intended to house 450 people but up to 2000 were held there in the 1950s! Having seen the oroginal tiny floor plan this must have truely been horrific. After the French left Vietnam In 1954, (having been defeated), the North Vietnamese Army took over and used it to house American Prisoners during the American War (in Vietnam this is what they call the Vietnam war). The prison exhibits largely focus on how the Vietnamese were treated during the French occupation and the museum exhibits are keen to demonstrate how well the American troops were treated during the American war. Like most museums in Vietnam, everything has to be taken with a pinch of salt as it does tend to be bias.


In the evening we went to a water puppet show, which actually was surprisingly entertaining and included not only creepy human puppets, fire breathing dragons, ducks, foxes, birds and fish puppets, but also live traditional music and singing. 


The following morning we explored the side streets around our hotel, dodging motorbikes and rickshaws to get Phil his hair cut at the local barbers. After fending off a small Pug dog that was trying to attack my leg and Phil having a questionable hair cut, we headed back to the hotel for our planned afternoon activity.  We had signed up to a cooking class through Vietnam Awesome Travel Company. We were picked up from our hotel and informed by our guide Nathan that we were the only people in the class that day! We were taken by taxi to the opposite side of the Red river where we were given a brief lesson in Vietnamese, (care with the pronunciation of Pho soup – if said wrong you might accidently order a prositute!). We then cycled to the local market and put our lesson into practice, ordering various ingredients and bartering in Vietnamese. It was fun at first, but seeing as we were the only people in the group it did get quite painfully awkward after a while! After gathering our ingredients we returned to the kitchen venue, ( a house on the Red river), and our cookery lesson begun. We made homemade Hanoi Spring rolls, banana leaf salad, chicken Pho and beef rice paper rolls. It was really good fun and the food tasted amazing – definitely book onto this course and make sure you go VERY hungry as there is plenty of food to eat!


Our next stop on the trip was to Halong Bay. We had organised this through our hotel at a discounted rate and were picked up and transported to our boat. The minibus took about three hours and was a little hairy in places – don’t look at the road ahead and have a nap instead to save yourself a heart attack! We were on the Aphrodite cruise boat which was absolutely amazing. After boarding the boat and settling into our cabin with a balcony, we were served a delicious three course lunch as the boat set sail. The staff on board were great, the food was superb and the sun even came out so that we could even get some sunbathing in! We were on a one night two day cruise which was probably enough to experience Halong Bay, although I could easily have stayed another night if time allowed. The excursions were so so, but overall the service, food and experience was brilliant – I would definitely book with this company again.



After transferring back to Hanoi, we went to the War Museum. Run by the Vietnamese authorities, it is very much a one sided view of the American War and heavily laden with propaganda. However it was extremely interesting to see how this historical era is portrayed and definitely worth a visit. 

On the walk back to our hotel we dropped in to the Giong cafe for an egg beer and an egg coffee – both absolutely delicious, although sickly sweet! Essentially it tastes like meringue on top of coffee and the beer tastes like the butter beer in Harry Potter Studios! The owner of the cafe proudly showed us a CNN article about him as he claims his grand father was the creator of the egg coffee. Craving home comforts we visited the restaurant “Chops” in the old quarter for a dose of carbs in the form of a burger and chips and then continued to the beer streets for some al fresco drinks on our last night in Hanoi. Mad and bustling, Hanoi is a lovely little city. If you are short on time you can probably cram everything into two days, but do make sure to visit Halong Bay – it is worth it!



Italy: Venice, Florence, Massa, Lucca, Viareggio, Pisa

In February we took a trip to visit my Dad in Massa, Italy. Our first stop of the Italian adventure was Venice – a city that exceeded my expectations. We had arranged a private boat transfer to our hotel from Venice airport for 25 Euro each which we shared with another couple. This is definitely the best way to arrive to the city – fantastic views aboard an old fashioned style wooden speed boat! We were lucky enough that the other couple were staying in a hotel situated right on the grand canal, so after dropping them off, we got our own private tour down the whole of the canal! 

We were staying in a small hotel about five minutes walk from St Marks square and spent the next couple of days exploring the city by foot. Comfortable shoes are needed! Although bitterly cold, (wrap up warm), this was a brilliant time to visit the city as there weren’t many tourists, so navigating the tiny maze of streets was easy. Every turn has a beautiful photogenic view of lovely old colourful buildings, gondolas and bridges. Venice is a city to get lost in, each little alley way leading to another spectacular view and cosy cafes and bars. 


Venice is made up of over one hundred islands that are seperated by canals and connected by small stone bridges. We went on an informative walking tour that was entirely free and took us around some of the lesser known parts of Venice towards the north. We learnt how a swampy lagoon transformed into one of the richest cities of the world. 


Our favourite pastime was frequenting small bars to enjoy glasses of wine and prosecco and cicheti, (essentially drinks and nibbles). We did find out the hard way, that when ordering a coffee in a bar, you will pay about triple the cost of the coffee if you sit down (despite the fact that we were visiting out of season), so bear this in mind when making stops! We explored the city entirely by foot, stumbling across most of the major sites along the way:

Rialto bridge, (the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal) where you can take the iconic city photograph shot


Saint Mark’s Square – where all the major sites are and at night, the streets off it look absolutely magical as they are covered in hundreds of white fairy lights!


Doge’s Palace – our cultural stop, I think it was roughly 20euro per person and gained you entry into the Palace and a couple of museums. You also get to walk inside the famous Bridge of Sighs, (so named because this was the last view of Venice that convicts had before being taken to Prison).


We covered every district in Venice by foot – despite being a small city, this is quite a distance! But worth it to accidentally stumble across little shops and hidden gems within this spectacular and romantic labyrinth. If you haven’t been, book a long weekend in the winter months!

After three nights in Venice, we caught the train to Massa where my dad picked us up. On Saturday we had a brief exploration of the centre of beautiful Florence, (I have yet to find an ugly Italian city), followed by an Indian meal with some of his work friends, a stroll around the river and then an Irish pub for rugby Six Nations!


On Sunday we visited the pretty market town of Lucca, explored the town and enjoyed sunbathing while eating delicious crepes!


In the afternoon we visited the famous Viareggio Carnival which had a fairly pricey entry at €18, but some spectacular floats – most of which were hilariously political…see the photos below!


We enjoyed lots of Italian food, coffee and general over indulgence! Our last day was spent in Pisa, where we had the obligatory leaning tower selfie and enjoyed lunch in the sun before our flight home. We squeezed a lot into a short trip and are looking forward to our next visit to my Dad’s – Thanks for having us!