Hanoi

Take a walk with me. Past the street sellers hawking their wares. Past quiet temples hidden in tiny spaces in the maze of the Old Quarter. Watch out for the motorbikes weaving their chaotic way through the narrow streets, little changed in the last few decades, save for tourist amenities. Don’t look at the map – you’ll only increase your chance of being run over. Besides, you’ll swiftly get lost again. I swear we’ve been here before. Anyway. There’s the cathedral, a majestic and fume-blackened reminder of colonial days. And there: steaming beneath the embrace of a banyan tree, a street-side stall churns out banh goinem cua be and banh ran ngot. The English translations (‘pillow cake’ or ‘fried nem’) on the sign above these snacks don’t elucidate these amazing-smelling mysteries. You just have to order and hope. Welcome to Hanoi.

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We arrived from Halong late-afternoon and plunged into the capital’s tumultuous tide of tuktuks, trays of food and touts. We had a Google Map screenshot of where our hostel was and, after almost a month on the road, were quite confident in our navigation of new places. At least for the first half hour. Then again after what we found what we thought was the right street. And again when, after walking in a circle we were sure it was the right street. It was. But no hostel. We swallowed our sweaty pride and asked for help. Our would-be-rescuers stared at our map, at the maps on their own phones, as perplexed as we were that the hostel didn’t seem to exist at all. The sun, and our hopes, had started to set and we were starting to worry about where to go. We tried asking one last person, a guard at a fancy-looking hotel, who didn’t speak such good English. A well-to-do Vietnamese couple from the hotel came over asking if they could help, looked at the name of our hostel, looked at us and at eachother. ‘Your hostel is several kilometres away from here.’ Facepalm. ‘We’re about to go out. We can drive you if you like.’ And they did, in their fancy SUV, brushing off our offer of money and restoring our faith in the people of Vietnam after the madness of Halong Bay. We couldn’t thank them enough (or apologise for getting their leather seats so sweaty) but they just smiled and wished us a good trip. Random acts of kindness, hey. Beautiful people.

The hostel was appalling. The worst in Vietnam and, looking back, of the entire journey. The dorm was filthy, the bathroom was foul, the shower didn’t work, the toilet was broken, the bathroom door didn’t close, let alone lock, there was a hole in my bed…the list goes on (not to mention someone – not me, surprisingly – contracting some sort of disease after having licked a table in the vicinity). Of course, you are free to choose your own destiny but let me give you some advice: don’t stay at The Drift if you are ever in Hanoi. It is $2.50 a night and there is free beer. It is not worth it. Drift some place else, if you catch my drift.

We drifted (I’ll stop now) into the Old Quarter in search of food, after having showered by crouching naked under a cold tap and trying to forget about it by drinking the free beer hoi provided by our establishment. We were tired, hungry and disorientated in the narrow winding streets of old Hanoi. After having done a few laps of what looked like the same streets, we wearily stopped at a stall, barely lit by a streetlight, run by a little old woman ladling out steaming bowls of pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. We pulled up little plastic stools as, grinning toothlessly, the lady served up our pho, mixing the noodles with the broth and encouraging us to add the chilli pastes, lime and leaves that she’d placed on a tray next to the soup. We tucked in with gusto, slurping up the broth and clumsily stuffing the noodles in our mouth with plastic chopsticks. It was incredible. We’d had pho many times in Vietnam, but this was the best. It was also where we learnt to eat it properly. The only Western patrons at the stall, we were the subject of much amusement for the local regulars due to our unwieldy way of eating. Chuckling, the elderly gentleman opposite me demonstrated how to eat noodle soup, winding the noodles around the spoon with your chopsticks, then dipping the spoon into the broth so you could eat the two together. After a few attempts, I looked up at him for approval, my mouth full of noodles. Still laughing, he gave me a thumbs up.

We ate lots more street food in Hanoi. Any stall with tempting aromas was basically an excuse to have a meal. We ate banh goi (‘pillow cake’) – like Vietnamese  deep-fried cornish pasties – nem cua be (‘sea crab nem’) – similar to spring rolls but flaky, delicate and stubby – banh trang – the amazing salad-like dish we ate in Ben Tre – bun bo nam bo – stir-fried beef with mango and noodles in a tangy sauce – bun cha – barbequed pork with vermicelli noodles – xoi yen – sticky rice topped with fat and other toppings of your choice. Hanoi’s got it all. We also tried ‘egg coffee’, Vietnamese coffee served with whipped egg whites so that the top of the coffee is almost like a coffee-y marshmallow. Ducking under the eaves of a silk shop, we walked down a tiny corridor and up a rickety staircase to a fairy-light-twinkling balcony overlooking a small garden terrace. Here, we had the BEST egg coffee. Super sweet; super strong.

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We explored the network of tiny streets of the Old Quarter, each street specialising in a different trade, as we learnt when we were trying to find someone to fix my backpack (a broken backpacked backpacker is a sad business). When we found the right street, I bartered with a guy who said he could fix it. He ended up doing so for 45,000VND (at the time, about £1.50). We went to Ngoc Son Temple ‘the temple of the jade mountain’, in the centre of Hoan Kiem lake where I befriended (it’s Facebook official) a groovy Vietnamese lady. According to legend, a golden turtle carried the magical sword of the emperor into the watery depths of the lake where, presumably, it still lies. A mummified descendent of this divine being stares, cross-eyed, from a glass case within the temple. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or terrifying.

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We walked around Hoan Kiem lake about a million times during our stay in Hanoi. The first time because we wanted to, a second and third time because we were talking to a Vietnamese student who wanted to practice his English and we didn’t want to be rude, a further time with newly arrived Oscar and numerous other times. The lake was the main thing I used to orientate myself in Hanoi so we kept going back there. Also, it looked beautiful at night, the scarlet bridge arching over to the temple lit up and its reflection glittering in the still, black water.

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Oscar and I headed West of the citadel over the railway line, strolling through Lenin’s park, where a huge statue of Lenin looks out toward Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The monstrous blocks of stone, surrounded by guards stood to attention in pristine white uniform, are in stark contrast to Ho’s wish for a simple burial. We visited Hanoi’s citadel, only discovered recently, rather run-down and filled with seemingly random exhibitions. We wandered deliriously for what seemed like hours through rooms filled with identical-looking bricks. What is the difference between a rectangular and rammed brick? Does anyone know these things? We left half-mad and not sure why we’d entered in the first place.

Hanoi is a city which gleams with golden temples and glasses of beer hoi. Swirling incense mixes with traffic fumes and steam from the food stalls on every corner. Neat rows of foreign embassies stand next to crumbling citadels, eclipsed by new tower blocks. Hanoi is a mix of the old and the new, the revered and the tacky, the sincere and the scams. The beating heart of Vietnam, the ‘river within’, captures the country in a nutshell.

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Trek: an uphill climb with beautiful views

Life on trek is like living in a different world.  Although we know that the cogs of everyday life keep turning, we’re so immersed in our little bubble that it seems an odd concept that things like days of the week still exist.  We haven’t seen anyone beyond our team or guides for the last week.  Civilisation seems alien and we have left it behind us.

Our coach dropped us off, literally on the side of the road, with nothing to do except don our walking boots and heavy rucksacks and start our long walk into the waiting arms of the jungle.  It had been sunny back on the road, but underneath the dense canopy of the rainforest and with a sky rapidly clouding over it became darker and more mysterious.  Tendrils of mist snaked around the trees, like something out of a jungle fairy tale.  That very first day, we experienced our first rainstorm on trek.  It started lightly but quickly became torrential and by the time we arrived, slipping and sliding, into our first camp, we were absolutely drenched.  The first evening, after having set up the group kit and our own hammocks, was spent as a whole group, damp and cold, huddled around the fire.  But there was something nice about everyone being together, a tangle of limbs, as everybody vied to get the best spot to dry their feet as the rain hammered down on the tarp overhead.

The camps so far have been pretty variable.  One that stands out, although not necessarily for good reasons, is the infamous ‘mud camp’ which, as its name suggests, was incredibly muddy.  Walking around (if sliding can be called walking) was an absolute nightmare, especially if you were unlucky enough to have your hammock set up on a hill which, by the end of our time there, was more like a mud slide.  My rucksack cover is still covered with the mud from mud camp, lest I forget all the muddy memories.

But for every mud camp, there is a stunning camp with magnificent views or perfect trees or a beautiful river close by.  At ‘mouse deer camp’ there is a place you can walk to where you can find incredible panoramas of the surrounding scenery.  The night we arrived, there was a full moon and we all went down after dinner to have a look.  It was a sight that I don’t think any of us will ever forget.  A perfect full moon hung in the centre of the night sky, bathing all the trees in a pearly glow.  We could see the bold silhouette of Mount Kinabalu standing proudly against a velvet sky, fluffy clouds resting in the valley, glowing softly by the light of the moon.  Other clouds, pale silvery wispy things, skimmed the tops of the ridge and streaks of silver nudged the base of the mountain.  On one side, a huge threatening roll of cloud lit up occasionally with flashes of lightening from a storm, but there was no thunder to break our  semi-stunned silence.  Stars shone out from where the clouds were fewer, signs of a rainless night for our team.  The only evidence of human settlement came from three pinpricks of light; apart from that, there was only soft darkness all around.  We felt so isolated but in a good way.  It kind of felt special that we were the only ones out there in the middle of that massive expanse of Bornean rainforest.

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The rainforest itself has much to offer, which compensates for its slippery paths and huge hills for us to trek up.  We have swam in crystal clear rivers and sat underneath waterfalls, something that is blissful after a long day walking as we let our sore limbs rest in the deliciously cool water.  Rare moments of feeling clean are a definite luxury here in our trek bubble.  Luxury comes also in the form of the food that the jungle provides.  Pretty much all food on trek tastes amazing despite all coming from a can – in our trek delirium, we are all now devoted fans of chicken luncheon meat, something which definitely shows the level of jungle madness that we are all at!  But we have been lucky enough, too, to find fresh food – wild ginger, chillies, long beans – that have elevated our meals to the next level.  Our incredible guides have also cooked us some things, including jungle palm soup and sweet tapioca and milk.  Yesterday we were treated to jungle donuts, which were absolutely phenomenal – the whole team was buzzing, especially after our guide told us that we had achieved the trek record for that particular day.  We had beaten the time taken by all other teams to walk between the two camps by 11 minutes.

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The foreseeable future also looks good, especially on the food front, as we sit in one of the best camps yet alongside a beautiful river waiting for trek resupply (a visit from Fieldbase staff, with our food rations for the rest of the phase). Alpha 5 are feeling positive as we look towards the next nine days, which may be both mentally and physically challenging, but which we hope to cover with long bold strides and a spring in our step.

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Originally published by Raleigh International (02/12/15): https://raleighinternational.org/blog/borneo/trek-an-uphill-climb-with-beautiful-views/

A Journey in the Dark

Darkness had descended into Imbak Canyon by the time we embarked on our first night trek, a snake of red head torches glowing dimly in the gloom. I have never known such darkness; dense, heavy, almost claustrophobic. A faint scatter of stars, partly obscured by gently swirling clouds, glittered down through a gap in the trees, pinpricks of light in a sea of darkness. I hadn’t replaced the batteries in my head torch for a while and my failing light barely illuminated the path in front of me. My chances of seeing any wildlife, except for the spiders’ eyes glinting from the trees, were almost zero.

But what I couldn’t see was more than compensated for by the cacophony assaulting my eardrums. The rainforest never sleeps, an orchestra of biodiversity screaming out from every branch, root and stem. Cicadas sang, frogs croaked, birds crooned, and something…purred? A clouded leopard? Fairly unlikely, yet not impossible here in Imbak, the ‘lost world’, one of the few truly unexplored places on Earth.

Fear was almost tangible in the suffocating blackness, a metallic taste on my palette, unknown terrors lurking in unseen trees. At one point, the girl in front of me stopped, motioned for me to go first. The people at the front were too far ahead, leaving a dark void between us and them. Setting forth into that void was both terrifying and exhilarating.

I tried to gauge where we were, for we had walked this route, the all-but-forgotten ‘Big Belian Trail’, before. By day, the sun had shone brightly through a veil of emerald, casting dappled shadows onto the forest floor. ‘Big Belian Tree’, the focal point of the trail, took seven of us, linked hands, to encircle it. ‘How old?’ we asked our guides. A thoughtful silence. The reply: ‘Very, very old.’

The forests of Sabah are, indeed, very very old, dating back to the age of the last dinosaurs. Another tree on the trail, ‘Kapur Hollow Tree’, you can stand up inside and feel the age pressing in around you, as you look upwards at the patch of blue sky above. This lost path runs through Imbak’s unique and mysterious primary rainforest, a rarity in this destructive modern world. It was a circular route, with decaying footbridges that we were helping repair.

In the dark, I counted. One bridge. A stumble on an entwined tangle of roots. Two bridges. A cold sweat, for once not from the humid heat of Borneo, breaking out on the backs of my arms. Three bridges. A slip on the bridge itself, the final bridge, curses muted by the living symphony of the jungle. Finally, the whirring of the generator and palpable relief as we saw the single light bulb from the guides’ tarpaulin shining out of the darkness. Our camp: a safe haven.

Home to York and the Yorkshire Wolds

So it’s been a while since I last posted anything and I apologise for this. As well as being a pretty stressful period of exams (and drinking after said exams), there hasn’t actually been an awful lot to write about. 

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However, I arrived home on Saturday and, since then, there has been much more to write about. On Saturday evening, my family and I went to a delicious little restaurant in York called Meltons. Food lovers of York: if you haven’t been, you must try it. As well as the food being sublime, they also try to source as much of their food as possible from the local area. The only downside is the cost, which is pretty hefty, although that wasn’t so much of an issue for me as my parents were paying (yes!!). But the food IS good – I started with scallops, then trout with mussels and samphire in a butter sauce, then panacotta with Yorkshire strawberries. The wine was also good.

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On the Sunday, my parents had planned a walk in the Yorkshire Wolds – the weather was good and we took a picnic (it was a brilliant picnic, my sister had gone rather all-out). We started from Millington, a small village, which is located in the Central Wolds. It has some beautiful scenery and is one of the few remaining wooded dales in the Wolds. It also is home to a number of highland cattle, whom we met on the walk. The walk was a circular one, which took us past Millington Woods, Millington Heights and Millington Pastures. The weather was fair, making for some good photography, as the light softly illuminated fields of yellow oilseed rape and purple lavender. The countryside here can truly be described as ‘rolling’ – the hills slowly climb and fall in the grass carpeted fields of the Wolds. Upon reaching the top of one hill, we could see a herd of highland cattle galloping down a hill on the opposite side of the valley, which was a pretty funny sight. We definitely felt we deserved our lunch when the time came (it was an almost 8 mile walk after all!!), and the food really tasted as good as it looked!! The weather managed to hold up all day, a fact for which I was grateful, as I hadn’t brought a waterproof. Overall, a lovely walk – I shall post a route if anyone would like to try it for themselves – it isn’t too challenging and you will be rewarded for your efforts with beautiful views.

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A walk in the rain….

When I started this blog, I thought that the ‘walks’ part would consist of scenic walks in the woods, fields and hills of various places. But, you know, a walk is a walk, and this one was a short jaunt along West Street, Sheffield.
I’d just finished a lecture and had two hours to kill before the next one. I was alone, as my other coursemates had gone back to Endcliffe, so thought I’d do something productive and buy some things for tea. I was looking for daikon (or white radish), but peering into the Asian supermarket’s bleak darkness of obvious ‘closedness’, this looked pretty unlikely. So I cheated and bought normal radishes, which probably taste pretty similar. I also bought some mango and mint and other nice things (Dijon mustard was only £1, so it was a must-buy…really).
As I walked back to where the Information Commons loomed with the dismal promise of work to be done, it started to rain, as is typical in the wonderful North. It was that really fine, ‘wet’ rain, which quickly makes you feel cold and pretty miserable. It was windy too, and as my visiblity started to diminuish due to the standard obstruction-of-sight-by-hair, I decided to have a coffee.

I’ve been to the place before – it does student discount, which is never a bad thing. I ordered a small skinny cappuccino ‘Would you like sprinkles?’ ‘Of course’, hoping it would warm me up and kick start my brain ready for the beginning of the climb of the mountain called Revision. Slightly disappointing: warm rather than hot; not strong enough (in hindsight, I probably should have asked for an extra shot of coffee) and not big enough for the short walk to the IC (also probably my own fault). On the positive side, it did give me the boost of caffeine which I needed after my 9am start (ugh) for the start of revision and the brilliant spurt of procrastination, which is the act of writing this post.
So on that note, I better get back to it, and I’ll be writing again soon, as I plan to go wild garlic foraging this weekend, so will let you know how that goes. Until then!