All about Jordan: Part II


Wadi Rum Desert

Jordan has nine nature reserves and one protected area, Wadi Rum. The latter is a beautiful desert inhabited since prehistoric times and the Bedouin heartland where a few hundred still live a semi-nomadic life. Wadi Rum may be best known for its connection to T. E. Lawrence, most widely known as Lawrence of Arabia, who passed through several times during the Arab Revolt. The quite impressive “alien” landscape of Wadi Rum has served as the backdrop for various films such as “The Martian”, “Prometheus” and of course 1960’s classic “Lawrence of Arabia”. The spectacular Wadi Rum will blow your mind since it’s essentially untouched by humans, with monolithic rockscapes rising up from the desert floor to the sky, long canyons, 4000-year-old rock-drawings and of course sand dunes and camel caravans. The best bit is that Wadi Rum is far less crowded than Petra, which makes it a truly peaceful escape and a good chance to get in touch with nature and get as close as possible to traditional Bedouin life as you can.

There are quite a few options for exploring Wadi Rum. Visitors can book the preferred activities at the Visitors Centre, book everything in advance directly with the various Bedouin camps (online) or alternatively through a tour operator. In all three options you will be able to hire a 4x4 vehicle (or a camel), together with a driver/guide to explore the desert’s most famous sites and/or stay in one of the Bedouin camps. If you choose to stay in one of the camps you have the choice of sleeping in a tent, a little hut or simply in a sleeping bag under the stars. The choice is yours and there is a camp for every budget. Your Bedouin hosts will take care of everything for you, including a traditional homemade meal. The local dish usually served is “Zarb”, a Bedouin barbeque feast that is cooked underground for many hours and is enjoyed around the camp fire together with your friendly hosts.

There are several attractions in Wadi Rum to be visited and your tour can take from some hours to a full day. The most popular ones are the Umm Fruth Rock Bridge (one of the many natural rock bridges of the area), Makharas Canyon, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (a large rock formation named in honour of the Lawrence of Arabia book) and the nearby Alameleh Inscriptions, Siq Umm Tawaqi (a canyon where the locals have carved the faces of Lawrence and two other important figures of the Arab Revolt), the remains of Lawrence House, Lawrence Spring, Barrah Canyon, the Mushroom rock and Al Hasany Dunes.

Dead Sea

This place should go on top of your list of places you need to see before you die because as scientists predicted, the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea will disappear by 2050. At the lowest point on earth - 430m below sea level - the Dead Sea is a landlocked body of water 10 times saltier than the ocean and the therapeutic benefits of its water and dark mud have been exploited and attracted visitors since antiquity. Actually, researchers have discovered that the Dead Sea can help treat an array of illnesses ranging from arthritis and chronic back pain to psoriasis and even heart problems.

The best and safest way to engage with the healing properties of its warm waters is by visiting Amman Beach, a public beach with umbrellas, showers, a restaurant and drink stalls, or by booking a night stay in one of the various hotel resorts lined along the northeast coast. All resorts have their own private section of the beachfront, high quality spa and fitness facilities and some offer day access to non-guests. Another option is “Oh Beach”, a private beach that roughly has the same facilities as Amman Beach in addition to some spa facilities.

When you finally head to the beach just remember that it is practically impossible to swim so don’t try it, just let yourself float. Make sure you do so with your face up and keep your head out of the water. You shouldn’t stay in the water for more than 15 minutes. When you get out spread mud over you and just let it dry. When the mud gets completely dry get in the water again for another 10 minutes. Lastly, rinse off with fresh water in the showers. You will feel your skin clean and shiny right away.

More Tips for your journey…

Purchase the “Jordan Pass”, it contains the Visa for entering the country and prepaid entry to over 40 attractions including Petra, Wadi Rum and Amman Citadel. There are 3 different packages 70JD, 75JD and 80JD depending on the number of days you want to enter Petra. You can easily purchase it online ( beforehand.

“Petra by Night” is on every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. A licensed guide will take you from Petra Visitor Centre at 20:30 to the Treasury for the show and bring you back at around 22.30. The fee is 17JD, and tickets can be bought at the Visitor Centre, the local tour agencies in Petra or at your hotel reception. Only a limited number of visitors can enter per day.


Public transport is limited so if you want to go around the country is best to rent a car. There are many rental companies both international and local and you can pick up the car straight away from the airport door. Driving is on the right and in general it is quite easy to drive in Jordan, with the exception of hectic Amman.

At the Dead Sea it’s best if you wear either an old or a black swimsuit because the dark mud will stain some light-coloured fabrics. Hotel resorts are located along the Dead Sea Highway and eating options outside the hotels are scarce.


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All about Jordan: Part I

I closed my eyes and for a few moments it was as if I was back in the desert sipping tea with the Bedouins. Now that I’m back home I’m so glad I bought that pack of herbal tea from the Bedouin stand in Wadi Rum.

I always wanted to visit Jordan, ever since I watched “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” as a child. Little did I know back then that Petra was not just a single impressive monument and Jordan was not only the mysterious Petra? The peaceful Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan is blessed with numerous natural and historical wonders and while it’s quite impossible to visit them all in one go, here’s my guide to the country’s top attractions and experiences you shouldn’t miss.


The capital of Jordan, is first of all a city of juxtapositions – a blend of old and new, with a fascinating history going back thousands of years. The key sights of the city are mostly down town and you can explore them on foot. The Citadel, sits on the highest hill of the city and it includes important attractions such as the Temple of Hercules, Umayyad Palace, a Byzantine Basilica and of course some amazing views of the surrounding city. At the foothill of the Citadel lies the striking Roman Theatre, with a seating capacity of 6000. In the same complex, the Forum, the Odeon as well as the small Folklore museum are also worth visiting, while the large Hashemite Plaza in front of the theatre usually hosts events and activities.

The brand-new Jordan Museum, located in Ras Al-Ein district, shelters some amazing archaeological findings such as the 'Ain Ghazal Statues, which are considered to be the oldest human statues ever made dating back to 7000 BC. The city’s Souks (markets) are gathered in the streets around Al Husseiny Mosque and it is where you’ll get instantly captivated by the vivid colours of fresh fruits, the exotic scents of ground spices and also where you want to buy a pack of local cardamom-spiced coffee. Fan of sweets or not, in the Souqs you need to try “Kunafeh”, a pastry with warm cheese drenched in syrup and sprinkled with pistachios and “Hareeseh”, another type of sweet which is semolina-based drizzled with syrup and decorated with nuts.

The nearby grandiose Al Malek Faisal St. is a large avenue with shops, restaurants and coffee shops scattered along it. Rainbow Street, a bit further up, is another popular area where locals usually go during the evening for cafe-hopping. The most pleasant discovery of this street is Sufra, a bougainvillea-covered restaurant in a beautifully restored stone villa with a big backyard offering amazing views over the city of Amman. Needless to say, the food is delicious. Try, “Mansaf”, the country’s national dish, a meal made of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice and garnished with roasted almonds. While in Amman you can’t miss visiting the modern part of the city in the Abdali district. Called the New Downtown of Amman, the area is reshaped through a billion-worth mega project aiming to create a regional business and tourism hub. The Boulevard, is the area’s 370-meter-long outdoor pedestrian spine, which is lined with retail shops, cafes and restaurants and topped with luxurious apartments and office spaces.


The rose-red capital city of the Nabateans - originally known as Raqmu - is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and although tons have been written about this truly spectacular place, nothing really prepares you for it. Get yourself a bottle of water, sunscreen, comfy shoes and a hat because you’ll need a full day to discover at least the most important spots of this UNESCO World Heritage site. The first main thing you’ll get in touch with after Petra’s visitors centre is the Siq, an impressive natural rock canal that leads to the ancient city.

The 1.2 km long Siq ends at Petra's most elaborate and popular ruin, The Treasury, called Al Khazna by the locals. The outer Siq, right after the Treasury, has tombs scattered around it, Bedouin souvenir shops as well as the road to the High place of sacrifice which gives an eagle’s eye view of Petra. Following the outer Siq you will find the large Roman Theatre. Get a glimpse of the nearby Street of Facades and its carved tombs and then climb the stairs to Urn Tomb and Silk Tomb.

Downhill from the Theatre the Colonnaded Street starts and along its sides other important sites of Petra are located, such as the Great Temple, Petra Church, the Royal Palace, the Temenos Gateway and finally the Qasr Al Bint temple a bit further. One of Petra’s grandest monuments in both size and beauty but one less visited by tourists is The Monastery. It’s accessible via an 850 steps-trail up the hills, but is totally worth the effort as it offers stunning views along the way and a tea-shop right across it where you can take a break and enjoy the monument’s photogenic grand facade. If you still have some strength left, complete your experience with the “Petra by Night” show. Three times a week Petra opens up for about 2 hours during the night for a show put on by the local Bedouins. For around €20 you’ll be able to walk through a candle-lit Siq and enjoy a cup of tea along with a musical performance right in front of the Treasury which is lit by the glow of hundreds of candles.

Aqaba - Red Sea

Apart from being conveniently located near the country’s major tourist attractions - Petra and Wadi Rum - the one and only seaside town of Jordan is first and foremost, a world-class snorkelling and diving centre. There are thirty main diving sites in town, the majority of which are suitable for all level divers. Colourful fishes and gorgeous coral reefs are not the only things you’ll get to see underwater. Shipwrecks such as the SS Thistlegorm (World War II steamship), tugboats, cargo ships, tankers and even an aircraft are only a few of the surprises you’ll be able to spot in the warm waters of the Red Sea. Moreover, bear in mind that the water is about 35% saltier than other seas, something that is believed to improve blood circulation.

Undoubtedly the most striking of the town’s attractions is The Great Arab Revolt Plaza, which you can easily distinguish from miles away due to the huge flagpole that’s placed in the centre. Standing high at 130m, the Aqaba Flagpole is one of the tallest unsupported flagpoles in the world and it proudly bears the Great Arab Revolt flag. Aqaba was the first city the Arabs regained from the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt (1916-1918). The flagpole is not the only important thing in the square as the house of Al Hussein Bin Ali, leader of the Revolt, is also open to visitors. Other important sites in the city are the nearby 16th century Aqaba Fort, the beautiful white mosque of Masjid Al Hussein Bin Ali which bears the largest dome among Jordan’s’ mosques and the ancient Church of Ayla, which archaeologist believe is the oldest purpose-built church in the world. Aqaba has various beaches to choose from.

The Public beach (Al-Ghandour Beach) lies between the marina and the Arab Revolt Plaza and is the best way to engage with local life while the South Beach stretching between the harbour and the city border is ideal for snorkelling and diving as most of the diving centres are located there. The town is filled with restaurants of all kinds, those offering international cuisine are mostly gathered close to the marina and the ones with local delicacies are found close to the Arab Revolt Plaza. While you are in Aqaba you must try the local dish “Sayadieh”, a delicately spiced fish served with rice or potatoes and a tahini sauce.


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Best of Bali

Bali and the Balinese

Upon exiting the airport the first thing I heard was the Muslim Call to Prayer. It was Ramadan and the Mosque near the Bali’s principle airport was calling out to all devout Muslims. Though Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, (and is the world’s most populous Muslim country), Bali is different, with only 10% of Bali being Muslim and the 90% being Hindu.

The island is dotted with Hindu Temples and small shrines along the road. I am not exaggerating by writing that there are Temples everywhere: next to garages, on the roof of people’s homes, squashed between souvenir shops and hotels or taking up blocks and blocks of the city.

For such a small space there are different vibes to Bali. Denpasar is the hustling and bustling capital city. Kuta is a party town. Ubud is the cultural capital and the north of the island feels more remote with mountainous and lakes… and Temples!

Denpasar Museum

Denpasar is the capital of Bali. Most tourists choose to bypass the city for the hotel resorts, the parties of Kuta or the culture or Ubud. But not to be missed is the Denpasar Museum; a gem of a building located in the centre of the city.

There, you can learn about the kingdoms of Bali and the island’s culture and heritage. There is a stunning room of gold and bright light that displayed the various Balinese traditional dresses. By making our way through the courtyards we could not help but take a few snaps of a newlywed couple; the bride’s train seemingly taking up a large part of the garden.


As mentioned, Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu with Temples dotted everywhere. Stopping near one Temple was an exhibition; mostly for tourists it seemed; where for a dollar, we could see a pantheon on Hindu gods. Some were truly terrifying, while others were warrior gods fighting demons. I found myself asking ‘is he good or bad?’ to which the guide indulged my questions.

The Monkey Forest

True story: While we were in the Monkey Forest, a monkey jumped on my partner’s backpack. A small crowd had gathered, watching as a tall Norwegian tolerated a monkey hanging onto his bag. The monkey took the bottle of water and drank it. As we oohed and aahed the cute monkey then opened the front zip of the backpack, reach inside and take the hand-sanitizer. It then proceeded to bite into it.

‘But it is full of chemicals’ I said becoming concerned that the monkey might be harmed. I picked up the empty water bottle and tried to goad the monkey into trading it over for the water bottle. The monkey hissed at me, which roused the attention of a larger monkey that ran up to me and confronted me by baring its teeth.

Afraid, I walked away briskly only for them to chase me. I broke into a run and so did they.

‘Stop. No! Stop!’ I said, actually speaking to the monkeys. They hissed at me, ready to pounce. I ran away as tourists watched. Eventually they stopped chasing me.

‘You did everything you shouldn’t have done’ my partner said. ‘You pointed at the monkey. You looked it in the eyes and you ran away. Plus you shouted at it! Big mistake.’

‘You’re right. I shouldn’t have shouted. It probably does not understand English.’

Uluwatu Temple

‘Pura’ means Temple. ‘Ulu’ means edge and ‘Watu’ means rock or cliff, so Pura Uluwatu literally means the Temple at the Edge of the Cliff. The complex of Uluwatu, located on the southern tip of the island, has a number of Temples, clusters of copses and balconies that overlook the Indian Ocean. Like the Monkey Forest there are monkeys there too, which have a tendency to snatch people’s water bottles and trendy sunglasses. It is one of the major points of interests in Bali and not to be missed.

Must see:

The Rice Paddies: if you’re driving in the countryside stop when you see them, although they keep getting better and more beautiful.

Tanah Lot: a Temple by the sea. The rock, on which the Temple is built, has been eroded by the sea leading it to become an arch.

Ulun Danu Beratan Temple: located on a lake in the mountainous north of the island.

Note to Travellers

Bali is a stunning and unique place. You will find so much in such a small space and there is something that appeals to everyone; adventure tours, Temples, cultures, parties and international and local cuisine. But since there is something for everyone, everyone wants to visit Bali.

In addition to the 2.5 million Balinese on the island there are lots of tourists such as; partying Australians, French backpackers, Brits on a gap year, yoga enthusiasts always in their yoga pants, Indian families on a cultural tour, Chinese tourists getting on and off buses with their selfie-sticks, and I even spotted a party of beautiful Korean models and soap-stars who made too way much noise chatting and shouting at lunch.

Therefore since everything is so close and since everyone is there, there is traffic. Be organised with your time and plan ahead, starting early will not only allow you to avoid the crowds but see and do much more.

48 hours in Old Nicosia

Whether you are looking for a sunny weekend getaway or you’re there for business, Nicosia will reward you with countless historical and cultural spots, authentic and infused Cypriot cuisine and a lively night scene. Nicosia (officially known as Lefkosia) has been the capital of Cyprus for more than a thousand years.

Founded right at the heart of the island, the city has been continuously inhabited for over 4500 years, thus making it one of the oldest capitals in the world. Nicosia is the political, financial and cultural hub of the country and a quite fascinating mix of cultures and civilizations reflecting the long and turbulent history of the island.

Old Nicosia

Old Nicosia

Almost everything of interest lies within the unique star-shaped 16th century Venetian walls, an area known to locals as “Palia Poli” (Old City) or “Chora” to the older generations. Apart from Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques, museums, galleries and artist’s workshops, “Palia Poli” is filled with hip cafes, lively bars and trendy restaurants, a fact quite impressive for a city so small.

'Faneromeni' church

'Faneromeni' church

Nonetheless, probably the most fascinating fact of all is that the city bares the sad title of the last divided capital city of Europe. To sum up, Nicosia is a fascinating mix of vibrant street life, confronting division and rich history. So if you’ve got only two days to spend in the city and you’re wondering where to go and what to see, the following 48-hour itinerary will allow you to experience the local culture and visit most the city’s important sites and attractions.

Day 1

9-10.00am Kick-start the day the local way by sipping a Cyprus coffee while admiring the neoclassical facade of “Faneromeni School” at “Tria Fanaria”, one of the city’s oldest traditional confectioneries. Try a savoury pastry such as “halloumoti” or “eliopitta” and you won’t regret it. Bear in mind that Cyprus coffee is best sipped slowly and the thick layer at the bottom is not consumed!

Tria Fanaria .jpeg

10-2.00pm Walk along the 16th-century Venetian walls and take a selfie in front of the imposing “Famagusta Gate”, the largest and most beautiful of the three city gates. The Gate has been transformed into a Municipal Multicultural Centre so it’s not uncommon to catch an art exhibition inside. Head to the imposing Archbishop’s Palace and spend some time at the adjacent “Byzantine Museum” if you are into some serious religious art. See the stunning frescos of the small but truly magnificent “Agios Ioannis Cathedral”, or visit the free of charge “Leventis Municipal Museum” in Laiki Geitonia to find out more about the city’s fascinating history. If you fancy some more culture, you can visit “CVAR/Severis Foundation” in Ermou Street which houses a unique collection of paintings and artefacts that highlight the island's multicultural past.

Famagusta Gate.jpeg

2-4.00pm Lunch like a local in a “Mageirio” and taste dishes the Cypriot-mamma way. You can try “Evroulas restaurant” that is located inside Klokkaris arcade connecting Ledra and Onasagorou streets, “Shiantris” or “Mathaios” in the square behind Faneromeni Church. If you have a sweet tooth go to “Apomero” cafe and order the homemade “Portokalopitta” (orange phyllo pie) or “Galaktoboureko”. Take some time and explore the colorful streets of the Taktakalas neighborhood.

''Apomero'' cafe

''Apomero'' cafe

“Evroulas restaurant”

“Evroulas restaurant”

4-8.00pm Stroll around Ledra and Onasagorou streets and stop in one of the street-side cafés in Faneromeni area for an old time classic Frappe (iced coffee) and of course people-watching. “Kala Kathoumena” is the most popular in the square and is usually full with youngsters and local artists alike. While you are in the area go to “Phaneromenis 70”, a shop with various items from local artists ranging from coffee coasters and vases to t-shirts and bags. Moreover, if you are looking for a more relaxing afternoon go to the “Weaving Mill” a space ideal for reading a book while enjoying your tea or coffee.

Ledra street

Ledra street

8-10.00pm Its dinner time and you can’t leave Cyprus without trying “Mezedes”! Go to a local tavern and order “Cyprus meze” – a feast consisting of 15-20 small dishes. You will fall in love with “Halloumi” - the local squeaky cheese, the nutritious “Tahini” dip and “Sheftalia” - a seasoned minced meat sausage. Try “Aegeon”, a traditional tavern with a beautiful setting inside or if you want to have a special live-music experience, head to “Tsipouraki mezedaki” close to Famagusta Gate. The latter is a “Rebetadiko”, an all-time classic tavern where people enjoy their meal, sing and most of all appreciate the singer and bouzouki player. Don’t forget to order a bottle of local wine. Besides, Cyprus is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world.

10.00pm End the day with a craft beer at “Pivo microbrewery”, a family owned microbrewery that was co-founded by four brothers in a charming old house of 1910 attached to the “Green Line”. Order one of the 5 beers offered and taste a fresh Cyprus beer without any filtration or pasteurization.

11.00pm If you are more the cocktails-type visit “Patio”, a beautiful renovated city house with a gorgeous inner patio or go to “Lost n Found” located outside the walled city, named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2015 and 2016. Alternatively, you can enjoy your cocktail in “Silver Star” while mingling with the locals under the citrus trees.

Patio lounge bar 

Patio lounge bar 

Day 2

9-10.00am Order Cyprus breakfast in “Hurricane” - the island’s first bakery to ever make Cypriot tyropitta (cheese pie) - or go for brunch in one of the contemporary cafe-restaurants that offer various dishes inspired by local gastronomy such as “The Gym” in Onasagorou Street, “DOT” close to Famagusta Gate or “Mouson” in the homonymous street leading to Faneromeni School.

'Faneromeni' school

'Faneromeni' school

10-2.00pm Pass by “Pafos Gate” and walk outside the walls to visit the “Cyprus Museum”, the largest archaeological museum on the island. If you are more into the Fine Arts visit “Leventis Gallery”, a private art gallery which houses a collection of over 800 paintings from Cypriot, Greek and European artists such as Renoir, Canaleto, Signac, Monet and Chagall just to name a few.

2-4.00pm Head back to the old town and enjoy a sensuous experience at the “The Hamam Omerye baths”, a 16th-century Ottoman bath still in use today both as a hammam and a beauty spa. If you’re hungry after your remedy, grab a Lahmajoun (traditional Armenian thin piece topped with minced meat) or Halloumoti from “Avo” in Onasagorou Street. If you have extra time visit  Agios Kassianos and Chrysaliniotissa neighborhoods to discover the old Nicosians, some families live here for hundreds of years. Otherwise relax and enjoy your coffee at 'Pieto' cafe.

Pieto Cafe

Pieto Cafe

Onasagorou street

Onasagorou street

4-8.00pm Go to Makariou and Stasikratous streets for some window shopping or if you have time, head to the “Cyprus Handicraft Centre” in Strovolos for some locally produced, hand-crafted items like Cypriot lace, embroidery, leatherwear, mosaics, ceramics and pottery. Moreover, you can watch these products being made in various workshops. If you want to take back home some local herbs, spices, olives and other Cypriot products try “Agios Antonios Municipal Market or any of the “Bakali” shops.

9.00pm Have dinner in a tavern with some live popular Greek music, for instance in “Piroga” or “Mezostrati” both located in Evagorou Street just outside the walls where “Eleftheria Square” is being reshaped. Btw Cypriots don’t smash plates anymore while dancing as they swapped that with napkins. Don’t worry, its still fun!

11.00pm Go to “WSTD” or “Square” for some drinks and electronic beats with the youngsters of the city.

1.00am Discover how the locals dance the night out in “Box42” Club in Stasikratous Street or “Cafe Mercedes” at the end of Ledra Street. If you are more into the non-commercial underground music then “KlubD” is the place to be - go late as it stays open until morning.

Where to Stay

The 3RoomsHotel is a gem in the heart of the old city. A charming old mansion inside the walled city which transformed into a gorgeous small boutique hotel. Find out more in the article we featured the hotel back in December.

Extra Tips

- If you’re in town on a Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, you can join one of the FREE guided walking (in English) and bus tours starting at 10:00 from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation information office at 11 Aristokyprou in the Laiki Geitonia (booking needs to be made in advance at +357 22674264).

-  If you want to visit the Cyprus Museum do it on a Tuesday or Friday and get the FREE Guided Tour. The guided tour starts at 11:00 and last about 1.5 hours. For further information and reservations: +357 22 889 600


The 'Cypriot' Aphrodite

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A week in North Vietnam : Part II - Sa Pả

Part 2: Sa Pả

Words by George Tsangaris


After a day of walking through the streets of Hanoi we boarded the night train for Sa Pả. The train would take us from the capital to Lào Cai, a town on the Vietnamese-Chinese border and from there it would be a 30km bus drive to Sa Pả. 


The train wagons, divided into cabins, had flowery curtains that were tidily bunched at the sides and a small light topped with a pleated lampshade. Though it was April some of the cabin windows had Christmas decorations on them or a Santa Claus sprayed on in fake snow. We could see people settling into their cabin, either with a book, snuggling up in the fluffy duvet or uncorking a bottle of wine to enjoy during their journey. 


On our first day in Sa Pả we joined a tour group for a visit to a traditional H’Mong village. There are around nine million H’Mong people worldwide of which roughly one million live in Vietnam and are considered are a minority group. We followed our guide, Nhu (pronounced ‘new’) as we strolled through the village, greeting people and waving at the young kids who giggled when they said hello. We strolled by the local kindergarten where the kids were playing on the climbing frames and walked by fences made of bamboo with cobwebs so thick they looked like cotton wool. Pigs lay in the mud sleeping, the little ones nuzzling against each other. Roosters hopped from tin roof to tin roof. 

Eventually we found ourselves in the far end of the village in front of someone’s garden. 
‘Come in please’ said Nhu. We followed her into a courtyard and were then stepping into a family’s home.
‘Is this allowed?’ I asked Nhu.
‘Yes. Of course. This is part of your tour’ she laughed as if going into someone’s house was completely normal. The house was made of planks of wood nailed together. Gaps between the wooden beams allowed rays of light to shine through and small holes made sunlight looked like twinkling stars. The ground was flattened earth, which had been made hard by the countless footsteps. The kitchen was an area with a lit fire, the red fire gently glowing, and next to that was a small room next which belonged to the grandparents. A mezzanine of wood above the kitchen was the sleeping area of the parents while the children slept in the middle of the house where we were standing.
We spoke to the grandmother who held her grandson, a toddler, lovingly. Being uncomfortable with people in his home he began to tear up. By western standards the home was poor but it did not feel that way. There was an elegance and deep sense of pride emitted by the grandmother and newly-weds whose house we were in.

Sa Pả Gardens

Sa Pả Gardens


The following morning we walked through Sa Pả. Strolling through a street selling tourist knick-knacks and souvenirs we discovered a park. Not knowing where we were or where we were going, we paid, entered and walked around aimlessly passing a garden with rows of small fluorescent plants and trees of large mossy leaves. On one unused pond sat a statue of a large frog.

There were willow-y trees, its rope-like branches swaying in the breeze just above wooden stools. The whole place had an eerie feel and the fog only made it seem more atmospheric. 
We made our way through the park to discover a number of oddities. There was a statue of a snake wearing a red cowboy hat, a two-metre statue of Tom from ‘Tom and Jerry’ and my personal favourite, a statue of a dragon that was reclining on an island in waterless pond, which was easily over four metres in length. It was kitsch to the core and I could not help but love the place. 

We walked through the park, amid mossy rocks and small crevices to reach the summit, which had stunning views of Sa Pả. The weather was temperamental so the lush green hills that were covered in sunshine were shrouded in mist in the space of 15 minutes. After leaving we discovered that the park is called Ham Rong Mountain, meaning Dragon Jaw, and within Sa Pả town was the best thing we experienced.

Sa Pả village

Sa Pả village

The following day we had a walking tour of the village of Cat Cat and Sa Pả’s rice paddies. Our guide Chi explained that the word for Cat Cat came from cascade, the French word for waterfall, which was village’s main focal point. Along the river were bamboo walkways and windmills made of corn. 


We walked along a wide road flanked by large bamboo trees growing to the height of a five-storey building. As the road narrowed we found ourselves walking amid the rice paddies, climbing over the dried earth and jumping from rock to rock. It was the beginning April and the soil had not yet been prepared for planting meaning we were not destroying any crops. 

We stopped for a moment to take in the view only to be disturbed by an odd squelching sound. It sounded like someone walking slowly in mud. Up ahead we spotted four water buffaloes grazing.

‘Water buffaloes are intelligent animals’ Chị explained.  ‘They understand instruction and recognise your voice.’
We watched them graze but avoided them. 
One Australian man on the tour, who sensed our hesitation, told us that ‘water buffaloes have always been around humans, I doubt they would pay any attention to you.’ 
He made a fair point. They did ignore us as they masticated calmly on the plants and placidly plodded through the mud. Still, we kept our distance. 


As we neared the end of our tour we were suddenly surrounded by small children, some as little of five or six, who were making their way home from school, having walked an hour each way. Next to our bus some boys were climbing up the side of the mountain. It was as steep as it was beautiful. An old lady walked up the hill carrying a basket on her back. She wore colourful clothes and light green boots that protected her feet from the mud. One girl rushed to us selling us woven bracelets of H’Mong patterns. We all bought one. How could we not? 


Once aboard the bus, we slowly made our way back to Sa Pả; the bus weaving through the curves and rattling along the road. It was effortlessly overtaken by a young lady on a motorbike. She wore a helmet and her red dress fluttered in the wind as she zoomed by. She waved at us through her helmet and smiled. To me she was a symbol of Vietnamese resilience and hospitality and was, without a doubt, the coolest lady in Vietnam.


Find out everything about HANOI inside Part I

A week in North Vietnam : Part I - Hanoi

Part I: Hanoi

Words by George Tsangaris


The first thing people think of when they think of Vietnam is the war with the US. However thanks to Vietnam’s Communist government operating a system of Doi Moi; economic reforms with the intention of creating a socialist-orientated economy, the association with the war is fast changing and Vietnam’s many charms, its culture, hospitality and cuisine, are becoming increasingly recognised. This had led to foreign business operating in Vietnam as well as an ever-growing number of visitors discovering the country. 

I chose to visit Vietnam for a week in April focusing on northern Vietnam. The itinerary began in Hanoi, then onto the Vietnamese-Chinese border in order to reach Sa Pả, by night train. 


On my first day in Hanoi, my first stop was at the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 by the Emperor, and is home to the Temple of Confucius. Bring one of Hanoi’s top sites, it was a busy day and the area was overflowing with hordes of tourists. More delightful than the tourist however, were the groups of schoolkids who were at the Temple on a school trip. They walked with their arms around the shoulders of the best friends, smiling and laughing and needing no instructions from their teacher, who trusted that they would be well behaved. 


Though the Temples of Literature and its architecture was wonderful, the focus of my attention were the university students, who, wearing their graduation robes posed for their graduation photo (and by default also posed for the groups of tourists who amassed around them). Counting backwards from three, the new graduates threw up their hats in the air in celebration. It was my favourite moment of the day and like everyone there, I wished them all, all the best on their new adventure ahead. 

Wherever I travel I enjoy observing what people wear. Tourists could be spotted a mile off and you can tell who comes from where by what they wear.  Australians wear flip-flops, shorts and vests no matter the weather and south Europeans seem to wear trendy jeans and sunglasses. However the trendiest person I met was a Vietnamese waiter who wore Louboutin-inspired shoes; sneakers of silver plastic, adorned with silver spikes.  I spotted other people around town; some were dressed formally having their wedding photos taken and Buddhists monks walked through Hanoi’s sites in their traditional clothes. 


By contrast from the city, in a village outside of Pả, three old ladies wearing traditionally colourful clothes adorned with beads sat weaving and chatting while less than 100 metres away two teenage girls, seated on a motorbike, were wearing jeans and t-shirts and were taking selfies. One of the girls’ t-shirts was a designer copy of two interconnecting Gs surrounded by blue and green stripes. Below that was the face of a cat made of sequins. In one H’Mong village, the men wore leather jackets as they rode their bikes or played pool. One man was dressed completely in red; red trousers and a red vest and wore a gold chain. Others patriotically wore a red t-shirt with the yellow five-pointed star of the Vietnamese flag. And for roughly US$5 you could too. 

The Military Museum

The Military Museum

After lunch we walked to a park with a large statue of Lenin as teenage boys skateboarded right in front of him. Across the road was the Flag Tower, which was next to the Military Museum. There, the Vietnamese displayed the destroyed American aircrafts and exhibited their own military artillery. We circled the site along with school groups and tourists before walking up a long, leafy avenue called Điện Biên Phủ, passing the Romanian and German embassies and the Foreign Ministry, painted boldly and rather beautifully in yellow. It is located opposite Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. 

Hanoi Memorial

Hanoi Memorial

In the mornings you have the chance to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body and for certain months of the year it is flown from Vietnam to Russia for maintenance. As it was afternoon we bought tickets for the lush grounds of the Presidential Palace and saw the One Pillar Pagoda and a Buddhist Temple.

Other notable sites in Hanoi include Tran Quoc Pagoda, located by the lake, which was beautiful in the sun’s diminishing light. Not to be missed is the Citadel as well as Hanoi’s many museums. 

I asked to see something off the beaten track so our guide Minh took me to the rail tracks of Long Bien Bridge. It was a rattly old bridge that traversed the Red River. We walked from plank to plank as the Hanoi traffic zoomed below us. By sidestepping through the large metal frame we walked on the footpath opposite as motorbikes sped towards us. Their roar and speed was intimidating and as it was raining heavily we left and made out way to a Taoist Temple, Đền Quán Thánh, meaning Restaurant of the Gods. 

Long Bien bridge

Long Bien bridge

Taoist Temple

Taoist Temple

Stay tuned for Part II 

Non-awkward ways to meet people at your next destination

Arguably the biggest anxiety for the first-time traveller is the thought of being lonely – visions of cold evenings curled around a flickering bedside lamp sobbing into a dog-eared copy of Eat, Pray, Love as a soundtrack of general debauchery from the downstairs party reverberates through the walls.

It’s a fear born of fallacy: travellers, after all, tend to be a social breed, but to guide you through the often intimidating ice-breaker stage we’ve devised a list of simple ways to cultivate companionship on the road.


Join a walking tour

Not only is this a great (and often free) way to acquaint yourself with a new city, but the nature of walking tours lend to easy conversation. If the group isn’t too large, a good host will ask everyone to say their name and where they’re from, which gives you an easy ‘in’ for striking up conversation with other participants along the way. Stopping for a group meal or drink also presents a great opportunity to socialise.

Connect online

Over recent years there has been a surge in apps designed to help travellers connect on the road. Chief among them are Tripr and Backpackr, which help you meet people ahead of time who will be travelling to the same destinations. EatWith meanwhile, allows you to attend a dinner party hosted by a local chef, and Sofar Sounds connects you with musicians hosting intimate gigs in informal venues.

Embrace hostels

Hostels are an essential asset for the sociable solo traveller (and not all are bland, soulless boxes!). Close-knit sleeping quarters foster conversation – or, more frequently, arguments over air conditioner settings – while cool communal spaces provide an ideal platform to bond with fellow travellers over a beer. If you’re not staying at a hostel, check larger hostel websites for event schedules – many host tours, dinners, pub crawls and other events available to non-guests.

Rent a room

Whether it’s Couchsurfing or renting a room through Airbnb, stay at a spot where you can engage with your host. Locals who are willing to share their homes are usually gregarious individuals keen to connect with their visitors and offer local insights that enhance the travel experience. How affable your host is likely to be can often be discerned from the advert, as well as reviews from previous guests.


Take your meal at the bar

Choosing to eat at a restaurant’s bar not only allows you to bypass a potentially awkward ‘table for one’ dining scenario, but it also gives you an opportunity to chat with diners either side of you (who may very well be eating alone), punters ordering drinks or with the bartender; staff often make an extra effort to chat to solo patrons – and there’s always a chance of a complimentary cocktail.

Join a local meet-up

From cooking courses to tango lessons, classes aimed at visitors offer an opportunity to bond with other travellers over a shared interest, or – depending on the obscurity of the activity – how incompetent you are at it. If you’re struggling to find something that appeals, the Meetupcommunity has almost 30 million members in 184 countries, so there’s a good chance there will be an event of interest during your time abroad: whether you’re after photography tips or a philosophical debate.

Just say hello

Travelling is perhaps the only situation in life where almost everyone you meet will be actively looking to make friends. Other solo travellers are detached from friends and family and are likely to be seeking sociability. The human species has survived for 200,000 years because of our ability to communicate with one another. You’re in a foreign place, nobody knows you; go grab a drink from the hostel bar, slide into that empty seat and say hello to the lonely figure staring haplessly at their smartphone. What have you got to lose?

Photography & source