Getting lost… on purpose.

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Is getting lost a valid mode of travel? Is it logical and safe?
From a young woman who often errs on the side of caution to avoid unwanted attention, I still say yes when travelling. That’s not to say that dangers are magically evaporated and witts can be ignored, but deciding to wander through the lanes and alleys of gorgeous new cities for hours on end can be a fruitful experience.

My first experience of this was with a friend in Venice. We headed out of our hostel looking for dinner without a particular destination in mind. Just like our daytime exploration, we found ourselves off the beaten track, “partially lost” (you can navigate your way back from anywhere via the canal network); away from tourist crowds and amongst the locals on the other side of town.
It was starting to get cold and we heard roaring laughter and the buzz of conversation before we saw the place. A tiny cafe tucked away, brimming with happy locals and delicious smells wafting from somewhere within misted, glowing windows. Without hesitation, we practically bolted inside knowing that we’d stumbled on some gold.
Of course we were in the local area so nothing was in English, no-one understood our accents even when attempting Italian, but somehow I ended up with the best Gnocchi al fungi of my life; fresh, rich and mouth wateringly tasty. The burnt butter sauce, soft, fluffy gnocchi and abundance of mushroom was to die for. There I was, jammed amongst locals and loving the rich, authentic experience and having no idea how to get home but knowing we would figure it out.

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So years later and back in Italy, we decided, why not?
Day one in Rome and we decided to skim the surface and discover some food! Wow. So we began to wander and on the way we gathered produce.
I love the cliche but it is true, tomatoes are incredibly cheap everywhere! 0.14 Euro per kilo in one local store, but we opted for market tomatoes in the Campo de Flori square. Purchasing fresh Buffalo mozzarella also, Rome is the heart of Mozzarella!

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Further along we stumbled upon one of the many incredible delicatessens with every cured meat you could dream of. The charming Italian owner didn’t speak English but wanted us to sample everything.
Prosciuttos..
Salamis..
Bresaola…and of course, we bought some for the road.
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Next we stumbled upon a bakery we had been lured into before. Sweets of every kind made daily and displayed across all surfaces and trays. We said no to metre long pizza slabs and instead chose dark, crusty sourdough
and some sweet treats to accompany or collection of goods. How fun it is to indicate the size of the pieces you want, knowing full well that the staff will up size anyway!
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Some fabulous cheap red wine for pre-dinner happy hour and a feast by the picturesque river in the afternoon sun. A few hours well spent. A plan? Unnecessary!!

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Hue – redefining

The bus ride from Ha Noi to Hue is hellish. Jammed up in seats that suit the Vietnamese physique but barely accommodate Aussies over 6 foot we begin the overnight journey.

We are in the back most row which has three seats. We stuff out small packs behind us between seats and the window and looked over at the abundant freight that seemed to be jammed in every nook and cranny, at once maximising efficiency but also making the coach so heavy that we could feel the suspension struggle over bumps and launch us off the seats.

Several hours in we stop and collected more passengers including a relatively small Swiss or French girl who sat in the seat next to us. Having now lost some space I curl up and try to go back to sleep. Only to be woken up shortly after when a large carton, some of the aforementioned freight tumbled down onto this girls and my heads.

The rest of the ride is a blur. Drift off wake up drift off wake up drift off wake up. Eventually arrive. Feeling shitty and grumpy with everything. Short and snappy with everything. We disembark and are immediately harangued by the local touts offering hotels and lifts. I snap at them. At short with them. Normal rules of politeness do not apply here.

We stumble into a cafe on the nearby corner and order some Vietnamese coffee. Strong, short and sweet. We have a few rounds and alternate it with the tea they provide complimentary. Brains turned back on we scour our map and then begin walking to our budget hotel.

We check in and notice it is a family business. Later that night I will see the owner/operator sleeping in a mosquito net with wife and young baby in the middle of the lobby downstairs. We walk up three flights of stairs with packs weighing heavy, panting and short of breath our fitness lost quickly in this country. We have a room with a lumpy soft bed and a shower that sprays directly onto the toilet in front of it. Heaven.

We are hungry and still grumpy, shitty, snappy and short. We grumble at each other and then creep out looking to fill our bellies. At the bottom of the hotel we look around trying to orient ourselves. The closest option will be the best. Unless its not. We try Ninas cafe around a corner of a side street after checking out the main street with minimal options.

It turns out to be a good option. The coffee is strong and black and strangely not sweet. We eat eggs with the ever present white bread. Bellies no longer grumble, brains no longer shingle about lack of energy.

We will go back to Ninas some eight times whilst we stay in Hue. She serves us good humour, strong coffee and good food and recharges our batteries each time. She is young and I think hungers for longer lasting friendships that she gets with travellers that stop for a day or two and visit once. She is curious and creative and once we have stopped in several times she offers us some of her new dessert menu for tasting.

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The dishes are all delicious. Full of creamy coconut, sweet mash of banana, warm spice of ginger or crunch of sesame. Her spring rolls are excellent, piping hot and spicy chilli sauce. The pork claypot has tender chunks of meat with pepper.

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We spend a few days in Hue and begin to reflect on the journey so far. We are not sure about being constantly tired and hungry and uncomfortable. We are not sure about being disconnected from friends and family after having just experienced the deepest connection with them during our wedding day. We miss our jobs back home that provide meaning and a shared purpose with our colleagues. Some of what we are doing feels unsustainable in different senses.

We like the challenges and seeing different things everyday. We like tasting new cuisines. We like seeing how people go about their daily life. We like picking up fragments of different languages. We like the feelings of living mostly minimally, of resilience.

In Hue we begin to redefine what we are doing and what we want from our journey. We decide that Asia at this time is not right for us. Not right for a honeymoon couple. We decide to leave Asia early. We think about the amount of time we spend in places and how often we move has an effect on us. That maybe slowing down and doing less might mean more for us. We decide to leave for Europe earlier than expected.

Hoi An – A lantern wonderland

After Hue we went on another sleeper bus to Hoi An; this time being slightly more bearable knowing that it was only a 4 hour trip in the middle of the day. No horrific night’s sleep necessary!

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We arrived in Hoi An to heat, humidity and immediate hustling as we stepped off the bus. However, once escaping the harassment of taxi drivers and the chaos of the makeshift “bus depot” we could see that Hoi An was extremely ‘tourist friendly’. An information centre walking distance from the depot was the first clue. The second clue came shortly after from our friendly host riding her bike and finding us Hopelessly lost, searching for our homestay. “Oh there you are!” she exclaimed “I’ve been searching for you! Why didn’t you just call us when you got lost and we’d come and collect you?” our response was “ummm?”

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Our homestay was “River Life Homestay.” Not surprisingly, it was close to the river!
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During the day there is plenty of shopping…everywhere! Every second shop is filled with sample shoes, bags, dresses and suits for you to try on, choose and then get made exactly how you want. It is very enticing wandering down the cobblestone alleys and gazing at all the gorgeous things you could buy for less than half the price you’d see at home.

The biggest challenge is saying no to more, more, more! So easy is it to buy more than one item, or two of the same design but in different fabrics! The clever and flexible holiday-er should collect sizes from friends and family and plan a trip the week before Christmas!
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At night the town transforms into a magical land of lanterns and markets, bustling restaurants and music pumping from bars. The food and drinks are fantastic. Coffee is thick, rich and like syrup! The fresh spring rolls and pork hot-pots were some of the best we’d tried it Vietnam, and 2 for 1 cocktail deals and 25 cent beers made it hard to refuse a drink with dinner!

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All in all, we found Hoi An a breath of fresh air…literally! It was clean enough to run without feeling overwhelmed by pollution and minimal rubbish lined the streets. A very welcome change. We felt safe running around the river and the standard of living was very high. Our $15 a night homestay was luxury and right near everything.
It was very understandable to see many families with young children choosing this place to spend school holidays.

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Hoi An, we’ll definitely be back one day!! Xx

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Mon Vieu

We were heading out of Hue on a 110cc automatic scooter that had just had the rear suspension stiffened to accommodate two giant Aussies. The rough plan was to look at some of the tombs and tourist sites, and we were not too sure where we going or what to expect.

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As we spun along larger streets marked on our map we got to enjoy navigating a few exciting intersections. Generally the rule of the thumb is move with intent and follow the flow of the locals. So far so good. It reminds me of a school of fish. You can have an intersection with 50 motor scooters all flowing through and no one is aggressive and it all somehow comes together.

As we headed out further we discussed whether we actually wanted to see any of the sites or what else we could do. My motivation to ride a scooter was to get back some of the sense of freedom that I was missing from home.

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We got out to where one of the sites should have been and found a small lane that peeled off to the right. There was a small sign that read ‘Mon Vieu, sweet olive farm’ so we speared off in that direction. Twisting around a few curves we realised that we were on a quiet back road and finally away from the town. I relaxed immediately.

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We pulled into the driveway of Mon Dieu and it was beautiful, reminscent of both a winery and a Japanese garden at one. Lush vegetation surrounded the pavement that led us around, over koi-filled water to the cafe and restaurant at the center.

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We ordered coffee and it came out on glad cups on glass saucers. It was rich, robust and syrupy in one. Almost like a thick dark chocolate. We ordered food too, ban khoai and fried rice. The ban khoai was crispy and piping hot, folded neatly in half around the bean shoots and pork inside. The fried rice was lightly fried and generously sized.

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You could tell this was more of a tourist destination than a local haunt, the price of 230,000VND; the tour bus parked out the front; and the well-trained koi who came over to eat as soon as you looked at them, all giving it away. Yet it was worth it for the tranquility alone.

Promise?

Vulnerability. Naïveté.

We were sitting in a mini bus recently as part of a tour group heading up to Ha Long bay.

The bus had stopped to collect up different groups from there hotels and hostels. The communication between the staff and the tourists was limited.

The bus was pulled over to collect someone and some military officers indicated to our driver to move and also to show his papers. At the same moment one of the tour guides walked through the bus and asked us to hand over our passports. Everyone was a little tentative and unsure as to why he would need them for the bus. There was  a few moments of tension.

Someone called out, asking when we would get them back, if we would get them back on the bus. Yes was the reply, but to which question?

A young Australian girl cried out ‘Promise?…’. Her voice forlorn, naïve and touched on the vulnerability we all felt at handing over something so valuable.

This experience of trust being tested is a theme that is embedded in travel. Time and time again we trust. That our plane will land safely, that our passports will be handed back, that we will be back up from the side of the road out of the cold. Through the eyes of a beginning traveller it was powerful to be reminded of this vulnerability.

Travelling

Well it finally feels like this travel thing is actually a thing. Until today it kind of felt pretend or fake. For days leading up to departure friends would ask if we felt excited to be headed overseas for so long. And the answer was ‘no, not really….’ most of the time. Not that the concept was not exciting, but that there was too much going on for us in the meantime. The richness of the tapestry that is our lives meant that we were caught in so many moments and not living in anticipation. In fact I think we were probably more excited the further away in time we were from the actual fly out date, as the trip seemed more unlikely and no plans were laid, and there no stress around any small details.

Fast forward to the day of flying out (New Years Day) and we woke up after celebrating the New Year in with friends and Claire’s parents. These same friends then accompanied us to the airport that night to show us off for the next 12 months. I remember feeling a little numb or in denial about the whole thing despite enjoying their company and appreciating our friendship. Even when we said goodbye I felt like we must have been getting on a small domestic flight.

Customs, lounge, flight, customs, airport, customs, lounge, flight and then we were in Viet Nam. Taxied to Ha Noi and it has taken the better part of a few days to actually realise that the whole caper might be real.

Xoi Yen

Are you hungry?

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Do you want to cram into a bustling restaurant and squeeze behind the small tables and even smaller chairs amongst all the local Vietnamese and a few foreigners to sit down for lunch?

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Sticky rice or rice cooked with corn topped with roasted pork or barbecued chicken. The rice was cooked with fat and both dishes topped with fried onions. A side dish of cucumbers in vinegar and chilli. The flavours were very tasty and saw us cleaning our bowls quickly. With a local beer it cost us 88000 VND for both meals. With this value it was easy to see why it was packed!