Saturday, April 30, 2016

Vietnam Adventures: Hoi An

So far, I've chatted about my first impressions of our trip, Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. Click the locations to read the post.

Hoi An was our final destination. We booked 12 nights in this coastal town known for it's beach style resorts and also for its tailoring. I'll be doing a separate post about tailoring and what we bought next week, FYI.

From the people we spoke to, it turned out that staying longer than 5-7 days in Hoi An is unusual. We opted for longer because as part of our trip we desperately needed some R&R down time, and this seemed the best location to do it. But aside from laying around the pool drinking iced coffee and catching up on my reading list, here's a few other things we enjoyed:


Still trying to decide how much I like Hoi An. We're having a great holiday but I find the constant hard sell and being badgered on the streets hard work and off putting. Vietnam is certainly an experience.

Lanterns in Hoi An. I loved the idea of bringing one home but know full well it'll look at best off and at worst tacky back in our London flat.

Walking the Old Quarter, a bit like Hanoi, is lovely. I couldn't have done it every day without being a bit bored, but there's plenty of great looking shops and cafes and in the evenings, part of the town comes alive with a night market selling tourist souvenirs, clothes, toys and lanterns. Beware- everything happens quite early in Hoi An (especially if you're used to living in a larger city in the UK). Restaurants tend to shut at around 2130 and the 'night market' seems to kick off at around 1800, finishing by around 2200.

A recommendation for dinner this evening. Excited for jellyfish salad and squid and stingray and all the good stuff!

Had the best time doing a 4 course cookery class at Vy's Market today. My attempts were mediocre but I still had a blast.

We ate at Vy's Market after being recommended by some people we met on our Ha Long Bay cruise. The concept is very similar to a restaurant we ate at in Hanoi- it brings together street food style dishes (and more) onto a single menu to be enjoyed at your leisure. The biggest difference is that the service here is incredible, the restaurant itself is lovely and big and open, and the various speciality stands around the seating area give it a sense of what the food is all about. We ate here twice, and decided that the tours and classes on offer were definitely up our street which brings me to our next Hoi An Highlight...

Had the absolute best day cycling into the countryside, exploring Vietnamese salads, rice, markets and bean sprouts follows by cooking classes. So. Much. Fun.

I like to ride my bicycle, I love to ride my bike...

We opted for a Countryside Cycling Tour & Cookery Class. It cost $42 per person (including all food and drink, guides, bike hire etc) and was scheduled to run from 0830 to around 1300.

We started at around 0830 in the end, and we set off as a group of 6 cycling out to the central market for a nosey around, followed by rides to local rice fields, plots where herbs and salads are grown and a visit to a beansprout farmer. All at a very leisurely place with drinks stops.

After our little jaunt on the bikes, we headed to a dedicated space about Vy's Market restaurant which was set up for our group to prepare 4 different central Vietnamese dishes (including 2 that are specific to Hoi An) with a chef doing the demos and assisting, and time to eat each course as it came ready. We didn't leave until well after 1400 that afternoon, feeling very full and having had a total blast. This tour was definitely not the cheapest in town, but I think 100% good value. We really enjoyed seeing a bit more of what is produced locally and the cooking side of things was a well organised, professional set up that I enjoyed every second of, as a lover of the kitchen. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, and it was simple to book with a quick email.

Ms Vy has several restaurants as well as a hotel and the additional cooking classes in Hoi An, and we ate some great food at Morning Glory before heading for a tailoring appointment one evening too. The dishes are more single serving courses than small street food plates, and thoroughly enjoyable. These guys are super popular though, so be prepared to wait or book in advance. This Vietnamese prawn curry served in a whole coconut is worth booking for, and that's without the pork stuff squid we also shared.

Wish I was eating this for lunch today. Vietnamese shrimp curry served in a coconut. My spinach & broccoli peanut noodles with poached eggs is nowhere near as photogenic.

Another restaurant that was on my hit list for this trip was The Secret Garden. It's tucked away on a side alley of Le Loi in the Old Town and although there is a small sign, you really have to want to find it unless you're hyper observant. The setting is a beautiful walled in garden with the restaurant tables set throughout. This is a more 'high end' dining experience, but definitely not over formal. The service was impeccable and it was the perfect place to treat ourselves for our final night before flying home (and the penultimate night, to make sure it was finale appropriate...).

Dinner at the Secret Garden again for our last night in Vietnam was beautiful. The setting is just lovely.

We ate some incredible satay fish, the most beautiful 'Five Colour Salad', and a beef dish flavoured with orange, amongst other things. AS restaurants in Hoi An go, this is at the upper scale of the price range (outside of hotel dining), but we felt it was worth every penny, with both meals we ate there coming in at $50-$60 including wine.


Short and sweaty Vietnamese run ending on the beach. Running in the humidity is hard going!

I managed a minimal amount of running whilst away, there's certainly plenty of places to run if that's your thing. I found the heat and humidity crushing, and because I already find hydration a difficult balance, I opted not to do too much outdoor training. That and having put my shoulder out just before we left, I took the opportunity to rest and recover a bit.

For those interested, we stayed at the Victoria Hoi An resort, booked for us by the independent agent I used for the entire trip. The rooms were surprisingly large, which was awesome, the whole set-up seems popular with families (which was less awesome if you're not keen on children). We found the service was reasonable, bar one guy on reception who was clearly on the take, giving misleading information and trying to charge for things left, right and centre- it appears to be the Vietnamese way.

All the tiny lights

We had a joyously relaxing couple of weeks in Hoi An, and the things we did choose to do, we really enjoyed. What we found was hard work though, was the hard sell. It's difficult to take in much of the old town without someone trying to sell you something every 5 seconds, and it can be difficult not to feel ripped off when purchasing certain things- especially in corner shops which have no pricing. Would we go back? I'm not sure we would. We had a blast, but I don't think there was enough to hold our personal interest to make me want to return. It's a very long flight to get some sunshine and enjoy eating out I suppose.
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Thursday, April 28, 2016

What Do You Mean I Can't Pick The Colour?

I'll be honest and say I kind of hate spring. It's changeable so I'm never the right temperature, there's tree pollen and flowers and plants everywhere, most of which invoke hayfever/allergies and it seems to mark an influx of companies trying to tell me I need to lose weight in order to wear a bikini in August.

On the plus side, it means more daylight, and for me that means more outdoor training. Great, except just before we disappeared off on holiday in March, my trainers started to rub, giving my blisters on the arch of my foot. Disaster.


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I wouldn't say I'm emotionally attached, but I have considered framing them since I trained for and ran a marathon in them. No, but seriously, I was properly fitted as a freebie at a race in June of last year. my feet and my running gait were analysed and my Mizuno Wave Inspire trainers were recommended to help stabilise my ankles (which roll outwards a bit when I run, known as over-pronation). And it was life changing. Going from Nike Free trainers where my knees were slamming together with every step, to cushions strides of joy was a huge step forward in my running journey. Between June and February of this year, my trainers and I have covered around 380 miles. I was confused- why suddenly were they causing painful blisters on the arch of my foot? Why would they betray me?

Well, common guidance is that you should replace running shoes every 300-500 miles. And then I thought, hang on, I'm only just getting 300ish out of mine, maybe it's not that.... It was, here's a few things to consider if your like to run but you suddenly find yourself with blisters or unexplained aches and pains...

1. Get fitted. If you're wearing a pair of trainer that you picked because they were pretty colours and might also look nice with jeans, chances are, you're going to struggle, your trainers are your most important companions if you run, so go find a running shop like SweatShop offer a fitting service which costs around £30 (or free if you buy trainers from them afterwards). They should be able to tell you what type of cushioning and support you need. If you're experiencing joint pain (commonly, knees, lower back & ankles), you probably need new running shoes, the same applies to unexplained blisters.

2. Be colourblind- I had this problem when I bought my bike a couple of years ago. The best one for the job did not come in the colour I wanted. I got lucky with my trainers- I love green and that colour happened to be last season's so they were discounted. Be prepared that they probably won't match all of your favourite fitness kit but they will save you from injuries and increase the chances of you enjoying running.

3. Replace trainers regularly- did all of the above? Great, now take stock on just how much of a thrashing you've been giving them. And here's where I was confused until someone pointed out a very important factor... Terrain. I run predominantly on the road. Good old faithful concrete. Smooth, even, predictable, and just as hard on your trainers as it is on your elbows if you land on it. Proper running shoes have cushioning in the soles and if you run on hard surfaces like pavements or roads, you're wearing that out with every hard, compacting step you take. If you run on the road, expect to replace your trainers every 300 miles. Trail runners- not only are you a breed of your own, but you'll probably get closer to 500 miles out of your shoes thanks to softer/more varied terrain.

Joy is shiny new @mizunorunning trainers ready for hill training and more this week. #girlswhorun #thisgirlcan

4. Think carefully about replacements- Have you been injured since your last pair? Are you still running on the same kinds of surface? If you've been injured, it may have affected your gait, and it would be wise to be refitted. If you have suddenly take up running on the beach after 12 months of running on pavements, it's unlikely the same style is going to work for you.

5. Check sizing- this might sound really obvious, but I was fitted for my usual shoe size, a UK 5. And I thought they were just fine in a 5, until I tried a 5.5 by accident. Even if you have a recommendation, make sure you try a couple of sizes, just to make sure. Keep in mind your feet also swell with heat and exercise, and therefore trying on trainers with cold feet after sitting on a train or in the car may be misleading in terms of sizing.

Be careful of lacing up too tightly as well, it will begin to cause numbness in your feet very rapidly.

Another pair of @mizunorunning trainers whilst wait for my others to dry out. Keep the green hues coming please!

And if all else fails, and you see the trainers you love and know work for you, and they're on sale in an awesome colourway, use your birthday gift voucher to buy them anyway- there's some great valid SportsDirect.com discount codes including up to 50% off at the moment and . I now alternate between two pairs of trainers, so although they'll still only last the same amount of miles, it should take longer before I next need to shell on new kicks.



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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Vietnam Adventures: Ha Long Bay

Click the location to read about our first impressions of the trip and about Hanoi

Ha Long bay is a World Heritage site off the coast of North West Vietnam. It's well known for huge limestone islands rising up out of the green water and I have to say, it's incredible. Taking a junk boat cruise (overnight or for 2-3 nights) is especially popular for tourists, and it's approximately 4 hours from Hanoi, so not too much of a stretch. We ended up doing an overnight which included from lunch time of the day before through to around lunchtime the day after.


Hoping the haze will clear as we cruise out into Ha Long
Home for the night...

Unfortunately for us, it was super hazy whilst we were there, but although there were no blazing sunshine and blue skies to enjoy, the setting is still incredible. Our trip included a visit to a floating fishing village and caves, and a visit to one of the small islands with a beach and a stepped pathwasy for walking to the top.

Ha Long was a an experience.

Little blue boats on the strange green sea.

For me, the experience of visiting an almost deserted fishing village and caves that had been purchased by the tour company were an ethical challenge. Whilst it was mentioned many times how much better off residents of the village are through living on the mainland, I find myself wondering how willingly they relocated and how much better off they are if they are not able to fish as they would have done whilst living out here. The ownership of so many of the islands also leaves me wondering for just how long this wonder of the world will be there to see and how it will be protected both in its existence and its ecology.

The tour of the village was our first trip on day one. We returned to the boat afterwards and had some down time to enjoy the balcony on our cabin before dinner (a seafood barbecue, included in the package). It turned out to be quite an eventful trip as Tom had a question involving diamonds to ask me...

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I still can't believe that this is 4 whole weeks ago today- I said yes. Almost 6 years after we got together over a bottle of vodka, I'm now engaged to the man who makes me believe that anything is possible and has supported me endlessly to do all kinds of crazy things.

The following morning was an early-ish visit to another island owned by the tour company, with a man made beach for swimming and a stepped path up to the top of the island to take in the view. We opted to talk to the top and enjoy the views as we didn't think it was *quite* warm enough for a dip!

Ha Long through the haze.

Almost a week since we climbed to the top of one of the many little islands of Ha Long Bay.

After returning to the boat, we 'checked out'- otherwise known as paying the bar bill as meals were included in the package, but drinks were not, and then headed out onto the deck for breakfast whilst the boat made its way back to the harbour.

For reasons aside the obvious, we did enjoy the cruise. The boat was far better equipped, and the cabins much better than expected. The food service was great, especially considering the confines of working on a boat, but the ethics issues were a concern for me, and the volume of boats leaving the harbour and out on the bay Tom compared to the D Day Landings, which I didn't feel really detracted from out trip, but again, leaves me wondering about the future of Ha Long Bay.
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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fitness: On Bouncing Back After A Break

For me, a normal week of exercise/training includes 3-4 sessions of running including a longer run of around 10-12km or 75-100mins, a Barre class, and 2 strength sessions plus any bonus rides I get in on my bike. I was also managing one or two extra strength sessions using weights in February too, but... Just before I went away, I did some damage to my shoulder, which turns out to be a trapped nerve of some kind, and the resulting rest period has left my right arm way weaker than my left (despite being right handed).

Add to that the insane to-do list in the week before we left the country, no club nights or classes whilst working from home, and a subsequent almost 3 week holiday during which I decided rest might heal the damage... and all of a sudden I realise I haven't barely run or trained for a month. Oh my.


I took myself out for what I intended to be a gentle run to test the water shortly after we got home, and it was what I can only describe as the 'eager puppy approach'. I laced my trainers up so tightly that my feet started to go numb, despite being able to see my pace, I went out way too fast and struggled to lower it, and even when I did get it down to something more sensible, the sudden dawning realisation that sensible from a month previous, isn't quite sensible now, and so I staggered the last few hundred metres of around 5km run feeling totally knackered, a bit confused and realising that I might need to readjust my training to take into account such a long break. 

Bit of a treat to finish a club night of hill training with this fenland sunset.
A treat to finish a session with this sunset in the Fens

The flip side of heading out after a month off is the refreshing moment when I realise how much stronger and fitter I am than I was one year ago. I suffered a number of injuries in the spring last year, each two, three or four week set back left me having to start over with my Couch210K training, in short there was nothing there as a base level of fitness. Whilst I'm currently a bit whinge-y and whine-y about not maintaining the same levels of speed and strength after one month off, I also know I can still keep up with my Barre class- even if the first one back this week did feel brutal, and I can still just about get the repetitions in on hill training night- just a nice gentle little session for a first club night back, and I still managed to enjoy almost 6.5km of a longer run in stunning early evening sunshine whilst working out where I need to pick up from in building them up. In short: all is not lost.


Sprained ankle. Not impressed.
Memories from about this time last year and suspected fractures... 

I find myself fairly regularly in trouble for overdoing things- I am an 'all or nothing' kind of a person and I set high standards for myself, I draw a nice big fat line between my definitions of success and failure when it comes to my own goals, and sometimes that leaves me giving myself an unnecessarily hard time. Realising how much time off I had from running and training and higher intensity exercise is a cause for worry for someone like me- my first thoughts go along the lines of 'how are you going to keep up?', or my personal favourite... 'why aren't you trying harder?', but this week has been a brief lesson in appreciating how far I've come rather than how far I have to go.


Joy is shiny new @mizunorunning trainers ready for hill training and more this week. #girlswhorun #thisgirlcan
Shiny new trainers as I had properly worn out my last pair. 

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Vietnam Adventures: Hanoi

Hanoi was our point of entry into Vietnam. we flew direct from Heathrow with Vietnam Airlines. Entry through Noi Bai Airport was one of the swiftest internationals I've ever done. Under 50 mins to clear immigration and collect baggage is pretty impressive, especially as we had visas to be checked due to the length of our trip. Our flight... was a distinctly budget experience in economy. Clue is in the name I guess, but a distinct difference to the same kind of service with Virgin, KLM and BA. We really struggled to get extra water and soft drinks, and we were fairly starving when we landed as the only food was the 2 meals served over the 11 hour fly, no snacks. Not something we'd choose to repeat.

Holi-YAY!

We stayed at the Silk Path Hotel which is on the South West corner of the Old Quarter. A great base for exploring, and we enjoyed our stay. It's not a budget option, although much cheaper per night than an equivalent 4* hotel in London or Paris, but I wouldn't describe it as out of this world luxury either. No complaints from us, except that a beer at the bar cost 10x as much as anywhere else in Hanoi.


Relief is being told you're welcome to have breakfast and your room should be ready shortly after #early #jetlag

We opted B&B by the way, although I'm sure that finding street corner Pho will change your life, we also wanted to start the day without the stress of working out which street corner Pho would in fact be life changing.

So Day 1- after a nap (we set alarms) because jet lag be damned, we were in no fit state to do anything without a couple of hours of shut eye, we set out to explore the Old Quarter a bit. It's organised in the Chinese style of each street tends to be themed by traider- shoes, clothes, household goods, mechanics, luggage, electronics, even coffee shops although everywhere, are in high concentration in one particular area. We made sure to try the Hanoi-famous coffee with condensed milk and egg (whipped egg whites folded into the condensed milk) to try and perk us up a bit at a cafe recommended by the driver of our airport transfer.

Photo

Cafe Giang, well worth a wander for. I loved the narrow winding staircases to multiple floors of caffeinated goodness. Apparently buildings in Vietnam are narrow and tall because tax is calculated by width of the building not square metres or height.

Enjoying our last day in Hanoi. The lake is oddly peaceful amidst the mayhem.

A strangely calming lake right in the middle of the Old Quarter Hồ Hoàn Kiếm. We chose to eat a restaurant recommended on half a dozen different blog posts I read about Hanoi before left- Quán Ăn Ngon. It brings together dozens of Vietnamese street food dishes under one roof and is popular with tourists and local young people alike. The food was very enjoyable and it was a good starting point for our weary, culture shocked selves on night one, but the service is shocking. Be prepared to be by and large ignored by every member of staff from the maitre d' to the bar- reservation or not. I'm not sure I'd go as far as recommending the restaurant for that reason, but it is handy to know about if you're not sure where to start and are prepared to put up with having to work hard to attract attention and order things. Price wise- we ordered 3 different main course sized dishes, a couple of beers and a couple of bottles of water and the total was around 350,000 VND which is around £11.50.

On Day 2, feeling minorly more human, we walked our way out of the Old Quarter towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and The Temple of Literature. This is believed to be the first university of Vietnam and where Confucius studied. As a result, Vietnamese university graduates come from all  over the country to take graduation pictures here, which was fun to watch, and the grounds were beautiful. Walking also gave us a chance to take the city in a little more.

Went to a tourist attraction today only to find people kept asking to take pictures of us (?)! Took solace in amazing trees instead!

Casual rail lines running through the middle of street in Hanoi

The most exciting part of this particular day though, definitely our walking food tour. We opted for a much reviewed tour that starts in the old quarter. At $20 per person it was also incredible value as we tried 6 or 8 different dishes and had drinks along the way, all included in the price. I didn't end up taking any pictures as I was too busy stuffing my face, but I'd definitely recommend the tour we went on for great food, a fun guide and great value. If you find yourself in Hanoi over the weekend, I'd opt for a 1730 tour and then hit the night markets on the pedestrianised streets afterwards for shopping and general fun- we did our tour at 1830 on a Sunday, and it finished around 2130, but the night markets were starting to wind down a little by then- we found everything happens much earlier in Vietnam than for example London, with many things being closed by 2200.

Day 3, we spent doing some shopping and making sure we had another nibble on everything that caught our eye on the previous day. Our most elderly suitcase got a battering too far on the flight out so we managed to score a new one, and Tom had been eyeing up some (fake) The North Face goodies too.

Iced Coffee with coconut milk & condensed milk.

Hands down my favourite coffee experience of the whole trip. Not as sickly as those with condensed milk, this is iced coffee with crushed ice (not blended like the frappe styles at home) and sweetened coconut milk.

We made our breaks plentiful- all that haggling is hard work- FYI we found the most successful haggling was to offer 50% of the quoted price and generally paid around 70% in the end, a bit less if we wanted more than one item.

We continued the trend into the evening eating our absolute favourite street food discoveries- the absolute best has to be a salad made from grated green papaya with a sharp and sweet sauce, peanuts and dried beef called Nam Bộ amongst other treats, and headed back for an early night. The next part of our trip- a cruise out into Ha Long Bay required an early start on Tuesday- I'll be talking about Ha Long in my next Vietnam post. Yes, more holiday spam!

Looking good Hanoi



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Friday, April 15, 2016

Our Vietnam Adventure: First Impressions

 photo First Impressions_zpsgslmsjnk.jpg


So, Vietnam. We just got back from almost 3 weeks away and I'm filled with thoughts on what we experienced and the joys of laundry, grocery shopping and returning to work after a big stint off during part of the busy season.

Much to the disapproval of many, our trip wasn't an extensive, unplanned many-stop, action packed set of cities. Part of doing travel our own way means we were after some R&R as much as seeing part of the world we've yet to see, so we spent 3 nights in Hanoi (our point of entry into the country), 2 days and 1 night on a boat cruise into Ha Long Bay, and 12 blissfully chilled nights in a resort style hotel in Hoi An.

Holi-YAY!

So Hanoi- first impressions.... Humid, busy and well hello there motocycles and scooters. We landed at about 5:30am after an almost 11 hour flight and caved into a short nap after checking in at around 10:00 but made sure we set an alarm so we didn't succumb too hard to jet lag. Over the course 3 days we managed a walking food tour (amazing), a wander around the Temple of Literature- considered to be the site of the first university of Vietnam in the time of Confucius, lots of walking the Old Quarter and a fair few varying types of coffee and beer and street food.

Iced Coffee with coconut milk & condensed milk.

Ha Long Bay (hello World Heritage Site) is pretty incredible- green water and hundreds of tiny limestone islands rising up from the bay, cruises are popular and leaving the newly built harbour is akin to the D Day landings (Tom's words...) with hundreds of boats of varying sizes all departing for cruises. We only did a single night, with tours of a floating fishing village and caves on the first day, and a visit to an island on which a beach has been made for swimming and a stairway path to the top of the hill- we opted to walk to the top for amazing views on day two. It was incredible to take everything in on the cruise and it's truly amazing to see, but there were definitely some ethical challenges for me (relocating of fishing villages, ecological protection, the purchase by tour companies of parts of the bay).

Ha Long through the haze.

Hoi An- a super popular tourist town that's way more chilled than cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. It's popular for it's beach resort hotels and buoyant old town. It seemed we were bucking the norm and staying much longer than most with 12 nights to stop and unwind and enjoy a gentler pace. Hoi An is also famous for tailoring with dozens of tailors shops where you can have pretty much anything made to measure in as little as 48 hours. We came home with 20kg of assorted clothes and shoes. Whilst Hoi An is a much slower pace than Hanoi, I still found the constant hard sell approach of anyone with anything to sell- shop fronts, door steps, street food corner set-ups or just someone who had a mother with a laundry service or a brother renting bicycles. It becomes wearing to have to politely say no to someone every two minutes when all you really want to do is take everything in.

Tailors and and tall statues. Hoi An is nice.

So, 21 days later, I'm fairly tanned and we're properly home and drowning under the ironing pile. and I can say we definitely had a great holiday- it would be an out and out lie to say we didn't. Would I go back to Vietnam? I'm not sure. These are my first impressions, stay tuned for more holiday spam including some of the highlights, and some our lessons learned in hindsight were we to do the trip again.

Walking dead imitation being perfected in the immigration queue at Heathrow. Send help. Or coffee.
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