A grown up gap year by Julia Little

VietnamJulia Little is one half of our favourite shoe brand Grenson and when she told us she was taking a trip to Vietnam, we were keen to hear about it. She was kind enough to write us a post to share her experience…………

I didn’t do a gap year, so when a friend asked if I wanted to join her and a bunch of similarly aged women on an adventure trip to Northern Vietnam, I jumped at the chance.  The trip was organised via World Expeditions and apart from the excitement of having a whole new culture experience, I was thrilled at the thought of not having to organise, book or plan a thing. Even the 12 hour flight was no chore with all the movies I wanted to catch up on.

Our party of 19 girls (average age – mid/late forties but most definitely girls!) were to meet up in Hanoi.  Three of us set off early to spend a few days in Singapore, the perfect way to acclimatise and get in the right time zone. As we flew into Changi airport we could see the second busiest port in the world filled with the muted red, blue, and yellow containers like pieces of faded Lego.

We began our trip in luxury, staying in the newly opened Park Royal on Pickering, a 5 star hotel built with a beautiful lobby of unbelievably high ceilings and walls of smooth, curved, layered wood. The rooms were elegant  and the stunning spa with its pool, lush plants and lounging ‘pods’ (has to be seen to be believed) seemingly hanging over the edge of the 15th floor.  This together with the 300 metre garden walk built high up circling the outside of the hotel was pretty awesome (as the kids would say).

The city of course has plenty of restaurants and shopping, the malls are everywhere.  And although the air con is of course much needed, I hankered for the independent clothes and design shops.  Where was the ‘Shoreditch of Singapore’?  We found it, on Haji Lane, with small stores and friendly shopkeepers selling jewellery, cool linen shirts and some really pretty dresses, of which I loved all the 50’s style prints.

Then to Raffles for it’s old school elegance and classic cocktails followed in the evening by the super flash Marina Bay Sands Hotel bar and restaurant hovering over the roof and peering down onto the Gardens on the Bay.

But of course the real trip began on arrival in Hanoi, and within minutes we were thrown into the noise and buzzing of all the motorbikes and scooters whizzing through the streets with amazing dexterity and speed.  Some carrying boxes, some carrying huge piles of fruit and vegetables and worryingly some carrying 3 of their young family members, toddlers squished between parents looking quite happy as they wiggled through the traffic.   Most scooter women were wearing windproof ‘liberty’ style print jackets, which flashed floral as they sped by.  As a pedestrian, crossing the road was a rule unto itself – we were told to look down, walk slowly and the transport would work its way around you.  Initially ridiculously scary, but soon became rather exhilarating!

Vietnam 3Our first 2 nights we were in an unremarkable hotel right in the centre of Old Hanoi.  Life is out on the pavements with families cooking, eating and selling their food, fighting for space amongst the parked scooters and bikes, and despite the noise and pollution I was amazed at how clean their shops and dwellings were.  The women constantly sweeping, always taking off their shoes to go inside, their little feet perfectly clean.   On the streets, watching the Vietnamese traders artistically balance their layers and layers of baskets and hats on their bicycles and gently cycling through the mad streets, smiling all the way.

Vietnam 9The grand residence and harsh granite mausoleum of President Ho Chi Mihn was in stark contrast to the peaceful hut on stilts overlooking a lake where he preferred to live and work during his office.  I loved his 1954 Pobeda car in an understated pale grey green. Surely there should be a Farrow and Ball Pobeda Green?

Vietnam6Our travelling from Hanoi was to include Mai Chau, Ninh Binh and on to Halong Bay. This meant a lot of rather long bus rides, but a great way to see the country and plenty of time for good gossip, snoozing and ipod playlist catch up.  Who’d have thought “Horse With No Name” would totally catch the mood of the passing scenery, but it did.

We arrived at Mai Chau Riverside resort with the last mile or so on the back of the locals motorbikes.  Hanging on tight but with real excitement and abandonment, we whizzed through the countryside and across the streams without a care in the world.   We stayed in huts on stilts overlooking a lake – the serenity was much needed after the long bus journeys. Fortunately, I was too tired to worry about the noises at night and the scuttling of something across the floor.   I fell asleep very happily tucked in under my mosquito net and my earplugs firmly in – I figured ignorance was bliss.

My favourite part of the trip were the wonderful cycle rides we did through the paddy fields and villages of Mai Chau and Ninh Binh.  Truly magical and totally stunning, waving at the smiling children, watching rice pickers in their traditional, conical hats popping up from the lush green rice fields, my senses couldn’t take it all in, I didn’t want it to end.

Vietnam 8In Ninh Binh we were taken on rowing boats along the river and through the natural grottoes and caves of Tam Coc. We marvelled at the way the boatmen and women paddled their oars with their feet . They made it look so easy, but I’m sure it wasn’t.

Vietnam1On to Halong Bay – a designated World Heritage site, scattered with its peaks of limestone and deep dark caves.   We boarded our junk where we spent a day and night exploring the waters and the floating villages with their curious way of living with livestock, schools and sanitation all within their boats and on precarious platforms. Sadly we didn’t get the chance to kayak as we had planned, a hurricane was on the way.  Luckily our junk was pretty big and robust and that night although we were buffeted around in the bay, we felt perfectly safe.

Once back in Hanoi we had time for a quick trip to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.  I loved the simple wood cut prints and the detail of the embroidery, hard to believe how many centuries old, the colours and form still so bright and distinct.

Of course we loved all the food, the rice, noodles, fresh vegetables and delicate dumplings, all were healthy and delicious  (although I might take a break from spring rolls for a while).   Surprisingly, not one of our party had any ‘tummy troubles’, we must have all stuck to the rule – ‘if you can’t wash it or peel it , don’t eat it’!

This trip was the first time I had travelled to the Far East, indeed the first time I had properly been away from the family for 20 odd years.  Vietnam has come out of many centuries of conflict and war, and what is clear is that it is an emerging country with a friendly, welcoming race.   And although short, the trip put things at home in perspective and whetted my appetite for further travel in places far flung, l really look forward to planning my next adventure.

1 Comment

  • Sue says:

    A lovely write up of an interesting trip. My concern though is the slaughter of the rhinos of Africa by the Vietnamese. Despite high level interventions by the South African government and wildlife organisations with the Vietnamese government they are not co-operating in putting a stop to the slaughter of the rhinos. One wonders if a boycott of tourism to Vietnam might not have more effect than dialogue. See the website http://www.killingforprofit.com for more information on the rhino poaching.

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