Friday, 22 March 2013

Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

Looking out to the vast expanse of milky water, dotted with looming, foliage covered hills, the diversity of the breathtaking country that is Vietnam hit me. Only days before I had been in the beating metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and was now on a three-day boat trip in Ha Long bay, one of the most amazing sights I have seen. The odd-shaped mountains protruding from the calm waters are reminiscent of the limestone peaks of Yanshou in China or the sun-bleached mountains in Thailand. 

The reminders are reflective of Vietnam's concoction of cultures, a meeting of modern and medieval Asia with a sprinkling of Western touches and a clash between the calm beauty of nature and the fast-moving beat of city life.

Ha Long bay, located in the north east of Vietnam is the top tourist sight for the area, but still retains an untouched charm. The three thousand or so islands looming over the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin certainly live up to the hype -- recognised in 1994 as it was made into a world heritage site.

We arrived in the bay from Hanoi and stayed on the boat over night. This would be my advice for travelers as the reputation of Ha Long city is not the best.

Our first day was spent swimming in the clear, warm waters and sunning ourselves on the deck before kayaking through the gleaming bay. This is an amazing way to see the limestone peaks and obviously if you’ve never kayaked before it was a very easy task as the water is so calm. 

Dinner on board included steaming bowls of rice with various meat, vegetables and exotic sauces (all eaten with chopsticks of course), washed down with a cool glass of beer. The bay at night is mysterious and beautiful, if not a little tainted by the many boat lights of tourist ships.

What sets Ha Long apart from the mountains of China and Thailand are the hidden treasures within and around the hills. Our second day was spent exploring the caves and grottoes, many illuminated.

Legend has it the bay was created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains and the islands were whipped up by its huge tail. Consequently, the name Ha Long means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea,' our helpful tour guide Pipi informed us.

The islands are also dotted with various beaches, one of which we visited after climbing one of the great peaks of the bay. This is a must-do activity as the view is simply breathtaking.

Unfortunately there are often downsides to tourist success and this magnificent site is no exception. The bay is under threat as many people have removed rare coral and seashells from the seabed and also taken stalactites and stalagmites from the caves. These are often taken and made into trinkets such as key rings to be sold to visiting tourists, so be wary and try not to buy.

Whether it’s a break from the bustling cities or a tourist trip you wish for, Ha Long bay is a must.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Morocco to Spain in 2 weeks

I often dream of throwing in the towel on this serious, London, commuting, flat renting, working, gym-going, rain sodden life and going gallivanting across the world for a few months. I then wake up and remember I'm not Richard Branson or marrying a Rolling Stone anytime soon (sigh). I therefore have to come up with genius ways to soften this heartache. But apparently someone had already thought of this and they're called holidays.

But I'm not really your lay-on-a-beach-reading type (although I have been known to read Jilly Cooper on a sunbed, don't knock it until you've tried it) so the 'holidays' are more 'trips' where we move from one place to the next. The most recent trip was to Morocco, with limited funds and limited time.

This limitedness (not a word, should be) is not such a problem in the vast, culture-laden North African country, as flights, accommodation and food is pretty cheap and transport is good, well, most of it.

First stop was Marrakesh. Easyjet and Ryanair -- the "worst airlines for leg room" folks -- fly here now for about £90. I thought this opening up of the city may have spoiled it a bit and, although many of the locals are clearly geared up for lost, dirham-laden tourists, it hasn't lost its charm and overwhelming unpredictability.

Warning: it is IMPOSSIBLE not to get lost in Marrakesh. If you do DO NOT let a friendly seeming local 'guide' you back to the square as they'll be asking for 100 dirham before you can say 'another orange juice for the road, please.' Just go with the flow and you'll get back to the main square, Djemaa el-Fna, eventually. Oh and try the orange juice.

The markets in and around the square are a must see, just try not to look for too long unless you are sure you want to go home with ten carpets. 

We stayed in a beautiful riad (guesthouse) with a plungepool. Most of the riads have these to cool down in, as well as a roof terrace to sunbathe in peace and get away from it all with the call to prayer echoing in the background (which was slightly out of sync with my chosen reading material but never mind.)

We traveled to Fez on a train. A simple idea, which resulted in me enduring what were possibly the worst few hours of my life. So hot. So so hot. Get a bus people.

Fez, the second largest city in Morocco, is like it's larger sister, Marrakesh, except there's no main square and the alleys are more like rabbit warrens. The walled city, a UNESCO world heritage sight, is still a great place to see as it seems as though little has changed since Delacroix's paintings. But if you're pushed for time and want to see more of the coast or mountains then it could be skipped, as long as you've been to a Moroccan city.

*note: this is not a picture of Fez. It's a painting by Eugene Delacroix.

Chefchaouen, for me, was the highlight of the trip. After the buzzing, hectic, sweaty cities the bohemiam, breezy, beautiful village nestled in the Atlas mountains was a breath of fresh air. The little houses and shops are all blue and white lime-washed and the chilled out cobbled town is a great base to walk from and take in some amazing views.

Asilah, to the south of Tangier, on the Atlantic coast, is a beach resort. The Hispano-Moorish town is very arty with lots of galleries and an assortment of markets and shops. We managed to do some body boarding but more serious surf can be found on the windy beaches of Essaouira, so I'm told.

Couple of other warnings. 1. Unless you have a stomach of steel you probably will get ill. Most of the pharmacies are used to yellow-bellied Westerners so head there and they'll give you some remedies which worked pretty well for me. 2. There are lots of cats. Everywhere. Don't feed them. 3. Dress respectfully. This means covering shoulders and knees.

After Asilah we headed to the ferry port of Tangier to get the boat to Spain. This was very easy and quick, and I recommend it if you want to see a bit of Spain, particularly Seville, before heading home.

Note - when to go
We went in September. This is a great time as it's still very hot but not unbearable and the touristy parts aren't very busy. Plus everything (including flights) is a little bit cheaper.

Lonely Planet says its best in mid-March to May or September to November, not great timing for teachers among you (or if there is anyone young enough reading my blog that still goes to school...) but end or beginning of the holidays rather than bang in the middle I would say.

I also have to note that my sister, the trend setter that she is, did this trip whilst at university and she was the one that recommended Chefchaouen, so thanks Jess. x

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Who to follow on Instagram?

Myself and a couple of friends got talking recently about who we follow on Instagram. We all agreed a balance of friends, celebrities, galleries and shops are a good choice. But who's the best? It depends on your tastes, obviously, but here's my pick:

Tate Gallery, art gallery in London, Liverpool and St Ives - tategallery 

Follow the Tate for behind the scenes views of artists preparing their wares and exclusive peeks of upcoming exhibitions.

Time Out London, city guide - timeoutlondon

This feed includes random Londonisms from both the Time Out team and, if you use the hashtag #timeoutlondon they will share your snaps too.

Alexa Chung, model and presenter - chungalexa

From holiday envy (I get this from a lot of the celebs on Instagram) to clothes envy to megaLOLz, Alexa's pics are little pick me ups.

Rihanna, singer - badgalriri

When I saw what her name was I was inclined not to follow to be honest... but you have to hand it to her, Riri knows how to get attention from this little app - see one of her recent pics as a prime (rump) example...

Dawn O'Porter, journalist and writer - hotpatooties

Previously Dawn Porter before adding the O in honor of her recent marriage to Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, Dawn already has a huge twitter presence, with some 250,000 followers. She's also just written a book, Paper Aeroplanes. 

Topshop, shop - Topshop

This British institution posts new items, store openings, fashion week catwalks and food. What's not to love?

Lena Dunham, writer and actress - lenadunham

The creator of cult TV show Girls -- which, if you haven't seen is a must watch -- posts a lot of pictures of her dog. But in my book this warrants no complaints. She's funny and intelligent to boot.

Liz Matthews, PR - lizmatth

Former journalist Liz Matthews owns LMPR, which boasts a client list including Rosie Huntingdon-Whitely, Alexa Chung, Laura Bailey, Daisy Lowe, Katie Hiller and Amanda de Cadenet. Pics are of these beauties - plus Liz's adorable twins.

Zooey Deschanel, actress, writer, singer - zooeydeschanel

The lady with arguably the best fringe in the business is the star of US sitcom New Girl and has a pretty impressive music back catalogue. Her pics are of co-stars and glam goings on.


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