After two weeks in Sydney having a crazy time, it was time to start my Asian adventure. Before I tell you all about it, let me break down how to spend a cool week in Sydney.
As many of you know, going to a big city without a plan can lead to you not doing a great deal. So here’s a quick list of things to see and do over the week.
Monday: Basement for jazz – it’s called the Monday Jam and although there’s a regular band that play really cool songs, they also invite any musicians to get up and have a jam; there ends up being around 10-14 people on the stage at once sometimes! It’s got so popular that they’ve even made t shirts, and people actually buy them! This place is $5 entry, other days is more expensive and they also have some famous bands of many genres playing there too.
Tuesday: Establishment for salsa- it’s a really cool joint where anyone can go for free and dance salsa. Even if you don’t have a partner to go with it’s a really chilled vibe and you can dance with anyone. The drinks are quite expensive though so get the beers in before you go if you’re wanting to keep your dollar.
Wednesday: Frankie’s pizza. $3 pizza (slice is 1/4 of a pizza) and $3 beer. The pizza is the best you’ll find in town and the pale ale isn’t to be sniffed at for $3! This gaff is underground, the walls are lined with band posters and the music is perfectly indie and rock and roll. From a bit of Elvis to Led Zep to the Kooks, this place is a must visit its bloody awesome. If I could live inside this place and forever have pizza and beer I’d be there in a jiffy. It’s dull lighting, old pin ball machines and rock and roll staff makes the place exude huge chill vibes. They have bands that play every Wednesday and a few other days of the week after 9pm of lots of different styles.
The Sydney Harbour- of course it’s a must see, you can’t really miss it since it’s so big! You can also go on top of the bridge over to North Sydney for a fee and get a view of the whole city.
Bondi to Coogee walk – this takes about an hour or so, going through many beaches. Bondi and Coogee are great places to have BBQs and hang out.
The Sydney Art Gallery – this has around 5 floors and amazing exhibitions. There was a Rembrandt exhibition whilst I was there and many others using a whole floor of 3D art which was spectacular.
Crunella beach- great place to catch some waves. Unlike Bondi and Coogee this beach is better for people who have learned to surf already as Bondi is usually for first lessons.
Friday: Newtown- this is an indie spot with pubs and places where you can legally do street art. A friend of mine does his work down there, you can check him out on instagram: joker_artpoint
Saturday: Manly beach- take the ferry from the harbour across. It takes about 40 minutes. It’s always very busy here but you can find some cool cliff jumping spots away from the main beach.
Sunday: $2.50 all day travel on your opal card. So if you have any long journeys to make do them today! The Blue Mountains is a perfect place to go on a Sunday to make use of this deal.
So there it is, some top tips for your time in Sydney if you go!
The return of the cat pillows
20 minutes before check in closed Abbie and Jayde eventually arrived at the airport and we got in the queue to check in to our Scoot flight. We handed over our passports, got the passes, everything was going well. Until they noticed Abbie and Jayde had big rucksacks with them. “That’ll be 200$ per bag”. Jayde put on the waterworks to try get them for free, didn’t get them for free and ended up making herself actually cry uncontrollably. After a breath of fresh air, they decided to throw away the majority of their belongings in the airport and put everything in one bag, got a discount and finally got through to customs. I had a tearful goodbye to Rama and met them in the queue. What we thought would be a speedy time through customs led to Jayde’s rucksack getting detained because she left her water bottle inside. I once again got drug tested and explosive swabbed; there must be something about my scraggy hair that makes them think I’ve got a pound of cocaine up my arse.
Eventually we got on the 8 hour flight, with less leg room than Ryan Air to be told we get no food or water for the entire flight unless we wanted to spend $4 on 100ml of water and $20 on a ready meal. No television for films or even a USB port for our phones, this is the most economy you can get before you’re on a little two propeller plane. To add to the dismay, a boy beside us ended up getting a nose bleed for nearly an hour and the staff were talking about an emergency landing. Thankfully he managed to reign in the blood and we arrived in Vietnam!
The place was heaving with people sorting out visas and after a few attempts of trying different queues we got to the right one to find out Abbie hadn’t printed hers off, and the immigration officer wasn’t too pleased with her. He looked at her, looked at her passport, her, passport, her, passport for a good few minutes before sending her away. Fearful of deportation, no phone battery and locked out of her emails, we started to wonder if we should even bother getting into this country. After a few more queues and confused conversations we got let through and popped off to find an Uber to get us to our hostel : Vietnam Backpackers Downtown Hanoi.
This hostel is the place to be in Hanoi. The staff are amazingly hilarious and energetic. They have a tour desk in the reception so you can easily get excursions sorted but they’re a little more expensive than the Vietnamese shops. The hostel offers free beer and always has drinks deals on in the night time so it’s the perfect place to have a party. Out in the street you can get beer for 5000vnd which is about 20c. The streets are busy with horns beeping everywhere followed by a million bikes with a whole family on, doughnut ladies and alleys clad with stalls of food drink and every sort of clothing, exuding fumes of local food, exhaust fumes and sewage. The senses are completely over loaded at every head turn and breath. But it’s an amazing and exciting place to be. So is the hostel happy hours which we took full advantage of, a little too much probably and managed to make a lot of friends in the hostel. Jayde and I got lost in the streets and plonked ourselves down at a table of Aussies on the street for a beer, which we accidentally stole, and also stole a doughnut from the donut lady. Probably not the best karma we could have for our first day in Vietnam! Finally we found our way home and Abbie and I ended up going out for another beer, and a few balloons in this very strange bar. We were so tired of travelling that we fell asleep in the bar, to be woken up at 4am and told to leave. Feeling somewhat confused we ate some fried rice on a street corner and called it a night!
The prison museum in Hanoi is a must see for culture whilst in Hanoi. It exhibits many years of how the prisoners from Vietnamese convicts to Communist rebels in the French colonialist period to the Americans captured in the Vietnamese war. A strange thing I found was in the exhibition of the American prisoners of war, they speak very kindly of the inmates and how well they were treated. Considering the damage that America did to the country, they were apparently treated very well with great food and kept away from any Vietnamese convicts to keep them safe. Maybe this is propaganda or maybe it was because the Vietnamese won the war, I couldn’t be too sure. We found a very cool little spot down an alleyway to eat lunch, I tried fried tofu for the first time and didn’t have the best experience. Little did I know this is all I would get served when I say I’m vegetarian in this country!!
Jayde had her first meltdown about being in Asia, but she bought a new rucksack and had a beer and started to feel a little better. Whilst we were having a beer and trying to cheer Jayde up, a million doughnut ladies pestered us and one lady came over and started putting a traditional Vietnamese hat on her. It was an absolute picture: Jayde looking like she didn’t know whether to punch the woman or cry, and the lady laughing and tightening the strap around her head. I ate some chilly sauce that I thought was ketchup and thought my whole head was on fire for half an hour. Once again we made use of the free alcohol in our hostel with some pals and found out that England was second to Australia in the drinking competitions so we got some Hand Grenades to get us back on top. Welcome to the Hand Grenade: a shot of tequila over a jäger bomb, take the tequila, the jäger falls into the red bull and then you drink that. The only problem was that as soon as we ordered they rang the bell for 2-4-1 drinks so we ended up with two of these fiery drinks. It all ended pretty soon after that; Jayde slept in a toilet and Abbie was sick!
As anyone would expect after this kind of madness we all were a little worse for wear the next day. To add to this, the toiletries we bought ended up to be bubblegum toothpaste and mint shampoo, couldn’t get much more backwards than that…
we booked our tour to Ha Long Bay and had en egg coffee; a traditional Vietnamese drink from the years when they didn’t have any milk. They give you black coffee with whipped egg white on the top which is very very sweet. It wasn’t to my liking but definitely for a sweet tooth kind of person! In the evening we went to see a water puppet show which was possibly one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. A live band playing music traditional of the North countryside, with puppets fire smoke over water with a Vietnamese voice over.
Ha Long Bay
We were picked up at 8am and had to follow our guide Bobby D on his motorbike around the streets of downtown Hanoi to collect everyone else. We then got on a bus to be moved onto another one in the middle of the street and finally we were away. The bus was made for people of a Vietnamese size, so in we squished for a rollercoaster ride on the bus (all drivers here are crazy drivers). We eventually got to our boat which was a big white wooden looking boat. Every boat that goes out on the tours looks pretty much the same on the outside. It is a shame that a tour seems to be the only way to go through the national park as I much prefer doing things my own way, however here you are taken to some great scenery, islands and fishing villages. As well as food and drink, kayaking and swimming. After some lunch cooked by the boat staff we firstly went kayaking with our Santa hats on and saw some fishing villages followed by playing on a giant floating trampoline. The people who live in these huts floating on plastic barrels live solely on the earnings from the fish they catch. They have no internet, no televisions, and have to travel a very long way to get back to any kind of mainland. We all went sliding around on the trampoline after that, one Chinese lady went in with her rain coat on top of her swimmers… didn’t work to any effect so I’m still puzzled to the theory behind it. Getting out of the sea, Jayde pretended to throw a jelly fish at me which served as my healthy heart moment of the day.. nearly a completely emptied bladder as well! It was then back in the boat for a “sunset party” with no sun – weather complications – and dinner. It’s a great time to chill and chat to everyone, we had some free beer too which went down nicely as per. A great thing about booking tours outside of the Castaway tour which is a booze cruise is that you get to meet a real variation of people. Even though the boozy tour looked amazing, and expensive as hell, I personally wanted to be a little more calm and enjoy my surroundings. The first night we slept on the boat in little cabins. The beds were nice and other than being cold because of the weather I couldn’t complain!
Breakfast was at 7am the next day and then we went out on some bamboo boats though a Light and Dark Cave. The water is beautifully blue and the light suddenly disappears in the centre of the open ended cavern. We did a lot of boat hopping and switching around during the day, saw another fishing village and then went to Monkey Island. This island is tiny, with one hotel of bamboo huts and a rocky hill to climb up. The view from the top is amazing but the trail is slightly treacherous, especially if you’re wearing flip flops like we were! The rock has a metal sound to it which is something I’ve never seen before.
Our next stop was Cat Ba Island where we stayed overnight. Everyone was taken to what seemed like whatever space they had in the hostels and we rented some peds to see the national park. The only problem was that all the roads were closed so we couldn’t actually see anything. We explored the island anyway and Abbie nearly killed me turning around on the back of my ped because Jayde was obsessed with my indicators.
On the third day we sailed back to the mainland and had a spring roll cooking class on the boat. The transport was speedy aside from a long wait for the bus back to Hanoi, which for Vietnam is pretty good! So off we went to meet back up with our new pal Abbie in Hanoi to go on another adventure, not before some 16p beers in the street of course.
We had bought an open bus ticket for the whole of Vietnam which is a pretty cheap and organised way of travelling, so we were picked up from our hostel and thought we were going straight to Tam Coc. Of course we weren’t. It turned out that we were on someone else’s tour bus and eventually would end up in Tam Coc. We heard something about lunch so decided to just go with the flow. We visited HoaLu which is an ancient city where the King and Queen used to live. Abbie got papped looking rather unhappy about the tour situation by a Vietnamese guy and followed around the temples asking her to buy it. Of course Jayde bought it for future situations of bullying. What is called the ‘castle’ of the city fits inside a normal sized exhibition room which, although Vietnamese people are small, didn’t look fit for a King or Queen! New Abbie nearly sent us all to hell by tripping over the king’s throne and nearly knocking it over. As she tripped we all looked back in slow motion with a rumpled faces hoping for the best for the ancient famous chair. Luckily it stayed firmly on its legs.
As we finally arrived in Tam Coc we went for another riveting meal of rice and soy sauce, and Abbie tried a new delicacy of plain noodles, hot water and pale tasteless porc. With not a lot of time before sundown we took a boat through some caves along the river. Unfortunately you can’t just get the boat yourself, you have to pay someone to do it for you. You have to pay for a pass and also the boat so you end up paying around 300,000vnd. Living up to the western stereotype we stepped in two in each boat and set off for a 7km journey. A fun fact: King Kong was filmed here. lot of the rowers use their feet which is a funny yet very effective technique! Along the way we were heckled over by a lady selling food on her boat and ended up paying for some for the rower, then she still asked us for a bloody tip at the end! Cheek! So if you go, don’t buy them food! A lady was even rowing down singing karaoke; even when you leave the city your ears are still being tortured by something! For dinner we decided to have some Western food, the burger was coconut flavour with about 4 oily chips on the plate and our pizzas were the size of a microwave McCain’s mini pizza with cucumber on top. All in all not much of an achievement on the food front, but an interesting and very hilarious day.
Our second and final day in a freezing and rainy Tam Coc, we discovered that the national park was a little pricey for what it is so we decided to rent some motorbikes and see some temples, caves and waterfalls. Linh Coc grotto was our first stop, rather off the track and stripped of tourists we pondered in not knowing where we were or what was going on. We walked into a forecourt type of area with a building in front of us and some shrine looking things to our left. One lady walked past us looking very happy and we assumed she lived in the house. To the left of the shrine were some steps so up we climbed to find a pagoda (Vietnamese word for temple) hidden in the side of the rock face which was covered in crystals. A beautiful view extended over the edge of the rocks towards rice fields and jungle. When we got to the bottom of the steps again we got a full view of the area, and realised they had a dog caged up in a wooden box with a metal front. I peered into the cage for my eyes to be met with the sickening sight of a whimpering and shaking dog, huddled in the corner of the box. Infuriated I decided to free the dog, well, at least unhook the door so it could escape if it wanted to. As my hand extended out to complete the action, the dog creased itself more into the cage, if that was even possible. I was met with a dilemma here: releasing the dog disrupts this rural way of life in this country, the dog could attack me when I release it and I’ll get rabies, but to keep a dog like this is wrong. We checked out the surrounding and found kittens hidden away behind a big wooden door with just a tiny hole to peep from. I scoped the place to make sure we wouldn’t get caught and heard some noise from the house. I banged on the door, which was answered by nothing more than what I can imagine a witch to look like. The elderly woman’s eyes were black, covered over by a thin white film. She stared into my eyes as I forced the words out of my stunned mouth, “is this your house?” “Is this your dog” “why is it in that cage?”. She spoke little to no English and realising that I was getting angry about the dog she started shouting, shooing us with her hand and following us out of the gates. Mission save the dog was a fail, but I’ve probably been cursed by a witch.
Our next stop, a little shaken, was Bich Dong pagoda which is free entry. Don’t pay to park your bike outside, go down the street where the market stalls are, leave them there and walk. On the way back we got a little lost trying to find a village which we later realised was the village we’d been living in for the past two days… Down a track which looked like a building site, following the GPS on my phone, the cement mixers and tools didn’t ring out any bells to us, and the massive ramp of wet cement also didn’t make us slow down. Well, Jayde did but we didn’t notice that, I was too busy thinking I’ll have to go a little faster to get up that ramp with another person on the back of my bike. Up we revved and half way over the road we thought it felt a little wobbly, which was confirmed by new Abbie’s scream: “IT’S WET CONCRETE!” She turned her bike around and I panicked, the bike sinking quicker into the cement, and road straight off the side of it into some wasteland. We were beside ourselves with laughter and shock at the fact that we just completely ruined a huge patch of cement work. I checked out the rest of the road and contemplated continuing whilst new Abbie and Jayde had fled the scene. Abbie and I pondered around a bit feeling a wash of bad karma influx our bodies at what we had just done. We noticed a truck coming down the road so we realised we needed to leg it. We pushed the bike down the side of the concrete, dropped it on its side twice, tried to stop laughing and when we looked up a woman was riding towards us on her scooter.
“Abbie get ready to jump on we have to go!!” I screamed.
Never has such a small metal concrete support been so large an obstacle. If we were on the other side, we would have been away, no identities given, no experience of the aftermath of our ‘slight’ incident and probably a slightly less guilty conscience. But we weren’t. The bike was stuck on the opposite side, blocked in, so the escape plan was an incredible fail. In fact the lady on the bike, who was shouting at us for the concrete had to help us drag the bike over. In the midst of this turmoil, new Abbie had turned up with ‘I’m sorry’ on loop from her voice box, unable to say anything else to the woman. Then her bike broke. Exactly when we needed to escape. So the woman started checking our bikes for identification whilst another lady turned up and got on the blower to what we assumed was the police. The turtle head was peeping is all I’ll say about that. A few more apologies and shouting about the lack of wet concrete sign the women drove off, so we waited for her to leave to keep our registration plates out of view (even though she probably already memorised them) and fled the scene, new Abbie in tow dragging along her broken scooter. Now for the next dilemma. We couldn’t move the bike far from the cement scene, and we had to get back to the bike garage to get someone to come to repair it, whilst staying incognito and not telling the bike man about the concrete, which the woman definitely would if she saw us all standing outside the building site. So we sped off to get the bike man who came and took one try to switch Abbie’s bike back on and it worked, gave her his bike and tootled off. Crisis averted. Now to find a new place to go. After getting lost a few times and having to ride back past the concrete crime scene with our scarves wrapped around our heads to stay secret, thanking our lucky stars that we were getting on a bus that night, we went for a ride around some rice fields.
Of course we didn’t JUST go for a ride. We turned the corner to get off the main road and heard a massive crash. I turned my head and saw Jayde sprawled on the floor. Panic shot through us all as we leaped off our bikes, left them spinning on the floor and ran to Jayde, who got up creasing over with laughter and the whole street ran over picking everything back up for us. Bruised legs, arms, hands and face, spots of blood pricked up from the grazes around her chin and we all fell about laughing. The locals didn’t quite know what to do; this probably isn’t the usual reaction of someone after flying off their motorbike into the gravel. The wing mirror was smashed which made us laugh even more, so much so when we got back on the road there were moments I couldn’t even see because I kept remembering Jayde on the floor. We drove up to Bird Valley, realised it wasn’t anything special and didn’t want to pay, got stuck in some mud and went to get Jayde’s wing mirror fixed. By this time it was lashing it down and felt like -100 degrees so we took refuge in the hostel and had a hot choccie before our first over night bus of our lives. We bought some beers and took a bottle of vodka on with us, ended up waiting an hour for the bus, pestering every one that came past to see if we were meant to be on it. We got on, got shouted at for not taking our shoes off before we got to the top step, popped them in a plastic bag and realised there were no beds left. Jayde got sent off to the back, I got shoved on a top bunk, new Abbie on another and a Vietnamese man got turfed out of his bed so Abs could get in. Abbie’s face of yet another moral dilemma of taking someone’s seat was a picture. I’ve come to the understanding that the Vietnamese probably don’t actually pay to be on the bus so they have to move when the bus is getting full.
To explain the night buses, it’s called a sleeping bus and it is basically a bus decked out with bunk beds of plastic and leather. They’re visible in the streets by their red and blue LED lights on the windows which quite honestly looks like a naked dancing lady could pop out of the curtains at any second and we’d be transported to the Red Light District. New Abbie poured the vodka which turned out to taste like turps, and I went to the back to give one to Jayde to find her sat with a lemon face in a bed with a couple! I could not stop laughing. Neither could the people around me when they realised what was going on. So Jayde came to sit with us for a bit before she was shouted at to get back to her three man bed and off we went for the ride to Phong Nha!