World in Pictures: 2013 Through the Lens

2013 started with a bang. Surrounded by our loved ones in Nottingham at our friend’s cocktail bar, we enjoyed free-flowing spirits and a help-yourself beer fridge (which is where Matty’s head spent most the night). With a few hours kip I found myself at work covering the New Year’s Day news (also know as murders). My head was banging.

And now we intend to see the year out with a bang… quite literally, as we watch the fireworks over the river from a Ministry of Sound party in our new ‘home’ of Saigon, in Vietnam.

It’s certainly been one of the more exciting years in my young 30 years of life so far. In our mammoth overland journey from the UK to Vietnam we visited 17 countries, took dozens of trains, taxis and buses, and probably ate hundreds of pieces of unidentifiable meat.

So as a fitting tribute to one of the memorable years yet, I’ve selected a few of my favourite pictures from 2013.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

Lots of goodbye hugs with my loved ones in April.

And so our journey began... Like these fellas our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

And so our journey began… Like these fellas, our beds were often on trains or at train stations.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Our journey involved lots of fabulous (if often toothless) people including this lovely shepherd in Armenia.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

Somebody once told me you can tell a lot about a person by their hands.

One of my fondest memories to this day was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

One of my fondest memories was the walk we took through the Armenian countryside where we stumbled across this adorable little piglet.

.... And fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

…. And many fabulous wild meadows of flowers.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

The churches of the Caucuses are like nowhere else in this world. A Monk enters a church in Armenia.

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

And of course these two jokers made it all a little bit more special (and liquid).

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got 'stuck at sea'). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

From the Caucuses it was over to Turkmenistan (by a three day boat that got ‘stuck at sea’). Never have I ever been anywhere with quite so much gold, marble and weirdness in such close proximity.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Any country that has burning holes of fire in its desert wins the weird award. Darvaza Craters, Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread - I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Meanwhile Uzbekistan put me under a blue-tile spell, so impressive was its mosaics, mosques and mausoleums. (Oh, and its bread – I will never forget the amazing bread of Uzbekistan).

Inside one of the magnificent  mosques of Uzbekistan.

Inside one of the magnificent mosques of Uzbekistan.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

High altitude kisses in Tajikistan, home to one of the highest highways in the world.

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile...

Kyrgyzstan took us to a land of wild horses, yaks milk and yurts. Oh, and the trekking. But this view made even being lost up a mountain in a hailstorm worthwhile…

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in Kazakhstan we made pledges to our curiosity and stars.

And in China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

In China we sang from the top of the Singing Sand Dunes.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi'an, China.

Before finally reaching the end of the Silk Road: The Bell Tower in Xi’an, China.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway.

But then Vietnam came along and a whole new adventure was underway. Ninh Binh was a personal highlight for me.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular... taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

The diverse landscape of Vietnam is nothing short of spectacular… taking a boat through the Ninh Binh karts was one of many special moments.

More lovely people.... And more lovely people.

More lovely people…. And more lovely people.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

October saw me discover my new all-time favourite beach destination on the island of Phu Quoc off south-east Vietnam.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

And we even fitted in a bonus trip to the mighty Angkor kingdom of Cambodia.

But none of it would have been quite so special if it wasn't for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that's what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

But none of it would have been quite so magical if it wasn’t for the friends I have shared it with. No matter where you are in the world that’s what makes stuff special. Happy New Year xxx

Bánh Mì in Vietnam: Sandwich of the Gods

The great thing about a sandwich is the beauty that lies within. Between those two, thick fluffy yet crusty slices of bread, could lie anything. Absolutely anything. If you want to munch on crushed anchovies and marmite smeared inside a crusty granary roll you can. And nobody will probably even know. The sandwich holds all secrets.

In Vietnam the sandwich has continued to do an excellent job in surprising, impressing and to be quite frank, amazing me. Strictly speaking of course, it is not a ‘sandwich’, it’s a baguette. Now I don’t want to get all ‘colonial’ on you – I am more than aware of the destruction, death and damage caused by the French colonial years in Vietnam – but man, they left the baguette. And that must surely be seen as a silver lining of sorts.

It goes by the name of Bánh Mì here – and no, it doesn’t sound like it is written. Vietnamese is a tonal language – the words are sung as if they are musical notes on the bars of a great composition. I on the other hand can’t sing or even talk in high notes, which leaves me with little more than a blank face or two when I start singing for my Bánh Mì.

But trust me, these little baguettes are worth persisting for. They are normally sold in a fairly innocuous-looking cart of sorts, which will often reveal a woman in her mid 50s furiously cutting sideways into the crusty baguettes with a seemingly blunt knife. Welcome to the Bánh Mì cart.

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You will see pots of unidentifiable ingredients – odd shapes and colours of what I have since discovered is ham, alongside sliced chillis, eggs, vats of meat juice and tomatoes. The woman will look at you increasingly mystified as you try to sing for your Bánh Mì. She sells nothing else so eventually will raise an eyebrow and sing “Banh Mi” back to you, which of course you think sounds exactly the same as what you were saying.

But she is the Bánh Mì boss so you smile sweetly and nod enthusiastically as she begins her work. First the bread is stabbed length-wise down the baguette before a vat of, what I still think is, Mayonnaise is smeared across the soft, fleshy inside. Next comes a generous slab of pate that coats the mayonnaise nicely.

Upon the thick bed of pate and mayonnaise the ‘ham’ is then placed, which can be white, pink, or something in between. And then it starts to become a bit of a blur as things are just thrown in, as if flying out of the little metal tubs that line the cart’s shelves. Chilli, coriander, fish sauce, green things, red things, pickled carrots. You know the creation is nearly complete when your smiling Bánh Mì master turns to the sizzling sunny side-up fried egg behind her and lifts it straight from the pan into your heaving baguette.

It is wrapped up in paper or cling film, held together by an elastic band and costs you the equivalent of 50p.

banh mi

Sometimes you can just eat your Bánh Mì then and there – just stand in the same spot as the cart and tuck right into the gooey, crusty goodness. But sometimes you need to take it carry it home, sinking under the weight of its own filling, and lie it on a plate and prepare yourself for what comes next.

By this point the piping hot egg has seeped through the pate, soy sauce, mayonnaise and meat – turning it into an almost pie-like sandwich. The crust retains its crunch, but the inside turns into a delectable warm mush of eggy, meaty, herby goodness with an incredible chilli after-bite.

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Serving Suggestion: Best enjoyed with an ice-cold bottle of Bia Saigon, available from all good retailers for about 30p.

It is Vietnam in a sandwich. It’s everything that a sandwich should be. And it knows it – it seems to almost proudly brag about the weight and sheer weirdness of its fillings as it is placed in your hands. It is after all, a sandwich that will quite literally have you singing for your supper.