Peru

This one was a long time ago – 5 years now, back in November 2015.

This was my first real solo foray into a non-western country, and one which I didn’t speak the language. I’d actually taken some informal Spanish lessons for a couple of months in the run up to this trip which proved invaluable, and useful for a few trips to Spain since then.

At the time I went, there were no direct flights between the UK and Peru. I had 2 viable options – via Madrid or via the US. I choose to go via the US to extend the amount of time on my trip that I could speak English, but having done this and transited through the US, I would not generally recommend this. Whilst I had booked connecting flights from London to Lima, via Dallas Forth Worth on the way out and via Miami on the way back, you always have to clear immigration in the US even when transitting which made for some slightly stressful connections and BA leaving my bag in Miami on the way back.

I don’t remember much about immigration into Peru – I didn’t need a visa, and I don’t remember it taking particularly long. I’d arrived early morning after an overnight leg from Dallas, the one thing I do remember is the hustle, bustle and chaos of the arrivals hall, finding my transfer (and another group member), and the traffic en route to the hotel being utterly insane.

This was my second trip with G Adventures. We were staying in a hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima. Having arrived in the morning we weren’t yet able to check in. However, having arrived with someone else who was on my trip, we hatched a plan to go to the downtown area and got a taxi/paid a guy at the hotel to drive us. I’d read beforehand that whilst Miraflores was a relatively safe area, the centre of Lima was a little more dangerous and you needed to have your wits about you. I think it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t have ventured there on my own so was glad for the company. There is some amazing architecture in downtown Lima, and loads of churches and the cathedral with unbelievably ornate decoration.

In the evening we met up as a group – there were 8 of us and we became a really close group – and went for our first dinner together. It wasn’t a late one as most of us were jet-lagged from travelling and we had an early start the next day to catch a flight inland to Juliaca. We arrived in Juliaca at altitude and travelled towards Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,000 feet above sea level, and the start of our acclimatisation ahead of the Inca Trail hike which would start in a few days.

Lake Titicaca

This was the first time I’d ever been at real altitude. Living in the UK doesn’t expose you to these heights, and whilst I’d done some exercise and preparation at home ahead of a 4 day hike, there was no way I could replicate the altitude. I was even more worried when we arrived at our hotel for a couple of days in Puno and got absolutely knackered walking up one flight of stairs!

We had a brief walk around Puno before dinner and drinks – though at this stage I was avoiding alcohol (unusual for me on holiday!) in preparation for our hike in a few days.

The next day we had a boat trip on Lake Titicaca and visited the Floating Islands of Uros on the lake, made of reeds, and people live here year-round. We had lunch on Taquile Island (grilled trout according to my diary!), and then in the afternoon and evening we were introduced to our homestay families where we would spend the night with local families, learning about their way of life and being welcomed into their homes. This was where it was advantageous to have learned some Spanish, though my roommate was way more fluent than I was. After a delicious dinner of quinoa soup, rice and vegetables, we turned in for the night. The next morning we helped the family with their daily farm chores (taking the sheep out to graze) and watched on as the mother soaked and prepared the quinoa (now a western health food, but a staple in Peru).

In the afternoon we sailed back across the lake and back to Puno for a final night before heading to Cusco on a local bus the next day. I was very impressed with the local bus – it was a double decker and we had lots of legroom and reclining seats. It was pretty much an all-day ride to Cusco, but it was super-interesting to watch the scenery go by. I had no idea what to expect from the landscape beforehand.

On the bus between Puno and Cusco

When we arrived into Cusco, the first thing we did was head to G Adventures’ hiking depot to get kitted out with sleeping bags, hiking poles and other kit for the Inca Trail hike. We would be leaving our main bags in storage at the hotel in Cusco as we’d be returning here in a few days.

The next day on the way out of Cusco, we stopped at the Cristo Blanco statue high in the hills on the way out of Cusco. We were heading through the Sacred Valley and stopped off at various spots, including at a women’s weaving co-operative, at Pisac which has some great Incan terraces, and at a wonderful restaurant which is supported by G Adventures for some more delicious food.

We ended the day in Ollantaytambo where we hiked briefly into the ruins – a spectacular view over the town and mountains from the ruins. After carbing up with a pasta dinner, it was an early night and an early start the next day to Kilometre 82 and the start of our 4 day hike to Machu Picchu. We got all our gear, met our porters who would be carrying food, tents, most of our stuff. We were also given snack packs to sustain us through the hike.

Ollantaytambo

The first day of the hike is relatively gentle (certainly compared to what was to come on day 2), and it was absolutely beautiful. We also really lucked out with the weather. After a couple of hours we stopped for lunch. Again I had no real idea what to expect with the food but it was beyond anything I could have imagined – we had asparagus soup, fried trout, and jelly for dessert – all ideal for sustaining hiking, and the jelly was a very welcome surprise. At every meal stop we were also able to fill up with water which was obtained from nearby streams and boiled for sterilisation.

After lunch we headed off hiking again. You have to have a permit to hike the Inca Trail, which manages the numbers of people on there at any one time. This was arranged for me with the trip I’d booked. As you can imagine, this is a very popular hike so you would need to book well in advance. I’d booked this trip in February 2015 for a late November departure. We arrived into our first camp in the late afternoon. Our tents had already been set up by the porters so I took off my hiking boots and relaxed for a while before dinner.

Day 2 involved walking up hill for about 5 hours as we reached the highest point of the hike at Dead Woman’s Pass (13,800 feet above sea level). There were times during the hike uphill where I could only make it literally 10 steps before needing a break due to the thin air. And whilst munching on coca leaves helped slightly, it was still very hard, but very rewarding work.

After a 3 hour walk downhill we arrived at the campsite for the second night where again our tents had already been erected and we were able to relax before another delicious and nourishing dinner. In the evenings we would sit out chatting and stargazing. It was approaching a full moon whilst we were there, you do get amazing views of the night sky here.

Day 3 was a long day of hiking – around 9 hours in total, but not quite as steep as day 2. We passed several Incan ruins which we were able to explore. We were also walking above the clouds at several points which was really awesome.

At lunch on day 3, our chefs had prepared a cake for us which was a huge surprise. the porters are truly amazing people who do this trip several times a month.

After an early night on day 3, it was an early morning for the final 5km into Machu Picchu. We were woken at 3.30am and headed out in the dark at around 5.30am. After climbing up a near-vertical wall, we arrived at the Sun Gate at around 7am and after getting down to the main citadel, we almost had the place to ourselves as only the early day-trippers from Aguas Calientes were arriving.

After reuniting with others in the group who didn’t do the Inca Trail hike, we briefly freshened up in the bathrooms (actual flushing toilets after a couple of days of squats and holes in the ground) and then had a guided tour of Machu Picchu. It’s so awesome to walk amongst the ruins, and large parts of it are very well preserved.

After the tour, we took the bus down the winding road to the town of Aguas Calientes where we had lunch, wifi and a well-deserved beer before heading on the panoramic train back to Ollantaytambo, and then a bus back to Cusco.

Back in Cusco I had the longest shower I was able to take in the intermittently hot/cold/dribble/gush of the shower head, as is usual in Peru. We then headed out for a celebratory dinner and Pisco Sours in Cusco. Definitely a night to let your hair down and celebrate a great hike.

The final part of the trip had meant to be a trip into the rainforest. However at the time of our trip there was some unrest in Puerto Maldonado and so we ended up staying in Cusco for a couple of extra days. Cusco has a lot of history, a lovely cathedral, and we enjoyed a cooking class including sampling the Peruvian delicacy of ceviche (cured raw fish).

We flew back to Lima for a final night before I flew home to a rainy UK (sans my bag which eventually made it a couple of days later). This was one of my favourite trips for many reasons. My first real time in a different culture, the food was so delicious (I think Peru and Vietnam are tied first in my favourite food experiences), the scenery was epic, the people on my trip were so lovely and to have the opportunity to hike the Inca Trail is something I will never forget.

Gooooooood morning Vietnam

It’s actually over 3 years since I went to Vietnam, better late than never in writing up about it! This trip was March 2017.

I had a direct flight from London to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines, an extremely reasonable flight price of around £450 return if I remember rightly. After a 12+ hour flight, I landed at 4.30am local time, and after swiftly clearing immigration (British citizens didn’t – at time of travel – require a visa for stays under 15 days) I had quite a long wait for my bag as it was basically the last one round the carousel – always a slightly worrying time! I’d arranged a transfer to my hotel in central Hanoi, and after arriving at the hotel at around 6.30am I took myself off to bed. Top tip, especially when travelling somewhere where accommodation is cheap by western standards – if you are arriving somewhere first thing in the morning, book a hotel room for the previous night so you can check in and either get some kip for a few hours, or freshen up before you start exploring. The hotel I was staying in was approx £30 per night which was worth every penny to be able to crash for a few hours.

As it turned out, I was absolutely knackered, the product of being in a job I didn’t enjoy (part of the reason I’d gone on sabbatical the year before), and at the time I’d actually just been successful in interviewing for another job in the same company which I would start shortly after returning from this trip. Much less stress and a better work/life balance, but that isn’t the topic of this blog, and as such I pretty much slept through the entire day. Fortunately I’d arrived a day early to join the trip so I didn’t miss out on that much, and it gave my body clock a chance to adjust.

After a long sleep, I awoke refreshed on the second day and after breakfasting in the hotel, I set off exploring Hanoi. One thing I had been warned about prior to this trip was that attempting to cross the street in Hanoi would be an interesting experience, certainly if you waited as you would in the U.K. for a break in the traffic, I’d still be stuck on the wrong side of the street now! It is a little unnerving basically having to walk out into traffic but, unbelievably, it works. Most people in Vietnam ride scooters as the taxes on (usually imported) cars are prohibitively expensive, and they are used to adjusting their speeds for pedestrians. After building up confidence to cross the street, I made my way to Hoan Kiam Lake and walked around it, enjoying the early morning sights including the locals enjoying some early morning yoga/meditation along the shores.

Hoan Kiam Lake, Hanoi

After some more wandering to a temple and to the market, I headed back to my hotel for some much needed air-con. After a short break from the heat, I ventured back outside and grabbed lunch – a delicious Bánh Mì from Banh Mi 25, one of the top-rated places for Bánh Mì in Hanoi. Bánh Mì are a delicious fusion sandwich, a baguette-style bread roll filled with pate, grilled meat, cucumber and pickled veg, and an absolute bargain with a Bánh Mì and bottle of water costing the equivalent of 75p!

In the afternoon I walked to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex and around the botanical gardens before retreating back to the hotel. In the evening I met the rest of the group (a G Adventures trip) and we headed out for dinner.

An early start the next morning as we headed to Halong Bay. It was a 4 hour drive punctuated by a stop at a project which creates employment for disabled people by teaching them crafts and needlework which is then sold. A very interesting idea.

We arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our overnight junk boat in time for lunch. As we set sail through the bay, the limestone karsts that we passed through reminded me a little bit of Milford Sound. I’ve since also been to Khao Sok in Thailand which was very reminiscent of Halong Bay. We sailed through the bay in the afternoon, stopping off in a couple of places including Ti Top Island where we climbed up 400 steps to take in the views.

Halong Bay

We had dinner on the boat, all freshly made on board and plate after plate of delicious food was served up. After enjoying the stars with a couple of drinks, I retreated to bed. Another early start the following morning with breakfast at 7am before we visited a Sung Sot Cave, the largest cave in Halong Bay, which had this amazing, wave-like ceiling.

Sung Sot Cave, Halong Bay

We then headed back to land and late morning got off the boat and headed on the 4 hour journey back to Hanoi. We were taking the overnight train south to Hue but had a few hours spare before then, so I went on a street food tour. If you haven’t already gathered, I absolutely loved the food in Vietnam. I think it’s the best food I’ve had anywhere, and certainly the cheapest. We wandered the streets of Hanoi, sampling lots of delicious food before ending up in Hanoi Food Culture where we had the Vietnamese speciality of egg coffee (or egg chocolate in my case as I’m not a coffee drinker)

Egg chocolate – an alternate version of the Vietnamese speciality egg coffee

We boarded the train in the evening, around 9pm. We were travelling in first class which comprised of 4-berth bunks with shared toilets/squats at the ends of the carriages. Second class was 6-berth bunks, followed by soft seats and hard seats (as you might recall from the Top Gear Vietnam special). I took a top bunk. The journey itself was very loud and the train was very shaky, and I don’t remember sleeping too much. The overnight train I’ve since been on in Thailand was a much more comfortable ride.

We arrived in Hue at 10.30am the next morning. It was noticeably hotter and more humid. Despite arriving early, we were able to check in to our hotel where I promptly showered before heading out for a quick wander before we went on our included trips in the afternoon. I ventured for a walk along the Perfume River before retreating to the air con ahead of our afternoon tours. Firstly we went to the Tien Mu Pagoda:

Tien Mu Pagoda, Hue

We then went to the main attraction in Hue, the Imperial Citadel. An imposing collection of buildings, and much, much larger than I imagined. The citadel was built in the early 1800s and was targeted during the Vietnam War. You can see the bullet holes from the Vietnam War in some of the walls.

Imperial citadel, Hue

We also squeezed in a visit to the Royal Tombs on an busy sightseeing afternoon.

At the Royal Tombs, Hue

The next morning I did a motorbike tour (as backseat passenger!) – an absolute must-do in a country where motorbikes/scooters are the primary form of transport. We were taken out to the countryside outside of Hue, seeing rice fields, monasteries and a colosseum where elephants and tigers once fought. We had an included vegetarian lunch at the monastery which was, once again, absolutely delicious.

We arrived back in Hue after lunch and then headed south over the Hai Van Pass towards Hoi An. Unfortunately it was a bit cloudier than ideal which didn’t make for the best photos, but we still saw some great views.

We arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon. Our guide took us on a brief orientation tour as we had 3 nights here to explore. We bumped into Jack Whitehall and his dad filming their Netflix travel series whilst we were wandering down tailors row – an unexpected sight! Hoi An is famous for getting cheap tailoring which can be ready in as little as 24 hours, but I didn’t partake on this occasion.

The following day we had an included excursion in the morning to Planeterra’s project here, Oodles of Noodles. This project taught local kids both the skills of cooking in a professional environment, as well as some English language. We learned to make rice pancakes, and then enjoyed a delicious bowl of noodles for lunch:

Lunch at Oodles of Noodles, Hoi An

We had a free afternoon where I enjoyed walking around Hoi An old town. Sincerely the prettiest place I’ve ever been.

The next day was a free day. The weather was a bit dodgy, grey with the occasionally downpour but still very warm, so after a relaxing morning at the hotel, I went for a hot stone massage in the afternoon. £20 for a 90 minute massage was an absolute bargain, even if I was a bit sore the following day! In the evening we enjoyed a walk (and some bargains) in the night markets.

The next morning was an early start for a flight from nearby Danang to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly Saigon. Even hotter and more sticky than Hue. After checking in to the hotel mid morning, and then going for lunch to have pho (finally!), we then had a free afternoon. Ho Chi Minh City has some pretty spectacular architecture, including many remnants of the French colonial era:

The following day we had an included trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon during the Vietnam War. It was fascinating to learn about the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong, and amazing to see the size of the tunnels, which were utterly minuscule.

Cu Chi Tunnels, barely big enough for a body to fit through

We came back to HCMC for lunch and then had a free afternoon. I decided to go to the War Remnants museum which is is a sobering affair. Be warned – there are some very graphic pictures of the effects of the chemical warfare. It was also horrifying to learn that people still live with the effects having been exposed at the time, but also because some of the effects can be passed on to offspring. A sobering reminder of the legacy of war, and well worth a visit.

That evening was our final group dinner before I left the following day. More delicious food, this time Vietnamese barbecue.

Vietnamese BBQ – cook your own dinner!

I had most of the next day free before an evening flight back to London via Hanoi. It was extremely hot and sticky again, and after a walk in the morning to the Reunification Palace and a failed attempt to find the Jade Emperor Pagoda, I retreated back to the hotel and air con and a shower before heading to the airport in the late afternoon.

So, what were my impressions of Vietnam? Genuinely part of the reason I went was after I’d seen the Top Gear Vietnam show, it looked a beautiful and fascinating country. A few people I’d met on my previous travels had also been and talked about what a wonderful country it is. And it certainly was. Everyone was friendly, I didn’t feel afraid walking around by myself, a solo female traveller (albeit on a group tour). It was very cheap – obviously I’d paid for the trip and accommodation/transport beforehand, and so all I had to buy whilst there was food, drinks, excursions and souvenirs. I was there for 10 days and spent less than £150 – and that included a $40 motorbike trip and a £20 massage. The absolute best food I’ve had anywhere I’ve been either before or since (with Peru close behind). And a fascinating, and devastating, recent history. Would absolutely recommend, and when I do go back again to South East Asia, I wouldn’t think twice about going back.