Touching down in Hanoi | Vietnam

After basically spending a month gallivanting around south Thailand, spending our days as beach bums, swimming in waterfalls and activities of the like, we were definitely craving some city time. Not to complain at all about enjoying the idyllic scenery of the Andaman, but bringing back some sight seeing and culture into our lives and starting our journey in Vietnam was something we'd been looking forward to the most.

We touched down in Hanoi, Vietnam's busy, crazy and wonderful capital late in the evening, grabbed a taxi from the airport and headed straight for our booked accommodation in the Old Quarter - the main tourist and backpacker area. The ride from the airport wasn't so different from any other similar journey we've done but I do remember seeing the sheer amount of scooters and motorbikes, most with huge amounts of cargo strapped vicariously to the back and thinking 'whoa'. Another thing to note was that it was COLD in Hanoi, not like freezing, I mean I was still just about able to wear shorts but it was certainly a far cry from the 35c we'd experienced earlier that day in Bangkok. Because North Vietnam is much further North than Bangkok, the climate around December-March (I think) is colder and rainier than the rest of the year.

When we arrived in the Old Quarter, everything was fast-moving and loud and a bit of a blur, we hurried into our hostel, dumped our bags and immediately went out in search of the infamous Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is locally brewed beer that is sold for 5,000 Dong which is the equivalent of about 14p. It's bargain of the century and you can find it pretty much anywhere in the Old Quarter of Hanoi - and it's not hard to miss too, what with the big red signs with huge yellow lettering and all. The best thing about Bia Hoi is that because it's brewed locally and daily, there are no preservatives so it can't be kept longer than one day (you can taste when it has been... yeasty) but that also means it's only ordered in certain amounts and when it's gone, it's gone. And it usually does go, in the popular and reliable places by about 10pm. So we guzzled a couple of Bia Hois, by this point we affectionately re-named Beer Ahoy, and grabbed a chicken Banh Mi before heading to bed.

The next morning we awoke to a drizzly and even colder Hanoi. We had to check out of our hostel and find other means of accomodation due to the place we booked being full, so we headed to Blue's Hostel down the road (£4 a night for a private room), dumped our bags (again) as our room wasn't ready, suited up in waterproofs and set about discovering our new environment. We'd heard that Vietnam is BIG on coffee, so our first port of call found us sitting amongst the locals in one of the many coffee shops, looking out onto the rain. I went for a plain black - rookie mistake - and Shay went for black coffee with condensed milk. The coffee out here is so bitter, condensed milk plays a big part in coffee culture; it sounds so bizarre but it does work and it does taste good. It certainly gives you a kick up the bum first thing in the morning. After paying for our coffees, both about 20,000d each we went in search of Pho - which we now know is pronouned more like 'fuh'. A decent bowl of beef Pho - FUH, I always have to correct myself with the pronunciation - will set you back about the equivalent of £1 or 30,000d in any 'hole-in-the-wall' eating place quite consistently across Vietnam. The thought of eating a boiling hot broth just the day before would have sent me into a heat-exhausted frenzy just thinking about it but in our new, much cooler climate it was so welcoming and just like a warm hug. If you don't know, Pho is a steaming hot bowl of soup, with a stock as the liquid, flat rice noodles, beef (or chicken) that is usually uncooked when it's chucked into the stock, then spring onions, sometimes beansprouts, coriander and always the option on the table to add a squeeze of lime, and some chilli. It's divine. It's something I opted for a number of times back home when working in Soho and Shoreditch and I can safely say that Pho Cafe in London have it pretty much spot on. It's a simple dish, but one where the flavours do need to be balanced in the stock as it's the base for the whole dish - I can't WAIT to make it at home.

Overall we spent about 8 days in Hanoi taking it all in, it's a hectic place but a place we totally fell head over heels for. You can totally walk around most places without having to jump in a taxi or rent a bike, not that I personally ever would there, because I don't have a death wish. But as an example, we walked round the lake, to the Cathedral, to the war museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausaleum and the Hoa Lo prison amongst everything else during our time there. There's so much to do in Hanoi and the best part is that you barely get hassled by the tri-shaw men or anyone really. We also did a street food tour which I'll write a separate blog post on, because it deserves it, but it's safe to say our Vietnam adventure was off to an excellent start.

Back to Ao Nang & Off To Phuket Old Town | Thailand

After our 8 relaxing nights on Koh Lipe, we headed back to Ao Nang on the mainland where we met up with Shay's sister and brother-in-law. I have to say that by this point in our journey I think both Shay and I were very much itching to see some friendly faces and we had such a good time catching up and having a laugh. In the days we spent together we hired a private boat to do a trip to the Hong Islands which only ended up being 850b each with lunch, snorkels and life jackets included. Because safety equipment is totally a unique selling point out here, ha! But when you consider you'll pay 400b for a group boat trip and be crammed on with about 30 other people, it was quite a good deal. The Hong Islands are breath-takingly beautiful; if you're in Ao Nang I insist you do a day trip. If you do get a private boat, make sure you head off as early as possible, we left at 8am and consequently beat all the group trips and had the beaches basically to ourselves, it was fab. I was a bit naughty though and forgot to take lots of pictures, mainly because we were having too much fun!

A few days in to our time on Ao Nang, we were also greeted by a friend I used to work with in London. Together we all went to the Ao Nang Beach Festival as well as going to watch some Muay Thai boxing, which was suitably brutal... I still definitely managed to get into it by the end though. Think of a 'My Fair Lady' situation here. Although Ao Nang is fairly touristy, I'd still say it's worth a visit, certainly as a jumping off point for some of the islands as well. On our last night in Ao Nang, we spent the night in a 5 star resort, the Centara Grand Beach Resort Krabi, courtesy of Shay's mum as a Christmas present. It was ah-mazing and by that point in our journey, very well needed. We made our way over by boat - yes it has it's own beach - as early as possible and after check-in we promptly plonked ourselves on the comfy beach beds and ran amok on the sand and likewise in the gorgeous pool. The food and drink was a little pricey for us, so in the afternoon we headed out for some food and then ended up in a massage parlour. Shay had never had a massage before but he is now converted, infact I think we created a monster ha. Obviously we made sure to head back and use all of the facilities in our room for maximum comfort and enjoyment, which meant having a bath, I don't even really like baths, but you can bet I bloomin' had one. And before we knew it we were checking out the next day to head to Phuket.

We had two nights booked in Phuket Old Town, which we booked yonks ago. Upon arrival we were worried that we'd booked in the wrong part of the island, but it turned out to be just excellent. A lot of the action in Phuket happens on the beaches, the most notable of all being Patong beach (we grabbed the public bus for 30b each, as opposed to 500b for a taxi). I have no words to describe this place, but for two people who like a quiet pint in our local pub, it wasn't ideal. I'll paint a picture, mega clubs the size of shopping centres, music so loud you can't actually talk to anyone or hear anyone for that matter, and constantly being berated to go and watch a ping pong show. Yeah. Not forgetting the overpriced drinks. But we did one night there and had a laugh once we found a more deserted Irish bar off the main strip! By contrast the Old Town is charming and beautiful with colonial buildings and lots of heritage. We ate some fab food here, including a dish of peppered pork and rice with Chinese black olives from a small cafe - nothing like we've ever had before as well as stumbling across i46 for a bite to eat and some well-needed lime smoothies; some respite from the midday heat. It's safe to say we totally fell in love with the Old Town, it's filled with little cafes and eateries and not much else really, which was perfect.

When our time in Phuket Town was up, on Christmas Eve we headed off to Koh Lanta to spend some time with friends for the few days over Christmas. We inadvertedly stopped at Koh Phi Phi on the way and saw the famous Maya Bay, the beach from 'The Beach' which as you can imagine was totally overrun with tourists - I'm sure Phi Phi island has a lot to offer but I'm personally glad we opted against forking out the money to do a specific trip because the Hong island trip we did was so amazing. I've not got much to report for Koh Lanta as we spent the time with friends but it's a beautiful island that I'd love to go back to as well one day.

At this point our our Thai adventure had come to an end and it was time to head back to the mainland to start making our way to Vietnam!