Luang Prabang, Laos | Or, That Time I Dropped My Underwear in a Drain, Ate Too Much Street Food and Visited Another War Museum

Luang Prabang in northern Laos is one of the few places I saw in South East Asia that I would return to for a two week suitcase holiday. If you enjoyed yourself in Greece or Italy, you will like Luang Prabang. Awful incoming journey and unavoidable Asian plumbing aside, there’s something for everyone: nature, history, pretty sunsets, temples and waterfalls. Waterfalls!

The Kuang Si Waterfalls

Isobel, if you’re reading this: remember when we were messaging and I told you I’d just dropped my knickers in a drain? This is where that happened! So Kuang Si waterfalls are just outside Luang Prabang and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

Kuang Si Falls Luang Pranang Laos
The word you’re looking for is PARADISE

That water lends a new meaning to the term ‘icy blue’ though, it was bloody freezing. But beautiful! If it wasn’t for the freezing thing, I would have moved right in forever. The trees, the running water, the wooden huts in which visitors change and, if they are not paying attention, accidentally drop their undies in a drain. It was a running drain full of, hopefully, waterfall water.

Kuang Si Waterfalls Luang Pranang Laos
DEFINITELY CLEAN WATER. THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT.

There is a little bear sanctuary-slash-zoo near the waterfalls, which I am in two minds about. On the one hand, caged animals is an oxymoron. On the other hand, sun and moon bears are seriously endangered due to poaching (apparently some SE Asian cultures think bear bile is good for sexual virility. I can’t think of anything worse for sexual virility). The enclosure we saw definitely seemed kind of small, but the charity that runs the sanctuary recently posted that they have just bought more land and the bears did seem pretty chilled and happy.

Bear Sanctuary Luang Prabang Laos
That was the best photo I got. I call it ‘talk to the paw’

Laos town

There are, of course, at least three wats in Luang Prabang. I checked out a couple, although if I am being totally honest, after a while one wat looks a lot like another wat. Then again, I can’t tell Michel Barnier apart from David Davis.

Side entrance to Luang Prabang wat
Enter, seeker, and ask
Luang Prabang Wat staircase golden dragon decoration
Dragon statues always look faintly shocked to find themselves attached to banisters

Luang Prabang has a market with the usual street food, clothes, trinkets and jewellery but it also sells gorgeous indigo-dyed clothes and accessories. I’m not sure how big the local textiles industry is, exactly, but one blue scarf would have set me back £25 after haggling, which was my daily budget and about 20 times more expensive than the average cotton scarf, so I think that the industry is a) highly skilled and b) relatively unique to Luang Prabang. I really, really want to go back and buy an indigo scarf.

There is a really cool alleyway in the town with vendors selling the absolute best street food I have ever tasted from giant pans. I think it cost 50p to fill up a bowl with vegetables and eat til I was ready to hibernate. Full disclosure: I did get a run of the shits while I was there, although that could have been down to literally anything. Possibly the encounter with the drain.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
My love

UXO Museum

I already wrote about the Killing Fields of the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnamese War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels, and Laos makes the third corner of a really shitty triangle. I will write more about Laos’ civil war and America’s ‘secret war’ when I post about Phonsavan, which is the next place we stopped in Laos. I blame my politics A Level, but of my favourite parts of Luang Prabang was its UXO museum. UXOs are ‘unexploded ordnance’, basically, bombs that were dropped but never went off. At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos by American forces between 1964 and 1973, but a third didn’t detonate (per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history). Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by ordnance since 1964 and the clean up operation is slow, expensive and dangerous. I don’t have a picture, but there’s a whiteboard outside the museum detailing the exact number of injuries and deaths caused by UXOs per year since 1964; 2016 was the first year no one died from one.

Bomb Shells UXO Museum Luang Prabang Laos
Kinda love that the only health and safety is a few tickets recommending viewers don’t touch

I scrolled through my WordPress gallery and I seem to have shared a ridiculous number of photos of bomb shells. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the names of every type of munition in this photo!

Sleeper Bus Hell and Luang Prabang, Laos

You guys. I can’t tell you about the beautiful country of Laos without first reliving the journey from Hanoi in Vietnam across the boarder to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It’s one of those events that I look back on and, instead of coherent words, all that appears in my head is a large question mark, like a Homer Simpson thought bubble. Since I am going to Barcelona on Monday and have a serious case of itchy feet, I’ve decided to tell this is in second person to really make a connection with you all and so you get itchy feet too!


5pm. You hop on a minibus from your hostel to the bus station. ‘Hop’ really means ‘sit squashed for approximately forty minutes’. The regular bus is not promising. You’re in the rearmost part of the bus next to your younger brother, who is hungover. Usually sleeper bus bunks look like faux leather recliners with little frames attached, but the ones at the back are more like faux leather mattresses, and you squish in right next to a couple of other people, including your brother who you force to sit in the uncomfiest bit of the bed because that’s what you get for travelling with a hangover.

8pm. You have dinner in a small establishment that kept a large bird of prey on a leash. You do not take photos because you have the distinct feeling that the bird of prey is a warg.

10pm. You take diazepam for the first time in your life because you wish to sleep for the next 20 hours, which is approximately the duration of your journey. You try to read a book you picked up in Hanoi but the diazepam kicks in and you start to drift into a surprisingly restful sleep. You wonder briefly if you’ve misunderstood the rudimentary Google search you did before approaching a pharmacist and have misread the possible side effects of diazepam. You briefly contemplate what will happen to your brother if you die right here in the faux leather mattress bed.

7am. You’re awake, but you’re almost comfortable. You’re at the boarder between Vietnam and Laos. It’s cold and misty – you must be at a high altitude. Everything is grey. You creep off the bus wearing flip flops and a t-shirt, clutching your passport and valuables and… you’ve walked onto the set of an apocalypse film?

Nam Kane Boarder Crossing Vietnam/Laos

Aside from about four officials sitting in drafty rooms with mugs of coffee and lots of dark wood furniture, the town’s only inhabitants are dogs. You exchange glances with your equally bemused brother and join the queue for visas. You’re pretty sure it’s twenty dollars for a visa but you’re charged thirty because there is a ‘regional cost’. You go to the loo in what may once have been a military barracks and wonder if they’ll let you come back one day to shoot the apocalypse film.

The diazepam knocks you out for several more hours; when you wake up it’s 3pm. Maybe. you’re closer to ground level and the sun’s out. You stop for food and visit a toilet lit by a single burning candle that in retrospect looks like something one would light to summon the devil. Why is a restaurant toilet lit by a single burning candle when there is definitely electricity in the building? Why are you asking that when you’ve been in Asia for six weeks already? The British are the only people in the world for whom health and safety is a way of life. You notice a series of burnt-out missile shells lined up against walls of buildings and recall something about an American war. You return to your giant bus bed.

You doze off and wake up briefly… up another mountain? You don’t remember the guide book mentioning so many mountains? Maybe it’s all one mountain.

Roadside view en route to Luang Prabang in Laos

5pm. You’re in Luang Prabang. Your hostel has hot water, lockers that work and a mysterious bottle of Jack Daniels next to your bunk that will not move for the duration of your stay.

You don’t know it that, but that’s one of the nicer Laos-related journeys you will take.


Right I’m off to listen to the new Troye Sivan masterpiece and look up the weather in Barcelona!

In Which I Climb a Mountain in Flip Flops | Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

To be completely honest, we planned our route through Vietnam using the route the Top Gear guys took in that Christmas special a few years ago. Ha Long Bay was one of their stops so it was one of ours too. We went with a group from our Hanoi hostel to stay on one of the bay’s islands for a night, because Ha Long is ages out from Hanoi and the occasional group trip is good for you, probably. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO site and, on Top Gear, looked sparkling and beautifully emerald. We went on a cloudy day, so it actually looked like this:

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam on a cloudy day

But we’re British, so it was just like being at home for the summer! Speaking of home, the dock we boarded the boat from reminded me so much of Southend on a bad day that I had to take a photo:

Dock Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Mud: check. Giant container ships on the horizon: check. Grey skies: check. There were a million little crabs trotting about on the mud, which made a nice change from the crap you normally see on Southend’s mudflats, ha.

So as part of the group trip we were required to partake in group activities. Number one: canoeing with a friend. Or, in my case, my wee brother who is actually a lot taller than me and way more into the sport of canoeing than I am. We nearly came to blows about my ability to paddle right after this photo was taken:

Canoeing Ha Long Bay Vietnam

Not as bad as Monopoly at Christmas, but close.

That night the island hostel had a beach bonfire. We tried a local type of dance with bamboo sticks that I have since found on YouTube because I don’t know how to explain it without overusing the word ‘ankle’…

The next day we took a walk up a hill. Or, to be more accurate, we climbed a mountain. Climb because it was made of rocks and mountain because there’s no international definition for what constitutes a mountain so although it may have been a large hill, I’m going to call it a mountain. Also, I did it in flip flops. This was because as we were leaving the hostel in Hanoi, someone mentioned there would be a hike of some sort. I had packed a tiny bag and left my proper shoes in a locker, because when we booked no one mentioned a hike. ‘Should I go back for my shoes?’ I thought. Everyone had shoes apart from Maxim and I. ‘Ah, live a little,’ I told myself. ‘You always over plan and over pack.’ So I left my shoes.

I am never living a little again. It was a fucking mountain.

Ha Long Bay island mountain

There were monkeys on the other side of the giant pile of rocks, which was nice, although they were basically trained to be nice to tourists which was gross. Also, when we were done saying ‘hey, a monkey’ we had to climb all the way back over the bloody mountain. I ripped the elephant pants I bought in Saigon. Always over pack, kids!

Monkey in a tree Ha Long Bay Vietnam

We had to leave our hostel the morning after we got back from Ha Long, because we’d forgotten to book another night, so we relocated to a slightly different part of the Old Quarter. I know I hate group activities, but I was sad to leave some of the people we’d been with on the trip. I don’t really do casual friends but I guess it’s hard not to bond with people over bamboo dancing and rock climbing. So if an American named Suzie (maybe Suzie?) who au paired in London before flying to Hanoi and lost her phone is reading this, hiiiii. Also: an English girl named Claire studying in Australia the English guy travelling with her wearing several ear piercings. We compared passport stamps. It was nice to meet you, and I never say that and mean it.

Oh, by the way, the bathroom of the hostel in Ha Long Bay had no window. This was the view while we cleaned our teeth:

Ha Long Bay view Vietnam

Emerald waters might be slightly overrated.

Sleeper Bus Hell and Hanoi, Vietnam

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but for the latter part of the trip I took diazepam on every journey. This was because of the night bus journey from Hue to Hanoi. I should have known it would be shit – I mean, to an anxious traveller with an anxious bladder, all Vietnamese bus journeys are shit. I should have known it would the travelling equivalent of post-dodgy-curry diarrhoea when the bus was so late that hostel staff noticed…

Our driver was a smoker, which I don’t usually mind, except this one smoked while he drove and an air conditioning unit was right above my sleeper bunk, so all the smoke got regurgitated from his lungs and went shoooom up my nostrils. For nine hours minus a couple of toilet stops. Maxim could normally sleep on the buses, but the best I ever seemed to manage was a nap while I tried not to think about needing a wee. On this particular journey the air was so dry that my throat was like sandpaper, but you can never be sure when the driver will stop, so I sipped a bottle of water nervously until a local kid in the bunk next to me asked in broken English if he could have some because did I mention the smoke

As we neared Hanoi it transpired that Maxim was not sleeping but was in almost unbearable pain from also needing a wee. We pegged it out the bus and grabbed the nearest cab, which proceeded to take us on the scenic route around Hanoi. By the way, it was 2am. I tried not to think about all the times I’ve been the one with horrific bladder problems as I let the cabbie short change me and followed Maxim into our hostel, where the concierge was napping at his desk and several other travellers were collapsed on sofas because check in wasn’t until midday. I do remember a local lady, at around five, taking live fish from a bucket directly opposite the hostel and beheading and gutting them in the same way I make my morning coffee. I didn’t film it, because I don’t want anyone filming my morning coffee, but I suppose Game of Thrones isn’t that gross once you’ve heard live animals professionally decapitated.

I think we were in the Old Quarter of Hanoi – all narrow, windy streets a bit like London or York except with ten thousand more street food vendors selling pho. We didn’t actually stay in Hanoi that long, because our visas were running out – I would have loved to see the old prison, where John McCain was held, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Then again, I’ve seen a lot of prisons in South East Asia. If you’re ever in Hanoi, though, you must do the following:

  • Take a walking tour! We did from our hostel – Hanoi is too crowded to travel anywhere by anything larger than a bike or on foot and there is so much to see, it’s one of those places where you need eight pairs of eyes

Hanoi Old Quarter in Vietnam

  • If you like eggs and coffee, visit Giang Cafe. They invented egg coffee. I unfortunately could not partake but Maxim, who enjoys both coffee and eggs, reported that it tastes a bit like dessert

egg coffee in Giang Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam

  • Go to the post office. Okay so this is probably me being weirdly charmed by post offices, but a post office is such a normal place, it’s perfect for seeing regular people do everyday things. A local girl helped her grandpa with his letters then helped him into a cab, which took me back to all the times we helped my grandmother in and out of cars on days out. Sometimes, when you spend every day doing something new, you need to go and do something normal.
  • Visit St Joseph’s Cathedral. I believe the site was once a temple, and the whole wrecking-sacred-buildings-to-replace-them-with-other-sacred-buildings thing makes me grind my teeth, but props to the architect because the building itself is spectacular. We mooched in and the smell hit me. I don’t do churches, god or any form of spiritual enlightenment as a matter of principle, but the church smelt like… home. Like England. I was suddenly back in church as a semi-cynical eight year old singing hymns with my mum. Don’t look at me like that, I’m allowed to like the smell of childhood.

We took a trip from Hanoi into Ha Long Bay, but that’s a blog for another day. Have you ever walked into somewhere and smelt childhood?

Comfy Beds & Concubines: Hue, Vietnam

(Can I just say, that title is possibly my favourite in eight years of blogging.)

I really liked Hue, because our visit contained my favourite things: old buildings and comfortable dorm rooms. Our hostel was Wild West-themed and I’m not convinced white people should be appropriating Native American culture any more than we already have, but also we were in Vietnam and I’m not used to anyone other than white people appropriating culture. Is it appropriation the same as appreciation? No. Are they too easily confused in a world built on appropriation? Probably.

Anyway. The reviews on Hostelworld raved about the dorm’s beds and by that point in the trip I’d slept in a tent and on a wooden pallet with what seemed to be a yoga mat so I figured, as long as there’s clean sheets I’m happy.

I was so, so happy. The mattresses were squishy. Giant curtains and wooden separators shielded you from the universe. There was a little box with a key for your belongings as well as a locker. Almost like your bedroom at home, except with eleven other people in there!

Wall decorations in Why Not hostel in Hue in Vietnam
Remind me to change ‘coffee’ to ‘tea’ and ‘wine’ to ‘gin’ and make one of these for myself.

Moving on: Hue – pronounced ‘Hway’ – was once the capital of Vietnam and is complete with its own imperial city, aka walled citadel. Maxim and I took a guided tour which I probably should have recorded, because the notes I made on my phone are shite, but here’s what I can tell you with reasonable certainty:

Men wear make up

The 12th and penultimate emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, Khai Dinh, spent loads of time in Europe and when he died in 1925 his tomb – which is the size of an average block of houses – was built with a mix of European and Vietnamese styles, which is why it kind of looks like a cathedral from the Middle Ages. The inside of the tomb reminds me a bit of a church or a temple too. According to my notes, Khai Dinh enjoyed make up and was possibly gay. I have no idea if this had any bearing on his reign.

Men like sex

Onto the next emperor, Minh Mang. He has a serious Wikipedia page but according to my notes he may have had 600 concubines and had the moniker ‘strong at night’. Alternatively that may be another emperor. Presumably such a title is one many of them aimed to enjoy. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed wandering his tomb and highly recommend you also visit if you are in the area.

The Imperial City looks very… imperial

For some reason I have very few photos of the Imperial City, which is enormous and would probably make a good setting for something in Game of Thrones:

Imperial City in Hue Vietnam

I recall that a large portion of the buildings were bombed by B-52s in the American War, but I also have a feeling that one guided tour is not enough to get the full scope of somewhere with as much history as Hue. If anyone fancies sending me back…

We finished with a beautiful evening boat ride along the Perfume River and mooched about the shops for a bit. Hue is a really chilled out town and there are some lovely places in the town selling art and pottery and whatnot, and if I return with a suitcase I will be buying all the art. I seem to remember that Hugh Jackman had something to do with one of them. There was a photograph of him on the wall, anyway…

Riverboat view of the Perfume River, Hue, Vietnam

Next time in the SE Asia blogs: our horrific trip up to Hanoi! Keep an eye out for it, guys, it’ll make you think Southern Rail are the pinnacle of customer service.

Yes, That is a Swastika | The Marble Mountains and Train to Hue, Vietnam

The Marble Mountains

While we were in Danang a friend recommended that we visit the the Marble Mountains, and since mountains are made to be climbed, etc, we went for it. Each of the five pagoda-topped mountains is named after the element it’s supposed to represent, and although they are genuinely made from marble, most of the marble souvenirs available are actually imported from China because the alternative would be mining the mountain all the tourists have paid to see.

view from Marble Moutains, Vietnam
She’ll be coming down the mountain when she coooommmeeeesssss (not sorry I hate that song and now you can hate it too)

Only one mountain is accessible to visitors, and I completely wimped out climbing most of it. Maxim disappeared into a cave and came back half an hour later from a completely different direction; I sat on a bench, wheezed a bit and judged other tourists’ walking boots. After Angkor Wat I’d had enough of intrepid exploring for a bit, although in retrospect it would have helped me sweat off all those M&Ms.

Marble Mountains, Danang, Vietnam
Oh, that? No, your eyes aren’t kidding you. Long before the Nazis seeped through Europe, the Swastika was an religious symbol across Asia and India.

In fact, swastikas were everywhere. Trump had only been in office a few weeks at the time and was stretching his tiny, bigoted Muslim-banning fingers, so seeing beautifully-engraved swastikas in a calm, intricate place of worship was like that feeling you get when you eat bad food and know when you’re going to puke but you’re not sure when. I take solace that few of the bone bags taking over America can actually find Vietnam on a map and will never visit these places for active worship.

I don’t spook easily, but some of the caves were a little bit too ancient-religious-shrine for me. This particular buddha, for example, was nearly invisible until you were right on top of him.

Buddha at Marble Mountains, Hue, Vietnam
Er, yes, hello, I’m going to look at your face and not the politically charged symbol engraved on your chest…

The Marble Mountains were probably the only place in the whole of South East Asia where I could really believe in god(s) and spirituality, probably because it’s so old and, unlike Angkor Wat, there aren’t 8,000 tourists taking selfies every five steps.

entrance to a cave, Marble Mountains, Hue, Vietnam
The steps in this photo look decidedly crooked, but I think for once that’s not down to my photography.

If you’re in the area, definitely make the trip up the mountain – and if you’ve got luggage space, bring me back a marble statue. There’s a spot on my mum’s patio crying out for a large-ish marble effigy of, well, anything.

The Train to Hue

Nowdays, I commute to London once a week on a train and there is little to recommend it as a form of travel. In February, I was completely fed up with buses and insisted we took the train from Danang to Hue, as everyone who had done the trip absolutely raved about the view. We stopped at a chicken restaurant before we left Danang and it is my eternal shame that I mistook a guy picking up a takeaway for a waiter. I also accidentally ordered a dish of what appeared to be very spicy chicken bones.

Chicken restaurant, Danang, Vietnam

I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but if anyone does – I seem to remember it was really well known locally – let me know, because bones aside it was ace.

Our train seats were ticketed and when we reached ours after a suitably long delay, we quietly asked if the elderly Vietnamese couple already in them would mind moving (they didn’t. I felt like a dick white tourist, but I also didn’t want to get turfed off the train).

train from Danang to Hue, Vietnam

I distinctly recall that a local man was boarding the train with a duck, and a tourist said something like, ‘Oh, that duck is so cute! Is it a pet?’ The man did not answer. I am not a busybody, so I did not tell the tourist that the duck was probably his dinner.

That elderly couple came off better in the end – our seats were next to a large white pillar, so we couldn’t really see out of the windows to the infamous beautiful views… and I fell asleep as soon as we left the station, so it didn’t matter anyway. I just checked and I don’t have a single piece of evidence that there was a view at all.

It put me in good stead for commuting, in that respect.

The Nervous, Jetlagged Backpacker’s Guide to Surviving Hostels

I haven’t shared a room since I was about eight, so three months of  12-people dorms with shared bathrooms was in my top five Reasons I Should Maybe Call This Off. By the end of our time in Asia I had mellowed – I even spoke to some of my roommates – but my bedroom and the space that came with it was the thing I missed most other than family. I know that a lot of people who are thinking of going backpacking are put off by the dorm situation so here is a handy guide I put together!

The Basics

If you’re nervous about sharing a dorm, or if you’re jetlagged or tired or just not feeling it, don’t share one. Maxim and I got a room to ourselves when we first arrived in Bangkok because we knew we were going to arrive and pass out. The first few days of another timezone is what I imagine hell will look like when I get there, so invest in two or three nights of not dorms while you get your sea legs. By time we went home I was happy to sleep in a 30-bed dorm with two bathrooms, but I worked up to it.

In Otres in Cambodia one of our dorms was open air with about 20 beds, and one morning I overhead and English guy book a private room because some stoners had sat out smoking with a stereo on all night and he hadn’t slept at all. If you can’t beat them and won’t join them, get a private room. I  kind of wish I’d had the budget to have a private room – or to stay in a hotel, come to that – because there are some days when the thought of sharing a toilet with 20 other butts does not appeal. I met one guy who had been on the road for two years or something like that, and all I could think was ‘do you never get tired of waking up to the morning breath of eight nationalities?’ Self care is paramount, kiddies. Speaking of self care, if you want to have sex – either with yourself or other people – book a private room. Most hostels have signs up banning sex in dorms with little reminders that they offer private rooms specifically for you to go do that. No one wants to see, hear or have any hint of you boning, ever.

Hostel Bathroom Sign Vietnam
It’s been four months and I still have no idea what the Q-Tip bag was.

Use the tools you were given

Unless you’re pretty chilled about where you sleep or pretty militant about backpacking like they did in the Stone Age, use the Internet. Hostelworld has a really good search and filter system, so when I booked ahead I never stayed anywhere that didn’t offer security lockers and/or working plumbing. If you’re short on money or don’t know how long you’ll stay somewhere, book one or two nights in advance then pay cash for extra nights once you’re there. It’s cheaper – no added fees for the booking site – and you can up and leave if you want. We stayed in a few places that other people recommended either in person or online (I’ll do another post with names of hostels in SE Asia to head for/avoid) and they were usually bang on the money. If you’re happy to rock up to a destination and mooch about until you find a hostel then ignore this, but if you’re anywhere near as neurotic as me then utilise the Internet and enjoy bedbug-free sheets.

Use your common sense

You’re in a room full of strangers. Don’t leave anything lying around that you wouldn’t want to replace. Most travellers own smartphones, portable chargers and headphones, and most of those tend to be kind of gross, not to mention really cheaper and easier to buy than they are to steal. Your stuff probably won’t get nicked, but don’t flaunt it. Use lockers and padlocks and don’t leave your bag wide open (dirty laundry probably works as a deterrent, but don’t hold me to that).

Let sleeping backpackers lie

If a person is wearing earplugs, headphones or an eye mask, has constructed a curtain on their bunk with a towel or sarong so you can’t see their face, is reading a book or appears to be asleep, leave them the hell alone. Unless there is a fire, you think they are dead or there is a general emergency, do not approach them. Ever.

 

Hanoi Hostel Vietnam
I am 90% sure that typeface is the one I use in a line of stationery. Also, don’t be the guy who throws toilet paper in the toilet.

 

Look, just don’t be a dick

Dorms are pretty nice places generally. People chat, they exchange money with travellers going to/from somewhere they’ve been, they give out their stuff if they’re going home. A guy in Hanoi who was heading back to Europe gave me bugspray I still have, when I left Bangkok I gave a spare bag to an Indian dude and in Chiang Mai I swapped some Lao kip for Thai baht with an American who was travelling the other way. I’ve got dinner with roomates, swapped destination recommendations in the lobby and lost my temper exactly zero times. I nearly lost my temper once or twice, but you are talking to someone who has thrown phones at walls and remote controls at heads in her lifetime, and it never came to that. That being said, there is some etiquette you should probably live by:

Don’t leave your stuff in the bathroom. Partly because other people will think your bar of soap is disgusting (your hair looks like hair to you and like pubes to everyone else), and partly because someone might use it and then you’ll be on the receiving end of Pube Hell.

Turn out the main light after 10pm and don’t hold loud conversations in the dorm between 10pm and 7am unless you want your roommates to accidentally tread on your phone (some fuckers in a different place in Otres came in drunk at 3am, started a fight with another guy and left the goddamn ceiling lights on as they did so and it’s the only time in my life I’ve wanted to wake up to a room full of corpses).

There is never enough room for your giant backpack, but you can do little things like not leaving it at the foot of a bunk ladder or in the middle of the floor, to improve the rooms ambience and to avoid your roommates constructing a voodoo doll of you.

Okay now I’m gonna leave you with a photograph of the canyon in Pai, Northern Thailand, and go and remind my dogs that it’s not dinner time yet so quit staring at me. I’ll compile that list – and the blog about Hue and central Vietnam – in the next few weeks. In the mean time, if you have any pressing questions about hostels (or dogs) ask away.

Pai, Northern Thailand
Look at that tranquillity. Can you tell it’s rainy and miserable in England right now.

A Tale of Many Snacks: Da Nang, Vietnam

‘Don’t stay long in Da Nang,’ they said. ‘There’s only a bridge there,’ they said.

‘It’s half an hour from Hoi An,’ we said. ‘By Asian standards that’s about fourteen seconds. We are going to Da Nang.’ There’s also a train line that runs from Da Nang to Hue, our next stop, and everyone we met who had done the journey in the opposite direction raved about the views from the train.

One day I might elaborate on the fourteen-second journey from Hoi An, but for now let’s just say that it was the longest fourteen seconds of my life. Between our hostel in Hoi An and the one in Da Nang, I got lost, found the only cafe in Vietnam without Internet access, had my first ever moped ride and ate three Snickers bars and a pack of M&Ms. When I did arrive, I couldn’t work out if the shops and streets were closed because it was Sunday or if it was because everyone was right about the city being dead, but dinner was a packet of M&Ms and more Snickers (I haven’t eaten either since).

I woke up way too early on the first morning – well, at 8am, but it was one of the few days of the trip that I turned my alarm off and it was therefore too early – courtesy of a local school. There is no way you’d get away with a hostel full of grubby adults that close to a building full of children in the UK, but we were technically in a homestay. Our hosts had converted some rooms in their house into dorms, and a few others into classrooms for local children to learn English from volunteers. In another life, I’d have the temperament to volunteer to teach English, but in this life I grew up listening to My Chemical Romance and therefore say the word ‘fuck’ twelve times a day. Also, I was on holiday.

I went out for breakfast (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but Maxim is rarely awake before noon when left to his own devices) and I could not find a single place selling food. We had unwittingly stumbled into the least touristy part of Vietnam; Danang’s wide roads, tarmacked highways and looming office blocks could be part of any big city anywhere.

Christmas Tree in Danang Vietnema
Or they could until you notice the Christmas trees in February, anyway.

I found several cafes and bistros in our neighbourhood, but they only offered coffee and yogurt. If I’d been less exhausted and bewildered it would have been fun, but at the time I just wandered around thinking Surely local people eat out too? I still don’t know why this was the case in Da Nang but nowhere else in Vietnam, because I wasn’t after Western food (although there was a KFC), I just wanted to get rice porridge from somewhere that wasn’t a street vendor. SOMETIMES IN LIFE YOU NEED SEATS. After I caved in and got yogurt, which was served in a glass and pronounced ‘yourt’, I bought some home-brand Pringles and on-brand Dairylea triangles. Breakfast of champions, I told myself at the homestay, and the next day I bought cornflakes and borrowed a bowl from the kitchen. I should add that our hosts offered breakfast, but it was off limits. I felt like a dick with my Kellogg’s but IBS comes before everything, and at the time I hadn’t worked out that pho (rice noodle soup for those of you who have not experienced holy grail of noodle dishes) does not contain eggs.

Yoghurt in Danang, Vietnam
It might not be a meal, but yogurt in a glass is better than yogurt in a tinny pot. It comes with a straw, for god’s sake.

It was Valentine’s Day while we were there, and one of our roommates, Alice, invited us to a coffee bar for the evening. I didn’t think ‘coffee’ and ‘evening’ went together either, BUT IT DOES. England, you are missing a trick. Stop closing your cafes at night and keep them open, with live music and some food, all night. People are sober and chilled out and very, very awake. I’m going to do an entire post on Vietnamese coffee one day – I miss it like I miss pho, the weather and not changing my own bed sheets. If you’re planning a trip to Da Nang and like to drink, relax – there’s a good Aussie bar down by the water front (which is where everything seemed to be, including non-Aussie bars and, um, restaurants. Possibly I should learn to read maps). I pushed the boat out and had a gin and tonic (I think it was my third of the trip; the other two were on Koh Rong when I hurt my foot and thought a $4 mixer was a better idea than weed), and my lasting memory of the evening is of an old white dude at the bar dancing with a local lady like he was in a sleazier version of Strictly. Now I come to think of it, I’ve seen him in Southend.

We also saw Da Nang’s crowning glory, a bridge. I know, I know, a bridge. Boring. Except this bridge is a dragon.

Da Nang Dragon Bridge from a distance
The dragon breathes fire and water every weekend. IT ACTUALLY BREATHES FIRE.
20170214_150748425_iOS
Please, Marvel, include this beauty of engineering in a film. Have it talk. Please.

Sometime during our stay in Da Nang was the first time I walked along a street and felt normal. Backpacking is weird; staying in one place for no more than four days at a time is weird; South East Asia is weird. I love all those things, but it took until mid-February for it all to feel normal. Apparently Da Nang is considered to be one of the best places to live in Vietnam because of its infrastructure; there’s a free hospital, plenty of schools – I can attest to their productivity – and a good road system. People just get on with their normal, every day lives – which is the most comforting thing you can see when you only stay in one place for four days. Don’t pass up the chance to go.