Villa Romonea: Kep, Cambodia

Villa Romonea stands tall and proud on a beautiful spot besides the ocean on the southwest coast of Cambodia. Gleaming white, its modernist curves and angles reflect the strong rays of the early afternoon sun, making me reach for my sunglasses as I marvel at its smooth lines.

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“It’s designed like a dragon,” explains Stephane, pointing towards one side of the property which protrudes out at the top. I squint to try and envisage the dragon a little bit better. “It’s all about Feng Shui,” he explains as we walked into the impressive hallway. The dragon is a sign of prosperity and good luck in Khmer culture, he continued, so the master bedroom is located in the dragon’s head.

As I listen my eyes try to take in the huge hallway, which is impossible without turning my head a full 180 degrees. A curvaceous sweeping staircase dominates the handsome, light and airy space, with a bannister weaving its way up the stairs and wiggling across the landing. Meanwhile on the ground floor, looking straight ahead through the large ceiling-to-floor glass doors, lies the infinity pool in spacious gardens with the ocean beyond.

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This is an image of Cambodia in its heyday, a time not all that long ago – but before the country was ravaged with civil war and genocide. When Villa Romonea was built in 1968-69, Kep was the ultimate seaside retreat for the Khmer and French elite. More than 1,000 luxurious villas were positioned along the coast – each finer and grander than the last. Villa Romonea, designed by Lu Ban Hap, was one of the last ones to be built, so also one of the finest, Stephane adds with a sense of pride in his voice.

Today Stephane is the manager of this striking 6-bed hotel, which blends curves, angular lines and zig-zags seamlessly. When I met Stephane after a party of holidaymakers had just checked out, the doors and windows were all open allowing the air to circulate through the buildings and into the freshly cleaned bedrooms. There was some banging from the huge modernist kitchen to the right as the last of the plates were put away in preparation for the next guests.

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“The kitchen is free for everyone to use,” he explained. It serves as the cooking space, the eating space, the ‘just hanging out’ space if you wish – in that way that only a truly fabulous, big kitchen can pull off. But if cooking on holiday is not your thing, then fret not – Stephane works with eight great seafood restaurants in the area that will deliver their freshest dishes piping hot.

But the villa has not always gleamed and shined in this way. If walls could talk, these walls would tell a rather more somber and tragic tale. Originally owned and built by a local woman who lived nearby, she only lived in the building a few years before the Khmer Rouge invaded. Along with most locals, who had a degree of wealth or education at the time and did not manage to flee, she was executed by the brutal soldiers who claimed to be ‘liberating’ the country under Polpot’s crazed regime.

Over the course of just four years, from 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge wiped out almost two million people – almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The troops rolled into Phnom Penh ordering the city to be evacuated, claiming ‘American bombing’ was imminent. Families packed small bags and made their way out to the country by whatever means they could – those that were lucky enough to have vehicles only got as far as petrol would allow before they joined their fellow evacuees on foot.

After walking for days, even weeks, thousands of citizens found themselves completely displaced, families torn apart, children lost. Those with the wrong accents or skin a shade lighter than the rest would fare the worst. The victims who were not bludgeoned or shot to death died from disease, starvation or sheer exhaustion in labour camps in the years to come.

But Villa Romonea stood her ground. Her owner was executed, and her children are said to have fleed successfully but she stayed put. Her white paint lost its shine, the walls soon bore the wounds of artillery fire and instead of a home of peace, she became a military base for the team of Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers who would eventually emerge triumphant over the Khmer Rouge.

She saw it all. And like all Cambodians that survived these atrocities she emerged battered and bruised.

Looking at pictures of the villa, taken just seven years ago before renovation work took place, it’s hard to believe I was sitting in the very same place. The pictures reminded me of a skeleton. Her now pristine white walls were stained black with dark holes for windows, like sockets without eyes. Some parts of the walls were incomplete, although Stephane said largely the structure remained unscathed. To me the pictures showed a building that looked more suitable for demolition than resurrection.

But I suppose that’s Cambodia in a nutshell today. Coming from Vietnam, the poverty in Cambodia is immediately apparent, and while I cannot profess to be an expert in the slightest, I am sure that having the majority of your professional population stripped by genocide and using any wealth on arms, must play a role in its economy still today.

But just as Villa Romonea has been lovingly stitched back together to resemble that fiery dragon once more, so has Cambodia. The scars can still be seen, even if the wounds are healing, but it is a country on the mend. And it’s mending with a smile.

Travel Tips

Villa Romonea can be booked per room or for the entire villa – for more details about renting out Villa Romonea in Kep, Cambodia – or making it part of a tailor-made holiday in Cambodia email me at delia@fleewinter.com

PS None of these fabulous pictures have been taken by myself (I was too busy gawping and asking questions) they have all been ‘borrowed’ from Villa Romonea’s mighty fine website.

Con Dao Islands, Vietnam: A prisoner’s paradise. Or not.

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed the alarming number of prisons in Paradise-like locations? Robben Island, Port Arthur in Tasmania… and now I have another one for you – the Con Dao islands off the south coast of Vietnam.

Just imagine. John Smith of Barber Street in Birmingham steals a handkerchief from his local market on a windy October Sunday morning – he’s caught a terrible cold, you see, but is on his way to meet his new love. He obviously can’t be sneezing and snotting all over her but alas, as he goes to purchase said handkerchief, he realises he’s not a ha’penny on him. So he does what any good gentleman of the time would do and slips it in his pocket, making a mental note to stop by first thing in the morning to reimburse the jolly market chap with wind-bruised cheeks. But before he can cry “I’ve not a ha’penny on me,” he finds himself stripped of his clothes, shackled, and on a somewhat precarious boat to Tasmania. Oh the irony, he thinks, as his nose dribbles and runs for two weeks on end at sea but he’s no free hand to reach for his handkerchief.

I’m sure the story went something along these lines when I visited the Tasmanian prison, which is located on the rugged Tasman Peninsula, surrounded by the ocean and forests, making for a pretty picture perfect location. But that was eight years ago so I’ve allowed myself some artistic license.

But this time it was the Con Dao islands off Vietnam where I was heading. Just a 45 minute flight from Saigon (on a tiny propeller-armed plane that dipped and dived through the wind and lands on the tiniest runway I’ve ever seen, surrounded by water), the Con Dao islands are as easy to get to as anywhere else in ‘Nam. But for some reason no one goes. Maybe they heard about the flight.

As we made our descent I looked at the ripples of water below, watching the waves crash into each other creating streams of small white lines across the blue mass, and closed my eyes tightly. This is it, I thought. We got closer and closer to the water’s surface until I started to wonder if the plane was a bit like that yellow duck bus in London that turns into a boat when it hits the Thames – maybe it would grow some rudders and we’d all be ok, I silently hoped.

But then, just as some girls started screaming in the back and I was mentally selling my story to the Sun about how we ‘skimmed the water’ before the plane finally sank (I was going to live to tell the tale obviously), I heard that familiar sound of fast spinning wheels on tarmac and realised we were on land after all. What seemed like a few seconds later, we had reached the end of the runway. No probs there, the plane just did a bit of a three-point turn, came back on itself and pulled up in what can be best described as a car park.

We all piled off a little confused, not sure where to go or what to do next but audibly muttering our thank you’s to the pilot under our breath. So we did the only thing that made sense and stood around taking pictures of our funny little plane in a funny little car park on this funny little runway. The security smiled and nodded, he’d seen it all before.

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We had made it to Paradise alive. And I was pretty pleased about that.

And there is no denying it – the Con Dao Islands might just be Paradise on earth. When I say islands, there is a cluster of 15 islands and islets that are ringed with stunning beaches and impressive coral, but most people visit Con Son the largest of the lot which is where I was to spend the next three days.

My reason for going? To check out a lush five-star resort on a beautiful corner of the island. My reason for going for three days? Because I decided this was a better ‘office’ than Saigon:

Con Dao island

Con Dao

I visited during the island’s ‘winter months’ – temperatures are still up to 30 degrees but the sea is rough and it’s quite windy. During the spring and summer months, it all looks a bit more like this.

Photo courtesy of... the internet (taken by somebody who went at a better time of year than me).

Photo courtesy of… the internet (taken by somebody who went at a better time of year than me).

But either way I was impressed – isolated white sandy beaches and coves are waiting to be explored all over the island with gorgeous lush jungle and national parks inland. For a country where it is increasingly difficult to get off the ‘beaten track’ , the Con Dao Islands are a hidden gem.

Less so for the prisoners who arrived there in their throngs during the French Colonial years and during the Vietnam Revolution. Not so much John Smith stealing a handkerchief, more like Nguyen raising an eyebrow over the leadership of the country at the time.

Today the island is littered with ruinous prisons and many Vietnamese treat it like a place of pilgrimage – some go to remember the activists who perished on the island, who are now seen as national heroes.

I headed to the largest – Phu Hai Prison – but it was not quite what I expected. I wasn’t really expecting to find a building quite so beautiful. Typical of traditional architecture in the 1800s, the red tiled roof on the buildings over-hanged the warm yellow chipped and peeling walls. Set in a U-shape around a pretty courtyard with a crumbling yellow church in the centre, there were no real indications of the horrors of its past.

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Until I walked into the first ‘cell’ on the left, that is. Perhaps I was expecting the beauty of the exterior to be matched on the inside – I don’t really think so – but as I walked into the first cell it caught me completely unaware and I gasped.

My nostrils filled with the scent of burning incense and as my eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light I just saw rows of bodies. It took me a moment to realise that these were not, of course, the corpses of prisoners but in fact just statues shackled together in a bid to capture how it might have been. The result? Effective.

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The room felt so big and empty, exacerbated by the high-beamed ceilings that exposed the red tiles of the roof. It was silent. The only thing that was moving was the slow burning light at the tips of the incense sticks. I tip-toed across the room, as if not to disturbed the shackled statues and breathed in the incense.

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I was the only person in the entire complex except a couple of conical hat adorned ladies hosing the flowers in the courtyard. It was just me, confined in these four walls that had seen so many horrors. I dreaded to think how many had perished on the spot I was standing.

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I wanted to soak up the eerie atmosphere and run away all at the same time. In the end I took my camera out and tried to balance it on a candlestick holder besides the incense to serve as a tripod.

I put it on self timer as to not move the camera when I pressed the shutter button. Suddenly, eight seconds into the count down and two seconds before the photo was about to be taken, the camera fell – only by about four inches to the table – but creating an almighty noise that echoed around the big empty room. It left a blurred ghost-like image of figures on my camera.

Somewhat unnerved, I headed back into the sunlight, surprised by my own racing heart. I wandered into the church building that today houses photos from the past, giving you an idea of how it might have been for prisoners at the time. Skeletal thin, you saw dozens shackled together in close confinements.

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Sadly, Con Dao attracted worldwide attention in the 1970s because of its use of  ‘tiger cages’, which were underground, knee-high barbed contraptions with barely enough room to crawl. Thousands of prisoners were said to have been held in them since the 1940s – some were made of barbed wire and were just left in the scorching sun, where prisoners would crouch with no shade for days on end. It is said the prisoners on Con Dao had just enough food to survive but were skeletal – and about 20,000 prisoners are thought to have died on the island.

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As I stared at the grainy black and white images the chill of the late afternoon tingled down my spine, and I turned back towards my beachside hut to watch the sun make its final descent over the hills behind.

Yes, Con Dao is beautiful and may just be the ‘next big’ destination in Vietnam. It is likened to Paradise on travel sites across the web, but as I sat there watching the sun set I couldn’t help but think how the power of inhumanity can make even the prettiest places in the world Hell on Earth.

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Travel Tips

These days daily flights run from Saigon to Con Dao Islands (Vietnam Airlines/VASCO) and there is also a ferry, which takes about 12 hours and is said to be quite unreliable. When it comes to accommodation – it’s a bit all or nothing. The incredible 5* Six Senses does what it says on the tin… it sits on a beautiful 1.6km long stretch of beach (probably one of the prettiest bays in the island) and looks like this:

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But if you’ve not got a spare $1,000 for a night’s accommodation then there are a handful of hotels that are more aimed at the asian audience (smoke scented rooms, gold curtains, dated furniture etc). I opted for a place called Con Dao Camping, which has cute little triangular huts on the beach (about $25 per night) – they are actually pretty fancy huts with en-suites and air con etc, not to mention an almost unbeatable view.

Dear Delia: Phu Quoc is Paradise. Fact.

The best thing about having a blog that has not ‘made it’ is that I can tell you all about the finest undiscovered secrets of the planet without worrying that I am spilling the beans to the world and his dog. This is not a cry for sympathy – I am quite happy with this site largely being a diary for the future me who cannot even remember what she had for breakfast let alone some far flung trip in south-east Asia 40 years ago.

And so, here we go.

Dear 70+ year-old Delia,

I hope you’re still around and sporting some kind of hideous short blue-rinsed perm number (this is the time to do everything you were too vain to do before, remember?).  I always had the feeling you would get weirder and wackier as you got older – you know, smoking cigars while lying in a hammock that you’ve tied up at junction 12 on the A1 – that sort of thing.

Well anyway, I’m here to take you back to the past. That’s right, pour yourself a stiff gin and read on.

A long, long time ago in 2013 you discovered Paradise, It was an island off the south-east coast of Vietnam called Phu Quoc but I fear it would be a very different picture today.

You were with your wonderful friend Tanya (yes, the posh one who you now go to Tweed Anonymous suppers with). Back then Tanya’s silver mane was thick and glossy, in a rich brown shade. Those were the days.

There were the usual mishaps at the airport in Saigon – Tanya packed and unpacked her bag in the departure hall about three times before finally checking it in and you were accused by customs of smuggling fish sauce out of the country; but somehow you made it there  alright.

The flight to Phu Quoc from Saigon took just under an hour, the air hostesses wore cute little red t-shirts and tweed culottes that amused the pair of you – and you even managed to fit in a tub of steaming super noodles in the 10 minutes when seat belts were allowed off and the food trolley whizzed through the aisle.

During the 10-minute taxi journey from the airport to the beach you marvelled at how undeveloped the island felt, full of luscious jungle-like foliage and hardly a building in sight.

And then finally the car turned down a little un-made path that led you to the beach. And wow, what a beach. The wide strip of rich, yellow sand met the clearest, calm water that you had ever seen. The water was crystal clear, there was not a wave in sight and you wanted to throw a big stone in the water to just check it was all real. Meanwhile, slightly wild and ravaged palm trees lined the coast, adding to the Bounty-advert feeling.

 

Phu Quoc island

Phu Quoc

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It was beautiful. Cute bungalows and low-rise cottages lined the beach with makeshift restaurants (aka tables and chairs) out the front, where you would sit for hours munching on the freshest seafood and strongest gins with your bare feet in the sand. In the evenings lanterns softly illuminated the ‘restaurants’, making it all the more perfect.

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A short stroll north of the main beach (Long Beach) would take you to the middle of nowhere, the edge of the ocean, somebody’s back garden and you watched naked children play in Paradise so blissfully unaware that the rest of the world does not look like this.

But then one day you headed south and Tanya got to swim with mermaids and dolphins. It was the moment she had been waiting for. It was beautiful.

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So if you are sitting there now looking at your blotchy white, wrinkly old skin and have access to the internet (or whatever its called these days), get yourself a one-way ticked to Phu Quoc, perve at the young backpackers and stay at a little place called Phuong Binh.

Love Delia x

PS Buy a couple of tweed bikinis and take Tanya too. She’s missing the Mermaids.

 

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.

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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.

Moving into a New Apartment in Saigon

The first evening after Matty and I moved into our new apartment in Saigon I saw a dead rat and ate fried pigs skin. That may not quite conjure up the romantic image of a city laced in the faded grandeur of French colonialism, but then again on our first day in Nottingham we had a bike stolen – and trust me, it was not Robin Hood.

And so here we are. After almost seven months on the road, I now have a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and wait for it – a plastic tub to keep my make up in.

After unpacking our few belongings, which took no longer than 20 minutes, we threw our backpacks up into one (of the many empty cupboards) we have above our wardrobe in a triumphant ceremonial manner and stepped out onto our balcony to have a Bia Saigon.

Our new humble home is in “District Three” of this huge, bustling and to be quite frank, mental, city. We had two criteria when house hunting: firstly, to find somewhere close to downtown and not in an expat area so we could experience real Saigon life and secondly, somewhere that would not cost an arm and a leg. Because no one could do without them – especially when there are so many motorbikes to dodge in the streets here.

We viewed about four shoeboxes before finding what was to become our little pad on Nguyen Phuc Nguyen street – and no – I still can’t say it and make myself understood to taxi drivers. So I just carry it around on a little piece of paper like an evacuee hoping to get back there… at some point.

It has the finishing touches of a “bachelor’s pad” and we have our first ever TV in seven years. Matty loves it.

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Matty doing his black-leather-couch-pose

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I’ve never failed to fill a wardrobe before…

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The token kitchen – with street food at our doorstep for about 75p a plate, this is not going to see much action

But my favourite place in the apartment might just be the balcony. When the dodging of hundreds of motorbikes at any one junction all becomes too much, this is the place to hang out and admire the work of southeast asia’s finest electricians and smog artists.

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Stainless steel tables and plastic chairs are making a comeback. Fact.

 

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# A room with a view

Unlike the British high streets, the streets in ‘nam tend to sell just one ware. Take a left out of the door and you’ll find yourself on motorbike helmet and crockery street, take a right and you’ll find yourself on shirt street where there are racks of shirts to be bought for a few dollars. But take a right and left – or a left and right – and you’ll find dozens of street food stalls that from hereon shall be described as “restaurants”, clusters of small plastic tables and chairs that will be described as “bars” from now on, and a strangely high proportion of women walking the streets selling quails eggs.

And so it was that I stepped over a dead rat as we chose the “restaurant” that would serve us fried pigs skin.

“At least it’s dead,” said Matty, ever the optimist.

Yes – I think we will be happy here. Street food tales to follow x

 Travel Tips

If you’re looking to rent an apartment in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) on a short-term basis the best advice I can give you is get there and contact everyone you can find. Through the power of Google and Craigslist we emailed dozens of agents with our criteria and had viewings lined up for the next day – the situation changes every day and most of their websites are not uptodate. We said we were only interested in a three month contract so we can establish the area and what we want long term. Many agents were ok with that – but expect to pay a little bit more as a result. Within six days of making inquiries we had moved in. Here’s to hoping we find some work that quickly… 🙂

 

Song Saa private island, Cambodia

When I was a child my holidays were rather different to how I travel today. Back then I didn’t have to share my shower with baby frogs, nor did I think that efficiently killing a cockroach would be something I would look for in a man – but I did have to share a caravan with my snoring dad.

No, growing up I did not visit far flung places – instead we spent most summers at holiday camps on the south coast of England where we would enter dancing and fancy dress competitions in the club room in the evenings and spend entire days at indoor swimming pools. It was brilliant. And the highlight of every night came in the form of a pack of bacon-flavoured Frazzles and a glass bottle of Orangina. Or, if we won the dancing competition, two packs of Frazzles.

As I got older and ventured further afield the highlight of my holidays soon became a 50p bottle of local beer and bowl of curry at a bustling night market in a tropical climate.

But then I found myself on a luxury private island. And everything changed.

Accompanied by my dear pal Tanya, we boarded a speed boat for Song Saa island off the south coast of Cambodia.

This was, I must add, all in the name of ‘work’. In my role as a travel consultant for a London-based company I am currently touring Cambodia and Vietnam in search of the best places to visit before launching holidays here. And so it was, for that morning’s commute, we boarded a speed boat and enjoyed a complimentary diet coke.

Tanya riding out to Song Saa... speed boat for two dah-ling

Tanya riding out to Song Saa… speed boat for two dah-ling

The island came into view. Dense tropical jungle, pure white sands and water so clear that even snorkels are redundant. We gasped a little bit and refrained from doing our We-Have-24-Hours-On-A-Private-Tropical-Island-Dance that would, it transpired, come out later.

Instead we took a tour around the island with Ruth, the resident manager, gushing how surely she had the most amazing job in the world.

We popped into the bar and restaurant that sit on stilts over the water, checked out the isolated and serene beach areas, passed the water sports centre and took a brief look at the gym with floor to ceiling windows boasting magnificent views of the ocean.

Song Saa bar area

But then we reached our home for the night and suddenly I realised how people could visit this stunning island and barely leave their villa.

Tucked into the jungle foliage of the island but looking over the Gulf of Thailand we stepped into our villa to be greeted with a living room of giant proportions, decked out in beautiful woods, that felt like an extension of the island’s natural beauty.

The huge driftwood flower box that stretched the length of the living room was full of tropical plants, the colourful mismatched tin lampshade was made from old oil tanks at sea and a collection of canvas photo-prints of seaweed and driftwood in water (taken by the owner himself) were hypnotic. Every little detail was beautiful.

Song saa 2 bedroom villa

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But as I stared through the huge French doors that led out onto our private swimming pool and terrace area, the wall at the back of the living room was being pushed away to reveal a big shiny kitchen area. There was magic everywhere.

Song saa kitchen

On the side in our kitchen lay all the ingredients (and hand-written instructions) to help us make the perfect island mojitos (lemongrass infused vodka replaces rum here).

Mojito instructions at song saa

And on the other side sat glass bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and wine. Meanwhile the ‘mini bar’, a full length fridge and freezer was full to the brim of soft drinks, white wine and sparkling wine. There was nothing mini about it.

gin vodka whisky

Muttering incomprehensible words about mojitos, gin and lemongrass, we walked into our separate bedrooms. (I think this was Tanya’s personal highlight after spending the last couple of weeks fabricating stories of me being a bad-duvet-snatching-bed-partner).

In perfect symmetry, our over-sized bedrooms both led off from the lounge on separate sides. Cue more gasps.

bedroom song saa

Bedroom at song saa

Get this: Underneath my huge four-poster double bed, draped with what I’m going to tell you was probably silk (why not?), I found fairy lights. They were not visible at all unless you got on your back and crawled under the bed, which is what all VIP guests do on a private island I am reliably informed, but once under there you could see fairy lights. The result for the rest of the guests that don’t crawl under their beds? A gorgeous soft glow emanating from the ground below the bed.

I immediately wanted to drink mojitos under my bed.

Huge floor-to-ceiling old wooden doors led onto our bathrooms, which were perhaps my most favourite rooms in our new island mansion. One entire half of the bathroom was just glass looking out to the jungle and ocean beyond – with a huge sunken bath and three showers (one outside) to indulge in. Three showers each.

bathroom song saa

bathroom song saa cambodia

bathroom song saa

That means we had six showers between us and two huge bath tubs. I quickly worked out that we would need to be showering and bathing every few hours to use them all. And what a waste to not use them all.

My brain went: “Shower. Mojito. Bath. Pool. Mojito. Sit under bed. Shower. Mojito.”

Back in the kitchen, a beautiful leather bound menu sat on the work surface and my mouth started watering within seconds of flicking through it.

“Oh God, when am I going to have time to eat?,” I groaned to myself. My plan would need a re-think.

As if reading my thoughts, Ruth (with the amazing job) confirmed that all food and drinks, except the wines and spirits on their reserve list, were included.

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My eyes flicked to the gin, the lemongrass-infused vodka, the sparkling wine, the menu, the private pool, the bed… And I felt my anxiety levels raise. There was so much to do. So we did the only thing that made sense. And ran into our pool (with glasses of wine.)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

But Song Saa is not all about indulgence, it also does some fab work on Koh Rong, its neighbouring island where it works with some of the communities there. This corner of the world has huge issues with litter and the Song Saa Foundation have done incredible work in educating people about how to dispose of rubbish and keep their beautiful island clean. They support the local school there and even have a little nursery where people can get chilli plants and other start-up plants and flowers for their garden.

We spent a couple of fascinating hours over there before racing back over to Song Saa for some sundowners. Sparkling mojitos offset the sinking Asian sun perfectly as we chatted away to Ruth in over-sized bean bags on the edge of the ocean.

sunset at song saa cambodia

Dinner, breakfast and lunch were so good that they are each worthy of their own blog posts. Although if I did that I don’t think I’d have any friends left – so for now I’ll just say the red snapper was one of the juiciest I’ve ever sampled.

That night Tanya and I hosted a party in the villa. With different sound systems in each room, Tanya opted for 1970s rock and I went for a more eclectic electric vibe. We danced between the rooms, danced in our plunge pool and then danced in one of our huge oversized baths, which we decided could comfortably fit four people in.

We danced like we were children again. We danced like no one was watching. No one was. There were no Frazzles or Orangina in sight – but the sparkling wine and turn-down treat of cookies did just fine. It was magical.

 

Travel Tips

Song Saa is about a half an hour speedboat from Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia.

To enquire about booking a trip to Song Saa or about tailor-made holidays in Cambodia contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Battambang, Cambodia: The Bamboo Train

I must confess to being a bit of a train geek. I find everything about them rather fascinating; from the excitable atmosphere of busy stations, to the big clocks hanging from high ceilinged railway halls that make for strangely intimate meeting spots across the world – and the people, oh the people watching on trains is a favourite past-time.

My favourite train is the Eurostar, and so it felt like an appropriate way to begin our overland adventure to Vietnam six months ago. There’s something rather Parisian about the whole affair; champagne and air kissing under the huge arched ceiling of St Pancras – and when you cross through to departures you can’t help but feel like you’ve discovered a whole new side of the train station that is invisible to commuters.

It’s nothing short of marvellous. And don’t even get me started on the fact that really it’s like a giant submarine that’s hurtling along the ocean. If only they’d put a few windows in the tunnel for a spot of marine watching.

No train, I thought, could surely be better than the Eurostar. For no other train is taking you to the fairytale land of Croissants, bloody steaks and fine Bordeaux.

But, the other day I caught a train in Cambodia that forced me to re-evaluate.

Well I say ‘caught a train’ as if it was taking me somewhere but it wasn’t, not really. See there are no passenger trains in Cambodia. The streets are heaving with tuk-tuks and motorbikes but there is not a train in sight.

What do you mean this doesn't look like a train?!

What do you mean this doesn’t look like a train?!

Well, apart from the Bamboo Train that is. Hidden off the main tourist trail is a charming little town in the northwest called Battambang (not to be confused with the cake). No Battambang is far more delicious than Battenberg.

And rather randomly, its claim to fame is the bamboo train. The bamboo train is basically a bamboo raft with a lawn mower engine stuck to the back of it that hurtles down wonky train tracks that are kind of parallel.

You pile onto the ‘carriage’ and then sit back and let the ‘train driver’ do the work.

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And I can honestly say it was one of the most fun things we’ve done on the trip so far. I am actually a little lost for words – it’s just hard to sum up being ‘rafted’ across what looks like a disused railway at 50 mph.

Every now and then when the rails looked particularly rusty we would be jolted forwards and clutch the little piece of wicker carpet laid under us a little harder.

But then in the horizon we saw oncoming traffic. Hurtling towards us on the same narrow track was another little bamboo raft carrying some bemused tourists.

Oncoming traffic on Bambu Train battambang

Slowly we all ground to a hault and stared at each other slightly bewildered.

This was a bit different to the country lanes near my parents’ house where a hardball stare is enough to send the other car reversing 100 yards back to the nearest ditch. Just as I was about to give my best ‘back up, love’ look our ‘train driver’ motioned for us to get off.

Within seconds our carriage (which rides the rails on a pair of dumb-bells in case you were wondering) was dismantled piece by piece and lying on the side of the railway.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP ONE: Remove the carriage from the tracks, piece by piece.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP TWO: Let the traffic pass and then get bemused tourist to try and put the carriage on backwards.

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STEP THREE: Haul carriage back onto track…

STEP FOUR.... And relax.

STEP FOUR…. And relax.

We were off again. Off where exactly I’m not sure. The tracks were laid in the 1930s in French colonial times but all the trains were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, which led local people to construct the bamboo trains using traditional methods to help get them into town easier. While the trains are still used by some locals today, they have been largely replaced by the growing number of vehicles on the road.

But for us it was definitely all about the journey rather than the destination, as we ended up an hour later where we had begun. But as far as train rides go I think this may just have been the most memorable.

A ride with a view.

A ride with a view.

 

Fusion Maia, Da Nang, Vietnam: A Spa-tacular Breakfast

“Excuse me would you like some ice cream,” I hear over the sounds of crashing waves, interrupting daydreams of taking a bath in melted chocolate. I absentmindedly lift my hand to wave him off before suddenly remembering where I am.

For I am not on the local beach in Hoi An, Central Vietnam where women stroll the shores selling their wares, I am on a private beach at a luxury resort. There are no hawkers here.

Like that moment in a film when the dreamy music screeches to a dramatic hault, I open my eyes to find a smiling man offering me a little pot of creamy goodness.

“Cookies and cream,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I thumped Kate (my old Uni buddy, new colleague and current travel partner) awake.

“Free cookies and cream ice cream,” I hissed. Two seconds later she was upright, spoon in mouth as the man made his way to the next lucky couple further down the beach.

“Bloody fabulous, I could get used to this,” I managed between mouthfuls of the deliciously cool cream as it melted in my mouth.

Welcome to Fusion Maia, Da Nang. And it’s not just the ice cream that’s free… So are the spa treatments. Yes, you heard me correctly – I am staying at an all inclusive spa resort.

I have learnt three things about myself as a direct result of this indulgence:

1) I have ticklish calves. I mean seriously, it is acceptable for feet to be ticklish but legs – really?! It felt nothing short of inappropriate to giggle my way through the leg part of my all-over body massage.

2) Even more horrifying – apparently I have a ticklish forehead. There I am surrounded by incredible smells enjoying a luxurious facial and the poor man goes to touch my forehead and the giggling starts up again.

3) My feet aren’t ticklish – I was so pleased about this that I did not just have one foot massage but two, as if to prove just how hardy my stumps are. Yes, they did very well. I was proud of them.

But Fusion Maia is so much more than just having your body parts tickled (all day every day), as wonderful as that is.

As we walked down the long driveway covered in greenery and bamboo shrubbery, we instantly felt a little bit calmer. As we stepped inside the airy reception area, we instantly felt welcomed (by a very charming man who we kind of wanted to invite for dinner), and as we entered our private pool villa, we instantly knew we never wanted to leave.

Fusion Maia pool villa

 

Fusion Maia pool villa

 

fusion maia vietnam

 

fusion maia bathroom

Every villa here has a private pool, perfect for late night plunges after a gin or three.

Fusion Maia private pool

Meanwhile the main pool offers the stunning backdrop of Da Nang beach.

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And it was all rather wonderful. Kate and I were still working (which means running around inspecting other handsome hotels) but somehow coming back to all of this made it feel a little less like work and well, a little more like paradise.

But then we had breakfast and suddenly I was not just in Paradise. I was floating in the clouds on a golden, pastry encrusted throne wearing a crown of tropical fruit. It was magical.

The gorgeous lantern-adorned dining room was transformed with a huge buffet area in centre stage where chefs performed their magic on eggs and waffles and what-not, and where guests shuffled around in trance-like food comas.

I walked over slowly, thinking carefully about what I might want to eat. But then as I made my approach my mind started blurring – I saw chocolate croissants on top of yoghurts, sitting in roasted ham boats floating in rivers of cucumber juice. Yes cucumber juice. My mind, my mouth, my eyes didn’t know what to do. My hands started reaching out for things, trying to grab at pretty little pieces of food. I realised I had been holding my breath and I felt a little light headed.

There was only one thing to do. I forced myself to step away, breath deeply and sternly reminded myself I had a full hour for breakfast. There was no rush. I could have 10 courses if I wanted.

And so I did. I started with a fruit jelly. The tiny triangle of jelly (a perfect mouthful) broke away to reveal little chunks of fresh fruit that oozed in their juices. It sort of exploded in your mouth like one of those Fruit Burst sweets, albeit a posh one.

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Then came the sweet, stewed muesli and passionfruit compote-topped yoghurt that tasted every bit as good as it looked. And dim sum. And passion fruit, which I will have you know made a surprisingly good combination.

Ribbet collage2

And then came the eggs benedict, a proud display of perfectly runny eggs on a thick chunk of smoked ham, alongside Kate’s spinach soufflé with salmon.

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We were only about 40 minutes in at this point. Despite the breakfast buffet only having 20 minutes of life left in it, the long tables were still full to the brim of fresh fruit, jugs of smoothies, mini glass jars of homemade baked beans and the smoothest, creamiest peanut butter I’ve ever sampled.

Ribbet collage3

Try as we might, and try we did, the tables just never emptied. It was like the scene from the Lost Boys’ imaginary feast in Peter Pan. But amazingly, the tables stayed immaculate. After accidentally sloshing juice all over the juice bar, I returned 20 seconds later to find the stainless steel surface sparkling and shimmering once more.

All too soon it was time for the last round of the great feast. It was a tough choice to call.

With a whole section of homemade cakes and pastries and an already bulging belly I opted for a deliciously moist chocolate croissant and a macchiato to wash it down with.

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But if you’re mentally racking up all the calories in my ‘best hotel breakfast ever’ (yes Fusion Maia wins the title), fret not. Because I was booked into the ‘super slimmer’ hip and stomach massage to ‘tone up’ before lunch. See, there’s really nothing they haven’t thought of. Apart from chocolate baths that is – I’m still on the look for one of those.

Travel Tips

Fusion Maia is on the beach in Da Nang and is just 30 minutes away from the centre of Hoi An (the resort runs shuttle buses to and from town throughout the day).

The resort has one, two and three bed villas, which radiate a chic minimalist, calming ambience. All villas have pools and prices start from about $390 per night in the off-season. To enquire about booking a trip to Fusion Maia or tailor-made holidays contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Sunset Snaps: Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Some journeys have the ability to make you question everything you are doing. I was in a good mood, actually a great mood – it was Sunday and I had started my morning with 50 laps in the swimming pool followed by a breakfast of mammoth proportions (I swim to eat).

But then it was time to travel again. So I followed my almost daily ritual of squeezing all my belongings back into my groaning rucksack, did the “sweep” to ensure nothing was left behind (after losing 50% of my clothes to date in various dormitories across central asia) and swung it over my shoulder before buckling the beast up around my waist. Time to hit the road again.

This time I was travelling from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh in Vietnam. It is, it would appear, a route less travelled and so after being surrounded by Australian accents ever since I stepped off the train in Hanoi, I suddenly found myself the only English speaking gal on the bus.

It was refreshing. I practised my Vietnamese numbers as I paid for my ticket and decided that on the whole, I would actually be very proud of myself if I got to Ninh Binh – because this really was my first travelling solo experience. Since the boys headed down south to let me focus on work, I’ve kept myself busy with luxury cruises and being pampered in Hanoi.

But now it was just me and there was no one to ask where the bus was. The First Big Trip Without Matty and the Mongoose. A man nodded at me in the corner and stood up. I obviously did what any sensible lone female traveller would do and followed him. And sure enough he led me to a bus that said “Ninh Binh” and voila, I was aboard.

It was actually quite nice, spacious and had air conditioning.

“Things have improved in seven years,” I muttered to myself, recalling the cramped, sweaty buses Carly and I had taken when I was last here. I smartly opted for a single chair so I would not be forced to sit next to someone who would spend the next five hours inching their way onto my seat and settled down to do a spot of work as we pulled out of the bus station.

But I thought too soon and the bus started filling up. Men, women and children of all sizes kept streaming onto the little mini-bus and unlike in England when the bus has reached its maximum capacity, the drivers here do not just drive past wannabe passengers holding up their hands and shrugging their shoulders. No, no, in Vietnam no bus is too small and no passengers too many.

So they piled on and they piled on. Every little square meter of floor was soon filled with men and women, chattering away and sharing their stories. A women to the right of me settled back, put her head against my legs, nestled her hair right into my lap and got ready to have a snooze. Meanwhile, the man to her left nodded appreciatively at my day bag, which was squashed against my legs, before putting his entire body weight on it by using it as an arm rest. I am trying to get better at sharing after my experience in Hanoi, so I just smiled and told myself that my legs were improving the quality of the journey for them. And after all, I had a seat.

But then the air conditioning started dripping all over me. Dripping is not the right word. It started with a drip here, a drop there, and then it turned more into a tap that was unfortunately placed over my lap. I tried to turn it off but that didn’t best please the use-my-bag-as-an-arm-rest-why-don’t-you-man, so it was turned on again.

And so it was some four hours later that I emerged off the bus somewhat dishevelled, looking like I had had a bit of an accident after being deprived of toilet stops. But the journey was not over yet. I had to take about an hour’s motorbike journey to Cuc Phuong National Park where I was staying for the night.

There was Truong, smiling and waiting for me with a motorbike helmet. Within seconds he had shoved my beast of a rucksack between his legs at the front of the bike and I hopped on behind him. The wind was in my hair and slowly the urban sprawl of Ninh Binh dissipated away, replaced by fields of rice paddies and looming karsts on the horizon.

“Relax, let go of the bike, and take some pictures,” Truong suggested.

I unpeeled one hand from the bar at the back of the bike that I had been furiously clenching and attempted to remove the second. But it didn’t quite feel natural. So I put my free hand on my left hip and tried to look a bit cooler.

As the sun began to set, roadworks diverted us off the main road and through the backstreets of rural life where local villagers were frantically harvesting the rice, as if they might wake up tomorrow and find it all gone.

“The typhoon is coming,” Truong warned. “They must harvest their rice before the rain ruins it all.”

And it was a site to behold. Without even realising I had done it, both hands left the comfort of the bike, my day pack came swiftly off, the camera was promptly removed and the lens cap was shoved down my bra.

 

Ninh Binh Rice Harvesting

Rice Harvest Ninh Binh Vietnam

Harvesting Rice Vietnam

With no other tourist in sight, it was all mine to gawp at. And I did. I gawped and I snapped as we watched the sun sink behind the huge towering karsts and iluminate everything in its path.

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh boat

To be honest I don’t know how Truong managed to keep his eyes on the road. But whenever I started squealing and snapping he would stop so I could hop off and take pictures of buffalos walking out of the water and other such delights. And then he would sit on his bike and soak it all up too.

mtorbike ninh binh

buffalo ninh binh vietnam

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And then we were off again, for the final act of the Great Sun and his Sinking Ways.

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh

And in the sun’s final minutes of the day a smokey haze filled the horizon as villagers burned the leftover rice straw.

Burning rice straw ninh binh vietnam

Burning rice straw ninh binh vietnam

And then finally we reached my destination but suddenly I was not quite so ready to be there.

“We’re here already?” I whined like a five year-old who had just been told she wouldn’t have another birthday for 364 days.

“I’ll be back for you tomorrow at 8.30am,” said Truong as he hauled my bag off the bike and carried it into the hotel reception for me.

And I grinned like a 30 year-old who had just been told her journey’s not over yet.

Travel Tips

The lovely Truong offers motorbike tours all around beautiful Ninh Binh and its surrounding areas. To book him email: truong_tour@yahoo.com. I promise to update you on the next chapter!