I’m getting worse at filling in my diary. It’s too hot. Today was nice and quiet which is just what I needed. I woke up this morning feeling good – probably because I’d had more than three hours sleep! Less good when we realised we had slept through breakfast, so instead we went to a cafe a few doors down from our guest house for french toast and pancakes. With full bellies, and hangovers for some, we jumped into our tuk tuk for a bone shattering 20 minute drive to the lagoon.
It was lovely. Swimming in the natural pool (with some massive fish), chilling in a wooden hut and climbing up the side of a mountain to see a cave [current Jenny: in hindsight, we didn’t realise how high we were climbing, and we might have at least taken a bottle of water if we had known]. Minus the 40 minute round climb, it was a really nice relaxing day before tomorrow’s seven hour drive through the mountains to Luang Prabang. Seven more hours of bumpy, uneven, potholed roads. Joy. Already looking forward to getting a massage in Bangkok in a week!
After surviving the tuk tuk home, we headed down to the river to watch the sun set over the mountains. Sadly it was a bit cloudy but it was still spectacular. Another couple of Beerlaos later (and some pizza), we somehow ended up back in the night club playing beer pong. Turns out Korean boys are pretty good. But they also like drinking the beer they paid for so aren’t too unhappy when you turn down their leftover cups.
Vang Vieng is lovely. It is a tiny town in a mountain in Laos but it is buzzing and full of young people – locals and tourists a like. It lacks a beach but has a happy, laid back beach feel to it. Whilst I admit getting there is hell due to the roads, it’s worth the journey.
This morning (after no more grasshoppers appeared in my room) we went out in a tuk tuk and visited Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane dedicated to the war veterans; Patuxal, the victory memorial aka the Laos Arc De Triomphe; Pha That Luang, a gold temple and a rehabilitation centre with a small exhibition dedicated to Laos people that have lost limbs due to unexploded bombs and how the charity helps people with fitting prosthetics. Then we did the Western things and found a bakery and had milkshakes and cheesecake. So good. Totally worth it.
-Vang Vieng, 12.30am-
Wow Laos is beautiful. After our snacks in Vientiane we got into our buses and spent four hours driving to Vang Vieng. The first two hours were fairly uninspiring – suburbs of the city, some fields and a bumpy road. The second two hours continued with the bumpy road but we started to wind our way up into the mountains and through thick forests. Occasionally there were some houses and farms, but mostly some breath taking scenery of the mountains.
We arrived into Vang Vieng just after sunset so off we went to arrange activities for the next day. Half the group wanted to go boozy tubing down the river. Whilst I was interested, it was pointed out to us that two people had died doing it THIS WEEK! So, instead, a group of us hired a tuk tuk to take us to a lagoon.
Activities booked, we headed to a really cool restaurant/bar for larb (traditional Laos cuisine). Then we decided to go for another drink and Channy took us to an ‘Irish’ bar. Great music, beer and a pool table. We then, for some unknown reason, headed across the road to a club/bar. I’ve never been in anywhere that sells balloons of laughing gas at the bar. After an hour of awkward dancing, we were told to leave at 12am. Turns out that in a communist country, the fun stops at midnight. We convinced a barman to let us play a quick game of beer pong (obviously). With that, we headed to bed [current Jenny: that was the first night I slept straight through until morning since being away].
On the bus heading for the airport to fly into Laos. Final thoughts on Hanoi:
Lack of road rules and safety
Walking out in front of cars and scooters is the only way to cross the road – scooters will either stop or go around you
The city is crazy busy
It is well hot and smoggy
It’s been fun. Great culture and food, people are lovely and welcoming and I’ve never felt unsafe (I thought in a city this busy I’d be constantly wary of pickpockets but I felt really safe).
Meeting my group that have all travelled up through Vietnam has made me jealous. Obviously going to have to come back and see the rest of it. Oh what a shame.
Phew, getting in Laos is a bit of a faff. After a short flight and a landing that swayed to the left before getting back on track, we all went through to immigration with our completed entry passes. Then a massive group of Asian men pushed in front and we queued for over an hour. Once you get to the front you hand a stern looking man your passport, your visa form and a passport photo, slide along the counter past a man hidden behind some posters and along to a glaring woman who shows you your passport, takes $35 (for a UK citizen) and hands you back your passport with the visa inside. Note: you have to fill in your departure card before the man will let you through to baggage.
After a quick ride to our hotel, we headed out for dinner (via finding myself a new grasshopper friend on my bed as I got out my shower). Luckily Laos understands real size chairs so whilst we sat on the street (it was rather warm), at least we were more than an inch from the floor. For £5,70 I had a HUGE plate of fried beef with garlic and rice, two 630ml bottles of Beerlao (best beer ever, and did you know it is called Beerlao as it is the beer from Laos…this took me four days to work out) and two large bottles of water. Bloody love Laos.
So last night was fun. After repacking my entire bag to put it in a slightly more logical order, we headed out for dinner. Jason wasn’t a big fan of us going anywhere with ‘real’ seats, but two girls in skirts persuaded him and we ended up in a little place with great food [current Jenny: I completely failed at taking food photos or writing down where I ate for this entire trip so expect some vague descriptions]. And we had a lot of food. No photos because I was too excited but: spring rolls, morning glory with garlic, chicken with cashews, beef with lemongrass and chili. All the food plus beers came to about £4 each.
Later, in an art gallery that opened up to a little bar on the street, we had three beers for 75,000 VND. This is about £2.30. Ridiculous. [Current Jenny: if only I knew it would get cheaper]. We also walked through the night markets and laughed a LOT at Jason’s Vietnamese haggling (which never really worked).
Busy day! Up early to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Literally his
dead, embalmed body is on display. Kinda creepy. Discovered the Vietnamese really love him. Huge queues and crowds everywhere of tourists and locals. Then we walked a pretty long way around Hồ Tây (West Lake) and blagged our way into a swanky hotel to sunbathe and chill by the pool. Which was lovely until it started to piss it down. Finding cover in a westernised restaurant, I had a Magners (sweet sugary cider heaven) and crab and artichoke ravioli. Then I headed back ready to meet my group.
At 6pm I met Channy, our CEO (Chief Experience Officer) [current Jenny: I LOVE Channy. This will be obvious in the coming posts]. As he started talking through our itinerary, I was worried I was the only one doing my trip. But
instead it turns out I was joining a group of 17 people who had already been travelling together for three weeks. That terrifies me even more. Luckily at dinner, they all welcomed me to the family. Small issue that most of them were hungover so most seemed subdued but nice. Guess I’ll find out more in the next two weeks – although there is another Brightoner on the trip (well, Peacehaven…). Tomorrow we fly to Laos and are joined by a local tour guide as that’s part of their communist law.
God that flight was LONG! Turns out that I get bored on a 10.5 hour flight on my own. But I survived! Hurrah! I was met by my lovely driver who led me to his air-conditioned car (yeh, Hanoi is hot event at 6am) and handed me a bottle of water. Big fan. In the 30 minute journey I learnt two things: 1 – the people of Hanoi take their waterproofing very seriously and 2 – the people of Hanoi don’t take road safety very seriously. Scooters all over the place. Utter chaos. I spent a lot of my ride hoping we weren’t going to kill anyone. Safely arrived at my hotel – Church Boutique Lan Ong – which is very narrow and very warm [current Jenny – the warm thing isn’t going to go away]. Having lost all concept of time, I didn’t realise it is breakfast time and while I sit and write and wait for Jo I am surrounded by a tour group all chattering
away. I have just realised that this could well be my group, although they seem to have a lot of pre-planned activities so I am less sure. All I want to do is shower and sleep, but alas into the rain I must venture. Presuming I can ditch my beast of a backpack somewhere secure. Who knows what I’ll come back to! My bag survived the plane ride, I’m sure it will survive a morning in my hotel.
Wow. Hanoi is a bit crazy isn’t it? After an early start with Jo we walked down to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, home of a giant turtle that we sadly didn’t see. But we did walk all the way around it and have a look at the temple – legend has it a mighty sword is hidden in the depths and guarded by the turtle. After a stroll to the Catholic cathedral and another trip round the lake (we really like that lake) we got a taxi to the Temple of Literature (and gatecrashed some graduation photos oh well).
Dedicated to Confucius, the temples gave out exams in various subjects , and today is a beautiful, peaceful haven – if you ignore the constant beeping from moped and car horns! At this point, my body more or less gave up so I checked into my hotel and badly napped and rehydrated. My long day of travelling and eating funny things at funny times left my body sore and queasy. Plus I’ve started taking my malaria tablets in preparation for Laos and a common side effect is feeling sick. But power on I shall. I have two weeks ahead of me and I refuse to be ill!
I woke up this morning freakishly early thanks to ridiculous dreams of going to the wrong hotel. 5am early to be precise, but due to my 6am taxi it actually worked out alright. Do you know how hard it is to decide what to wear when England is cold and raining, but the forecast for your two week holiday is 33 degrees and sunny?
So, wearing ALL THE LAYERS (not enough, I was still cold), I headed to Heathrow T4. I forgot how dull it is flying on your own. Who do you drink prosecco with? As I write this, I’ve been on the plane for 4 hours, with 7 still to go (delayed flight yay). I’ve had an alright chicken curry, two glasses of prosecco and watched Kingsman: The Secret Service. As we’re forced into Hanoi time (2:40pm London, 9:40pm Hanoi) they’ve turned all the lights off. This is where I should be trying to sleep but it is hard when everyone keeps walking past to go to the toilet. I’d like another drink but feel it’s rude to ask again on Vietnam Airways. On the plus side, I don’t feel scared any more (yay prosecco!). We’ve hit pretty bad turbulence twice and now I feel I can do this.
I’ve felt pretty sick for the last few days with nerves – what was I thinking booking a trip to Asia on my own? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Oh well, too late to turn back since we’re flying over Eastern Europe now! This feels strange to be writing things down but I don’t trust myself not to break my iPad. Already dreading getting back and having to type this up [current Jenny: at least I identified this early on!]. I also can’t work out how to turn on my overhead light, but luckily Catriona suggested I buy a clip on light for my Kindle which is currently clipped to my tray table.
It’s pretty incredible that in 7.5 more hours I will be on the other side of the world. Now seems like a good time to re-watch Avengers – Age of Ultron. When in doubt, watch two of my favourite Chris’ – Hemsworth and Evans (Pratt makes it in the top three). I still can’t quite believe I’m doing this. This is uncharacteristically brave of me.
[Current Jenny: This seems to be all I was able to write on the flight. I was alternating between being FINE and freaking out. And watching films. Then thanks to time difference we lost a day]
My December delivery from Craft Gin Club arrived whilst I was in Bangkok, so I hot footed it home to give it a try (technically my holiday had finished and I was coming home anyway but whatevs). This month’s treat came courtesy of Sibling Distillery, a family of four aged between 16 and 23. Makes me feel rather inadequate that they’re all younger than me and have their own gin. Maybe I’ll start distilling – who wants to invest in me?
The four grew up working in Battledown Brewery, set up by their parents to supply local pubs, hotels, restaurants and shops with premium local ales. The foursome from Cheltenham work on a ‘grain to glass’ approach, fermenting their own grains to make vodka before infusing it with their botanicals to make gin. This process means it takes nearly three weeks from start to bottle, by way of comparison a big brand can turn around a batch in hours, and craft gins that buy in their base spirits take around 12-48 hours. Their botanicals are changed every 17 batches to ensure freshness, with lemons, oranges and blueberries hand chopped and grated. Interesting fact: as the quartet are under 25 they aren’t allowed to to use images of or communicating any information about themselves on their website or at trade events – basically they can’t include a photo of all of them for another 9 years until Digby, the youngest, turns 25. Guys, if you need a brand ambassador over 25, I’m here. Just saying.
I digress. The bottle is beautiful – I enjoy well designed bottles as these end up as lamps around my flat, plus it feels nicer to drink if they have put effort into the bottle (just me?). The siblings created “the first glass and stainless steel still in Europe, ensuring that we produce the purest vodka base” – you can tell brewing is in their blood, can’t you? The botanicals they use are slightly different, in between the usual coriander, orange and lemon there sits blueberries and vanilla.
After having a little struggle to open the seal (in my defence, when I cracked into my bottle I hadn’t slept for a while and was still on an Asian time zone), I pop the cork. Taking a whiff from the bottle, the vanilla is quite prevalent. It smells sweeter than other gins but not in a cloying way. Diluted with one part water, the juniper scents come out along with more vanilla. It smells a bit like a cake in a glass. Smooth and easy to drink (never a safe thing to say about straight 42% gin), the botanicals are well balanced so that none of the flavours are overpowering. There’s a slight tang at the back of the throat – coming, I presume, from the orange and lemon but the vanilla and blueberries balance it to leave a good taste. I’m not one to drink straight spirits (alas the days of my youth are gone) but this is nice. It helps that as I type this, a Brighton seafront storm is brewing, it’s dark and cold and windy and wet outside, but I’m snuggled up. If only my flat had a fireplace!
It’s impressed so far, but how will it fare in the gin and tonic test? Before I opened this I had a look on the Craft Gin Club Facebook page and was concerned to see a few negative reviews – would this finally be the gin I don’t like? Pairing it with the Bottle Green Light Tonic supplied in my box and making it in my new Martini glasses (birthday present from the wonderful house mate Jenny Bernarde) – although I then realised due to the size of the Martini glass compared to the size of my gin serving I am in for a strong drink.
On first taste I understand one of the Facebook reviews which I believe said it reminded her of disinfectant, it certainly has a chemically taste to it on the first mouthful. With the tonic it seems sharper on the tongue – whether this is the gin or the tonic I don’t know, I’ve never had the Bottle Green tonic before and a quick taste of it shows that it is slightly more bitter than other tonics. I am also aware that I’ve made a strong drink which will alter the taste.
Once you’ve got past the initial taste, the blueberries come out and a sweeter taste comes in. After a few sips I added a little more tonic to make the drink better balanced/I was already slightly pissed and the chemical taste disappears and you’re left with a fruity gin. I’ve had a “mixed berry” gin before that was fairly terrible as it tasted of fake fruit and sugar but this has a subtle hint to it. If I didn’t know it had blueberries in, I wouldn’t have guessed it.
Adding some lemon wedges (because I’m sorry Sibling distillery and others, I will NOT be adding orange to my drink, won’t, shan’t) makes it, in my opinion, pretty damn close to perfect. I know I’m a fan of citrus, but the sharpness from the lemon contrasts the sweetness and enhances the sharper notes making it a smooth drink. With some lemon, I will happily drink this all day long.
All in all, yes it’s a little different at first taste, but very rewarding. I like that it is set up by a group of young entrepreneurs, I think they are ginspirational (that’s right, I went there) and it’s a shame they can’t present their product as a family (although I do wonder how much tasting the 16 year old does…). But seriously, if you’re hiring…
You can get your hands on a bottle through their website, their 42% 70cl bottle is £34 plus £6 postage. This price puts it up in the luxury gin area, but (including postage) this is the same amount as my fave Brighton Gin and others. I appreciate this might be a bit much for people to buy to drink every day, but this brings some interesting flavours to the party and will make an impressive addition to any upcoming Christmas cocktail parties. I know that once I’ve shaken this post-holiday lurgy I shall be enjoying it and trying out a few new drink ideas to change things up a bit for the New Year.