Dordogne

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With its lush green forests, picturesque medieval architecture and gourmet food, the Dordogne is one of my favourite parts of France. Cutting a swathe through the heart of the region in the south-west of France is its namesake river. The magnificent Dordogne River flows for more than 300 miles from the mountains of the Auvergne near Clermont-Ferrand to the Gironde Estuary, just north of Bordeaux.

I first visited the Dordogne when I was around eight years old on a family holiday. We were staying in a caravan on a campsite and I have fond memories of riding through the campsite’s forest on my bike during the hot sunny days and being awe-struck by the epic thunderstorms at night.

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So when my parents said they were renting a gite in the Dordogne for a week and would I like to join them, I jumped at the chance. We stayed in a lovely little house, just outside the bastide town of Monpazier, and from there we day-tripped to nearby Bergerac, the pretty medieval city of Sarlat-la-Canéda and the stunning Chateau de Biron (above). We also toured the nearby countryside, as well as the vineyards of the Lot valley and its capital Cahors.

France is renowned for its excellent cuisine and, in my opinion, the region’s gastronomy is among the country’s very best. Put simply the Dordogne is a foodie’s paradise. Home to deliciously ripe fresh fruits and vegetables (I discovered black tomatoes in a greengrocer’s in Monpazier), beans and strong cheeses. Duck and goose can commonly be found on restaurant menus, along with nuts in various forms – I enjoyed more than one walnut tart during my week’s stay. Foie gras is also a popular local delicacy, despite its notoriety, and you can find it for sale all over the region.

The Dordogne’s wines may not be as famous as those of the neighbouring Gironde, but it’s home to some very drinkable wines. Péchamant, from the Bergerac area, is a full-bodied red and this became our wine of choice during our week as there was a little shop selling cheap, drinkable boxes of it in Monpazier. The region also produces the Montbazillac dessert wine. To the south of the Dordogne, the Lot valley is home to my favourite wine, the Cahors.

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But what I like best about the region is its traditional, relaxed way of life. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming, and there’s a slow, laid-back charm to the area. If you’re looking for somewhere quiet and relaxing, with a little bit of sightseeing, history, beautiful scenery and incredible food and wine, there’s no place better than the Dordogne.

 

Bath

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Famed for its Roman Baths and gorgeous Georgian architecture, Bath is a compact, picture-perfect city. Despite its undeniable good looks, I have a complicated relationship with the city as I once spent a month living there and loathed every minute. Nine years after vowing never to set foot in the city again, I decided the time was ripe to revisit it – and surprisingly, I didn’t hate it. In fact, I kinda liked it…

On arriving in Bath, we headed straight for the city centre and the main shopping district to get our bearings. It was a Friday, so the main streets were really busy with shoppers and filled with the usual big-name high street stores, so we wandered past without stopping. We ambled up Stall Street first, past the Roman Baths, then Union Street and Milsom Street.

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After cutting a swathe through the city centre, we carried on northwards until we reached The Circle. The well-known circular avenue is home to some beautiful Georgian villas and we stopped to admire the architecture and take a few photos before heading to the left down Brock Street to the famed Royal Crescent. The Royal Crescent is delightful and is quintessentially Bath to me. When you’re there, it’s hard not to imagine Jane Austen’s heroines ambling across the gardens in front of it or calling upon a friend in one of the houses for tea.

Having stopped to admire it, we then headed back towards the city centre. The lanes and alleyways that lead off the main shopping streets are teeming with independent shops and we spent quite a bit of time weaving in and out the lanes, looking in the many excellent shops.

By now, it was lunchtime and we were getting hungry, so we decided to stop somewhere for lunch. Luckily, we were spoilt for choice as Bath is filled with fantastic places to eat. The Bertinet Bakery, which sells gorgeous breads, pastries and cakes, left my mouth watering and tummy rumbling. I was sorely tempted by the lusciously plump Bath buns and croissants, but thinking I needed something more substantial for lunch, decided to come back later to pick some up on my way home. This turned out to be a huge error as when we went back two hours later, they were all gone!

We ended up stopping at Rosarios, a tiny Sicilian café in Northumberland Place (they also have a branch in Bristol). The food was delicious and the service friendly and welcoming. I had a lovely Caprese salad washed down with a glass of homemade lemonade infused with basil and ginger. We were so impressed with the food, and their homemade pesto, that we asked for a pot of the pesto to take away with us.

Tummies full, we headed to the Roman Baths to continue our sightseeing. The Roman Baths are a series of bathing pools built around natural hot springs that date back to Roman times. There’s a museum built around them, which tells you about their history, the people who would have used the baths and showcases Roman artefacts from the site. You can also see the remains of some of the original Roman buildings.

We arrived at the baths around 2pm, which turned out to be a big mistake as a number of school groups arrived at the same time. Undeterred we headed inside, but the place was heaving and the museum packed with people standing around listening to their audio guides and blocking the displays and pathways.

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The baths themselves were lovely and we were able to wander around those fairly easily, but we weren’t able to get in to see many of the displays as there were too many people, refusing to move. As a result, I didn’t see much of the museum. I like to look at all the artefacts and read the accompanying information, but I would have been there for hours trying to do this and after a few frustrating attempts, gave up. Instead I squeezed past where I could and stopped off at the quieter displays.

What I did see was interesting and there’s clearly a lot of history to see and read about, but the Roman Baths really needs to think about capping the visitor numbers as the hoards of people made for an unpleasant visitor experience.

On leaving the baths, we headed next door to Bath Abbey. The abbey was founded in the 8th century as a Benedictine monastery and its claim to fame is that King Edgar, the first king of England, was crowned in the abbey in 973.

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The abbey is a beautiful piece of architecture and is similar to most English cathedrals. We had a good look around the abbey, admiring the building, especially the lovely stained glass windows and high decorative ceilings.

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Having explored the abbey, we wandered towards the River Avon to take a look at Pulteney Bridge and Weir. Pulteney Bridge is an 18th century covered bridge, home to shops and cafés. The Georgian bridge is a charming sight, so we stopped to take some photos, before strolling along it and looking in all the shops.

I enjoyed my day trip to Bath, even the disappointing visit to the Roman Baths, and I’d go back again. The highlight was discovering so many incredible foodie places and I’m going to have to go back just to try some of the tempting cafés and restaurants we didn’t get a chance to visit – and I will definitely be stopping by The Bertinet Bakery to pick up a much-longed for Bath bun!

Info

The Bertinet Bakery
1 New Bond Street Place, Bath BA1 1BH

Open 8am-5pm Monday-Friday, 8.30am-5.30pm Saturday
bertinet.com/bertinetbakery/bakery.php

Rosarios Café
18 Northumberland Place, Bath BA1 5AR

rosarioscafe.co.uk

The Roman Baths
Abbey Church Yard, Bath BA1 1LZ
romanbaths.co.uk

Bath Abbey
Abbey Church Yard, Bath BA1 1LZ
bathabbey.org

Lisbon travel guide

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A couple of months ago, I found out that a mini-travel guide to Lisbon I’d put together for a friend was doing the rounds of our friends and friends of friends. According to the friend I’d written it for, “it’s like a proper travel guide”. Which got me thinking that, as I have a travel blog and my friends seem to find it useful, I should probably post it.

I’ll blog about my trip in more detail later this year, but for now here’s my mini-travel guide to Lisbon. I hope you find it useful, too – and if you have any other recommendations, please share them in the comments.

City centre

There’s not much to do in central Lisbon itself in terms of sightseeing, I just mooched around the different districts. But the castle on top of the hill is well worth a visit as it has amazing views over the city.

Belem

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Belem is one of the suburbs and there’s loads to do. Just hop on the number 15 tram from Praca da Figueira (you pay on the tram) and it will take you there. There you’ll find the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a world heritage site and monastery. It’s quite cool to walk around, although the queues are long so it’s worth getting there early. There’s also an amazing palace up on the hill that no-one knows about, the Palacio de Ajuda, that’s definitely worth seeing.

Belem is also home to the café that popularised the Portuguese custard tart and you have to visit it – the tarts are fantastic! The Antiga Confeitaria de Belem is just down the road from the Mosteiro, so I popped in there for breakfast before starting my day.

Other sights include the Torre de Belem, a tower on the river, but to be honest it’s a 20-minute walk away and nothing special, so might be worth skipping. I also went to the electricity museum, which was weird, but cool – it’s housed in an old electricity sub-station and is one-half electricity museum, one-half art gallery.

Beach

I went to Cascais, a little fishing port outside Lisbon. It had a little beach and wasn’t really worth the trip, but on the way there loads of people were hopping off the train to go to the various beaches en route to Cascais. I got the train from Cais do Sodre station, so if you want the beach, I’d hop on the train and follow the locals.

Sintra

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My favourite place I visited. It’s a little town in the mountains just south of Lisbon (get the train from Rossio station). Quinta da Regalaria is a world heritage site in the mountains. It’s a bizarre folly/country house with extensive gardens where they’ve built towers, caves and lakes, and is great fun to explore.

The other thing to do is to follow the knights’ templar trail up the mountain to the castle and palace at the top (it looks horrendous from the bottom, but it’s not actually steep or tiring). You can get the bus to the top of the hill, but I don’t think it would be as much fun.

The Castelo dos Mouros was built on top of the hill by the Moors around the 12th century and is a series of castle ramparts that go all over the top of the mountain. It’s spectacular to walk around and the views from the top are incredible.

The Palacio de Pena, meanwhile, is a quirky, kitsch palace with an art deco exterior and extensive grounds. It’s kind of crazy and a complete contrast to the palace at Belem. There’s also a palace in the middle of Sintra, the Palacio Nacional, but it isn’t as interesting, so I’d leave it ’til last and do it if you have time.

Food and drink

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The Bairro Alto is Lisbon’s food and drink district, and is teeming with restaurants and bars. I had the most amazing clams (a Lisbon speciality) at Petiscos No Bairro on the Rua da Atalaia. I also had a great meal at O Cantinho do Bem Estar, it’s really rustic, home cooked food. The portion sizes are enormous, it’s crazy cheap (I had a massive plate of food and half a jug of wine for 10 euros) and the people that run it are lovely.

Time Out runs a food market (above) at the market across the road from Cais do Sodre station. There are 30-odd stalls from top Lisbon restaurants, food shops and bars, and you take your pick from them and sit down at the tables in the middle of the market. It’s great and you can try loads of different stuff.

I didn’t get round to it when I was in Lisbon, but Tagide is supposed to be great for lunch. You can get a three course meal, plus wine and coffee for 12 euros or so, and all the food guides recommend it.

You should also make sure to try Ginginha, a Portuguese cherry brandy (sounds disgusting, but really nice!), and white port, it’s not as sweet as regular port and hard to come by outside Lisbon. Also, do you like cinnamon? A lot of the desserts have cinnamon in them, especially those that are branded ‘Portuguese’.

Caerphilly Castle

Wales’s biggest castle and the second largest in the UK (after Windsor), Caerphilly Castle is a massive stone fortress surrounded by a series of lakes. Built between 1268 and 1271 by Gilbert de Clare, the Earl of Hertford and Gloucester, the castle was designed to defend south Wales against the expansion of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, prince of Gwynedd, who was attempting to unite the principality.

The castle was the first in the UK to be built in a concentric style, that is a castle within a castle. I used to visit Caerphilly Castle as a child and back then, the structure was in a state of disrepair and all you could do was walk around the grounds as it was too unsafe to go inside. That’s all changed today and now you can explore much of the inner castle, which includes the great hall and various towers and passages.

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The castle is only 20 minutes from Cardiff and having not been there for 20-odd years, I was keen to find out how it had changed over the years. First up, I made a beeline for the castle’s famed leaning tower. The leaning tower has been on an incline since the 17th century and now leans more than the famous tower of Pisa. I was delighted to discover that not only is the tower still standing (and leaning), but there’s now a statue of a man “holding it up”.

After taking a few photos of the tower, I headed through the Inner East Gatehouse to explore the main body of the castle. There isn’t much to see within the castle as most of the rooms are empty, but the Inner East Gatehouse is home to a couple of small exhibitions, including an interactive display about the castle’s history where I inadvertently blew up the castle (virtually, of course).

There are several towers and passages to explore and you can even get to the top of a few of the towers, which provide great views over the castle and the surrounding area. I spent a good hour or so wandering all over the castle and seeking out all the nooks and crannies to explore, and had a great time imagining what the castle must have been like during the 14th century.

After having a good look around the inner castle and the middle ward, which surrounds it, I crossed one of the drawbridges back towards the entrance and headed to the right where there’s a grassy area with a few more bits and pieces to explore (above). The area is home to a couple of small towers and a series of wooden catapults that show how its medieval guardians defended the formidable fortress during its heyday. I really enjoyed my morning at Caerphilly Castle – it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Info
Caerphilly Castle, Caerphilly CF83 1JD
Open daily
Adults £7.95, Children and concessions £5.20
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/caerphilly-castle

Ho Chi Minh City – Part 2

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Just before lunch we headed to the Reunification Palace in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to the president of South Vietnam in 1975 when the North’s tanks came rolling in, it’s stood in a virtual time warp ever since. To get to the palace, we walked through the large pale grey gates surrounding it and past an immaculate round lawn where we headed up a flight of steps to the main entrance.

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Inside, the palace is home to ceremonial spaces, a banqueting hall, meeting rooms, seating areas, a dining room, screening room and even an indoor rockery. And as befitting a presidential palace, it’s lavishly decorated in parts. The enormous Conference Hall (above), for example, is filled with chintzy red sofas and armchairs with a red patterned carpet. While the Ambassador’s Chamber is a large gold-themed room featuring Japanese-style laquered furnishings.

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While the entire palace is an ode to the 1970s, when I walked inside the National Security Council Chamber (above), I really felt as though I was stepping back in time. The room has maps all over the walls, basic furniture and an amazing series of pastel coloured phones in a row on a wooden cupboard.

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Downstairs in the basement is the war bunker, a claustrophobic space full of sparsely-furnished rooms. One of the rooms was empty bar a table, chair, filing cabinet and a series of phones; another just had a bed, a small table and a couple of phones. The Reunification Palace is perfectly preserved and there’s lots to see. I really felt as though I’d been transported back to the 1970s as I walked around and it offers an intriguing insight into what life was like at the palace at the time.

Having spent the morning sightseeing, we spent the rest of the day ambling around the city centre, taking a walking tour of the main sights, such as the elegant Municipal Theatre and the People’s Committee Building, and doing a spot of shopping.

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Ho Chi Minh City is great for shopping and it’s worth spending a little time exploring the shops around Union Square (above). Le Loi is home to some great boutiques, including my favourite, the Saigon Boutique, where I felt as though I bought half the shop. If you collect art, Union Square has some great galleries – I bought a striking painting in one of them. The central market, meanwhile, is packed with stalls selling all manner of goods, such as fruit and veg, coffee (including the infamous weasel coffee), souvenirs and clothing, while the Vincom Shopping Centre is a modern mall filled with big name high street stores.

In the evening, we headed back to Union Square to check out the People’s Committee Building. We’d read in a guidebook that the exterior is filled with geckos at dusk and we were keen to see if this was true. It turned out it was – there were loads of geckos all over the facade. The soldiers guarding the building, though, were less than impressed by our game of ‘spot the gecko’ and we were soon shooed away and told off for getting too close to the building, which isn’t open to the public.

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Just before dinner we made our way to the Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the city. The Skydeck has incredible views in every direction over the city and we stayed there as the sun went down, before stopping off at the bar for a couple of ice-cold margaritas with a view. The perfect way to end a jam-packed day of sightseeing and shopping.

Ho Chi Minh City – Part 1

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Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s financial capital. It’s also the country’s most global, most metropolitan city. Otherwise known as Saigon, the city is home to almost 8.5 million people. There’s a noticeable Western influence in the city centre, more so than in other parts of Vietnam, with coffee shops on street corners and a large shopping centre full of well-known high street brands.

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Our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral, an elegant 19th century French-style cathedral covered with red tiles. The cathedral was closed when we arrived, and while it was a shame we couldn’t go inside, it was nevertheless lovely to look at. So we stood around the small garden in front of it to take a few photos before heading across the road to the General Post Office.

Built by Gustave Eiffel at the end of the 19th century, the General Post Office is the most beautiful post office I have ever laid eyes on. Inside, it has a high-vaulted cream ceiling with a dark green and peach pattern, an ornate tiled floor and wonderful dark wooden booths. There are also maps hanging on the walls, clocks that show the time in different cities around the world, and on the far wall, opposite the entrance, a massive portrait of Ho Chi Minh. The architecture is glorious and we spent a good 20 minutes looking around and admiring it all.

The next stop on our itinerary was the War Remnants Museum. The museum features exhibitions, told from a Vietnamese perspective, about the Vietnam War and specifically, the atrocities committed. I found the displays, especially some of the photographs, harrowing and upsetting at times. Some of the photographs are heartbreaking and disturbing, particularly those featuring children, and I found it hard to wrap my head around how human beings could commit such crimes against one another.

The museum effectively conveys the horrors of the war and the terrible effects it had on the people who endured it. And as difficult as it was to see and read about the atrocities, I was glad I visited the museum. Although I had been aware of some of the crimes committed during the war, I left with a far greater understanding of what happened and the tremendous suffering caused. It was a sobering, thought-provoking visit.

 

 

Mekong Delta

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Deep in the south of Vietnam, you’ll find the laid-back Mekong Delta, an expansive network of water famous for its floating markets and traditional way of life. I’d arranged to spend a night in a home stay in the Delta to experience a slice of traditional Vietnamese hospitality and having spent almost two weeks touring the country, I was looking forward to some rest and relaxation. And this was the perfect place to find it.

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To get to my home stay, which was nestled in the heart of the Mekong Delta, I boarded a boat in one of the waterside towns that was to take me across an enormous stretch of water to a series of narrow canals and waterways where my home stay was located. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the size of the river we were about to cross – it was ginormous, one of the biggest I’ve seen.

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I was in awe, not only of the huge body of water, but also of the numbers of boats crossing it. There were small canoes, bigger ships that looked like tankers, as well as boats transporting the locals and their bicycles. The people here have really adapted to life on the water and it was fascinating to watch.

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Once we’d crossed the large expanse of water, we hopped into a smaller canoe to tour the canals around Vinh Long. The waterways are quite narrow and had a swampy feel to them, and I was riveted watching the local people going about their lives on and around the water. I watched people transporting goods, such as fruits, fishing nets and logs, along the canals. I even saw one man swimming in the water.

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We stopped off along the way at a fruit farm; a pottery, where we watched the staff making pots using traditional methods; as well as a small shop, where the people who ran it showed us how to make a toasted rice snack. We spent a good couple of hours touring the waterways, going in and out of the various inlets, and it was interesting seeing another side to Vietnam, one that was very different to what I’d experienced so far.

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Late afternoon, we arrived at our home stay. It was a complex of wooden huts near the water’s edge and the family who ran it were really friendly and welcoming. It also amazingly had great WiFi. After dumping our things, we spent an hour or so relaxing in the hammocks that surrounded the complex, reading and watching the world go by. It was wonderfully peaceful and relaxing.

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When the heavens broke to unleash a torrential downpour, I lay swinging in my dry hammock, enjoying the lightning show. After the rain, lots of wildlife emerged including giant white snails, frogs, and some bizarre amphibious/fish-like creatures with two front legs. I was fascinated by the wildlife, which was so alien to what we have in the UK, yet less amused when a giant tree rat also decided to come out to play. The rodent was running around the ceiling beams of the complex and I’m not going to lie, I was terrified. Mice I can cope with, but rats are another story…

After a few hours rest and relaxation, we joined the family to prepare supper – although I’m not sure I was much help as I kept getting told off! I really enjoyed getting stuck in with the dinner, even if I wasn’t doing a great job of making sure all my spring rolls were similar sized. We then sat down to a wonderful feast. Once dinner was over and the plates cleared, the family put on a traditional musical show for us, which was fantastic.

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The next day, we were up bright and early, and headed back through the waterways of Vinh Long. Our destination was the Cai Be floating market, where the locals gather together in their boats to buy and sell their goods. I was really interested by the market and how the transactions take place, and it was great to watch it in action.

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I very much enjoyed my visit to the Mekong Delta with its very traditional way of life and water-based culture. It was a peaceful and relaxing part of the world, and unlike anything else I’d experienced in Vietnam. There was a real laid-back feel to the place, which contrasted greatly with the hustle and bustle of the cities, and it was the perfect place to unwind before I headed to Ho Chi Minh City for the final leg of my Vietnamese journey.

Cu Chi Tunnels

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The ingenious, sprawling network of tunnels at Cu Chi, 70km north-west of Ho Chi Minh City, were used as a base by the Viet Cong to carry out their guerilla war campaign against the US between 1960 and 1975.

It’s hard to describe just how clever and extensive these tunnels are. From the ground, you’d never know there was a series of intricate tunnels under your feet. There’s no indication there’s a hidden world beneath the jungle floor. The entrances are expertly concealed, while the ventilation shafts, that ensured a circulating flow of air throughout the network, were built to resemble termite mounds (below).

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What’s even more remarkable is that the tunnels weren’t just a network of tunnels. They boasted multiple floors and rooms, and were home to kitchens, living quarters, meeting places, as well as battle areas. In short, the Viet Cong had everything they needed to survive within these warrens.

On arriving at the site, we headed inside a large hut where we had a brief history lesson about the war and the resistance fighters, providing a useful context for what we were about to see. We then followed a series of trails around the complex, which showed how the Viet Cong lived, worked and fought during the war.

Among the notable sights was a workshop, where we learned how the Viet Cong fashioned shoes out of old tyres (above) and all sorts of other ingenious things; a kitchen; and a dining room, where we had the chance to try some tapioca. There were also re-enactments with models that showed what life was like for the Viet Cong. At one point our guide showed us the concealed entrance to one of the tunnels (above) – and if it wasn’t for him showing us, I’d never have known it was there .

The most gruesome part of the tour was seeing the booby traps set by the Viet Cong to capture the US soldiers. The Viet Cong devised all sorts of horrifying traps that were hidden from view, but accidentally step on one of them and you’d be maimed, or in all likelihood, killed. Some of these contraptions wouldn’t have been out of place in Game of Thrones and they made me mighty uncomfortable – some were unnecessarily violent and almost all involved painful looking spikes.

After walking around the complex above ground, it was time to explore the tunnels themselves. Most of the tunnels are off limits to visiting tourists as they’re home to scorpions and other dangerous critters, but one of the tunnels has been opened up to visitors. The tunnel was really narrow, dark, hot and claustrophobic – our guide told us that some American soldiers got stuck in the tunnels trying to infiltrate them and I could see why.

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The deeper we got into the tunnel network, the smaller and smaller they became, and I was having to seriously squat and crouch to keep up with my guide. At various points along the way there were exit points so you could leave the tunnel if you felt you’d had enough.

After being assured by my guide that I wouldn’t get stuck, I chose to go the whole length of the tunnel and I’m glad I did. I found the experience exhilarating and I was amazed at just how narrow the tunnels became. It was fascinating and quite unlike anything else I’d experienced.

At the end of the tour, there was a small café area and a shop, as well as shooting range where visitors can try their hand at firing some weapons. I didn’t have a go on the shooting range as I felt uncomfortable with the idea as the site is a war memorial and I’ve never had any desire to shoot a weapon.

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That aside, the Cu Chi Tunnels offer a fascinating insight into what life was like for the Viet Cong during the war and the extraordinary methods they employed to fight back against the Americans. It’s one thing reading about a war in a history book, but seeing how people lived and fought bring the horrors of war to life. It was an interesting and thought-provoking visit.

My Son

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Hidden away in the jungly hills of central Vietnam is the ancient religious complex of My Son. The ruined complex, built by the Cham people, is home to a series of ornate red brick temples. Sadly some of the most striking examples were destroyed by the US during the Vietnam War, but what remains offers a fascinating glimpse into a magnificent ancient culture and the people who built it.

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Built between the 4th and 13th centuries, the complex of My Son was discovered by the French towards the end of the 19th century and has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temple complex has been divided into a series of groups and during my visit, I made a beeline to groups B and C, which are home to the best preserved temples.

The weather-worn temples are incredible and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They’re covered in lots of intricate carvings (above), including wonderful sculptures similar to those I’d admired at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang. They’re really something and I couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship of the Cham people as I walked around the site.

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The entire site was far bigger than I’d anticipated, and while groups B and C weren’t massive, there were a fair few temples to explore and I spent quite a bit of time looking around them all. You can go inside some of the temples, too, which I enjoyed, as I was keen to see how the buildings looked from the inside, as well as the outside. After admiring the many temples, I headed over to the small galleries in group D where a number of sculptures once housed in the temples were on display.

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I really enjoyed my visit to My Son. It was a fascinating place and the temples are beautiful. It’s a real shame that group A, which housed the complex’s most magnificent temples, was destroyed during US bombing raids and that such incredible buildings have been lost to posterity. The complex is magical as it is, but it must have been truly spectacular during its heyday with so many bright, ornate red brick temples in the middle of the thick green jungle. A must-see if you’re ever in Vietnam.

 

Hoi An

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The ancient trading port of Hoi An is utterly charming and its old town embodies traditional Vietnamese culture, as for the most part, it’s remained unchanged for centuries. In 1999, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the pretty port is the perfect place to spend a few days mooching around – which is exactly what I did.

Sights

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One of the town’s most notable sights is the Japanese Covered Bridge (above) in the old quarter near to the Thu Bon River. The beautifully ornate bridge was built by members of the town’s Japanese community in 1593 and connects the old quarter with the Chinese quarter. During my visit, the bridge was heaving with tourists, but the hordes of people couldn’t detract from how pretty it is.

Lanterns

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One of my favourite things about Hoi An was the colourful handmade lanterns hanging in the old quarter. The lanterns were delightful by day, but by night, when they were all lit up, they were simply spectacular. The town hosts regular lantern festivals throughout the year. Sadly, there wasn’t one taking place while I was there, but I should imagine it’s a magical sight.

Shopping

If you like shopping, Hoi An’s the place for you as the old quarter is teaming with shops selling all sorts of goods, from stationery to scarves, and crockery to clothing. I spent hours looking around the shops.

The town is also the place to go if you’re in the market for some bespoke clothing. There are a number of tailors in Hoi An and I had some trousers and a dress made at Yaly Couture, which has two branches in the old quarter.

I went in, chose a pattern and the fabric, then had a number of fittings over the course of the next few days. It was really affordable, especially for clothing that is made to  measure and fits perfectly, and definitely worth doing if you’re in Hoi An. It was also great fun watching everyone else having their clothes made and seeing how different everyone’s tastes were.

Film set

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As I spent my days wandering around Hoi An, I found myself stumbling across some interesting sights. On my first day in the town, I came across a film crew filming an action sequence next to the covered market. I joined the crowds for a bit to watch the filming as whatever they were filming looked very dramatic. The guy pictured above seemed to be the star of the film – so if anyone knows who he is, let me know in the comments!

River cruise

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Hoi An is situated around the Thu Bon River, so there are lots of people offering boat rides. On our second morning in the town, we decided to take one of the guys up on his offer and spent an hour or so touring the river. We sailed past lots of fields and other boats, and it was an enjoyable, relaxing experience.

About halfway into the journey, a couple of people fishing began putting on a display for us with their nets, before one of the fishermen clambered onto our boat and beckoned me to have a go. Now, I was aware before I said yes, that this was probably an arrangement between our boat driver and the fisherman, but I’d never tried fishing before so I decided to give it go.

When the fishermen put on their display, it looked really easy and quite spectacular. It turned out to be much harder than it looked, and my net went a pitifully short distance when I attempted to throw it. It’s safe to say I won’t make much of a fisherman, but I had fun and it was good to try my hand at a new skill.

Cua Dai Beach

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Just outside Hoi An is Cua Dai Beach, a popular beach resort on the South China Sea. We decided to spend an afternoon there, and it was really easy to get to, if a little monotonous as we just walked down Cua Dai Road for an hour or so past a never-ending series of fields until we eventually came to the resort (we got a taxi back to our hotel).

The beach is a long sandy stretch of coast that carries on as far as the eye can see. On the day we went, the sea was really choppy so unfortunately swimming was forbidden, but undeterred I had a refreshing waist-high paddle in the water. We spent a relaxing afternoon on the beach chilling out, reading and watching the world go by. There were also lots of teeny little crabs on the beach that kept us amused.