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In Ninh Binh

Today’s adventure is one we only decided at the last minute, so was a bit of a gamble. Our original plan was to endure the 14-hour slog to Hanoi and consider our next plan of attack, as most travellers do when heading north of Hué.

Quite by accident, however, I came across a few like-minded blogs singing praises of Ninh Binh – a wonderfully-named, slightly-less-frequented stop a few hours south of Hanoi. Known otherwise as the ‘Ha Long Bay of the Land’ for its dramatic mountainous backdrop, it isn’t famed for its wild party atmosphere – which isn’t even remotely a problem for me.

As seems to be tradition, we rolled into the silent town at around four in the morning, aggressively sleep-deprived and confused. With one last tinnitus-inducing honk, the bus belched away into the night and we were left to fend for ourselves until the sun rose. By the time our hotel opened its doors we’d already napped by the side of the river, with bats flitting around overhead and cheery octogenarian joggers sashaying past us.

Ninh Binh proper is a nice enough but relatively bland town, with the usual amenities and industrial parks – when equipped with a scooter, however, your options are somewhat more varied. Most visitors stay in the Tam Côc district, a few minutes’ drive west of town and closer to the sightseeing action: proportionately more expensive, but a neck-achingly gorgeous scene to wake up to.

Our original plan was to stay in Ninh Binh for two nights before continuing northward, but that went out the window as soon as we took in the view. Sunscreen applied, bike refuelled and banana pancakes inhaled, we set out into the landscape.

The surrounding countryside has no shortage of experiences for anyone with a romantic or nomadic soul. If you struggle to take a decent photo of Ninh Binh you either need to get your camera or your eyes looked at – the nearby national parks are dense, sweeping jungles of plant and animal life, with brilliant-white storks flocking overhead and neon fish burbling downriver.

Visit Thung Nham national park during early morning or later afternoon to make the most of the thousands of birds flying to and from their mangrove nests, or take a tour along the river and through the maze of caves interconnecting Ninh Binh’s mountains; the Trang An boat tours are slightly less crowded than those from Tam Côc and take you past floating temples, through looming canyons and, for the film buffs, through the set of 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.

Driver further afield to Cúc Phúóng National Park to really lose yourself in the wilderness. Part national park, part wildlife sanctuary, the rangers are committed to protecting the local species of monkey and turtles. A guide will walk you through enclosures of gibbons and golden-headed langurs, many of whom are caring for highly-protected babies. After taking the tour, I got the impression that they truly care for the animals at Cúc Phúóng, and encourage them back into the wilderness once their numbers are high enough.

As late afternoon draws in, the light falling below Ninh Binh’s mountains paints a truly stunning scene. Commit yourself to the short but demanding walk up the 500 steps of Hang Múa to Dragon Peak – a rough, rocky path with a 360-degree panorama of the spectacular landscape. Unsurprisingly popular with travellers around sunset, the more daring/death-defying adventurer will clamber over the jagged rock up to the stone dragon itself for unsurpassed views of Vietnam’s beautifully chaotic terrain.

It’s hard to drag ourselves away from Ninh Binh – harder still to think that we nearly skipped it entirely. I can’t recommend enough that travellers in Vietnam dedicate at least a few days to exploring its dramatic countryside and taking all the mountaintop #backpackerselfies your hearts desire.

Sadly, leave we must – and, once again, Hanoi will have to wait as we change route once again. Rather than following the much-driven path to Vietnam’s capital, we’re opting for the scenic route to Cat Ba island. We’ve got high expectations, but Ninh Binh is a tough act to follow.


A Bright Hué

We’re at the geographical halfway-point of Vietnam. Hué (pronounced ‘hwey’) is one of the country’s most historic cities, the capital of a number of ancient dynasties and the site of one of the bloodiest battles in the American/Vietnam war. Now a thriving metropolis, Hué’s landmarks include the Imperial Citadel, the vivid Trang Tien bridge and the Perfume River, with yet more ancient pagodas and royal structures dotting the cityscape.

Unfortunately, we only had 24 hours in which to see the city, and it was hot as holy hell while we were staying there, so choices were limited. We had to forego the Perfume River tour and – much to my disappointment as a photographer – didn’t have time to visit the legendary Thuy Thien abandoned water park, so instead settle for Hué’s most prominent landmark: the Imperial Citadel.

The Citadel is a vast stone compound in the centre of the city, the outline of which is clearly visible on any map. Comprised of multiple Russian doll-like layers of courtyards and arenas, it was the imperial seat of Vietnam for over a hundred years before being partially destroyed during the Battle of Hué. Restorations are ongoing even now, but much of the interior still lies in ruins; what remains is a beautiful example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and tradition, with grand palatial promenades, perfumed Buddhist shrines and koi-filled ponds. Even in the enduring midday heat, it was impressive enough to hold my fascination while my brain gently fried.

Worrying that I was starting to actually emit a bacon-like musk, I retreated to the sanctuary of Hué’s air-conditioned restaurants along Hung Vuong road, in anticipation of the city’s glittering nighttime scene along the Perfume River. The Trang Tien bridge shimmers kaleidoscopically across the horizon as Hué’s traditional dragon-boats drift underneath, leaving behind the sounds of traditional music being performed live onboard.

The limitations of our stay prevent me from being able to explore Hué with any more detail, sadly; those of you with a more flexible travel time/ their own cross-country form of transport need to let me know what I missed.

For now, it’s yet another bloody bus and yet another gorgeous bloody drive. Next stop: Ninh Binh.

The Travelling Hôi Polloi of Hôi An

We don’t so much step off the bus as slough off it, dragging our bags, feet and willpower behind. The drive from Dà Lat is longer than the total door-to-door journey from my home in England to my job in Korea, and I can only marvel at the possibly amphetamine-fuelled stamina of our driver.

It’s dawn in Dà Nãng, and the bus terminal is deserted save for a few highly optimistic taxi motorbikes. 4am is the sort of time where you have to flip a coin to decide if there’s even any point in sleeping, but we decided to give it a go as there was yet another (blessedly shorter) bus ride to Hôi An itself. We hit up the nearest motel, pleasantly surprised at the cost of a bed – and discover upon a rude awakening shortly afterwards that they’d conveniently forgotten to mention that we were charged for a whole hour’s rest, rather than the full night. With just enough energy to curse our host and his forefathers, we gave up and poured ourselves onto the day’s first bus.

After a quick coma to recharge at our homestay, we ventured into Hôi An’s Old Town and were instantly thrown back in time. Once you block out the forest of selfie-sticks and the perpetual catwalk of socks-with-Birkenstocks on display, it’s hard not to be drawn into the weathered charm of the town.

Cobblestoned streets and razor-thin alleys weave around the harbourside in an intricate web that, after four days, I only just about started to familiarise myself with. Hôi An is not a large town by any means – you could walk from end to end of the main town area in about ten minutes – but what it lacks in metropolitan hustle it more than makes up for in old-world marketplace bustle. These were not roads designed for anything as modern as an automobile.

Daytime Hôi An is a historical scene, but at nightfall it is transformed into an iridescent sea of lanterns criss-crossing the streets and floating down its harbour. The bridges connecting the town’s multiple islands become dense with people making their way to and from any of the thousand restaurants and bars on offer, or stopping at the edge to watch illuminated boats drifting lazily downstream. Hang around until the later/earlier hours and you’ll finally have the streets to yourself, with the gentle sound of piped classical music drifting in and out of the Old Town’s labyrinthine nooks and crannies.

You could easily while away your whole time in the town, gorging on banh mi and Vietnamese coffee – but, as always seems to be the case, to get the most out of the area you have to get on a bike. We set our signs on the ruined holy city of My Son (pronounced ‘mee shun’), about an hour’s drive southwest of Hôi An. Of course, because we’d decided that this was our confirmed plan, this was the specific day that a monsoon storm hit central Vietnam.

Not ones to be deterred from a plan, however, we set out into the horizontal deluge with determination. It would be an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed the drive, but on the upside I gained a newfound appreciation for how it feels not to be slapped in the face by surprisingly sharp water for an hour. Helpfully, the rain abated just as soon as we parked the bike and could actually access an umbrella.

Had we more time to spare on our long-term trip, I could easily have settled into the groove of Hôi An. The perfect lazy day in the city for me would consist of the following:

– Breakfast at your hostel/homestay: we stayed at two different places, both of which had the most unbelievable breakfast options on request. I don’t even care how much it literally caters to Western tourists, the banana pancakes at both Chit Kem Homestay and Golden Bee were borderline narcotic in their appeal.

– Morning/afternoon: walk either with purpose or totally aimlessly through the Old Town – while I passed the same streets often while navigating the maze of Hôi An, I never took the same route twice. Explore the stomach-suckingly tight side alleys and see where they take you; I discovered a small lake, a well and a tree covered in bird cages on three separate wanders, and then immediately lost them when I tried to find them again. I suspect magic may be involved.

– Lunch: if I’ve learned one thing from traveling, it’s that you don’t have to spend much to get a good lunch in South East Asia; if anything, the best meals we’ve had have been the ones we barely spent anything on. Get yourself a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich (Banh Mi Queen or the Old Town markets) or try some Cao Lâu, a local speciality dish of noodles and pork.

– Afternoon: hide from the sun. Especially in the summer months, it gets deliriously hot and even the locals start to moan about the heat as much as this flaky Englishman.

– Evening: you don’t need TripAdvisor to find a fantastic eatery. Wherever you are in the town, you’ll find your new favourite restaurant every night. One of our favourites was Cafe 43 – one of the longest-running spots in town, we also took a cooking class there to learn three of our favourite dishes: papaya and prawn salad (one of the few salads I’d actually get excited about), lemongrass tofu and fried morning glory – possibly the simplest dish in Vietnamese cuisine, but one that I plan to cook with almost every meal I make at home from now on.

It may be a bit of a tourist hotspot, but you can‘t not visit Hôi An if you’re traveling Vietnam. Fans of the UK series Top Gear may recognise the streets where Clarkson, Hammond and May outfitted themselves in aesthetically violent tailored suits; the town is famous for its rapid and cheap tailoring services, and had I the spare funds I would absolutely have walked away with a $60 three-piece suit. Meg walked away with a custom-made dress (modelled after Katniss Everdeen’s wardrobe from the opening scene of The Hunger Games) while I proudly had my weathered old sandals repaired.

Our stay wasn’t without its tragedies, however. Whilst attempting a scenic cycle of the surrounding coconut forests, we had to skid to a halt next to a tiny, wailing kitten on the road that had clearly been hit by an inattentive motorist. Under the apparently amused scrutiny of the local cafe patrons, we scooped up the little thing and made an immediate beeline back to town to find a vet, but sadly his tiny heart gave out a few minutes later while bundled in my shirt in the bike basket. We gave him a bit of a funerary ceremony in a coconut thicket next to the fields, on a bed of Vietnamese peach blossom, and posthumously named him Marumi after the flower itself. It may have been a slightly ridiculous effort, but neither of us has the slightest willpower when it comes to animals, and it seemed the right thing to do.

Despite the rapid pace of life in every Vietnamese city, it’s hard to feel too rushed in Hôi An – but, as is always the case, we must indeed continue rushing northwards. We have just a short stop in Hue to look forward to on the road to Hanoi, and only a four-hour bus ride to do so.

I’ve folded myself into my seat, I’ve got my headphones in and I’m just about to finish this blog post. There’s a farmer outside struggling with an argumentative cow.

The Sleeper Buses of Vietnam

Today’s post will be a love/hate letter to a very specific part of travelling, especially in Vietnam.

I’m no stranger to adventuring and financial compromise; when backpacking, one can hardly expect to live a life of comfort throughout the entirety of the trip – indeed, if you are perfectly comfortable whilst moving through country after country, I would controversially posit that you somehow aren’t doing it properly.

Over the last month-and-a-bit of mostly-purposeful wandering, we’ve experienced a sliding scale of accommodation quality. Most of our bedrooms haven’t had monstrous insects scuttling along the walls; some have. Most rooms have been free of suspicious stains and/or smells; some haven’t.

Generally speaking, we’ve been able to sleep in most places thanks to/despite the quality of the room, knowing that we can always extend our stand or run for the hills the following morning. In the case of the latter, it’s usually not too long of a journey to reach the next town, at which point we once again roll the dice on how liveable the hostel will be.

The Philippines’ geography requires travellers to choose between boat and plane for most journeys; if the trip covers more than a single island, most people would simply opt for a short, cheap flight. We’d prefer not to waste money or burn ozone on flights if possible, however, so it’s trains and buses for us.

As of writing this post, I’ve yet to experience a train journey in Vietnam, though that may change in the next few days. What I have experienced, over the course of just five bus trips, is over 40 full hours of long-distance, usually overnight travel.

Sleeper buses are as notorious as they are practical. If you were to Google some second opinions before traveling, you might find yourself being a bit put off – such phrases as ‘coffins on wheels’ and ‘you couldn’t pay me to get on one’ seem to come up a lot – but 200,000VND (about £7) to cover the 14-hour slog from Hue to Hanoi is more than a little tempting.

We first encountered sleeper buses on the five-hour journey from Hô Chí Minh to Mūi Né, all those cities ago at the start of the Vietnamese leg of the trip. We were picked up from the Hanh Cafe travel agency near Bùi Viên at 8pm, thrown unceremoniously into the back of a van (no seats but a few thoughtful loose cushions) and driven right to the door of the bus – a large, coachlike vehicle with more curtains than the average bus. We threw our bags underneath, removed our shoes (as per custom) and prepared to find our seats.

‘Seat’, however, would be a questionable choice of word. Sleeper buses don’t so much have seats as narrow bunkbeds, crammed into the bus in a manner not entirely unlike a battery chicken farm. Closer to shelves than actual beds, you’ll end up feeling like a Toy Story extra scrambling back to your designated spot whenever the bus is about to set off again. A gentle aroma of ‘old socks’ permeates the air and, rather like being awake on a long-haul flight, you’re suddenly very conscious of the fact that there is *always* someone coughing at any point on the journey.

I’m not freakishly large for a human – 187cm, or a little over 6’ – but I will warn my fellow tall-ish people: you *will* spend a large portion of the journey with your knees somewhere around your nostrils, or bent into the foetal position. The hardier narcoleptics among you may manage to get a few winks at some point on the drive, but for me the ‘sleeper’ part of the bus was in name only.

Generally, the bus will stop every 2-3 hours to allow for leg-stretching and cigarette/bathroom breaks. This may either be at a designated stop, or on the hard shoulder of the motorway in the middle of the night – and applies to both the male and female passengers, with little other than a few metres of dark road either end of the bus in the way of gender-separation.

For the longer trips, you’ll get a ‘dinner rest’ sometime around nightfall at a roadside restaurant, giving you 20 minutes or so to get in, get fed and get back on the bus. The driver will usually disappear immediately into the ‘VIP’ bus driver section of the restaurant, leaving unfamiliar travellers (c’est moi) to wonder how the hell the diner system works. There will usually be a makeshift menu to point at on one side of the room, at which point you pay and run to the other side to grab your tray, inhale your pho and return quickly to your shelf on the bus.

I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories surrounding the bus industry in Vietnam, but so far haven’t encountered any especially bad conditions; I gather that conditions have improved drastically over the past few years, and if you book through a tourist travel agency you shouldn’t have too much trouble with dodgy drivers.

I would argue that taking a Vietnamese sleeper bus is one of those traveling experiences you just have to have, like ordering unidentifiable/inedible food or apologetically avoiding eye contact with a sex worker. It’s inarguably the cheapest way to traverse the country (with the possible exception of riding your own bike) and – touch wood – so far not a calamitous experience in my own travels.

You might not be particularly comfortable and there might be a couple of bugs on board (they were only very, very small cockroaches and that was only one bus, promise), but you’ll stagger off the other side with more than enough leftover money for all the coffee/alcohol you’ll need to get over the journey.

Guests at the Four Seasons need not pay any heed to this post.

Dà Lat, The City of Eternal Spring

Tired faces slumped against the sun-heated glass of our bus from Mūi Né to Dà Lat, we made our way up into the spectacular heights of the Vietnamese highlands. Even if the sudden increase in elevation hadn’t been a factor, the view was breathtaking.

Still a little haggard from our rude awakening, our plan was to nap as much as possible on the journey. We quickly decided that would be a waste after the first hairpin bend as we rose into the highland fog, a smooth green canopy carpeting the valley hundreds of metres below. We had the bus largely to ourselves, with the exception of an old couple and their tiny granddaughter, who made a point of beaming at me whenever I made eye contact.

We wanted to visit Da Lat for a few reasons. On a practical note, it lay directly between us and Hoi An, a certain stop on the journey. Secondly, the city is known for its pine forests, its unusually French aesthetic and – most importantly – its almost perpetual early-spring temperature. Small wonder it’s earned itself the nickname of ‘The City Of Eternal Spring; Da Lat made me actually consider wearing a jacket for the first time on this trip.

We checked into the hotel (lovely owner, fourth floor room, no lift, tiny stairwell, great cardio), dumped our bags and saw what we could see of the town. A large lake is the centrepiece of the area, around which you can take horse-drawn carriage rides, go for a run or – in my case – underestimate the length of the lake and bitch about wearing flip-flops for a two-hour walk.

The town has a charming personality to it, admittedly in a strangely non-Vietnamese sort of way. Designed as a French resort town in the early 1900s, you could absolutely believe it’s a purpose-planned city – but it still has a soul, and the roads are inescapably Vietnamese in their urgent and strangely cohesively chaotic sort of way.

Having left the dubious roads of Mui Ne behind, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity for some cool-weather exploring. We had to change hotels (just as well, as the building opposite was undergoing incredibly noisy construction) and luckily found one just across the road (the floor directly underneath said noisy construction), before renting a scooter and heading out into the great green yonder.

I had a scooter in Korea for about a year before having my accident (not to protest too much but it *was* 100% their fault), in which time I would drive to/from work four times a day on relatively mad Korean roads. In the Philippines I drove more or less daily on mostly lawless but fairly empty Philippine roads.

Vietnam is an entirely different world of driving. Everybody seems to know exactly what they’re doing, so your first job is to look like you know exactly what you’re doing as well. Make sure you know where you’re going, stick to the right side of the road and for God’s sake don’t hesitate or you’ll find yourself at the back of a very, very long line of bikes that wasn’t there a moment before. Our newfound Swiss friend Daniel put it best: “In Vietnam, it seems crazy but there’s a system. You could walk across the road with your eyes shut if you dare – but you need to know the system.”

Having got ourselves some wheels, we fled the town and followed the long, lazily winding mountainside road. I had been looking forward to the drive for a few days, which of course meant that for both days of scooter ownership the weather made a point of raining heavily whenever I turned on the ignition – but that’s what pack-a-macs are for.

The road eventually took us to the Elephant Falls – an out-of-the-blue waterfall next to a temple boasting the tallest Buddha I’ve ever seen. If the waterfall was dramatic, however, the route to its base was something else, particularly when you’ve decided once again to wear flip-flops in the rain. What starts out as steps quickly turns into roughly-cut notches in the rock faces that aren’t always as obvious as they should be. The scramble down to the waterfall basin is worth it, as you stand on a rough chunk of stone with water exploding either side of you. The upper views are equally photo-worthy, as well as giving you the opportunity to donate either money or, apparently, sweet wrappers to the tiny Buddha shrine on the platform.

Due to nobody’s organisational foibles but our own, we failed to successfully book the bus we planned to Hoi An for our last day, but just managed to get the last two seats on the 14-hour night bus to Da Nang – which, as you can imagine, we’re both super keen on. In anticipation of half a day of possible misery, we allowed ourselves one last outing on the bike to the expansive Tuyên Lâm Lake, once again made all the more dramatic by the exciting addition of rain.

Now I get to see what the last two seats on a 14-hour sleeper bus in Vietnam look like. There’s a chance I may resemble a pretzel on the other side, but it’ll be worth it so long as I have something to write about.


To any parents of mine who might be reading this, I’m being a very safe driver so do try not to worry. X

Getting Our Mūi Né’s Worth

Sure enough, my bum was sore enough after a good few hours of rattling through the Vietnamese countryside. Typical of the journey so far, we arrived long after nightfall and were the last to leave the bus when we stepped out onto the empty streets of Mūi Né. The sleepy silence of the town seems alien after the bustling hustle of Ho Chi Minh, and barely any motorbikes tried to drive through me while walking to the hotel at 1am.

Most of what we found in Mūi Né, we learned about after arriving; a cursory Google found that it was the obvious stopping point on the trip up Vietnam’s ludicrously long coast, but otherwise we planned to improvise. A small fishing town, its main claim to fame are its incongruously scenic dunes – two areas with either blinding white or rust-red sand, big enough to warrant the use of dune buggies to traverse them. English beaches not being known for their grandeur, this was my first experience of Lawrence of Arabia-esque scenery, I made sure to get as much sand in my beard and clothing as possible in order to enjoy it later.

Meg takes it upon herself to gather as much rubbish as possible, but sadly ‘a drop in the ocean’ would be an apt comparison.

On the Internet’s advice we also explored the famed local fishing village – for ten minutes or so, before we had to admit defeat due to the astonishingly pervasive scent of death. Unfortunately, quite a lot of flotsam, jetsam and nasty stuff has accumulated along the coast so, whilst genuinely interesting from a cultural authenticity standpoint, it’s rather aggressive on the senses.

Instead, we ventured to the curiously-named Fairy Stream, whereupon we were told to remove our footwear and wander up the riverbed barefoot. This didn’t seem overwhelmingly appealing until we started the walk upstream; the red-and-white sand mixes with the water to create a terracotta path you wade through, soft and warm underfoot. At points along the route there are great, slick banks of fresh, sun-heated mud which I could stand in all day with a vague smile on my face. The warm, squishy mud washes off as you walk past steep, multicoloured rock faces and outdoor stalagmites (which I didn’t previously know were a thing).

One of the other thing we discovered Mui Ne is famous for, however, isn’t a particularly fun thing for travellers – particularly for those inclined to ride bikes and scooters around the country, which is possibly the best means of doing so. Strictly speaking, to drive any vehicle in Vietnam you require an IDP (International Driving Permit), or a Vietnamese driving license (difficult to get unless you’re a long-term resident). This being South-East Asia, almost nobody ever checks such things, and indeed I’ve yet to be asked for my license by anybody I’ve rented a scooter from. The general rule of thumb is to not be a twit on the road and we’ll all get along.

Mui Ne, however, has gained a bit of a reputation for specifically targeting foreigners on bikes, issuing ridiculous (and almost certainly illegal) fines even if the driver can prove they have the appropriate license. It’s since been confirmed for us that it’s *only* Mui Ne that seems to have this problem with corruption, and that the rest of the country is fine to (responsibly) ride in. My advice to avid riders would be to either not rent in Mui Ne for a few days, or (if you’re riding your own bike) consider a detour around the coastal road east of the town (see expertly-drawn map for recommended detour route).

We’d planned our final day to be a relaxing, self-care sort of morning in preparation for the next five-hour journey to Da Lat. It was a bit jarring, then, when our lovely host knocked happily on our door at 6:00am to inform us that he’d booked us a seat on the bus that would arrive in ten minutes, and that he hoped we’d have a nice trip.

Bleary, tired and underpants-clad, I somehow succeeded in packing everything, brushed my hair, combed my teeth and put on almost all my clothing the right way round before the bus came and whisked us away, up into the cloud-hidden green peaks of the Vietnamese highlands.

The Many Maniacal Motorways of Manila

The flight from Caticlan to Manila was brief and turbulent. The gentleman behind me never quite succeeded in clearing his throat and the leg-room was very slightly less than the dimensions of my actual legs, but it was blessedly short and, being the Philippines, geographically spectacular from the plane window.

The flight to Vietnam didn’t leave until midnight the following day, so there was ample time to find lodgings, get a lay of the land and send Meg to a climbing gym to stop her climbing the walls, so to speak. We found a suitable-looking place close to the gym but seemingly not too far from the airport for a quick getaway.

What I should have learned from our experience in Cebu is that map scale is an important factor to consider when traversing the Philippines’ dense cities. Side roads that wind between buildings may, in fact, be six-lane highways blasting past whole districts without due care and attention paid to the zoom on map apps. Sixty-two minutes into the ‘short’ taxi ride to the hotel, I realised that I hadn’t given enough credit to the size of Manila.

Having been on the receiving end of a car vs. small motorised vehicle incident (and still carrying around a metal bolt in my arm as a result) I approved of the fact that every two-wheeled motorist and passenger was wearing a helmet, versus the more laid-back approach of drivers in the countryside.

What quickly became apparent was that, on Manila roads, the choices are either helmet or fast, crunchy death. I don’t recall seeing an abundance of traffic lights, but drivers seem to know precisely where they’re going and be damned if they’re going to change direction for something as inconsequential as a pedestrian or another vehicle. Enormous coaches will streak with inches to spare past street corners, leaning enthusiastically on horns that could direct shipping traffic and perforating the eardrums of anyone daring to walk nearby.

Combined with the daily operatic thunderstorms that seem to cling to the city, our time in Manila was rife with sensory drama and perpetually soggy sandals. I optimistically sought out a convenience store umbrella to pathetically combat the weather but, after the first and second store didn’t have any in stock, by the time I got to the third I’d rather lost purpose in my mission. I instead tried to preserve the dryness of my new umbrella in my otherwise waterlogged backpack and set back out into the simultaneously vertical and horizontal deluge.

Like every good drama, our time in the capital had to come to a close. After barely an hour of waiting for a taxi – any taxi, please – we were whisked off into absolutely stand-still traffic for the two-hour stop-and-start journey to the airport for our final departure from the country.

So ends the first bit of the journey. The Philippines and its gorgeous, haphazard geography had treated us relatively well, barring the occasional dubious tummy and misread map. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll find competition for its beaches in any other country on this trip (though I’m happy to be proved wrong), and we’ve been well looked after by everyone we’ve met here. Meg probably doesn’t have rabies, so that’s a win as well.

The fiddly bit’s done – now to mainland South-East Asia.

The Rising and Setting Suns of Boracay, By An Aging Writer

It’s nighttime by the time our plane leaves the Cebu runway behind, with a convoluted journey yet to come: after getting out of Kalibo Airport on Panay, we still need to haggle for the two-hour journey to Caticlan Port, navigate the short ferry ride to Boracay and finally haggle once more for the tricycle ride to our hotel on the other side of the island.

We left Cebu at 11:25pm – by the time we started to draw close to Oasis Resort and Spa, the horizon is already threatening daylight. The porter on duty has been waiting for us since 1am, and his genial greeting isn’t enough to convince us that we aren’t terrible people for making him wait. We drop our bags in the room, ready to slip into a coma – but it takes no small amount of self-discipline to intentionally be awake for a sunrise in the Philippines, and we weren’t about to waste the opportunity.

Sitting on Illig-Illigan beach, a short walk down the hill from the hotel, we let the sandflies dance madly around us as we watched the sun sneak over the horizon and start its rounds over Boracay. This was especially poignant for me as this was now officially the start of my 30th year on Earth; our irresponsibly fancy, non-backpacker-y hotel and this trip to the luxury capital of the Philippines was all part of Meg’s birthday plotting, and this solar spectacle was an event neither of us had planned for.

Three glorious hours of sleep later, we scraped ourselves off the bed and sloughed our way to the restaurant for exactly the right kind of birthday breakfast, with every intent to go right back to sleep afterwards. That would likely have resulted in the rest of the afternoon vanishing, however, so we grudgingly decided to have a glorious day instead.

Boracay was a familiar name to me even before coming to the Philippines. For better or worse, it’s the tourist capital of the country, particularly with Korean visitors (as my students have informed me en masse). This being an improvised, tight-purse sort of backpacking adventure, such a destination would probably not have been on our radars, but it was my birthday and be damned if we weren’t going to do something special.

I was a bit wary of the crowds at first. I’ve been trained from a young age to Not Be Tedious and I’m already desperately English to look upon as it is: no matter how long I spend in the sun, I’m either ‘bleached’ or ‘violently bacon-like’ without much time in-between, so the least I can do is try to avoid behaving too much like I’m looking for an English breakfast everywhere I go. As with many touristy things, however, there’s a reason for Boracay’s popularity.

White Beach is exactly what you imagine when you picture somewhere like the Philippines. A two-mile bar of bone-white sand stretches along the side of Boracay with palm trees behind and crystalline water beyond; despite its popularity, it’s fastidiously maintained, with regularly-signposted rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the beach (mostly sensible things like smoking, fire-dancing and whatever ‘commercial sandcastles’ are). As a result, you never have to worry about discovering someone‘s cigarettes/broken bottles/remains while picking out the perfect towel spot.

You’ll need to develop a thick skin for salesmen – every few feet someone will pitch a boat tour, massage parlour, restaurant or trinket to you, some more enthusiastically than others. After I semi-jokingly assured one hat seller that my head was too big for most human hats (this is in fact true) and walked on, he came running after me a good kilometer further down the beach with as many large-size hats as he could find. While he caught his breath, I dutifully tried them on to guiltily demonstrate that they, too, were to small for my massive noggin.

Being a commercial hotspot for the Philippines, dining on Boracay is noticeably more aggressive on the wallet compared to the rest of the country. We spent many-a frustrating moment trudging with increasing hunger-induced wrath past wonderful but overpriced eateries (lomi for 200 pesos, pull the other one it’s got bells on my good man), occasionally settling for appetisers or, in our darker moments, 7/11 toasties. It was a turning point, then, when we discovered the wonders of the town’s side streets.

I promised a shout-out in particular to the wonderful folks at Eva’s Homemade Resto and Bar: they don’t advertise themselves with particular gusto and are a little off the main stretch, but their food is a) backpacker-priced and b) spectacular. We spent both breakfast and dinner there, talking with the staff and accidentally advertising the small restaurant to other passing travellers. Eva, Vanessa and Nonoy – and their food – were lovely and I would love to point any hungry adventurers their way.

Boracay’s sunrises are serenely beautiful, but its sunsets are a true spectacle. Dark-sailed boats drift lazily across the bay as the sky becomes a vivid palette of orange and blue hues, putting any social media filter to shame. I gave up on editing the photos as there was nothing I could do to make it look any better than reality.

As our penultimate expedition in the Philippines, we head with quiet trepidation to its capital – the sprawling, decidedly palm-tree-free metropolis of Manila. We’ve got flights to be on and Meg’s got a climbing fix to feed, so we’ll be thrust into the beating and blaring heart of the biggest city for hundreds of nautical miles around.

I reload my camera, shoulder my slightly salty backpack and hope my passport’s around here somewhere.

The Trials and Tribulations Of (The Otherwise Beautiful) Siquijor

So far, so good: sights have been seen, beaches have been beheld and life-threatening diseases have narrowly been avoided. After a few solid days of being Very Pale Tourists up and down the twisting roads of Bohol and Panglao, it was once again time to set out for open sea in search of our next destination – Siquijor (pronounced see-kee-hor), a remote-ish island known for its coasts, its waterfalls and its ancient witchcraft.

Another OceanJet ferry took us from Tagbilaran port to Larena (around P600), due south of Cebu and Bohol. Siquijor Island isn’t huge – a determined scooter ride will circle the coastline in around 2-3 hours – but the towns are relatively far between, usually reached via tricycle. Our destination was Buco Beach, an isolated stretch of sand and palm trees situated not particularly close to anything else: the perfect antidote to a few days of crowds and neon lights.

Some determined haggling at the Larena port tricycle stand eventually got us on the road, and an hour later we started to realise that his initial rates (450-500P) were actually quite reasonable. Teeth rattled and bums numbed by the rocky journey (tricycles are basically houses welded onto ancient motorcycles), we spilled out onto the soft gravel of Buco Beach Resort and were instantly mobbed by an enthusiastic herd of resident dogs.

Buco Beach is the postcard Philippines spot. The restaurant area is an open structure of wooden beams and woven reeds set in the shade of a palm tree grove, which leads immediately to the edge of the water with an ocean view impeded only by a small mangrove thicket. The local dogs swim, play and hump with abandon throughout the day, and there seem to be two weather settings: ‘glorious’ and ‘apocalyptically dramatic’. On any given evening in the Philippines, look out to sea and you’ll see a wrathful sky-god bullying an island somewhere in the distance.

The writer makes an effort.

The point of Siquijor in our journey was to take a bit of a breather and explore a small area at our leisure. After a bit of trial-and-error picking out the local scooters (old Vespas are stylish but alarmingly erratic with two riders, one of whom is rather large) we got our ride and went off for A New Adventure.

The plan was to check out a few of the local swimming holes and see what a circuit of the island would yield. Our first stop was at Cambugahay Falls, a spot known for its shaded, deep blue pools – but also the most popular with tourists, resulting in lines up and down the steep, 130-step forest path to the pools below. We’re travelling in the off-season, but it was still pretty bustling; if you’re looking for quieter scenery (albeit with fewer jungle-swings) then Lugnason Falls can be found a short drive past the local town of Lazi at the end of a rough track – a favourite with the locals, and less broadcasted to the minibus masses.

Our circuit took us through each of the island’s small cities; we stopped for lunch at San Juan right next to its glassy coastline, whereby the barely-vaccinated Meg immediately made friends with (and fed corned beef to) a battered old dear of a dog, much to the amused bafflement of onlookers.

The coastal road through San Juan, Siquijor proper and Larena is a winding spectacle of overhanging jungle and blue horizons, broken only by the occasional suicidal dog or emphysemic honk of ancient tricycles. Dotted randomly but frequently along every road in the Philippines are wooden huts selling hot food at around 20 pesos a dish (about 30p), as well as convenient Coke bottles of bike fuel for when you’ve been a bit cavalier with your motorised adventures.

Alas, our Englishness was to rear its ugly head after six whole days in the tropics, and we ended up being totally floored by (we can only surmise) a nasty reaction to actual sunlight for about three days – during which we rode out tropical storms, hideously large insects and one verbose but otherwise friendly gecko from our little beachside hut. The managers at Buco Beach Resort did what they could to look after us, but after the third plaintive request of ‘plain toast with a bit of jam’ as our entire day’s caloric intake I suspect they assumed we were dead.

After putting off our departure for two extra days, we made our slow, careful way back to Larena harbour for the ferry to our next destination – the southern point of Cebu Island. Precious water bottles clutched in weak hands, we shuffled onto the only-slightly-rusty container ship that would take us off into another spectacular Pacific sunset. We were full of expectation, medication – and only a muffled dread that the bloody boat wouldn’t have toilets on it.

So long, Siquijor – bring it on, Cebu.