The end of the trip was drawing near so I was determined to make the most of these last few days. Travelling was beginning to exhaust me. Moving from place to place, living out of a backpack, is a difficult thing to do but oh so rewarding and there was still a lot left to see and do!
Day 133 – Today we left for Phong Na, stopping on the way to check out another set of tunnels. The Vinh Moc tunnels were different though. Here hundreds of people cooked, went to school, received medical treatment, gave birth, watched movies and basically lived underground for six years! We stooped through a winding network of tunnels, imagining how much darker it would have been with oil lamps flickering, as we explored the tiny nooks that served as people’s homes during the war. It was nerve wracking for anyone who was claustrophobic but fascinating! I couldn’t believe they could live underground for so long.
Our hotel was a far cry from the living conditions we had just been to see. The mountains sheltered our swimming pool on one side and palm trees waved at us from the other. It was the perfect serene location for an evening meditation session after our swim. Our guide led us in a beginners meditation class under the stars and I let my mind empty, focusing on my breathing and the beautiful place in which I had found myself.
Day 134 – In the morning we headed to Paradise Cave. Apparently you can camp out in one of the cave networks but a day trip was enough for me. I always love spotting the weird and wonderful formations in the rock that look like coral, as if I’m walking underwater, or something alien from a planet far far away. It was nice to see but not nearly as exciting as the afternoon activity.
Caitlyn and I headed over to the slightly more foreboding sounding, Dark Cave.The name was much gloomier than what we were to get up to though. Just to get to the mouth of the cave we had to zip line over a beautiful aqua blue river before jumping in and swimming to the entrance. From there we followed a guide into the cave, the light from the entrance slowly diminishing as we walk further and further in. Suddenly the line of people turned, went behind a rock and disappeared. With only our head torches to guide us, Caitlyn and I followed and were led down a narrow muddy pathway. The walls became more and more mud caked as we went and eventually other groups, passing us in the opposite direction, even more covered in mud. At the end of the tunnel was the source of all the muddiness. We had to clamber past everyone, slip sliding on the rocks, and into the mud pool. It was the weirdest, funniest and one of the best experiences of the trip. In the mud there is no way to sink so at one point I ended up flipping over and over, splashing everyone with mud, much to their annoyance. Finally I got my footing but even then I discovered I could hover vertically with my feet off the ground. I could lounge on my back with my feet up as if there was an invisible rubber ring around me. It was hilarious!
Once we were covered from head to foot we climbed out. And yes, I did fall over. And yes, probably more than once. We stopped at one of the pools on the way out to wash off the mud but not before sliding down a natural mud slide! Once we were clean and back out in the open we climbed into inflatable kayaks and attempted to paddle back to the starting point, if you can call zig-zagging back and forth paddling. Back at the start point their was one more zip line to go on. This one seemed even more fun but I managed to mess it up. We had to take the handles and launch ourselves off a platform, leaping into the water at the last moment. Only I followed suit after a few idiots before me and let the thing flip me off, landing flat on my back! Luckily the life jacket absorbed the shock for me but next time, heed my advice, just let go!
Day 135 – After all the excitement from the day before it was a fairly chilled day today. We arrived in Ninh Binh in the afternoon and decided to go for a bike ride again. We cycled rather clumsily (working brakes are not a legitimate thing in Asia) past towering green mountains and stretches of rice paddies towards a cute pagoda by a lake. Unfortunately we had to pay to get a closer look so we gave up on that and went back past the scenery, which was apparently where the new King Kong movie was filmed, towards the main part of town and another lake before heading out for a nice meal.
Day 136 – Today we drove to Hanoi and our last point on the Stray tour. I should have been sad it was all coming to an end but with so much travelling and early starts I was kind of looking forward to a few days in one place, even though our time in Hanoi would be broken up with a trip to Halong Bay.
On the way we stopped off at Trang An grottoes boat trip. Here a woman paddled us through the low hanging caves, winding in and out of the different systems and ducking to avoid stalectites. The strength of the women paddling us was admirable too – I even saw one paddling with her feet!
We passed through mountains shrouded in mist and arrived in the non-stop city of Hanoi by afternoon. As we went in search for dinner along Beer Street, I found I was reminded of Phnom Penh – except there were much more motorbikes!
Day 137 – This was our chance to properly explore Hanoi. Our guide walked us here there and everywhere! Unfortunately none of us were much in the mood to wake up early and be dragged around the city and the drizzly weather didn’t make things any better. First we went to see the Ho Chin Minh memmorial but after one look at the long queue we decided to pass on walking past a dead guy, despite how important and respected he is in Vietnam. Our next stop was the Temple of Literature. This old university with its Chinese architectural influences was so pretty and peaceful. A nice little place of zen in the busy city where big stone turtles, a symbol of good fortune in Vietnam, hold plaques with the names of all the students who have graduated on them. Our last stop was the Hanoi Hilton, which was much less glamorous than it sounds. It was a prison for political prisoners and American prisoners of war. The cutaways of the cells with models of the prisoners inside showed just how terrible conditions were for these prisoners.
After that we definitely needed some cheering up. Our guide left us to our own devices and we took over the tour for ourselves, next stop, Harry Potter Cafe! Along an unsuspecting street hung a triangular sign with ‘Always’ written on it. Inside were props to try on and take photos with, memorabilia from the films and books and, best of all, classic HP beverages. I had to try a butterbeer (also known as cream soda and coca cola) and actually enjoyed the sweet liquid topped with whipped cream. Elly was not so big a fan though. On the plus side if the butterbeer wasn’t for you, you could always try a polyjuice potion – so long as no one’s dropped a cat hair in it…
Day 138 – Today was the day of our Halong Bay cruise. I had been picturing lounging on a deck chair as we sailed through magnificent scenery, the sun shining as I sip a cocktail. Well there were deck chairs, and magnificent scenery and cocktails but no sun in sight. Somehow though we managed to brave the chilly air to go kayaking around the rocky outcrops springing from the water. It was like something out of a storybook with its emerald waters and rainforest spilling over the tops of the limestone islands emerging from below. Despite the bay being packed with similar cruise ships to ours, floating along in our little kayaks it felt like we were the only ones for miles. It actually didn’t seem so cold when we weren’t moving so we even braved the water, leaping in from the side of the boat. It wasn’t too bad in the water but as soon as we were out we were running, shivering to our hot showers!
Luckily dinner was amazing, just as lunch had been, and we gorged ourselves on the feast. The plates just kept coming! As the night sky fell, the stars reflected on the water, the lights from the hundreds of ships sheltered in the bay began shimmering.We soon broke the peace and quiet though with our crazy karaoke singing though!
Day 139 – If we hadn’t seen enough caves already we definitely felt like we had after this morning. We were taken to the Surprising Cave but the only thing surprising about it was how packed full of tourists it was. The cave was beautiful though, that couldn’t be denied, even though we were all a bit caved out by that point. Our final activity was back on the boat. We had what they called a “cooking class” but really this was putting ingredients inside rice paper to make spring rolls. Still, it was nice to get one last meal in before we headed back to our hostel.
Day 140 – Finally I had some time to relax. Rachel, Caitlyn and I went exploring and did some much anticipated shopping. We had a lot of souvenirs to bring home, okay? And of course a shopping trip in Asia wouldn’t be a proper trip without a massage stop. I was starting to wonder whether I would get massage withdrawal once I got back home. The only off-putting aspect to my last Asian massage was the horrendous shorts I had to wear so they could massage my legs. They looked like men’s boxers and that thought did not relax me while the massauses hands got to work.
After a day relaxing it was time to let loose in the evening! We went back to beer street where we had eaten the other night but this time we put the name to the test. We almost got kicked out for bringing our own beers into one of the bars but not before we got some dancing in!
Day 141 – After chatting to a woman over breakfast, I was recommended to check out the Women’s Museum. On my way I stopped off to grab an ice-cream (another one of my addictions South East Asia had started) and when I arrived Rachel and Caitlyn immediately burst out laughing. Five months travelling and I still hadn’t learnt how to blend in, in fact, in my purple flip flops, classic giraffe tourist top, camera round my neck and audio guide on my head I looked more like a tourist than ever. Once they had stopped laughing we started looking around the museum. It was actually fascinating to read about women in Vietnamese culture, how brave they were in the War and how interesting their views on marriage are, the woman often choosing the man and proposing marriage to him. There were four floors but I only got to zip round the last one, showing Vietnamese women’s fashion, as the audio guide took about four hours. It was still worth a visit though.
It was our last night out together as a Stray group so we attempted a final family dinner only we all ended up eating at different places. We did meet up for one last drink together only this time instead of beer it was hot chocolates. We were just so hardcore.
Day 142 – My second from last day was spent travelling back to Bangkok where I would fly home the next day. It felt strange that this five month journey was coming to an end. It felt so much longer than five months and to be honest I couldn’t wait to be home. The last time I went travelling I left too early and spent the whole flight anxiously wishing I wasn’t leaving. This time round I had timed things a bit better. I was sick of getting no sleep in hostel rooms. I had eaten enough rice to last a lifetime. I hadn’t seen my friends and family in almost half a year. I was ready to come home. Don’t get me wrong, I loved travelling. I loved being on the road and having new adventures everyday. I knew that a little time of being at home would have me craving those adventures again soon enough, but for now, I needed to rest, relax and most importantly, see the people I love.
I boarded a plane to Bangkok, my third stint there, but this time I would be staying round the corner from the airport rather than on Koh San Road. Though it was a short flight the journey still seemed to take up most of the day, not helped by the fact that I couldn’t find my pick up to the hotel for what felt like an hour. Eventually I made it there though and got at least a brief stint soaking up the sun by the pool, enjoying the 30 degree heat that was so different from the cool air of Vietnam, before eating my last Asian dish. It had to be Pad Thai.
Day 143 – The quicker I wanted to get home the longer the journey seemed to take. I distracted myself with another film and suddenly the announcement that we would be landing shortly brought me back to reality. I pushed through the crowds, tapped my foot impatiently at immigration and paced nervously between the carousels waiting for my bag, the last time I would collect it at an airport for a while. England, through the airport windows, seemed so strange and yet so familiar. I burst out of the gate and there was mum, calling out for me. I hadn’t thought I would cry and yet I felt my eyes brimming with tears as I ran to her embrace. There was one more surprise for me though. Mum pointed and the crowd parted and there was Joey, my boyfriend, waiting with a sign and a bunch of my favourite flowers. It couldn’t have been a more perfect homecoming.
Now a new adventure was beginning – settling in back home, getting an adult job and figuring out my next move. I had finally caught up with my journal on the plane home and this is what I wrote: “I will miss having new incredible experiences everyday. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve just been in awe of the place I am at of the thing I am doing. Every day is a new challenge, everyday is a new opportunity, a new adventure. I hope that even while I am not travelling I can bring a piece of that feeling home with me.”
143 days of joy was just the beginning.