travel

How to (ineffectively) prepare for a year away…

It took me right up until the moment the plane lifted off into the air to believe that I was really jetting off to the other side of the world for a year. I was so wrapped up in getting everything moved out of my flat in time and drinking with all my friends whilst I still could, my brain didn’t really register what was going on. So in short very little preparation actually occurred. Which to be honest I think is probably the best way, it gave my brain very little opportunity to start panicking, meltdown and ultimately rethink my entire decision. Truthfully I think there is no particular way to prepare for a trip this big, everybody will have their own ways of getting ready, but let me give you a little insight into my, limited, preparations for my journeys to New Zealand.

Step one I arranged all the big ones before even telling anyone I was going, I booked my flights, sent off my visa application, applied for a job and arranged my first few nights of accommodation. At least with these done I could rest easy and not panic about arranging things last minute, also when people asked I could give them solid answers about my plans as opposed to having people look at me with an unnerving look of terror like my boss did when I told him my job hadn’t yet been confirmed. (It has since been so panic over.)

Step two with the big things pre-arranged I then kind of stopped planning. I still had a couple of arrangements to make such as confirming my job and arranging my long term accommodation but bar that I didn’t want to get too set into a plan, because guess what they tend to change, especially when travelling! So I know I’m dropping by Australia on the way, first Perth and then Tasmania, and I know I’m heading out to New Zealand to work a ski season in Mount Ruapehu but after that who knows. The ski season ends in October and I have a year long visa a whole country to explore, a passport crying for some stamps and an awful long way back home. I have a rough plan of what I want to do and where I want to go but I don’t want to set it in stone because that’s half the fun of travelling making things up as you go along and this is going to be an adventure.

Step three took the most time and stress of all… packing! I both simultaneously hate it and love it. Weirdly I really enjoy making detailed packing lists (I have a bit of a list fetish) and I love gradually purchasing items to take on my travels, but I hate cramming everything into a bag and I hate hate hate having to decide what to leave behind because there just isn’t room. Here’s the problem I’ve been backpacking before, spent a few months at a time trekking around various different continents, but I’ve ever been away for such a length of time. The other problem? I needed to pack for all seasons, I’m going to be enjoying some Australian sunshine first and hopefully later on some New Zealand sunshine but I am also going to be spending a few months in the snow, which means packing for all seasons and my god ski gear is bulky! So with my old backpack on the verge of falling to pieces I purchased a new one and set out to cram it full with all my shit, and let me assure you it is very much crammed full. I wouldn’t like to say I’ve over packed but I have most definitely over packed! It’s probably going to turn out that I will not wear any of these items at all I’ll probably end up living in the same one or two outfits and I have a sneaking suspicion that a fair amount of stuff is going to get thrown out along the way but you know always better to be prepared! Seriously though, if you have a couple of tops, some underwear, your toothbrush, bank card and passport you’re probably golden. Ok well maybe you need a couple of other bits but remember other countries have shops as well and I can absolutely guarantee you will find a h&m in any country you go to! I promise I’ll let you know successful/unsuccessful my packing has been at the end of my trip, I have a feeling it’ll err on the unsuccessful side, but who knows you might get some (what not to do) packing tips from me!

And the final step? Get excited! In between all the shopping, panicking, packing, farewell drinks and tears (trust me there were a few of those) there were these odd time out moments where I just sat and appreciated what I was about to experience. The only real preparation advice I can give you is to make sure you enjoy those giddy excited moments because trust me there is nothing quite like the fizzy, slightly nauseous, anticipation you get before embarking on an adventure!

travel

I bought a one way ticket to New Zealand…

Following on from a statement in an earlier post that I make rash decisions, this may be the biggest of them all.

I am moving by myself to the other side of the world with just a backpack (albeit a pretty large and pretty full one) with no return ticket and no real date of return. What crazy thought making process went through my head to get me into this position? Honestly I’m not so sure. A couple of months ago I was sat wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. My sister had just flown back out to Australia and I remained in London mindlessly working in a restaurant, living in a house share with one of the most annoying house mates of all time with a pretty non-existent love life. I knew that I needed a change, I was restless, my feet were itching for an adventure and I had a big old bucket list to be ticking off. If I’m going to be working in hospitality and attempting to write on the side then I can do that anywhere in the world I reasoned, so why not try something new. I love London and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll wind my way back but I’d gotten a little tired, everything felt a little stale. Perhaps it is my quarter life crisis. I looked around and saw my school friends settling down and having families or achieving their crazy dreams and I am nowhere close to where I thought I’d be ten years ago. And yes I know this is not necessarily a bad thing I don’t think I even want to be where my 16 year old self dreamed me all those years ago. But what I did need was a big kick up the ass to stop myself floundering around and wasting my life away on drunken tequila fuelled nights and Netflix binges in bed.

So after muddling through a few options my mind jumped to New Zealand, I’d always planned to return to New Zealand and spend more time there, I was planning to go visit my sister in Australia this year so that tied in, and after working a ski season in Canada on my gap year between high school and university I’d always vowed to work another one once finishing uni. And so with shockingly little research it was decided I was taking another gap year and moving my ass to New Zealand to freeze myself working on the ski slopes.

Fast forward a couple of months and I have my work visa, flights are booked, initial accommodation arranged, job interviews set up, I finished my final shift at work and moved all of my crap out of my London flat. I am flying out in a few days time and truth be told I’m little freaked out.

All my friends have repeatedly told me I’m crazy and I have serious guts but I’m not so sure I do. This is the biggest gamble I’ve ever taken. Maybe I’ll be lonely, miss my friends, miss my family, maybe I’ll hate New Zealand and the people I meet there, maybe I’ll break a leg my first day on the slopes, maybe I’ll be broke and miserable and on a plane home in a matter of months. Maybe some awful thing will happen and I’ll never make it home, believe me my mind has run through every possible terrible scenario, BUT, here’s the big one… maybe I’ll have the best goddamn time of my life! Who knows what will happen over the course of the next year, I just know that I will always regret the journeys I didn’t take far far more than the ones I did. So wish me luck and stay tuned for tales of my new adventure!

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Singapore is like Disneyland…

Singapore is a stark contrast to the rough charm of the surrounding countries. It is sleek and polished and so unlike any other place we visited on our trip around South East Asia.

As soon as you land at the airport you know you’re not in Kansas anymore (or to be more specific Thailand) we were used to the chaos and noise of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam instead we got organised queues, a ridiculously impressive bus transfer to our hotel and a highway that was better maintained than any road I’ve ever driven down before.

It being our last stop we did splash the cash a little and book ourselves a hotel room as opposed to our usual dorm digs, the luxury and novelty of the hotel set the scene for the rest of our time spent in the city. Everywhere we went, everything we visited ran strangely smoothly and was impossibly clean, you can see why gum is illegal in Singapore.

We spent our first day at Singapore zoo. If you like zoos this is probably the best one you will ever visit. It is comprised of three separate parks so to really experience it you need to buy a ticket for not just the zoo but the night safari and the river safari as well. We were a little poor having spent most of our money on cheap beer and elephants, so couldn’t experience all three which I thoroughly regret. But it makes for a great day out, despite my sister having a minor panic attack when the free roaming monkeys got a little too close and myself having a minor panic attack in the reptile house, if you like snakes you’ll love that particular enclosure, me not too much!

The evening we spent wandering up and down Orchard Road to look at all the Christmas lights that we were lucky enough to catch there. As their main shopping street it sure puts Oxford Street to shame, clean (I know I keep repeating that word but seriously it’s a clean city), modern, with every big name store, including much to my delight the Australian Cotton On, and with a surprising lack of traffic or people, although that could have just been because we were there later at night, either way I can never appreciate Oxford Street the same way again! 

On day two we went in search of a little tradition and culture and found ourselves sitting down at Ya Kun Kaya Toast to sample a traditional Singaporean breakfast. Breakfast consists of a coffee, toast covered in butter and coconut jam with a runny egg on the side. The trick is to add pepper and soy sauce to the egg, give it a good mix and dip your toast complete with coconut jam into the egg. I did not enjoy it. To be fair I’m not a huge fan of eggs or of sweet stuff for breakfast, so perhaps that was my undoing. The cup of coffee though was great.

You absolutely cannot go to Singapore without visiting the Gardens by the Bay. Here they bring nature into the heart of the city. The gardens are made up of lots of smaller gardens showcasing plants from across the world. The garden includes two huge greenhouses displaying different environments for you to gawk at to your hearts content. We chose to visit the Cloud Forest which replicates a tropical mountain climate, you get a lift up to the top of the greenhouse and spiral your way down past beautiful plants and a towering waterfall all backdropped by a view of the bay.

At the heart of the gardens are the famous Supertrees. A fantastic sight that greets you as soon as you enter the gardens. A great example of combining the city with nature, the eleven supertrees are all environmentally sustainable and powered by solar panels. At the centre of the Supertree Grove is the giant supertree at the top of which sits a rooptop bar which offers insane panoramic views of the city. You have to pay $20 to get up to the top which includes a drink and then the cocktails are priced at about $20 each but it being our last evening we figured we might as well use up any cash that we had left and it was worth it. From up there we could see Singapore spread out all around us and as we sipped our drinks and marvelled at the surroundings I had never felt so glam or so lucky!

 A few Singapore slings later and as the sun set and it began to get dark we made our way back down the tree to see the magic of the gardens at night. Every evening the trees light up accompanied by music to create a 15 minute light show spectacular. Being there around Christmas time we got the extra special Christmas version, complete with all the best Christmas hits! And so we ended our trip lying on the ground slightly fuzzed on cocktails watching the Supertrees light up in time to Christmas music, and as cheesy as it sounds it was awesome.

Singapore is a country that has spent a huge deal of money and time into redeveloping itself as a future thinking financial and technological hub. It is new and shiny and impressive. Visiting here you’ll need to make sure you bring plenty of money, because boy is it expensive, but there are attractions to keep you occupied for days and you’ll spend your entire time there walking around repeatedly saying wow. 

 I have to admit though I kind of missed the dirt. Scruffiness adds a certain charm to places and it brings with it street vendors, markets, awesome food, stray dogs and cats and crazy antics around every corner. And it is these noisy, slightly rough around the edges places that I have the most treasured memories from. Singapore is amazing, no argument, but only for a few days, after a while the cleanliness and neatness becomes too much, it turns out I like a little chaos, the chaos is what make travelling fun.

travel

Bangkok is a must see…

I’m not going to lie Bangkok was not my favourite of places. Perhaps because we arrived in the early hours of the morning at a grubby and packed bus station where we spent a tense few minutes negotiating with a taxi driver who spoke no English only shouted in Thai to take us to our hostel, perhaps because it was painfully hot one day and miserably raining the next. But despite all this it is still a city full of treasures not to be missed. So here you have my list of what to see in Bangkok…
1) The skytrain. I was far too excited about what is essentially their version of the underground. The difference being that, as the name suggests, instead of being underground it runs above your head and it offers a pretty impressive view of the city as it does so.

2) The Reclining Buddha. To be completely honest I’d about had my fill of temples by this point but this was truly impressive. Found at Wat Pho temple, the Reclining Buddha is an imposing 46 metre long statue that leaves even the most unreligious in awe. 

3) Khao San Road! It is the place to party. The clubs and bars spill out onto the streets and you literally find yourselves dancing on Khao San Road. We bought beers from the lady selling them along the side of the road to avoid the queues at the bars and fried noodles from one of the many stalls and partied the night away! At least until the music made an abrupt stop at 1am, be warned the curfew here is a strict one!

4) The Unicorn Cafe. Ok this may not be to everyone’s taste but this was right up my street. A cafe full of pastel colours and unicorns. We sat in colourful throne type seats with cuddly toy unicorns on our lap and sipped ridiculously sugary hot chocolates which came complete with unicorn horns! A little on the expensive side? yes, full of tourists? yes, a whole lot of fun? Hell yes! 

5) The weekend markets. Yes I know more markets, we spent a whole lot of our trip wandering around markets! Chatachak Market though was definitely one of the best. It was huge and we spent the best part of our day wandering around the thousands of stalls purchasing souvenirs and spending the last of our Thai money. 

6) The floating markets. These are just outside Bangkok and we took a day trip their to visit them. Although the goods sold were no different to any other market the purchasing is far more fun. You hop in a boat and cruise along the canals stopping at any stalls along the wayside that take your fancy. And if you get hungry or thirsty you can always call over one of the boats floating the canals selling fresh fruit, fresh coconuts and all other manner of street foods.

7) The Bridge on the River Kwai. About three hours outside of Bangkok again you need to take a day trip to see this interesting sight. It’s amazing how many tourists there are swarming what is essentially a memorial sight. And seeing the throngs of people the bright market stalls and glorious sunshine it is impossible to think that this was a place of so much suffering for so many. It is an interesting visit especially the JEATH museum which contains some interesting if questionable information about the Second World War (according to them Hitler escaped at the end of the war and has never been found?) but if you want to know more about the war from the Asian perspective it is definitely worth a visit. And seeing a train cross the bridge full of cheery passengers gives some satisfaction, with the feeling that at least those whose lives were sacrificed in the building, built something that still stands and provides enjoyment for the plenty. 

Bangkok is a huge thriving city and as with most large cities you could spend days exploring it and still not discover everything. Whilst I’m disappointed that we didn’t manage to see a couple of things the truth be told I won’t be rushing back, there are too many other places on my list to return to first! 

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Chiang Mai is where the elephants live…

If you want to see elephants in Thailand Chiang Mai is the place to go. Perhaps one of the most looked forward to places of our trip Chiang Mai did not disappoint. Away from the chaos and insanity of the full moon party here it felt like we were seeing the real Thailand. 
The highlight of our time here was of course the elephants. Chiang Mai is surrounded by elephant sanctuary’s aplenty and here they put the elephants first. We chose to visit Maerim and it was a dream. Your activities are dictated by what the elephants want to do so you walk with them where they want to go, you bathe with them when they want to bathe and there is no riding whatsoever but plenty of feeding, in case you didn’t know elephants eat an awful lot of food! Elephants have long been my favourite animals and getting to spend time with them up close was a truly magical once in a lifetime experience. 

But there is more than just elephants to Chiang Mai. If you want to see temples you’d be hard pressed to miss them here, they’re around every corner you turn, and truth be told after a while they all start to blend into one. There are some beautiful and unique temples here, Wat Chedi Luang an amazing ancient structure in the centre of the old town is definitely worth a wander around especially at night, it cuts an imposing figure. Just outside of Chiang Mai perched atop Doi Suthep Mountain is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep a sacred temple that is made even more spectacular by the view it offers of the city below. There are so many more that I could list each impressive in its own way but that list could go on forever! 

The markets were another highlight of our visit. The Sunday night market that takes over the whole of central old town is truly incredible. Packed full of both tourists and locals anything you could wish to buy you could probably find here. It was here we sampled the best Thai food grazing our way through the market from one street food stall to another. A wonderful way to enjoy authentic Thai cuisine. If you’re not there on a Sunday then the night market down by the riverside is another great place to visit. Although not on quite such a large scale as the Sunday markets, the food hall is full of Thai delights to be sampled accompanied by some interesting musical entertainment!
Chiang Mai has so much to offer, as with so many places on this trip I feel like we barely scratched the surface. Alongside the elephants, temples and markets there are also massage parlours in their thousands, museums full of fascinating history, cooking classes, waterfalls, water parks, ziplines, cat cafes and so much more, some of which we were able to enjoy (especially the cat cafe) but some of which we were not, it was simply impossible to fit everything in, and it has therefore also joined my list of places to revisit in the future.
I cannot recommend Chiang Mai enough, it’s a charming city full of adventures, great food and hidden treasures. If you’re travelling through Thailand make sure you fit in a stop here! 

travel

Full Moon Party Baby…

We experienced three very different sides of Thailand choosing to spend a decent amount of time in each place instead of just flying through, our destinations of choice… Bangkok, Chiang Mai and of course Koh Pha Ngan!

Stop one… Full Moon Party! It is of course a rite of passage for any backpacker travelling around South East Asia and it served as our introduction to Thailand. I arrived on the island in the worst mood. We’d had at most 3 hours sleep, were horrifically hungover, had survived two flights, a nervous breakdown (my sister’s scared of flying) and a pretty damp boat journey, needless to say I was not in the mood for partying. At that moment in time my goal was solely to find a bed and unfortunately we had chosen to go full in and picked a party hostel where comfort was not top priority, our mattresses were pretty damn solid, everything was a little scruffy and to top it all off my cheap Cambodian 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner had exploded inside my bag. That night we were in bed by 9, a slightly unexpected start to our party island experience.

Before I went I assumed Full Moon Party would be all sunshine, beaches and dancing till dawn, what I now associate it with is a whole lot of sleeping, throwing up disgusting vodka and torrential rain. When we woke up that first morning all dreams of spending the day lying on the beach vanished as we were woken by a heavy thunderstorm and a deluge of rain. We spent the morning wading through the flooded streets barefoot in search of food and uv apparel for the upcoming parties and the afternoon sat in the hostel bar playing card games and drinking Chang beer (the Thai beer that I became overly familiar with).

The night before Full Moon the island hosts the famous Jungle Party, no I hadn’t heard of it either, turns out though it is epic! After (just a few) drinks taxis appeared at the hostel and took us all to the jungle where surrounded by waterfalls, fire performers, uv decorations and jungle thousands of party goers dance all night and I loved it! Perhaps because I had zero expectations but the Jungle party completely entranced me. I suppose it helped that on the way in we passed a stall selling uv fairy wings which I of course immediately purchased and how can one not be happy wearing fairy wings! Aside from the wings the party was brilliant, despite the music not being entirely to my taste, the setting and the additional attractions more than made up for it and it was on a euphoric high that we finally left the party and headed back to our uncomfortable bunks.

After the high of Jungle Party, things seemed to be looking up on the party island, especially as when we awoke although the sun was not quite out it looked a whole lot brighter, and we were able to take ourselves down to the beach for a few hours and even take a dip in the sea!

The build up to the party turned out to be the most fun. Our hostel had a pretty chill bar area, there were cheap drinks, uv paint aplenty and good music which inevitably (as it always does on this trip) led to dancing on tables. By the time we left the hostel I was already fairly tipsy and I’m not going to lie my drunken state that evening was not one I was proud of! Arriving at the beach we were met by masses of people all covered in uv paint and all drunk. Despite the intial excitement the evening perhaps did not live up to the hype. The beach was much smaller than I had envisioned and the stages we had been told of were less stages more bars playing music, the sea was attractively lined with guys peeing into it and it lacked the magic of the previous nights Jungle Party. To be fair this may be due in part to the fact that after downing a bucket of tequila sunrise containing an obscene amount of tequila I was to put it politely rather ill! 

I suppose it was to be expected we went to party and drink and that we did. And it was the largest party with the best setting I’d ever been to. However set against some of the other nights out we’d had on this trip it just wasn’t as good. And when the next day came out hungover, sleep deprived selfs had to come to the conclusion that whilst it was a good night it just didn’t live up to the hype. 

And so feeling a little worse for wear we left the island, fairy wings in tow, a bag full of sand and uv paint and a new found dislike of vodka to find our next, hopefully calmer destination to recover my poor wrecked liver.

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One Week in Cambodia…

I’d like to say before I start we did very little in Cambodia except drink! To be fair it was my birthday whilst we were there so drinking obscene amounts of vodka joss shots and beer towers was of course completely acceptable. Unfortunately partly due to this and mostly due to time constraints I feel we missed out on a lot of the more beautiful and remote parts of Cambodia that make people fall in love with the country. What we did see was the capital Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 
Let me start with Phnom Penh. Firstly it’s very, very Western. Whilst the country was piecing itself back together after the reign of the Khmer Rouge it seems foreigners swarmed in and westernised the place. You even pay in American dollars. If you’re missing your creature comforts whilst travelling South East Asia this is the place to head, our street alone had a Starbucks, Costa, Dominos and Krispy Kreme Donuts to list but a few chains residing their. It’s hard to get a sense of the culture here. 

The main place everyone who visits Phnom Penh heads to is The Killing Fields. It’s hard to sum up this visit in just a few short sentences so I’ll write a separate post but suffice to say it makes a long and harrowing day. The other main attraction of Phnom Penh is the Grand Palace, it’s definitely worth a visit to see the beautiful buildings and see some first class posing from tour groups! However maybe try not to do it on a horrendous hangover and two hours sleep as all you’ll be thinking is I want my bed. Overall Phnom Penh is a nice city and worth a visit, if only to take the trip to the Killing Fields. But it lacks the charm and appeal of the Vietnamese towns and cities I fell in love with and a couple of days spent there was more than enough.
So we moved on to Siem Reap. I loved Siem Reap ten times more than Phnom Penh, it’s smaller, has a traditional market in the centre of town, a river which gets lit up at night and a whole heap of cute cafes and restaurants. Most people come here to see Angkor Wat so it is teeming with tourists, but you can’t blame them because Angkor Wat is seriously impressive! We got there at 5am so that we could see the sunrise over the temple and it is truly spectacular. But the inside of Angkor Wat doesn’t quite live up to the breathtaking external view, it was the other temples in the Angkor Wat complex that I enjoyed the most. Bayon with it’s many faces, the little water temple which you walked out over the lake on a narrow boardwalk to, and of course the Tomb Raider temple (which unfortunately would have been a million times nicer if it hadn’t been packed with tourists). Despite us being grumpy, sleep deprived and ridiculously hot this was one of the best days of the entire trip so far and truly a sight not to be missed. 

The other delight Siem Reap had to offer us was Pub Street. At night the streets in the centre of town fill with portable bars all blaring music and flashing lights, and we wound up here every night dancing in the street, drinking the local beer and making friends with the locals. Those who tell you Siem Reap is a quiet little town are wrong, this is the place to party! 
Before we went we were told Cambodia was dangerous, dirty and unfriendly, hold on tight to your bags and don’t expect a warm welcome was the advice given to us. But in my opinion those who told us that were wrong. Everyone we met was friendly from the tuk tuk driver who took us around Phnom Penh to the tattoo artists we befriended in Siem Reap. Although I do not feel we even scraped the surface of everything Cambodia has to offer we saw a whole lot that makes the country amazing, and I only wish we had time to discover more! 

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What I discovered in Vietnam…

It is amazing.

There you go job done. 
Seriously though I wasn’t sure what to expect in Vietnam, I’d done a little research but I completely fell head over heels in love with this place. 

Let me tell you why…

The people are so friendly. From the minute we arrived at the first hostel nothing was too much hassle for our hosts. Friendly and helpful was every person we encountered on our journey through. 

Phong Nha National Park is full of natural wonders and my favourite place we visited, we loved it so much we extended our stay there. We went for the caves and caves we got. Specifically Dark Cave which you zip line down to, swim into, have a mud bath, take a mud slide back to the river and then kayak your way out. The most fun day if not a little exhausting! But it’s not just caves, the National Park itself is stunning and packed full of adventures to be had, whether you want to climb a waterfall, ride a buffalo, spot monkeys or just rent a scooter and enjoy driving through, it’s a natural treasure trove and you could never be bored.
Pho. Easily my favourite of all Vietnamese food I had it at least once a day. Could be found in any cafe, restaurant or stand at the side of the road for mere pennies and always so so delicious.
The lanterns of Hoi An. We rocked up to Hoi An pretty damn hungover, not in the mood to do anything and reluctantly dragged ourselves to the old town once we were there my hangover vanished. So many lanterns. Everywhere. It has to be one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been and I could have kept wandering through the night time streets for hours.

Sleeper Buses. Sounds a bit weird but I found these buses the most fun. You lie down in these couch type seats and have a little cubby hole to stretch you legs out in, and I had no trouble happily sleeping the entire journey. I guess being short was an advantage here, but still a Vietnam experience not to be missed! 

The price. Everything is so cheap. Every hostel had free beer in the evening and happy hours running almost constantly. Even if it wasn’t happy hour every bar sold beer for 50p or even less. Even the best street food was just pennies. And the markets were so incredibly easy to get carried away in. Even renting scooters for the day cost about £7 including petrol! For the time we were there we lived like Queens and still came in under budget!

The history. Vietnam has a rich and turbulent history. Constantly fighting off invasions from neighbouring countries throughout the centuries. They threw over a long Chinese occupation before their 100 year colonisation by the French. And finally once they’d overthrown the French the country was divided and became embroiled in an American aided civil war, the effects of which the people suffered for decades following. Yet the people came through all of this with a strong sense of pride in their country and it’s cultures and with no hate in their hearts. As we were repeatedly told by the Vietnamese we met we do not hate the Americans it is in the past. 

I could go on forever about why this place is so amazing but to put it simply; Vietnam is a beautiful, rich and enchanting place of which we only scratched the surface and I know for sure I’ll be back so very soon.