Vietnam

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Happy Happy Joy Joy; I can remember crying with happiness three times in the past few years. It’s a very strange feeling crying tears of joy because sometimes they really do come out of nowhere, and at the strangest times.

I have already written about my time in Vietnam, but, when I stayed on Cat Ba Island, I went rock climbing for the first time.

The instructor, Onslo, and I still remember his name to this day. I was in awe of him; he could climb up rocks, without a rope, very nimbly. I took a shine to him instantly. Onslo explained how the equipment worked, and then I was ready to go.

Rock Climbing on Cat Ba Island
Slightly scared but ready to go

I started climbing up the rock. It was fairly easy to start with, although it’s quite a struggle trying to haul your whole body up vertically. As I got higher, I started to panic a little, froze, and could not move a muscle. I was stuck halfway up the rock. I started hyperventilating and was shaking all over; I thought I was going to fall to my death. The, very patient, Onslo told me to let go of the rock and hang in mid-air. I thought he was crazy, and whimpered that I couldn’t possibly do that. I, eventually let go, and once I realised I wasn’t going anywhere, because I was harnessed, I managed to climb the rest of the way.

Rock Climbing on Cat Ba Island
Halfway up

When I made it back down to the beach, my legs gave way under me and I literally collapsed onto the sand, and I started crying like a baby; tears of joy at having climbed the (not so very tall) mountain. It was such a sense of achievement; I’d tried something new and had been able to do it, eventually.

The second bout of joyful tears came when I passed my degree in 2013. I had started the degree, with the Open University, in 1993, and completed two courses with them, but then my life got in the way, and I didn’t continue it.

When I moved to Thailand, I restarted it. In 2011, I moved back to the UK to finish it, because it was cheaper for me to do so. I completed four courses in the space of three years. It was such hard work; at one point I was doing two courses at the same time, as well as having a full time job.

Each time I received an email to say my exam results were available, I didn’t want to look. I was afraid I hadn’t passed. But, I plucked up the courage and found I had passed every course. I cried tears of joy at the satisfaction of knowing that all the hard work I had put in had paid off.

Then when the time came for the degree ceremony, I wasn’t even going to go but my friend, Dipesh, said that I should go, and that I would be glad that I went.  On the day of the ceremony, my Mum and I arrived at the venue. I was really nervous about going up on stage to collect my degree certificate.

Degree Ceremony, Manchester
All Robed Up

I sat and listened to the director of the university telling us that we had made it, and that we should all feel proud after months and years of studying to achieve the degree. When my name was called, I went onstage to receive my award.

Degree Ceremony, Manchester
Receiving my Certificate

Afterwards, I was so glad that I had gone to acknowledge my achievement, I cried tears of joy once again because I felt so proud of myself.

When have you cried tears of joy?

Talking to My Past Self

When I went travelling back in 2008 I sent emails home to keep family and friends updated about where I was and what I was up to. I kept all of the emails so I thought it would be amusing to recall some of the things I wrote and what my present self would say to my past self.

Subject: I have arrived
Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2008 10:03:26 +0000

Thailand

• Hello from Bangkok and I didn’t get out of bed for 17 hoursLAZY COW! You’re in THAILAND! OK blame it on the jet lag.

My hotel is ok, it looks better on the internet, the shower is just a nozzle in the toilet, no cubicle or anythingThat’s Thai bathrooms for ya.

The best thing is the bed it is triple sizedSo easily pleased (I still am!)

What’s the weather doing over there? 29 degrees again today, the only thing is I had to cover up as went on a temple tour- OH poor you-one should cover up if one is visiting a temple!

I have only been in Bangkok for 2 days and already I have come to the conclusion that you have to be laid back and not a worrier! (Talking about the seemingly lack of organisation when going on a tour to Ayutthaya)- It took two days?

I went to an elephant farm and had my photo taken with one. He was on his knee and he gave me a kiss, got covered in bloody sticky slobber!Are you talking about the elephant?

I am gonna try and put my photos on Facebook but may have to put em on cd first!- Photographs on CDs? That’s a thing of the past.

The heat is UNBEARABLE- have nearly died of heat exhaustion- You will visit a hot country, wont you?

We then went to the Tiger Temple. These huge cats seem so docile and most of them were sleeping but they could take your head off with one swipe! – No shit Sherlock!

Seriously bought too much stuff with me, will have to chuck some stuff to make room for the bloody souvenirs. Can I not buy the biggest picture I could find today?! Idiot!Yep, you got that right- think before you act!

Went on a canal trip this morning, it was hilarious! The guide told us what the sights were etc., but then we had to wait for some sluice gates to open, and she became a walking, talking ad for Bangkok! She went from tours to floating markets, to steamed rice, to nightly shows, back to steamed rice and shopping. It was funny, I was chuckling to myself!You had to be there!?

Well what can I say, I have been here just over a week and I feel like I have been here ages! I love Thailand and already into the Thai way of life. Even speaking a bit as well- It doesn’t take long to fall in love with Thailand.

Thursday I left BKK and 3 hours later got to Hua Hin. Can I just say as well it is so cheap! The bus journey cost me 2 quid!!!! Equivalent of going from Northampton to Liverpool!A bit more exciting though.

We went out for dinner and he took me to a couple of bars he knows and introduces me to some people he knows- Jennifer who looks all woman but has a couple of extra dangly bits between her legs! That’ll be a lady-boy then.

I even outran all the boys on Friday. One of the lads has already dropped out, loser!-Competitive streak anyone?

There is something very fanciable about a Muay Thai boxerIs that because they are half naked or because you actually admire their skills and courage?

Went to Erewan National Park and trekked up a mountain. We went to see the 7 tiered waterfall and my god it was stunning and worth the trek to the top. You could actually get in the water behind the waterfall, amazing, never have I seen anything as stunning and wanted to cry!It’s a waterfall!!! (But, seriously, always get a bit emotional at a good waterfall.)

Chewy, one of the kids was training in the boxing ring and he stumbled backwards and his heel connected with my ankle! Had to fight back to tears! Cry baby- at being hurt by a teenage boy as well!

Three weeks into boxing and still loving it have lost just over a stone and spend all day with half naked boys! Easily pleased. Yep, thought as much (see comment above about boxers being fanciable.)

Seriously love it in Thailand and would like to live here You do.

Went to the zoo all day. We got there at 8.30am and stayed there all day. We found a bench and went to sleep for couple of hours. How random! That is why I love Thailand so much!Sleeping at the zoo, like you do! (I still love the random things that happen occasionally.)

We only gatecrashed the Monks party and were getting free shots of whiskey and dancing with the locals.Cheap night then? You gatecrasher! Go find your own entertainment! (ahh the randomness!)

We got onto the vodka red bull buckets and drinking them really fast! all of a sudden felt like I was gonna pass out. Got really hot and started crying so got carried back to my room. All the way I was bawling “I don’t wanna go bed.” It was only 10.50pm!Alcoholic! That’ll be the M150s. (The Thai version of Red Bull but about 10 times stronger.)

Ended up having a good couple of days in Chiang Mai, didn’t think much to it though- What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Chiang Mai is beautiful.

We were in BKK for the Songkhran festival and it was absolutely crackers, we all got wet and covered in flour! We had water guns and everything, it was manic. This went on for four days, one is enough!How true is that?!

I had a wicked birthday and the best present of all, not only have I three good friends here, but they have been plotting and scheming for 3 months and arranged for my mum, brother and sister to come to celebrate with meWhat a very special memory.

It is raining on Koh Tao so hopefully will still be able to dive!You’re gonna get wet anyway right?

I am still having a great time here, I love Thailand so much, am def coming back next year! You did!

Vietnam

Seriously was so glad to leave, can’t imagine my life as a nun! If I had to stay there another night I would have been scarred for life!An overstatement to say the least.

Thursday we trekked up Tam Dao Mountain. On the way down I nearly went over the edge and at one point landed on my arse head first!Work that one out.

New Zealand

Just a little note to say I have arrived ok, checked into a nice hotel, bit of comfort. NOT HAPPY it’s cold and raining and I can’t muster a smile!Get over it already!

Have to wear bloody shoes and coats now! God New Zealand sucks!- Didn’t you love it three days later?

I just feel a little lost and lonely having spent the last 7 months with peopleSeriously there are people in NZ!

 
I have met a few good people so far and we have had fun this weekSee what a difference a week makes.

Watched someone do a bungee jump, idiot! No way would I do that!- Idiot? Tut tut each to their own.

We went to a Maori culture show, which was good the men did the Haka, which is the war dance the All Blacks do. There were some nice men to look at, with hardly any clothes on!FLOOZIE!!

Answer me one thing? why oh why do I choose the night before I cross an active volcano for 8 hours, to get pissed and not get to bed til 1.30am, when I have to get up at 5.30am!- Never had much sense.

Tonight there is a salsa party in YHA so me and Annette are going to pub, cos as far as we can see, it’s a kids party and I don’t do kids!She says currently working as an English Instructor!

Oh I have been travelling with a German lady called Annette. She is really nice and the same age as me but she isn’t the same age as meHuh? Work that one out.

How come I walk over an active volcano, up a glacier and not ache? But 5 hours on a horse and I can’t move!!!!The laws of the universe.

Travelled over to Dunedin. Am on my own again but I don’t mind as I have spent the last 2 weeks with peopleMake up your mind!

Forgot to tell you about the strange experience of Angora rabbit shearing, in Waitomo. This poor bunny got strapped to a rack and stripped naked of its fur, very wrong indeed, I couldn’t stop laughing! It gets sheared because otherwise it would become too hot and die! Shame!It’s a poor rabbit!- heartless cow!

Jasper now also thinks I am an alcoholic, he said I don’t need beer, I said neither do I but I LIKE it!You tell him!

Had a little cry (pissed) oh and I watched Booze Britain, and saw the drapery, in Northampton!You need to get out more.

Am feeling a little fed up and I am missing home and all my friends today! Still I am in New Zealand ay?!Yes you bloody are!

Wasn’t as good this time as only for one hour and horse knew what it was doing so I wasn’t really in controlHA, beaten by a horse.

Then I went for a Thai meal. This is the first time I have been able to go into a Thai restaurant, without shaking and hyperventilating from withdrawal symptoms of Thailand!What a bloody drama queen!

I had 2 bottles in my brown paper bag that I had bought from the winery! ha ha it was quite funny but you had to be there!Yeah you sure did!

What would you tell your past self if you had the chance?

Four Weeks in ‘Nam

After a fun packed five or so months in Thailand I left to spend four weeks in Vietnam. I had booked another trip through Real Gap and this time I would be learning about the Vietnamese culture, including cooking and language lessons, a week trekking, and a week on a beach.

vietnam-mapI would recommend Real Gap, especially if you have never been to a country before, because you are with like-minded people and everything is organised for you- arrival, accommodation, food- and you have a choice of which program to do-volunteer teaching or working in orphanages, trekking, and sports. I used them three times in one year- Muay Thai boxing in Thailand, being a Jillaroo (cowgirl) in Australia, and trekking in Vietnam.  There are also several destinations that you can choose from and it is an excellent introduction to your country of choice.

The first week is always “introduction” week, in which you meet your travelling buddies, get settled into your accommodation, cooking and language lessons, and getting to know the area where you are staying- this involves the guide showing you round a bit so you get your bearings and know where essentials are like laundry, internet and bars! We went to temples, a water puppetry show, took a boat across Thac Ba Lake and spent the night with a Vietnamese family. We then travelled from Hanoi to Yen Bai, which is located in Tay Bac, in the northern part of northern-central Vietnam.

Thac Ba Lake
Thac Ba Lake

 

 

Homestay
Homestay

 

Water Puppetry Show
Water Puppetry Show

For the first cooking lesson we had to go to the market and buy vegetables and meat. As we had already had a language lesson we could put our Vietnamese language skills to the test when we bought the food- such a good way to learn the language

Crazy Hanoi Traffic
Crazy Hanoi Traffic
Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Turtle Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

although we got a few blank stares from the locals but I think they appreciated us trying. Shopping done we managed to make delicious spring rolls which we had for lunch.

What was nice about this particular trip was that there were only eight of us (including me). They were all younger than me but so lovely, we all got on really well and we have remained friends to this day.

We were the only westerners in Yen Bai and the locals were totally bemused by this group of eight who had come to stay in their town and we got a lot of stares. But after a few days they got used to us and they started to wave and say Xin Chao/Hello. In fact one of the lads, George, had his guitar with him everywhere he went and he used to go off on random nights with the locals. It was very amusing the next day when he told us all about it.

Yen Bai
Yen Bai
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Meal Times in Yen Bai
Meal Times in Yen Bai

The second week was a cultural week and we had to spend two nights in a Buddhist temple. For one that is not religious in any way this was seriously hardcore for me. We had to get up at 3am and meditate for 45 minutes, the nuns and monks living there do it for an hour and half, twice a day.  Not being used to sitting in that position-cross legged and silent is very difficult- I

Shopping for Cooking Lessons
Shopping for Cooking Lessons

couldn’t concentrate and got very agitated and as such lasted about twenty minutes. I saw the boys leave so us girls followed suit.  There was a monk with a stick and if someone was not sitting straight enough they got a (not so) gentle tap on the back. He didn’t do it to us though, although he did pull my chin up because my head was lolling because I was half asleep! The first morning we were late (not being used to

Lush Vegetation
Lush Vegetation

being awoken in the middle of the night), one of the nuns blamed it on us for the disruption.
Meal times were also strange. We had to walk, silently, in single file, monks first followed by the nuns and, after chanting and prayers, you eat in silence.  In our culture meal times are sociable affairs and it just wasn’t natural not to talk, and the food was so awful us girls got a fit of the giggles and really had to concentrate on stopping. We were not being disrespectful, it was just that one of the nuns was pointing at my food and gesturing me to eat it or so I thought (bearing in mind I couldn’t understand anything she said because it was Vietnamese and my language skills were not that good), turns out she wasn’t making me eat it, she was telling me that anything that isn’t eaten goes to the dogs and cats living at the temple, I just looked at the others and that was it- uncontrollable laughter and tears streaming down our faces. We eventually stopped and I don’t think they were offended, in fact some of the other nuns were laughing with us. But I wasn’t sure whether I was laughing or crying at that point!

As we had been told that we only had to get up once to go to meditation to show willing (after all the temple had been kind enough to let us into their lives for two days), the second morning I didn’t get up and one of the nuns came into our room and I pretended to be asleep, and when I thought she had gone, I looked up and all I could see was her shaved head silhouetted in the moon light. You had to be there but I felt like I was in a horror movie- all it needed was some scary music. I couldn’t sleep after that and was so glad when the others came back. To add to that we had to sleep on wooden boxes, which we thought resembled coffins (we were going to hide in them so the nuns couldn’t find us, but thought better of it).

View at the Temple Stay
View at the Temple Stay
Leaving the Temple Stay
Leaving the Temple Stay

On the last day, out of respect, we made a thank you speech and one of the guys, Nick, had his hair shaved off, something that the monks and nuns actually found hilarious. I found out that people enter the temple for very different reasons, one monk told us he went to decorate the temple years ago and never left; a nun had been there for 35 years since she was a child; yet another entered because a member of their family had died; people go there for quiet time during difficult IMG_0432

Temple Stay
Temple Stay

phases of their lives. I completely respect the people who live there and I am truly thankful that we were allowed into the temple to share their lives for a couple of days but I was so glad when we left- the life of a nun is most definitely not for me.

I also trekked up Tam Dao mountain which is about 85km northwest of Hanoi located in a protected area zone of North Vietnam. It was by far the best day out, although I know one of my friends might not agree. It was so hot and humid and the way up was really tough going- very slippy in places and leeches attaching themselves to our legs and drawing blood. In some parts it was almost vertical and we literally had to grab onto tree vines and pull ourselves up- it was almost like rock climbing with no harnesses! We eventually made it to the top and my gosh it was such a sense of achievement- we were all delirious with excitement at having made it.

It was a shame that it wasn’t a clear day because the views would have been fantastic but as it was we were surrounded by the low lying clouds. The way down was just as hard because it was so steep in places, the easiest way of doing it was literally run down and grab the bamboo to stop yourself falling down the mountain.  I nearly went over the edge and at one point and landed in a heap head first looking over a steep slope.  But we made it to the bottom of the mountain with a few grazes and completely filthy but it was a lot of fun so we celebrated with a few beers which went down very well that night.

Tam Dao Village
Tam Dao Village

Vietnam is so cheap, cheaper than Thailand- it was about 3 GBP for a beer and on one of the days we ventured out and bought lunch- using our new language skills- and the bill came to 8 GBP including beer for the eight of us. In Hanoi, in “Bia Hoi” corner (Bia Hoi is a local beer), there are bars which are just shop fronts with a few tables and chairs outside- we sat there one night and drank about ten beers (which just get refilled from the beer keg) for about £1.46 GBP. I might add they were small glasses!

IMG_0487
Tam Dao Jungle
IMG_0477
View from the Top
IMG_0464
Trekking up Tam Dao Mountain

During the third week half the group were volunteering, teaching at one of the local schools and the other half of us chose to go trekking in Sa pa, which is located at 1500 m above sea level in the remote northwest mountains of Vietnam. It is a beautifully picturesque town, near the Chinese border, the scenery is stunning- rice terraces and lush vegetation and it is also home of Fansipan (the highest peak in Vietnam).

The trekking itself was good but I would have liked it a bit more intense-only really two days trekking and only two or three hours a day. Myself and one of the other guys, Nick, were leading the rest most of the time. It was harder on the second day as it had been raining and was really slippy, so was more of a challenge. We trekked to a home-stay where we spent one of the nights and some of the guys went swimming in the river to cool off -I collapsed on the bank. The family we stayed with were lovely- we had a traditional Vietnamese meal and they gave us rice wine, which is popular in SE Asia although very lethal, and we managed to get drunk in the middle of nowhere!

During our trek the local hill tribe women accompanied us en route from Sa Pa to our home stay- literally all the way and back again to Sa Pa. This is what they do every day with tourists, and all the way they ask you if “you wanna buy” the things they have to sell- hand made ethnic-style clothes, blankets, wall coverings, and jewellery. Conversation naturally occurs and we had such a laugh with these women along the way. One of them had a wall-covering that I liked, and she cottoned on quickly that I liked it, but I didn’t have any money until I arrived back in Sa Pa. So after trying to explain this in my pigeon Vietnamese, we agreed a price (around £6 GBP) and agreed that I would buy it once I got back to Sa Pa (I actually liked it and did want to buy it). So I obviously thought that I wasn’t going to see the lady again but when we did arrive back in Sa Pa, we were playing chess in a bar and low and behold this same lady spotted me and shouted “Hey, you buy from me now, you say when back in Sa Pa”. Well I couldn’t go back on our agreement and I was actually impressed that she remembered the exact same one that I had wanted.

 

IMG_1482The last week was “beach week” and we travelled from Sa Pa to Halong Bay on the train. When we arrived in Halong Bay we boarded a “junk” boat, which is an ancient Chinese sailing vessel and it took us to Cat Ba Island where we spent the next few days.

IMG_1472
Our Trekking Companions

The weather wasn’t great but there are a host of things you can do there- I tried rock climbing for the first time. It was awesome but the first time I climbed I was shaking all over and when I was half way up I started hyperventilating and the guide, Onslow, made me let go of the rock and hang in mid-air to prove that I was safely harnessed and wasn’t going to fall to my death. At the top Onslow told me to take in the surroundings and what a view it was from up there. When I got back onto terra firma my legs literally gave way beneath me and I collapsed onto the sand and then I started crying at the sheer joy of having done it.

On the way back in the boat Onslow asked us if we wanted to do deep water soloing. This is a form of rock climbing but done on sea cliffs. You have no harness but rely on the water to save you from injury (or worse). Basically the boat gets as near to the rock face as possible, you climb onto the rock and go as high as you can and then when you can’t get any higher you drop in the water. It was fantastic although I was a little disappointed in myself because I couldn’t climb any higher than where the boat dropped me-I ran out of energy and gave up and dropped into the water. I don’t like giving up! What an experience though and I recommend that to anyone.

Junk Boat
Junk Boat

I also did a little tour with a guy that takes you around the island on a motorbike where you learn how the island was a strategic look-out point during the Vietnam War. I visited the Hospital Cave and he showed me the look-out points where the reminders have been covered over by concrete walls (there is just enough room for you to squeeze in to look at the massive artillery guns hidden behind).

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Rock Climbing on Cat Ba Island
Rock Climbing on Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba island is beautiful as is the northern part of Vietnam and the four weeks I spent there were unforgettable. I have yet to visit the rest of the country but I, for one, will be venturing back there at some point to learn more of what this wonderful place has to offer.

Hospital Cave
Hospital Cave
Cat Ba
Cat Ba
Tour Round the Island
Tour Round the Island