Goodbye Vietnam: Sapa and Mai Chau

I boarded a sleeper train for the mountainous north-west region of Vietnam clutching a large can of Heineken, a pack of chocolate Oreos and a bag of rice crackers (that I was later to become addicted to). This was a send off… Vietnam-style.

After spending the eve of the Lunar New Year in central Vietnam with the lovely Duyen and her family in central Vietnam, followed by a couple of very special days with Diep and her wonderful family in Hanoi, it was time to take my final ‘research trip’ for work. As I left the cosy surroundings of Diep’s family home, her mother thrust me a can of beer, talking avidly at me, with a sparkle in her eye.

Diep laughed. “My mother says you like beer, you must have a big beer for the long train ride,” translated Diep as she put cookies and rice crackers in my bag. I was not to go hungry on this journey.

The first destination was Sapa, where terraced rice paddies and beautifully-adorned tribal women paint the scenery in a riot of colours. Irrespective of the season, and whether the rice is green, yellow, gold or brown, the rich coloured fabrics of the H’mong and Red Dzao tribes set the fields ablaze.


From Sapa I travelled southwest to the region of Mai Chau – but this time in the company of Diep and two of her friends. Here I was treated to miles and miles of unspoilt beauty – from vibrant green tea plantations and acres of rice paddies to crystal blue lakes and deep jungle – the horizon was only broken by the occasional small wooden house or women working the fields, often with water buffalo trailing behind them. There was not a tourist in sight.





The lovely Diep with some of the local villagers.

The lovely Diep with some of the local villagers.


Thanks to Diep’s infectious personality and fabulous translation skills, I found myself learning all about how to make the perfect pig feed from an elderly lady in a remote village, eating various plants and leaves as we walked through forests and even drinking rice wine with an ethnic Thai family, who kindly showed us their house before sharing their home-brew with us. Seeing their kitchen, I hasten to add, was a personal highlight – a huge cauldron bubbled away in the centre with buffalo meat and chicken hanging from the blackened bamboo ceiling above it. Sitting on the bamboo in the ‘loft’ were dozens of tightly bundled spices and herbs, gently flavouring the meats as they smoked for days on end.


I want a kitchen like this.


A sneak peek inside the Thai home.

It’s been a very special five months and Vietnam is a country that has got under my skin. With the sound track of a thousand whizzing motorbikes, the smell of burning incense and the taste of sweet spices and rich coffee; it is addictive. I feel honoured to have stayed here long enough to know that you shouldn’t leave your freshly squeezed lime in your bowl of Pho, that chopsticks are turned the other way when taking food from a communal plate and that the man who shakes the clacker on his bicycle is actually offering massages.

But more than anything I feel blessed to have met some very special people who have made me feel so welcome in this beautiful country. Before leaving Diep’s family house to board my flight to Sri Lanka – and eventually back to the UK – Diep’s mother invited me to pray to their ancestors at the family shrine on the top floor of the house, so that they could look over me.

I bent my head three times with Diep to the smell of the burning incense. As the warm morning sunlight streamed through the large windows, her dad held my hand and urged me to return soon as her mother handed me a bag of bananas and Diep tucked a jar of home-made dried sweet coconut slices into my bag. I was not to go hungry on this journey. It was, of course, a send-off… Vietnam-style.

As I handed over my passport a few hours later and heard the exit stamp make its mark on my visa, I couldn’t help but bite my lip. It’s not goodbye, but more of a ‘see you soon’ but I already miss weaving through the traffic on the back of a motorbike marvelling at a world that is hypnotic, exciting and passionate (not just in it’s horn honking!)

See you soon ‘Nam x

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.

con dao airport

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.




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.


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.

Phu Hai prison Con Dao

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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

six senses con dao

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


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.

Phu Quoc beach at night


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.

Phu Quoc mermaids phu quoc

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.


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.


Matty doing his black-leather-couch-pose


I’ve never failed to fill a wardrobe before…


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.


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



# 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… 🙂


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.


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.


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.



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.


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


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: I promise to update you on the next chapter!

Paradise Peak: Luxury Cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam

There comes a time in every man’s life when he must be showered with rose petals. For Matty, it was not when he was crammed into a shared taxi in Uzbekistan, nor when traversing across the great deserts of Central Asia. No, no; his time arrived when we boarded our luxury cruise along Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam.

Being Vietnam’s premier tourist attraction, I’m sure many of you will have heard of Halong Bay, or perhaps even visited yourself. For those that haven’t – imagine a huge bay, stretching as far as the eye can see, pierced with incredible rocky islets covered in lush green shrubbery that jut out of the clear, calm waters. I don’t think there is anywhere else like it in the world.

sun deck paradise peak luxury cruise vietnam

Despite the throngs of tourists that visit, it has maintained something of a ‘forgotten land’ feeling and once let loose to explore for yourself on a kayak you can’t help but indulge in leisurely Christopher-Columbus-inspired-daydreams.

Halong Bay vietnam

I first visited Halong Bay seven years ago with my dear friend Carly (aka Waddles for reasons best not divulged here). We were backpacking and boarded a humble little boat for an awe-inspiring couple of days. I can’t remember much about the vessel but I knew I’d never forget the beauty of the bay – specifically kayaking to a desolate beach where Carly encountered a rather painful experience with a jellyfish that left 20 backpackers debating who should urinate on her leg. There were no rose petals.

But this time it was different. This time I was returning to review different boats to decide which ones to offer for the tailor-made holidays I will soon be creating in this corner of the world.

And that was exactly why we were walking onto a boat called Paradise Peak and why we were being showered with rose petals. Stepping onto the red-carpeted gangway, the petals were scattered from a balcony above us as we were handed our tropical welcome drinks.

Grinning a bit too widely as my name was called, I was introduced to my ‘personal butler’ who showed us to our cabin and, as it transpired, would be waiting on us for the next 22 hours. She was lovely and took my enthusiastic grinning in her stride.

‘Cabin’ really does not really do it any justice. A more appropriate word might be apartment. Or home.

Paradise Peak Superior Suite, Halong Bay Vietnam

We were staying in a superior suite cabin (there are only suites on this boat I hasten to add, daaaahling), and ours consisted of a large bedroom of dark teak wood and the comfiest bed of our trip to date (complete with goose down pillows and duvet), a small dining area that opened out to a private balcony with sun loungers, and finally, a bathroom that felt just as big again. Equipped with a huge rain shower and a large bath tub it was easy to forget you were still on a boat – until you looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw the dramatic landscape of Halong Bay slowly pass you by.

Paradise Peak bathroom

Paradise Peak Halong Bay luxury cruise Vietnam

Paradise peak luxury cruise halong bay vietnam



But it wasn’t just our extremely luxurious cabin on the boat that turned this short trip at sea into the journey of the lifetime. Nor was it the exquisite lunch I was served an hour later, featuring the biggest and juiciest oysters of my young (ahem) life to date. Although I must add that I will struggle again to enjoy oysters without the delicious ‘Vietnamese salt’ dish that came with them.

Seafood lunch paradise peak halong bay

No, it was not any of that, as incredibly special as they all were. It was the staff and attention to detail that made it stand out – something no picture could capture.

As our seafood platter was placed down we were immediately offered help with our crab from our smiling waitress who instantly relieved my fears of causing a scene with the huge crab laid in front of me. A few minutes later, it was back on our table, beautifully prepared and ready to eat.


And then there was the beautifully prepared breakfast that was brought to the comforts of our cabin the next morning after an early kayak around the towering mountains of the bay.

breakfast paradise peak halong bay



The rose petals, somebody spraying our feet with water and handing us a cool, wet flannel and a glass of iced tea as we returned to the boat after every excursion, the fact the staff knew our names, the rain macs they carried on our excursions in case of a down pour. All of those little touches turned it from a beautiful floating hotel into something very special, incredibly personal and made me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.


But if there’s one thing even more beautiful than all of that, it’s Halong Bay itself. And swimming in the water and watching the rain drops bounce off the surface and fall down again.

halong bay

But it’s pretty cool to know you can go and step into your huge rain shower afterwards and tuck into a five-course asian fusion dinner. Yes, that is very cool indeed.

Travel Tips

Paradise Peak offers one and two night cruises along Halong Bay. We took the one night cruise and the itinerary included an option to see into a cave or float into a lagoon on the first day as well as 30 minutes kayaking – and a chance to try your hand at squid fishing after dinner. The next morning we were offered tai chi on the sun deck before breakfast, followed by a trip to an Oyster Farm and another 30 minutes of kayaking or swimming.

If you are interested in organising a trip through Vietnam or Cambodia, with a stay on Paradise Peak included, feel free to contact me at Fleewinter, a UK-based independent tailor made holiday company –

Disclaimer: As a travel consultant, I receive special rates for going on trips like this. 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.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam

If there’s one thing that budget travelling teaches you about it’s sharing. Not that I’ve never had to share before, I grew up with my brother and while I was not that fussed about playing with many of his toys, everything else was shared. Our parents’ attention, the one family television, even our bedroom was shared for a little while.

But then you get a bit older, have your own place and get used to things just being yours. Until you go travelling at the ripe old age of 29 that is and suddenly you find yourself queuing for the bathroom again, having quick showers so the queue doesn’t build up too much, sharing your bedroom with 12 other people – and even sharing your train seat (that cost good money) with a couple of others that would otherwise be standing. And you just sort of learn how to share all over again.

And I thought I was doing pretty well. Until I got to Hanoi, Vietnam that is.

Welcome to the world where entire families share a motorbike and will squeeze all five of them onto the back of it. I kid you not. In fact yesterday, I saw a guy riding a bike with his dog sitting quite happily on the seat behind him (I mean, seriously which British dog would do that and not try to jump off on some sort of terrified suicide mission?) He stopped, two others got on and the dog just sort of shuffled up between them. Even the dogs know how to share here.

But the really remarkable thing is how people live. The Old Quarter in Hanoi is the beating heart of the city. Consisting of hundreds of buildings crammed in next to each other, it is an intoxicating blend of architecture, with French influences, Vietnamese influences and just plain desperation all piled on top of each other.

Hanoi Old Quarter

With height restrictions in place by the Government, Hanoians have taken to throwing tin extensions onto the front of their homes that jut out in the air in a precarious manner, while also lowering ceilings to create more levels inside the buildings.

“It is a mixed mess,” our tour guide An told us smiling. “Not a miss-match, a mixed mess.”

And she’s not wrong. Dozens of huge thick black wires hangs haphazardly across the streets, entwined.

Electricity wires Hanoi

“They tried to put all the wires underground a couple of years ago,” she explained. “They did two streets and then gave up. It’s just too big a job.”

“Sometimes if your lights go out, they are fixed but then your internet goes out,” said An, looking up to huge mass of black wires above us.

Electricity wires in Hanoi

But somehow the higgledy-piggledy mess of wiring and housing is sort of what gives the Old Quarter its heart beat. And it is a city that beats loudly. The noise in Hanoi is overwhelming.

The first noise is the motorbike. With a population of more than six million, it is said there are about four million motorbikes in the city. And it is overwhelming. The revving of the engines and the honking of the horns feels like an angry orchestra that is playing its crescendo over and over again. Crossing roads is not for the faint-hearted.

Motorbikes in hanoi

But underneath that noise, if you can find it, there is so much else. There is a lot of singing. If you listen carefully you will hear the women who carry fruits and sugary snacks in the baskets they carry over their shoulders on long poles, softly singing about their goods.

Hanoi woman

Hanoi basket woman

Hanoi woman carrying baskets

But listen even more carefully and you will hear the sound of dozens of birds singing. Hanoians love their birds and almost every stall has a handful of budgerigars in cages around them, chirping and twittering their way through the day.

Budgerigars in Hanoi

Budgies in Hanoi

Hanoi budgies

And then there are the sounds of the tradesmen as they go about their work on the pavements – the banging of tin and copper, the sanding and chopping bamboo or the sound of children running aroud with their new “clackers” on toy street.

Because the streets in Hanoi don’t sell everything. No, no, the Old Quarter is just like a massive market and while one street will be “shoe street”, another is for underwear, toys, copper or decorations – there is even one for cellotape where shop after shop has hundreds of rolls stacked up on top of each other.

The pavements are not for walking. They are for working. Hundreds of women will be selling their wares, sitting on tiny plastic stools for hours upon hours outside alleyways. But it’s what’s behind those alleyways that explains the real secret of Hanoi.

Hanoi grocers fruit seller

For each alleyway is the gateway to one of the towering buildings that make up the Old Quarter. Each alleyway leads to a house that may hold on average seven or eight families. Each family has a room of their own where they will sleep in a fittingly higgledy-piggledy manner, but they will share everything else. The kitchen, the bathroom (yes that’s right, one bathroom for seven families), the washing area, everything is shared.

The communal kitchen in one of Hanoi's Old Quarter homes

Often it is the ground floor of this building, that will be open-air to allow natural light into it, that will hold the communal facilities with doors and stairs leading into the homes of the families.

I looked at the communal sink of the house that An had led us down and saw about 20 tooth brushes lined up next to it. And suddenly I realised I’ve never really had to share anything.

As we walked out of the alleyway we glanced at the lady selling deep fried tofu and rice noodles.

“If you come back at lunch-time you will find a different woman selling pho, or at dinner-time you will find another woman selling seafood,” An explained.

“That’s the prime business spot for the families of this house so they have to share it,” she added.

Of course they do. Because really, there is nothing that is not shared here. And as I watched the vendor chat to everybody around her and calling out at children that ran in and out of the alleyway I was reminded by just how much more you get when you share with others. And I vowed to get a little bit better at it.

Travel Tips

I got under the skin of the Old Quarter by taking a walking tour with a company called Hidden Hanoi. Lasting about two hours and costing $25, it was worth every penny. We explored alleyways that I would never have dared explore alone, tasted delicious coffee in hidden coffee shops and were taken into people’s homes in the Old Quarter. It finished with a 20 minute cyclo tour of the city – the perfect way to see it all without being distracted by whizzing motorbikes!

Led by the wonderful An (pictured below), I can’t recommend it enough. Their email address is:

Our tour guide Anh