Monthly Archives: August 2018

Birthday musings.


Lately, my writing has taken a back seat.  Don’t for a minute think there is nothing to say…  Stories aplenty after experiencing a whole year (two weeks left to go!!) of teaching English in Vietnam and managing to eke out a few precious spells to explore the country’s shores, mountains, hills and a few cities.  But some truths and yarns are better kept under wraps and preserved until the time is ripe for them to be uncovered…  And I hope in posts to come, to shed a little light on my ‘adventures’ here..

I like writing on the hoof, though.  Off the cuff.  In the moment when experiences are fresh and vibrant.  Frustration bubbling and brewing just under the surface.  Or indeed, joy…  Or dare I say, expose the days when the world caves in and there does not seem any point in tomorrows.  But raw emotions obscure the bigger picture and the perspective afforded by the sweep of time.  I know, it’s just that in the heat of the moment, I tend to forget that a little patience goes a long way.

Lack of time and working long, tiring hours entertaining little kids leaves me without energy to pick up my pen – figuratively speaking as I tap away furiously at my keyboard!! – and sometimes in my free time, I just want to be free, relaxed, engrossed in mindless things such as catching up on series on Netflix – series that the rest of world watched ages ago – and reading books, travel blogs…  Of course, there are the inevitable, numerous and exhausting gym visits coaxing my body into shape for the impending uphill struggle to Base Camp Everest, but they have a purpose and do not count as relaxation…

Last week I celebrated my birthday, an event that usually slips past entirely unnoticed (my family members and a few friends excepted).  I don’t advertise the date on Facebook, and every year hope that I can gently ease from one year into another, from one day into the next without a ripple or a stir.  My one concession to the annual milestone? I avoid working on the auspicious day at all cost and manage to do so most years.  As a teacher, it helps that my birthday falls during the summer holidays, so little chance of being in the classroom.  Not so in Vietnam though.  Being employed in a Language Centre, rather than a normal school, means that summer holidays are busy.  Extra classes for idle minds and idle hands keeps boredom at bay and childcare affordable.  By the mercy of the gods, I have been granted Mondays off since June, and could rest assured that I would not be amusing students on my birthday…


Instead, I spent the morning and early afternoon visiting friends in a nearby town.  Unaware of the importance of the day, they still managed to surprise me with home baked banana bread and a large scoop of ice cream.  At my age… who needs or wants candles anyway…? The sheer puff of breath needed to extinguish them all in one impressive go would be enough to send me over the edge and into the great beyond…  And as in the last few years has become a tradition on my birthday, in the evening I dropped by the massage parlour and for once, my pleas for a soft, gentle massage resulted in a soporific to the body and soul.  A birthday as it should be!!



Still, birthday secrets cannot be kept forever and have a tendency of sneaking out… So in the end I submitted to a proper celebration last night…  Cake, candles, and Happy Birthday songs in the park.  With no plates or knife to cut the cake, we dug in with spoons and gusto …. and devoured most of the delicious gateau in a matter of minutes.  And then, some fun to complete the evening: a motorbike race in the park.

At last I mastered riding a motorbike in Vietnam.  Another box ticked!!


You don’t always get what you pay for…

Travel in Vietnam on a tight schedule meant cutting corners.  Not the corners of comfort, or taking risks with safety…   No, being short of time in June meant I had to cut corners on the d-i-y of travel. Instead of plumbing the depths of a cyberspace overpopulated by fellow flashpackers to unearth the best travel tips for Sapa and Halong Bay, I relied on good, old-fashioned travel agencies to get me the trips I was hoping for.  I did not exactly go completely rogue and used a tour company recommended by a friend who had visited Hanoi the previous year.  As both of us are keen hikers – it was her idea to climb Mount Fuji last year – I was sure that her recommendation would fit my bill…  I selected my trekking and sight-seeing adventure inspired by her choice, and hey presto, I thought I would be in for a treat.

20180609_06292320180609_10334320180608_16082520180608_174306And indeed, the Sapa countryside and impressive views of Halong Bay certainly did not disappoint…  But when a trip described as ‘three days trekking’ only involved two half days of gentle meandering along – admittedly – steep and often slippery paths, there was plenty of disillusion in the air… A sentiment shared by several of the hikers and backpackers who had been expecting to at least work up a sweat…  The only heat generated came from the unrelenting sun blazing down on us…



If the lack of trekking distance and time was a reason to grumble, so was the ‘stay’ in the ‘homestay’… The beds were soft, the mosquito nets gauzy, long and flowing.  The food was… delicious and very Vietnamese.   But a whole afternoon and evening to kill in rural Vietnam with nothing to do but exchange travel tips and tales from more adventurous sojourns?  No activities organized, not even a board game or deck of cards in sight?  On the other hand, plenty of time to buy overpriced alcohol to boost the homestay’s income…  Not quite the trip I had imagined.  Welcome to Vietnam tourism.

But most surprising were the different prices we all had paid for the same experience… Whereas I had by far spent the most, the younger backpackers who had bought the trip last minute via their hostels and hotels, seemed to have secured the best deals…  Still, none of them had enjoyed the luxury of my overnight train journey to Loa Cai…

I had not yet left Sapa before Halong Bay had lost its shine… I had booked a three-day trip, with an afternoon and night stay at Cat Ba, a large island located near the famous World Heritage site.  Not only would this give me a break from the choppy waters, the island also has a nature reserve in its centre which can be accessed by bike…  as long as you reach the island in the early afternoon, as promised on the online itinerary …

A message from the travel agent alerted me that things were not going to go according to plan, or would even resemble his website description..   He had not been able to secure my accommodation on Cat Ba Island, a cosy room in a beach front bungalow with a sumptuous seafood BBQ for dinner…  Did I mind staying on the boat for another night??  Yes, I minded, very much so. I had booked the trip at least a month earlier, and he only found out now???  A case of the Vietnamese scourge of leaving everything till the last minute…?  I had my heart set on visiting the floating fishing village, which was only possible with the Cat Ba stay.   Eventually, another SMS or two later, a two-star hotel had been found and a refund for the difference in price was on its way..

Halong Bay was awesome and the company on the boat delightful.   On deck Mojitos at sundown, breakfast and lunch catered for… We paddled kayaks, we dropped by the floating fishing village and reached Cat Ba island around 5 pm, too late to explore the island.


Still, the prospect of excellent food and a bar made up for that… at least until I was shown my new accommodation…   A row of drab, grey motel rooms in the middle of nowhere with a view of somebody’s washing fluttering in front of my window…  I didn’t think so!!!

With no transport to get to the bars or the restaurants or the more lively side of the island, what was the point of being on the island at all??  I was eventually moved to a better hotel, and walked across to the harbour but by then the clouds had started gathering.  The promise of an almighty downpour.  I got soaked, properly soaked.  A river of rain water storming through the street…

Still, all considered I fared better than the guy from Uruguy, who had booked last minute cheap accommodation on Cat Ba island by himself, courtesy of  A deal too good to be true??  On reaching the island, the hostel or hotel had completely vanished into thin air, nobody had ever heard of it…  No bother, he thought, there must be plenty of other places to stay.  As early June coincides with the start of the school holidays, Cat Ba was packed and buzzing with Vietnamese tourists and all the hotels were fully booked.  Had it not been for the mercy of a random old lady who offered her spare room for $20, he might have had to spend the night on a sandy beach…

In the end, we never saw any of Cat Ba island.  We were picked up after an early 7 am breakfast and herded back onto the boat, on the way back to Hanoi…  Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, an extra night on the boat would not have been so bad.  Although, on Cat Ba the mojitos were a fraction of the price of those on the boat… Happy hour all the way!!


And as far the tour company I used??  Where the owner had it in his power to make my life easy, he did!!  I was picked up from his home and chauffeured to the train station; on my return from Sapa and before the start of my trip to Halong Bay, I showered and rested in a room in his house; there was coffee…  But he was only an intermediary in Hanoi, selling the trips; he was not in charge of the actual trips… A shame, really…

On the upside, I learned an invaluable lesson: it pays to do your homework and do it well.  Search the internet, read the travel blogs and tips, ask fellow travelers, use hostels, use the buses… Ask all the details and read the small print when booking organized trips, show the bus or taxi driver your destination… and do some diy travel and especially, if you have the time, take your time…

You will still encounter a myriad of unexpected adventures, but they will be so much more interesting to talk about than gripes about inexperienced or unscrupulous travel companies…  It will be our own cluelessness and ignorance that will be the butt of our jokes..   For instance, how did I almost miss my flight from Hanoi back to Danang??? I had cut it rather fine, time wise, after enjoying two cups of early morning coffee staying at a friend’s house.  I hopped onto the bus which appeared a lot later than expected, but so much cheaper than taking a taxi… I only had myself to blame for not checking that there were two different terminals at the airport and I got off at the international terminal, several kilometers removed from the domestic terminal…  Next time, I will show my ticket to the bus driver.  And when someone hurriedly directs me to counter 8-2-2* before the flight closes,  I shall remember they might just literally mean: counters 8 to 2 …  You see d-i-y, it was worth it: another lesson learnt!!

*Cultural note:

  • In Vietnam, the end sounds are not pronounced clearly, as they are not important in the Vietnamese language… so the s for a plural is often  missing.  Hence I heard counter, not counters
  • Numbers larger than 10 are made up of the words for the single digits so 822 (eight hundred and twenty two) would be said as eight two two….