Wildlife spotting in Sabah on an Orion Expedition, testing out Relais and Chateaux’s luxury lodges in New Zealand, exploring Bangkok’s off the beaten track floating markets, trundling through Northern Thailand on Orient Express’ sumptuous Eastern & Oriental train, hiking to hill tribe villages in Sapa, cruising Halong Bay, and eating our way around Hanoi, are just some of the things keeping Terence and I busy since I last updated you six months ago. Here’s an update from the road to catch you up on what we’ve been up to…
After leaving Australia, where we’d been working on stories while waiting for mum to have some surgery, we had a hectic four months that took us to Malaysia for four weeks – to Sabah on the Orion II, then to Kuala Lumpur and Selangor – back down via Sydney to New Zealand for 8 days, Bangkok for a month or so, Phnom Penh for another month, and back to Bangkok to do the weeklong Orient Express trip through Thailand – for both print stories as much as social media projects.
At the start of October we rented an apartment in Phnom Penh, which we’d decided to make our new Asian base – a move that coincided with me taking on an Editor-at-Large job at Asia’s Bangkok-based Lifestyle+Travel. I was tasked by one of the owners to ‘spice up’ the magazine, raise writing standards, and provide creation direction and advice. He wanted me to bring my travel experience to the publication to make it more global in outlook and less focused on Asia and Thailand. I was also given the task of editing and additional stories to contribute.
It was exciting for a week or two – until I quickly realised it had taken over my life. It was a role that was meant to be a part-time gig for a bi-monthly magazine, so in fact it should have been a quarter-time job. Except it wasn’t. For a whole swathe of reasons the work ended up taking up almost every waking moment during the month of October. Pathetically, I even spent my birthday working. When I emerged from the Phnom Penh apartment at the end of that month, all I wanted to do was hit the road again.
Terence and I returned to Bangkok, did the Orient Express trip – on which I occasionally pretended I wasn’t working, but was on a belated birthday holiday – and then flew from Bangkok to Hanoi in early November for a few more commissions. The plan was to spend a month travelling through Vietnam then hightail it to Phnom Penh to settle down to write. But another issue of Lifestyle+Travel quickly came around again, so we rented an apartment in Hanoi so I could chain myself to a desk for a month. This time – even more pathetically – I worked on Christmas Day.
Aside from side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay, the magazine, a major writing project, the Vietnam commissions that started to trickle in – along with the great food and photo ops – kept us in Hanoi for three months in total. And they were three very chilly winter months, with only a few days of sun, but the smoky grilled bun cha and bowls of steaming pho kept us warm and sated. Until we hit the road again for a final month in Vietnam.
This time the plan was to spend a few days in Hue, try out the new luxury hotels on the central coast of Vietnam, arrive in Hoi An for Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and spend a week here, before heading south to Mui Ne and Saigon. But guess what happened? We went and fell in love with Hoi An.
While Hanoi hadn’t been a city we loved, we became fond of it in the end – it’s endlessly fascinating, incredibly atmospheric, and impossibly photogenic. (Take a look at Terence’s photos on his Tumblr account to see what I mean.) But Hoi An on the other hand, completely captivated us from the start. We came for a week and stayed a month.
We’ve become absolutely smitten with the place. And yet Hoi An was a city we didn’t expect to love. Every day its narrow streets teem with constant streams of tour groups led by guides carrying flags and umbrellas. Shop sales staff annoying call out to “Come look my shop!”, women who’ve overdone it with the skin whitener offer manicures, pedicures and massages, and blokes annoyingly shout out “Motorbike! Motorbike!” when you’re obviously enjoying a very pleasant amble.
Yet there are moments early in the morning and late at night when we just love the place. Long before the tourists have had their buffet breakfasts and well before the souvenir shops have opened, the market on the corner bustles with locals going about their business. Then late at night when we’re strolling home through the empty streets after games of pool at our favourite bar, when Hoi An’s residents have long gone to bed and the narrow lanes are black and empty, we almost feel like we’re the only foreigners here.
Daytime and early evening the town has an altogether different feel, but to tell you the truth, we’ve gotten used to the hoards of tourists and I actually quite like the holiday vibe. It reminds me of a mini-Vietnamese Venice. Sometimes when we’re sitting have a sunset drink on the waterfront, it almost feels like we’re on a Greek Island. We’ve still got a long list of stories to write – and I’ve a dozen half-done blog posts to finish, and a few dozen for Grantourismo we haven’t even started. I’ve scaled back my work for Lifestyle+Travel significantly, and for the first time in months – possibly years? – I feel almost relaxed.
So, guess what we’ve gone and done? We’ve renewed our visas for another month.