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 


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!

Cuba Part 2: Viñales and Trinidad

We left the hustle and bustle of Havana and took a pre-arranged collectivo taxi to our next stop – Viñales. We were staying three nights in a local casa particulares, (essentially a B&B), called Yurkenia y Lila casa and had a self contained room behind the main house. Viñales is a laid back rural town, surprisingly bigger than I imagined, but wonderfully traditional. Here you can see people sat on wooden rocking chairs on their porches, horse and carts, farmers ploughing the fields with oxen and not to mention a stunning national park.

Collectivo taxis are shared taxis and are fairly cheap. If all the buses have been booked up in advance, collectivos make a rapid, convenient and fairly cheap way to get around. These can be arranged by your host accommodation. Our collectivo from Havana to Viñales cost $20CUC each, from Viñales to Trinidad $40CUC each and from Trinidad back to Varadero $30CUC each and this is door to door.

We arrived mid afternoon at our accommodation and our hosts were able to give us suggestions of things to do in Viñales and book us on a horse riding tour of the Valle de Viñales national park the following morning (I think this was about $25CUC each for four hours). Our first afternoon was spent wandering the town, soaking up the relaxed atmosphere, colourful single storey houses and market stalls before enjoying some sundowner mojitos. 
The following morning we were picked up by scooter to take us to our horses on the edge of the national park. Our guide spoke broken English, but I knew enough Spanish to get by and interpret what he was saying. The horseback tour took us through breath taking scenery – rust red soil and huge fields of tobacco and crops lie as far as the eye can see, and all this interspersed with mogotes (limestone mountains). The horseback ride was a little bit of a tourist trap, but interesting all the same and a chance to be a cowgirl! Our first stop was at a tobacco farm, where a farmer discussed the tobacco growing and drying process in order to make cigars – he spoke entirely in Spanish but I somehow managed to gather what he was saying. We then sat in his hut in the shade and Phil and I shared a cigar dipped in honey, before a cigar sales pitch began. We had wanted cigars as souvenirs anyway, but did come away with a few more than we intended (20)!

We then got back on the horses and rode to our next stop – a cave. We had to pay a boy $1CUC at the entrance to guide us through the cave which ended in an icy pool that you could swim in. Unfortunately, having not brought a towel, the prospect of riding back sodden wet and chaffing on a saddle did not appeal, so we didn’t take the plunge. From here, we started the trek back through the park, stopping at a coffee producer along the way who demonstrated the coffee making process. Here, there was a little shop to buy coffee and honey and a small “cafe” where we sat sipping a latte and admiring our surroundings. The final hour of our ride was a little sore on the bottom and we were grateful to jump off the horse at the end and slowly walk back through town to grab some drinks and lunch.

In the afternoon we decided to walk up to a view point near the park visitor centre. The walk was along the main road and some parts didn’t have a designated path so we had to walk on the verge – a little hairy with Cuban drivers around! At the top there is a restaurant with a spectacular view over the valley- it was quite breezy up there so I would take a jumper if you are there in December like us. We had some drinks and admired the sun setting over the valley below, before quick footing it down the hill before nightfall. 

On our final day we decided to have some R and R and walked to the La Ermita hotel to utilise their facilities – a pleasant walk from town up a quiet road. It cost $8CUC per person to use their pool and loungers, but $7CUC of this could be used to buy drinks and sandwiches at the bar, so it was actually quite good value for money, although you were not given a towel. The views from here are spectacular and there is a little seating area in the shade of a tree down the hill from the pool which is lovely to relax at with a drink. The pool was “refreshing” to say the least, but we enjoyed our day of reading books and relaxing with the occasional cool off dip. After freshening up at our accommodation, we decided to go in search of the famed Finca Agroecologica El Paraiso restaurant and wing it in the hope they could fit us in. It is easily walkable from town, however don’t pay any attention to locals who will a. Try to tell you it is closed and lead you elsewhere and b. Tell you there is a cigar factory sale one day a month and today is the day! These are both hilariously common things locals will say to lure you into buying their goods. 

(From town, walk up Salvador Cisneros (the Main Street), take the right fork just past the Petrol station and carrying on walking until you start going up a hill and it is near the top of the hill on the left hand side). 

The restaurant has beautiful sunset views over the organic vegetable gardens and down into the valley. The food is based on whatever the seasonal vegetables and salads are and there is LOTS of it! We were brought house cocktails, followed by five huge starter plates, then 12 main course plates including pork, chicken, fish, rice and huge numbers of vegetables, followed by dessert and coffee – and all this for two people! Feeling stuffed, we decided to walk back in the dark rather then get a taxi as we felt weighed down! It was definitely worth a trip! To finish off our last night in Viñales we enjoyed some mojitos in town before heading back to our accommodation. 

There is lots to do in Viñales, and if time is on your side you could easily spend longer here – there are lots of places to bicycle, trips to the coast, hiking, caving and climbing. A must see on a trip to Cuba!

From Viñales we travelled to Trinidad – a long and uncomfortable taxi ride, but made all the easier with comedy programmes pre-downloaded on the iPad. We were staying in a B&B that we had found on Air BnB, right in the heart of the old town – Hostal Colonial Casa Vieja. It was a fantastic place to stay with a great breakfast and round the corner from the main square. Each evening live bands played in the main square and here we would sit with some beers enjoying the sunset, wonderful music and watching the locals salsa. 

Trinidad is a very photogenic town and it is small so can easily be seen in an afternoon. We spent one day exploring the town, walking up the hill with a viewpoint, going into the museum with the viewing and perusing the shops. There are a couple of quirky places to eat in Trinidad, and we particularly enjoyed Giroud for drinks and tapas. 

The following day we booked ourselves on a day trip to Topes De Collantes with Cubatur. The trip was $30CUC each and included lunch. After a scenic ride on an open top truck, we stopped at a viewing point to admire the sea view before heading to a coffee shop to taste a local espresso and be given an explanation of the coffee making process. We were then taken to the start of our hiking trail that took us down to a waterfall and pool area where we all took a much needed cool off dip! 

Unfortunately the return walk was less enjoyable but an achievement! After a lovely late lunch we were back in Trinidad to enjoy the evening.

Our final stop in Cuba took us back to Varadero where we unashamedly had two nights at an all inclusive resort for some final relaxation before heading home for Christmas. Cuba is an amazing country, full of history and culture and beautiful scenery, trapped in a wonderful time warp where wifi isn’t the norm. For a last minute holiday destination choice Cuba really turned up trumps for us and it really was a trip to remember.

Cuba Part 1: Varadero and Havana

Our December travelling trip took us to the Caribbean island of Cuba – the land of cigars, rum, sugar cane,  1950s cars, sandy beaches and so much more. A visa is required to enter Cuba and this can be applied for online really easily – we got ours from which provided an exceptionally prompt service. You also need to have evidence of health/travel insurance prior to travelling to Cuba, so make sure you have a printed copy of this in case you are asked to show it at immigration. We ended up getting cheap flights with Thomson airlines to Varadero as tickets were about two hundred pounds cheaper each then flying into Havana – definitely worth checking before booking up.  

Currency: Contrary to what people post online, you only need to get get CUCs out at the airport in Cuba. We got CUPs and CUCS and really struggled for anywhere to accept CUPs; so in short, don’t bother!

Varadero is really just a tourist town, largely consisting of all inclusive resorts – but after flying half way around the world it was nice to have a few days relaxing on the beach and enjoying some cocktails. We chose to only have breakfast at our hotel so we could try out local bars and restaurants – which are actually quite few and far between. We ate at La Campana situated in the park one lunchtime and had a lovely al fresco meal followed by a pleasant walk and would recommend a visit there. There are also plenty of street sellers making fresh piña coladas in pineapples too – really amazing, and as you wait for your drink you can eat the cored out pineapple! The weather in Varadero in December was a little hit and miss, with intermittent downpours – despite the rest of the country being in sunshine – so bear this in mind if you are planning a beach holiday at this time of year.

Internet in Cuba is patchy – at some hotels you will be able to buy wifi cards but it can be quite slow. If you don’t like winging your trip it is best to pre-book accommodation and buses beforehand.

We had managed to pre-book a bus to Havana with Viazul Bus company. What we had forgotten to do was to pre-download a map detailing where our next air bnb accomodation was – so we didn’t know which stop in Havana to get off at! We stayed in a lovely studio air bnb called La Habana on Calles Corales – very close to the old town and the Capitolio Nacional. Our host Marta and her husband were both lovely and the studio flat we had was great with a well equipped kitchen, washing machine, balcony and the building was very secure. We loved Havana – vibrant, busy, colourful and full of a shabby chic charm. 

Havana Vieja, (the old town), on the east of the city is home to lots of beautiful old buildings and squares and is a great place to wander, soaking up the Cuban atmosphere, and visiting one of the many cafes and restaurants. The old town is where all the lovely old 1950s cars collect, touting for business to take tourists on city tours. Unfortunately, these tours are quite over priced at $50-60 per person so we admired them from a distance. 


We spent one day visiting El Morro-we took the ferry from one of the ferry ports next to old town for $1CUC per person each. We walked straight up the hill behind the ferry terminal to reach a huge statue of Christ surrounded by little market stalls, before continuing on past the military museum and to the fort. It was hot when we visited, so take plenty of water, sun cream and a sun umbrella. If you don’t like walking, a bus can take you all the way or you can pick up an old car at the Christ Statue to take you to the fort. Despite the heat, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll and the views back across the water to Havana city are lovely. We had definitely earnt our evening rum from all the walking that day!

On our final day, we decided to take the Havana red bus tour around the city. It has a stop at Parque Central so is easy to find out all the relevant information. Shamelessly touristic yes, but for the price of a single taxi fair to the Plaza de la Revolucion  you can go on an entire bus ride encompassing lots of stops. The breeze from the top deck was a welcome rest bite from the heat of the day too! 

We fell in love with Havana. I love the pot holed streets, the run down houses slowly being restored, the churros and the hip vibe. Three days was the perfect amount of time to see all the major sites and soak up the atmosphere of the city.

Havana food and drink recommendations:

El Chanchullero- trendy tapas style food

Cafe de Los Artistas – great food, happy hour and near to some other lovely bars and restaurants

El Dandy bar

Cafe arcangel – we are here everyday for breakfast, delicious and great value

El Floridita  – the birth place of the daiquiri. Overpriced yes, but has to be experienced.