Jackfruit adventures: final episodes in Bali and Bangkok

After over a week of our gruelling routine on Gili Air we moved to Bali where our first stop was Ubud. Day 1 was spent raiding Ubud’s jewellery shops whilst on the second day we organised an ill-fated day trip to see the sunset at Tanah Lot temple, supposedly one of Bali’s most magnificent sights.

On hindsight we probably shouldn’t have stopped at this other temple which happened to have a jackfruit vendor outside meaning we promptly bought a quarter of the fruit. Stopping at a coffee plantation wasn’t a wise idea either because I used the last of our cash to buy some Balinese coffee (induced by the caffeine high from all the free tasters). So by the time we arrived at Tanah Lot and Nyoman, our driver, informed us that there was an entrance fee to pay for the temple, we were utterly penniless. This meant we reluctantly had to turn back and go back to Ubud, leaving the sunset and a whole lot of shame behind us. To console ourselves we finished off the jackfruit and washed it down with some Balinese wine. Totally worth missing the sunset for that jackfruit.

The next stop was Danau Batur, a huge lake at the bottom of Gunung Batur, an active volcano in  the north of Bali. Most people head there to climb Gunung Batur and admire the sunrise (why the obsession with sunrises?), but of course our lack of suitable attire and the fateful injured foot meant we had to forgo what would surely have been a very enjoyable early morning walk.

We contented ourselves with sipping hot lemon tea whilst admiring the view of Gunung Batur from below at a floating restaurant on the lake’s shore, digging into unbelievably cheap fresh fish and paying a visit to the nearby hot springs. Most people do this after the trek but there’s no reason why one should necessarily climb up a mountain at some ungodly hour before dipping into a pool.

The day before we flew back to Bangkok Nyoman drove us down to Kuta and so as not to completely tarnish our tourist credentials we asked him to stop by Tanah Lot on the way there, promising we’d have enough cash this time! We were accompanied by an Indian filmmaker from Goa who had had his big break by filming a documentary on Union Carbide’s pesticide plant.

Our parsimony was well rewarded with Tanah Lot’s spectacular views. The temple is perched on a large offshore rock which is relentlessly pummelled by the waves. Given the high tide we couldn’t actually walk to the temple itself and were limited to admiring the hypnotising waves crash onto the beach at the foot of the black cliffs. The awe-inspiring sight of Bali’s western coastline battered by the tide did little to assuage our dread at the thought of going home so soon.

Back in Bangkok, we endeavoured to cram in as much papaya salad, jackfruit and morning glory as time would allow. We became regulars at our favourite stalls and were happy to be back in a city that draws you in with its never-ending buzz of steaming pots and sizzling street kitchens, its heady smells of garlic, chili, fish sauce, fried chicken and salty grilled seafood, and its fiery noodle soups that set noses running being slurped in the sticky heat.

Chris was only too happy to show us around again and we finally got a chance to introduce him to our papaya salad lady on Charoenkrung and our spicy squid salad lady just by our hotel. Chris ensured we broke out of our habits by making us try papaya salad with salted crab and rotten fish sauce (it actually tasted nice!), noodles with pork blood (again, a pleasant surprise) and a soup with mushrooms, pumpkin, green vegetables and enough chilies to feed the whole of Thailand (although apparently this was the “non-spicy” version for us farangs) which was to die for. We promptly asked the lady for another bowl and took it up to Chris’s to have after our swim in his pool!

To end the trip in style we hit up the notorious One Night Only on Silom Soi 4 for what we hoped would be a night of dancing and ogling at the drop-dead gorgeous not-so-gay-after-all waiters. Well, it turns out that unless you’re a big group willing to either shove lots of banknotes down their trousers or consume copious amounts of alcohol, they’re not that interested in you. Astrid and I swallowed this bitter truth along with our wine and contented ourselves with ogling in a way that was only marginally more restrained than the first time.

All in all, it was a fitting ending for our trip and we boarded our plane already hatching plans to return.

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Long bus rides and walks from Yogya to the Gilis

Our first impression of Indonesia can quite simply be summed up with one word: chaos. After immigration we filed into a room which could hardly fit all the passengers from several flights let alone all their luggage. Airport staff were lifting our bags off the baggage carousel and stacking them on the floor next to it whilst the crowd of people craning their necks to identify their suitcase grew and grew. Finally we were given the green light and like angry bees we swarmed around the bags, checking name tags and if lucky hauling the bag through the frantic buzzing crowd. One German man told me Yogyakarta’s airport had not changed this grossly inefficient system in 25 years, but that they were belatedly renovating the airport.

On our bus ride into the centre we started chatting with a friendly girl from Borneo studying at Yogyakarta’s university. Despite the rain she offered to take us to our hotel and our instinctive scepticism (people are never so friendly in Europe) soon gave way to warm surprise and gratitude. Baggage carousels aside, Indonesia had already left its mark.
 
Our five days in Yogyakarta were spent going on long walks (one with the sole aim of acquiring wine which ultimately proved fruitless) and visiting the Kraton which housed the sultan and royal court. Being creatures of habit we dined at the same restaurant every night where we discovered tempeh, or fermented soybean cake. With such an appetising name we probably don’t need to expand on how delicious it is, but you can trust us when we say that tempeh grilled or doused in peanut sauce is a real mouthwatering treat!
 
We made a day trip to Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple site in Indonesia, although the attractiveness of the temples themselves was somewhat overshadowed by the swarms of schoolchildren jostling to have pictures with the two sweaty white tourists. We were immediately approached by two girls, one of whom was named Frisky (yes, really), who explained that they were trainee guides and asked if they could practice their English with us. Once again our innate scepticism reared its ugly head but we ultimately agreed given that we were woefully uninformed on the temple’s history anyways. Frisky proceeded to explain the bas-reliefs telling the story of Ramayana, minus the “pornographic” details depicted in one section. Throughout this hordes of schoolchildren and teenagers as well as their teachers huddled around us and clasped our arms to snap a picture with their smartphones, much to our bemusement.
 
Our next stop was Malang, a city halfway between Yogyakarta and Java’s eastern coast which attracts tourists keen on climbing Mount Bromo. It’s not that we were averse to the idea of taking a bus at midnight, visiting villages throughout the night, trekking for several hours to the summit to catch the sunrise, and then visiting MORE villages on the way back, it’s more that we didn’t have suitably warm clothes and couldn’t POSSIBLY risk such a treacherous climb with Astrid’s injured foot. We just wouldn’t have enjoyed it you see, and it always rains in the mornings anyways! We decided instead to head straight for Bali (plenty of trekking there) and boarded our last night bus of the trip.
 
After a horrendously long journey we arrived in the laid-back fishing village of Padang Bai where we would stay one night before boarding the ferry for Lombok. We duly celebrated our arrival on Hindu territory by quaffing wine over a delicious and unbelievably cheap dinner of grilled fish.
 
Turns out there were more horrendously long journeys in store for us, for the 6-hour ferry ride was followed by a 2-hour drive at snail’s pace through gridlocked traffic from the ferry terminal to Senggigi, our destination on Lombok. To make it worse our van overheated and we had to wait whilst a replacement van inched through the traffic to reach us.
 
We spent three days in Senggigi lounging on its lovely beach with blue and white fishing boats. In the evenings we headed to our local bustling “warung” (Indonesia’s version of street kitchens) for a plate heaped with grilled squid and “cap cay”, stir-fried vegetables with shrimp.
 
When the time had come to move on the owner of our homestay, Sonya, drove us along with a chatty Lithuanian-Iranian couple living in Sweden to the port (or rather, beach) where we would take a boat to Gili Air. In the early morning Lombok’s scenery was just magnificent. The blue velvet sea lapped at the black volcanic sand beaches framed with tall palm trees. Lombok’s imposing mountains towered over us in all their emerald green glory whilst the tips were still shrouded in the silvery early morning mist.
 
We parted ways with the Lituanian-Iranian couple who were heading to Gili Trawangan and waited on the beach whilst our boat was loaded with white burlap bags full of rice, chilies, green beans, cucumbers, morning glory, tomatoes and onions. We wholeheartedly approved of the food being shipped to Gili Air. The passengers sat, rather cramped, on the edges of the narrow boat where there was still some free space for legs and feet.
 
The only means of transportation on the Gili islands is either by foot, which is not ideal when you have a heavy backpack on your shoulders, or by a horse-drawn cart. Luckily Astrid decided to spare me a hideously long walk in the glaring sun so we opted for the latter.
 
After a hard day of lying on the white beach we found a friendly warung run by a group of relaxed boys who like to sit and chat with their guests and belt out Rod Stewart’s “I don’t want to talk about it” whilst strumming on a guitar. As we lay back on our cushions on the bamboo platform facing the sea, our bellies full of grilled red snapper and the wind blowing through our hair, these incorrigibly carefree Indonesians singing away had us hooked on the Gili islands immediately.
 
Thinking the night was over we headed back to our hotel only to be invited by the staff to sit down with them in the reception whilst they also played guitar and sang a range of classics from Rod Stewart to Bob Marley over a bottle of wine and several bottles of beer. It didn’t take long for us to decide to prolong our stay on Gili Air!
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From Pulau Perhentian to Penang

Our first days in Krabi were spent exploring the night market (which luckily starts at lunchtime) and making repeated visits to our trusted jackfruit lady to buy inordinate quantities of the fruit.

Having exhausted all culinary options we decided to head to Railay beach for a day which involved taking a rickety longtail boat from Ao Nang. The day involved melting in the sun and cooling off in the water with the imposing limestone karsts forming a beautiful backdrop.

The next day we flew to Kota Bharu in Malaysia where we met up with my dad before heading to the Perhentian islands for 10 days of idleness. Our days revolved around planning our next meal and floating in the hot, shallow  crystal clear water. Every night included eating barbecued fish whilst digging our feet in the white sand and the occasional narghile under the moonlight.

Veronica joined us for the last few days where we continued in our coconut drinking and eating habits and fitting three of us into a bed. Once the Malaysian elections were over and we had exhausted all excuses for prolonging our stay we decided to hit the road once more, or as I should say, the 12-hour Jungle Railway.

We caught a 7am train from Kota Bharu hoping to get all the way down to Gemas, from where we could catch a bus to Melaka to meet Gideon and Daniel. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise that the whole country would be on the move as Malaysians have to vote in their home towns and were therefore making their way back en masse. After initially being told the train was full, some seats magically reappeared and we were sold tickets to Gua Musang which would have brought us halfway to Melaka.

As the train meandered its way through the jungle-clad Malaysian interior we managed to get the ticket collector to sell us tickets all the way to Gemas, although Astrid and Veronica had to give up their seats after Gua Musang. Fighting off the urge to let the train cradle us to sleep we managed to take in some of the stunning limestone karsts jutting out of their thick green coat (which had been the aim of taking the train). Once the scenery changed to endless palm tree plantations we finally gave in to our exhaustion.

We arrived in Melaka two bus rides later and made our way to our hostel, run by the gregarious Howard, to meet up with Gideon and Daniel.

The next three days in Melaka were spent exploring the quaint little streets and boutiques of Chinatown adorned with red lanterns and breathing in the swirls of incense. Across the river we found Little India which had a more genuine touch to it with shops selling saris spilling out onto the street along with loud Bollywood tunes. Regular stops were made for Gideon and Daniel to sample endless blocks of Indian sweets (mainly butter and sugar in different colours).

Veronica’s boyfriend Haider joined us with his friend David on the second day. It was nice to finally meet him and hear their stories from living in Sri Lanka.

The only blemish on the trip was having my bag snatched by a passing motorcyclist as I was strolling through Chinatown. Luckily there wasn’t a lot of money in my wallet but the main loss was my camera with all the pictures I had taken so far.

True to form we didn’t miss an opportunity to try out Melaka’s culinary delights. Our days started off with a lavish dim sum breakfast where we pointed at the various steaming types brought to us on a tray. We then moved on to Indian restaurants where we learnt the art of scooping up curries and rice served on a banana leaf with one hand.

On our final day we rounded off the trip by browsing through the night market where we sampled poh piah, fresh spring rolls stuffed with slow-cooked turnip, tofu, and beansprouts.

We parted ways with the group in search of cooler climates and made our way to the Cameron Highlands, an old English hill station. After over two weeks without jackfruit we were ecstatic when we spotted some jackfruit peels in a bin. We returned to the spot the next day to buy 2 kilos of jackfruit from an incredulous vendor, who was even more shocked when we returned later that day for more.

Our stomachs stuffed, we set off to find some strawberry picking. Luckily for our guts, we were met with more of an urban strawberry farm rather than the wide sprawling fields we had been hoping for, so we contented ourselves with sampling the juicy strawberries from a box.

We are now in Penang where we have been strolling around Chinatown, Little India and the colonial district. With its blackened buildings and reeking open-air sewers, Georgetown has the charm of those somewhat dilapidated towns that were once grand, like Naples. The winding streets and colourful late nineteenth-century houses are beautiful, if a bit rundown.  We enjoyed spotting original street art murals on ur long strolls.

We were lucky enough to catch Vero for a beer before she headed to Kuala Lumpur to meet her parents. Sitting on stools on the side of a dingy street we gulped down Tiger beers amongst sweaty, often shirtless, locals bearing their heavy beer bellies.

The day after tomorrow we will head to Kuala Lumpur before flying to Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

(Astrid’s camera has died so we will put up more photos later on.)

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Coral Beach

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Coral Beach

Julia on Long Beach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil

Julia on Long Beach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil

Chinatown in Melaka

Chinatown in Melaka

Friends reunited in Melaka

Friends reunited in Melaka

DSC00498

Chinese Clan House, Penang

Chinese Clan House, Penang

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Falangs in Thailand

We returned to Bangkok two weeks ago for a few days before heading south towards the islands. We knew that Gideon and his brother were in Bangkok so we met up for an evening drink after not seeing them for two years. After catching up we parted ways and agreed to meet up again on our first island, Koh Tao.

The next day we met up with our trusted guide Chris who took us on a long trip two hours south of Bangkok to Mae Klong Market. The journey is an integral part of the market experience, however, as the train runs right through the market as the sellers speedily put away their stalls and pull back their awnings to let it pass. Almost immediately afterwards market life resumes as usual as if nothing had happened. The train passes through eight times a day.

Whilst browsing the various stalls selling colourful fruits, giant squid, and many more unknown foods we followed the sounds of a drumming parade and stumbled across the town’s Songkran (Thai New Year) celebrations. Crowds of people with clay painted across their face brandished water guns and roamed the streets and we soon involuntarily took part in the celebrations when the crowd swarmed around us shouting “falang, falang!” (meaning “foreigner”) and proceeded to smear our faces with clay. Further down the road a truck pumping music fuelled a mid-street dance party with water splashing everywhere.

This was just a taster of what was to come the next day as the Songkran celebrations gathered steam in the capital. Having several hours to spare before our train to Prachuap Khiri Khan we decided to seek out the epicentre of Bangkok’s Songkran and made a bee-line for Silom Road. On our way there we encountered veritable gangs of children and adults stationed next to hose pipes armed and ready to soak every passerby (including tuk tuks). If you were really lucky they had filled a tub with ice cold water and unhesitatingly poured it down your back. When we finally reached Silom Road, soaked to the bone, there was a DJ, a foam party and throngs of people engaging in water warfare. Our train to Prachuap was wet and clay-filled.

We spent our day in Prachuap walking around the laidback seaside town and ventured up Mirror Mountain to glimpse the gorgeous view. This was somewhat dampened by a monsoon-like rainstorm and tourists and monkeys alike sought shelter under the Wat at the top of the mountain.

The next day we began our journey towards Koh Tao and around 11pm boarded a rickety wooden night boat where we slept on tiny mattresses on the floor in the company of cockroaches. It was essentially a cargo boat using the top floor to transport people.

Our few days on Koh Tao were spent mostly sprawled on the beach or snorkelling around the beautiful coral. Gideon and Daniel joined us on the second day when we decided to finally venture up the daunting mountains and go on a long walk up the tortuous roads to find a genuine street stall. We decided to reward our efforts with an hour-long massage in a streetside shack.

Our next stop was Koh Phangan, the notorious Full Moon Party island. We managed to rope Gideon and Daniel into staying in Haad Rin, the tourist hotspot of the island, so that we would not be as secluded as we had been on Koh Tao. This involved sampling buckets filled with spirits of questionable quality and eating outrageous amounts of spicy papaya salad.

After much haggling and arm-twisting we got a taxi to a northern beach which supposedly was one of the best snorkelling spots of the island. We proved ourselves as worthy descendants of Robinson Crusoe by using a bamboo stick to knock down a coconut and cut a hole into it to drink the sweet water. Not wanting to waste anything we cut it open and proceeded to knock the flesh off its shell with rocks. To cool down we rented some snorkelling equipment and swam among bright purple anemone, red and green coral, small neon blue fish and a host of other tropical fish I cannot name.

For some bizarre reason Astrid loves to take really long walks in the sweltering heat up steep mountain roads. Unfortunately Daniel and Gideon were not averse to this idea either and against the locals’ advice (who said “it can’t be done!”) we embarked on a hideous 10km walk in what must have been 35+ degree heat to reach Thong Sala’s night market. About two hours later, drenched in sweat, we descended upon the market with cavernous appetites. We picked up fish dumplings, squid pad thai, roasted pork salad and the ubiquitous papaya salad. For dessert we indulged in sticky rice with mango and condensed milk as well as some unknown green and yellow gooey thai sweets.

This morning we parted ways with Gideon and Daniel (with plans to meet up later on in Malaysia) and arrived in Krabi, a small city set amongst imposing limestone cliffs coated with thick vegetation. Over-excited by the presence of a large food market we indulged in a day-long foodie-fest and finally found our beloved jackfruit which had eluded us on the islands. We are content to stay here for two days before we fly to Malaysia to meet up with Alberto on the Perhentians.

On the train to Mae Klong

On the train to Mae Klong

baby monkey on mirror mountain

baby monkey on mirror mountain

in Prachuap as a storm is brewing

in Prachuap as a storm is brewing

caught in the storm in Prachuap

caught in the storm in Prachuap

carrying 24 soda water bottles for 40 minutes over hilly terrain

carrying 24 soda water bottles for 40 minutes over hilly terrain

enjoying a smoothie

enjoying a smoothie

Beach babes

Beach babes

Daniel relaxing on the beach

Daniel relaxing on the beach

Sunset at the beach

Sunset at the beach

A third of the way in to a 10 km walk. We were sweaty...

A third of the way in to a 10 km walk. We were sweaty…

7 am ferry from Koh Pha Ngan

7 am ferry from Koh Pha Ngan

Cutting open the hard-earned coconut

Cutting open the hard-earned coconut

Happy with jackfruit pits

Happy with jackfruit pits

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A two-day street food rampage in Hanoi

We had two main aims for our brief stay in Hanoi: to try Vietnamese noodle soup “pho” and to see as much of the city’s sights as possible. Needless to say, we were more successful with the first.

Being back in a large city meant many things. Incessant honking, cramped pavements (mainly because their main function is as a scooter parking space), chaotic traffic, pollution and shops selling everything you can possibly think of. However, we were excited about the reappearance of dilapidated street kitchens and stalls selling brightly coloured fruits, weirdly shaped vegetables, Vietnamese baguettes, barbecued meat and the ubiquitous rice-based foods.

As usual our first priority after dropping off our bags was getting some food. Astrid had led us and a French girl who had mistakenly put her trust in Astrid on a bit of trek across a motorway a couple of times in an attempt to find our hotel. On the way to our restaurant we were constantly sidetracked by street stalls selling alluring food, such that by the time we got to the restaurant we were already full.

Our first stop was at a stall selling bunh bao, which are steamed doughy dumplings filled with pork and quail eggs. We were stopped yet again by the sight of a woman carrying two baskets of jackfruit, which we had yet to try. One of the biggest regrets of the trip is not having this fruit sooner, for it was delicious. It tasted like a sweeter and crunchier mango, yum.

Falsely confident after a winning streak of street food we spotted what looked like tasty rice pancakes with peanuts. Instead we got gelatinous patties with unsalted peanuts in a bitter, salty sauce. They ended up in the bin.

By the time we got to the restaurant our appetite had diminished significantly, but we were still able to enjoy our catfish spring rolls with dill (apparently a common north Vietnamese ingredient).

Sufficiently satiated, we headed to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. It is dedicated to a Vietnamese general who, according to the bizarre information sign, is universally considered one of the most important military figures in world history. Either we are ignorant or some delusions are at work. The next stop was St Joseph Cathedral, a Catholic neo-Gothic structure which sticks out in Hanoi.

Our evening was spent swilling beers on a Hanoi street corner where our street food curiosity got the better of us again. It started off well with fresh springrolls, soaked peanuts and rice cakes in spicy sauce. However, my insistence on finding out what was wrapped in the banana leaves succeeded in getting Astrid to treat us to raw pork with fatty gelatine pieces. The Vietnamese friends we had made were shocked we did not appreciate this strange variant of a sausage. We washed it down with plenty of beer.

On our walk home Astrid’s shoe broke so she proceeded first to limp rather gawkily to the amusement of passersby. After tripping several times on the loose sole of her shoe she decided that it would be easier to walk backwards (although no less amusing for the rest of us) and took my hand so that I could guide her along the cluttered pavement. We must have been quite a sight: one girl laughing uncontrollably leading another girl walking backwards ever so gracefully.

So excited by street food, we decided that our last day in Vietnam would be dedicated to trying new culinary delights. We first sampled Bu bo nam bo (dry noodles with beef, bean sprouts, garlic and lemongrass) in a street kitchen that goes by the same name and only serves that one dish. Hungry for pho, we sat down at another street kitchen where we gracefully ate a plate of noodles in a hot broth with chili, pork, celery and lime.

For dinner we went to a restaurant which ostensibly only serves grilled fish, however when our waiter came bearing chunks of breaded fish and dipped them in the hot pan with the sizzling water spinach and dill we realised this was a different version of “grilled” fish than we had expected. Served with raw onion, parsley, peanuts and noodles it was nevertheless tasty.

We spent our final evening in Vietnam enjoying the cheap beer on tiny plastic stools while people-watching.

Tomorrow we head back to Bangkok where we will meet Gideon and his brother.

delicious jackfruit

delicious jackfruit

Banh Bao

Banh Bao

the not so delicious gelatious rice cakes

the not so delicious gelatinous rice cakes

by Hoan Kiem lake

by Hoan Kiem lake

the venerated general

the venerated general

outside Ngoc Son temple

outside Ngoc Son temple

inside the cathedral

inside the cathedral

St. Joseph Cathedral

St. Joseph Cathedral

Beer swilling ladies

Beer swilling ladies

raw pork wrapped in banana leaves

raw pork wrapped in banana leaves

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Historical Hue

Our first outing in Hue was, unsurprisingly, to find lunch. Going to a restaurant catering mostly to the Vietnamese meant the service came without a single smile or even acknowledgement that our order had been understood (as it turns out, it hadn’t), but luckily this had no impact on the quality of the food. We ordered bánh bèo, thinking it was the crispy rice pancake with shrimp and pork I had read about in my guide, steamed squid with chili and lemongrass and of course stir-fried morning glory. Well, as it turns out I had actually read about bánh khoai, and to say the least we were slightly baffled when our dour waitress came back bearing a round tray with tiny bowls of some white gelatinous substance topped with shrimp and pork sprinkles. Our bewilderment increased when she brought a plate of fried squid with tomatoes, but we decided that it wouldn’t be wise to insist on our original order. It was delicious anyways. The white gelatinous substance turned out to be steamed rice pancakes and we ate enough to feign appreciation. Thankfully the morning glory was the only order that didn’t come with any twists.

After a lazy afternoon we headed to a night market on the banks of the Perfume River to seek out some more cheap food. We eventually settled for a makeshift street kitchen barbecuing fish and pointed at a nice squid lying on the plate (we had concluded that pointing works better than speaking). We were seated at the typical red plastic tables and chairs and were pleased to note that we were some of the few foreigners that had roamed the market. To start off with we had fried seafood and shrimp balls on a skewer and after a long wait our perfectly barbecued squid was brought to the table.

The next day we embarked on our sightseeing activities and walked to the Imperial Citadel on the opposite bank of the river. Stopping to get a drink, we managed to once again amuse the locals when I freaked out and did some interesting twitching after Astrid pointed out “Julia, you have a MASSIVE bug on your face.” This time she did help me get the furry caterpillar off my face. We lost all local street cred when I insinuated the caterpillar might be crawling up her chair and she jumped up and threw it behind her. Everyone around us was laughing their heads off.

After our ordeal we walked around the Imperial Citadel, a collection of temples, impressive gates, royal halls and reading rooms spread across a vast green area because most of the Citadel suffered extensive damage during the Vietnam war and was left to decay until recent restoration projects were started. As a result many of the buildings are slightly dilapidated, but this gave the citadel a rather impressive decadent aura.

In the meantime the sky had clouded over and the temperature had dropped so much that it was actually pleasant to walk around. Anticipating a heavy tropical downpour, reinforced by seeing all the locals in rain jackets, we sat down for a smoothie to escape the impending deluge. Little did we know Vietnam is actually more like England. It drizzles for hours on end, and it’s the kind of rain which doesn’t warrant staying inside but does a pretty good job of wetting you anyways. To compound the discomfort the wind always seems to blow from the direction you’re walking in, so that your face is not spared a good scrub. After stopping in another cafe in an attempt to wait out the rain we tried to ask for some plastic bags to protect our belongings. The woman feigned ignorance until Astrid invested in a very flattering Vietnamese rain poncho, and then miraculously brought forward a plastic bag which I happily used for my belongings.

That night we decided to splash out on a French-Vietnamese restaurant, our moods having been boosted by the cool weather which meant we were wearing our hair loose for pretty much the first time since we’ve been here without feeling uncomfortably sticky. Our grilled tuna steaks with wasabi cream sauce for me and chili and lemongrass for Astrid were delicious accompanied with our home-sickness induced campari.

On our final full day we had planned on a quick visit to a pagoda with a relaxing lunch and a visit to a market. Well. Some things don’t always go as planned. After walking for about 30 minutes we realised that the pagoda we had initially embarked to see was 4km out of town. Undeterred, we turned around and headed for another pagoda which our guidebook misleadingly suggested was not too far away. After walking for another two hours we were on the outskirts of Hue at the beginning of a motorway. Finally arriving at the Bao Quoc Pagoda, it was distinctly underwhelming after our long trek and was made even more uncomfortable by a man not-so-stealthily following us around.

Starving and tired we attempted to buy two bananas only to be sold seven and the thought that our leisurely lunch was an hour’s walk away started to make us both cranky and generally unpleasant people. We therefore sat down at a locals’ place nearby and finally tasted bánh khoai as well as some fresh pork spring rolls. The food significantly lifted our spirits and we were able to make our way home without any incidents.

That evening our food orders once again resembled a lottery raffle when I ordered a fig salad with shrimp and pork only to be presented with an unknown brownish-green vegetable which was nevertheless delicious.

Today we are embarking on a 14-hour bus ride to Hanoi, our last stop in Vietnam.

By the Perfume River

By the Perfume River

Ready to enter the Imperial Enclosure

Ready to enter the Imperial Enclosure

Entrance to the Imperial Enclosure

Entrance to the Imperial Enclosure

Entering the newly restored (funded by a Polish organization??) To Mieu Temple Complex, where nine dynastic urns are held.

Entering the newly restored (funded by a Polish organization??) To Mieu Temple Complex, where nine dynastic urns are held.

Three tired Hien Lam Pavilion

Three tiered Hien Lam Pavilion

To Mieu Temple

To Mieu Temple

In the Forbidden Purple City

In the Forbidden Purple City

Starting new fashion trends in the Hue rain

Starting new fashion trends in the Hue rain

Finally arrived at the Bao Quoc Pagoda, founded in 1670.

Finally arrived at the Bao Quoc Pagoda, founded in 1670.

Unconvinced this was worth hours of walking....

Unconvinced this was worth hours of walking….

Tired, after hours of walking

Tired, after hours of walking

Trying to be excited about the pagoda (largely, failing)

Trying to be excited about the pagoda (largely, failing)

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Heading north to Hoi An

We arrived in Hoi An cranky and sweaty early in the morning and made a beeline for the hotel to drop off our bags and take a much-needed shower. Refreshed and clean we set off to explore Hoi An, a charming and quaint little town on a river. At 7am the riverside market is already in full swing with stalls loaded with exotic vegetables we can’t name and trays full of meat and fish which could still be considered somewhat fresh. The ubiquitous scooters dart in between people and stalls on wheels with their characteristic honking. Old ladies carry two huge baskets laden with fruit or vegetables which hang from each extremity of a wooden pole across their shoulders. Walking through as a foreigner you are approached with a constant “hello, you buy something” or “where you from my friend”. Luckily our hotel had warned us that this was part of an attempt to lure us into low-quality tailor shops so we quickly learned to ignore them and just smile back instead.

Back in Nha Trang two girls had extolled the sartorial virtues of Hoi An’s tailors so we knew exactly what our first stop would be. Heading away from the river we found the peaceful streets lined with shops selling beautiful dresses, handmade shoes and bags, and surprisingly, winter coats (they evidently knew their clientele). Having already browsed the internet for the dresses and skirts we wanted made, we headed to our tailor shop. After having our measurements taken we then found a shoe shop where I got some sandals made.

As the heat started to beat down on us we found a riverside café where we sampled a Hoi An delicacy. The “white rose” consisted of steamed wonton dumplings with shrimp and pork and crispy wonton flakes sprinkled on top.

After attempting to explore the town a little longer we decided we had earned ourselves a drink and sat down on the typical child-size Vietnamese red plastic chairs on the side of the street to have some coconut water. Not content with drinking the water we began to dig the inside of the fruit out with our straws in a very ladylike manner. A policeman also escaping the sun at the same streetside café noticed our predicament and signalled to the owner to chop our coconuts in half and give us spoons. This made enjoying our coconut significantly more elegant and less noisy, although probably less amusing for the policeman.

In the evening we had dinner at the renowned Café des Amis (named café instead of restuarant to pay less taxes) where we devoured noodles with squid and vegetables, fried wonton with sweet and sour sauce and fresh spring rolls with shrimp and pork. Halfway through the meal a two-inch long beetle plummeted from the roof smack onto our table, causing Astrid to swiftly leap from our bench as the insect writhed on its back. A German man at the table next to us came to our rescue and scooped the beetle away, although not far enough judging from Astrid’s reluctance to sit back down so he flicked it away a second time. Lesson learned: do not trust Astrid in times of need when insects are involved.

After clothes our next priority was obviously the beach. We rented bikes and cycled to a nearby beach town a few kilometres away. As the wind picked up, so did the sand and we discovered the beach is not always so relaxing when you’re having sand constantly blowing on to you. Defeated, we cycled back to our hotel.

That evening we went to a restaurant whose menu is inspired by Vietnamese street food where we indulged in squid stuffed with pork (we have yet to find this on the street), smoked aubergine with minced pork, papaya and beef salad and of course our favourite stir-fried morning glory with lots of garlic. After dinner we enjoyed the typical summer evening ritual of a post-dinner stroll through town and along the river with ice cream. After that we headed to a local backpackers’ bar and mingled with drunk Scotsmen (no surprise there).

Finally the time had come for sightseeing, as well as picking up our dresses and sandals. Braving the heat we made our way to Quan Cong Temple which is dedicated to a portly Chinese general. Following this we visited the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, the Tran Family Chapel and the Tan Ky House where we learned about Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architecture.

Strolling through town towards our hotel we stumbled upon an old lady selling some mysterious but inviting pancakes on the street corner which immediately made our heads turn and mouths water. We retraced our steps and tasted what were some delicious corn, sweet potato, green bean and coconut pancakes.

We rounded off our trip with a dinner of Hoi An pancakes, water spinach with garlic and a mango and prawn salad.

Today we arrived in Hue after a five-hour bus ride which led us to the conclusion that Vietnam desperately needs a highway system.

inside Tan Ky house, a well preserved 19th century townhouse with examples of Chinese ('turtle' roof), Japanese (3 beams with 5 columns), and Vietnamese (bow and arrow) architecture.

inside Tan Ky house a well preserved 19th century townhouse with examples of Chinese (‘turtle’ roof), Japanese (3 beams with 5 columns), and Vietnamese (bow and arrow) architecture.

Hoi An

Hoi An

Astrid looking thrilled to be sight-seeing

Astrid looking thrilled to be sight-seeing

Incense swirls in the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation

Incense swirls in the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation

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Assembly hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation

Assembly hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation

In Quan Cong temple, dedicated to the portly Chinese general Quan Cong

In Quan Cong temple, dedicated to the portly Chinese general Quan Cong

Chinese-style temple in Hoi An

Chinese-style temple in Hoi An

a night out on the town

a night out on the town

Vietnamese coffee

Vietnamese coffee

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Boats docked on the riverside

Boats docked on the riverside

reading in the shade

reading in the shade

a Hoi An street

a Hoi An street

Vietnamese landscape on the way to Hue

Vietnamese landscape on the way to Hue

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