Go: Moutain Break Sapa, Vietnam (at the Victoria Hotel)

After our walk we headed back to the hotel to check in.  We were staying at the Victoria Hotel (which is obligatory if you want to take the Victoria Express).  The hotel itself is beautiful and the rooms were immaculately furnished.  Be warned though, they do not have air conditioning or ceiling fans.  If you need a fan, you must ask for it.  Our room was stifling when we arrived and it took us a while to figure out that the heating was on.  However, at night, even with the heating on I was cold. (I was bemused to see all the staff wearing polar fleeces... might be a little hint that you need to turn the heating up people!!)  My favourite thing about this hotel was the fluffy towels.  The towels were the biggest, thickest towels I have ever come across.  I was very tempted to try and souvenir one (I didn't!).


After a short rest a the hotel, we braved the cool night air and fog to find something to eat.  But first off we headed to the end of the main street to a little bar with a warm fire call Moutain View that sells local sapa fruit (rice) wine.

After having warmed ourselves up, we headed back up the street to the popular Romano's Restaurant for pizza.  We really loved Romano's. The pizza was great and so was the gnocchi (regular readers will know that we are always on the lookout for good gnocchi!)  We took advantage of the cold weather to order hot chocolate, but unfortunately that was the only disappointing part of our meal. 

We trundled back to the hotel full and happy, and it wasn't long until we'd sunk into bed.
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Go: A walk for wimps in Sapa, Vietnam

From Lao Cai train station we arranged our own transport by minvan for the 45 kms to Sapa.  (As mentioned in my last post, the buses are all out the front of the train station and should charge VND50,000 per person).  The drive to Sapa was a little hair raising to say the least. Our van hurtled along the narrow, windy road, hugging bends near almost sheer drops and dodging school children and buffalo, as the driver chatted almost constantly on his mobile phone.  We were dropped off in Sapa, and it was a short walk up a steep hill to the Victoria Hotel.

We were greeted with warm and delicious cinnamon apple tea and were offered breakfast.  We decided to leave our bags and head off to find our own breakfast.

We headed off to the Baguette and Chocolate, which had been recommended by friends, joined by our cabin buddies from the overnight train.  The Baguette and Chocolate is a social enterprise training locals in the hospitality industry.  It's a short walk up hill from the centre of town. It's a nice spot to sit outside and people watch but at the same time a little out of the hustle, and our omelettes were good.  We were even enticed to have dessert at breakfast (we were on holiday after all)!

Once we felt human again, we headed off to check out hiking options.  I use the term hiking loosely.  We don't reallly hike; we stroll.  We settled on the "Walk for Wimps", as I like to call it.  It takes you through the most beautiful part of the Tavan Valley, the most beautiful and most popular hike around Sapa.  It's also the most accessible.  It's even more accessible on the Walk for Wimps because a car drives you to where the real beauty starts, you wander down a hill, through the valley, and a few hours later the car comes and picks you up to take you back up the hill.  It suited us for a few reasons, firstly we are wimps, especially when we're on holidays, and secondly we really only had about half a day at this stage, plus the Boy was getting sick.

So off we toddled.  It was quite foggy and misty to begin with but cleared as we got lower.  Walking through the tiered rice paddies is beautiful.  Seeing the way the villagers live and work is really interesting.  It was a great afternoon, and a highlight of our trip.  Photos put it better than words.

The contraption on the right uses water to grind the corn... isn't it nifty?

Find stream; wash bike.

The other advantage of the Walk for Wimps is that you miss
 most of the pressure from women selling their wares.
I really enjoyed the walk and was glad we did it, as the following day the fog was so thick we could only see a few metres ahead.  But more about that later...

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Go: Victoria Express Train to Sapa - Vietnam

I love trains. I really do.  If I had the option of any form of travel I'd pick trains, every time, unless its across a sea, in which case I'd choose a boat.  My bucket includes some of the classic train journeys, you know, The Ghan, The Orient Express, and The Trans-Siberian.  

So, it was prerequisite for our trip to Sapa, that we take the Victoria Express. So after the long and bumpy drive from Ha Long City, we found some dinner in Hanoi and then made our way to the train station.

A Victoria employee was waiting out the front of the station to very efficiently shuttle us and our bags in the ''waiting room'' which was just the main waiting area near the ticket counter. We used our time efficiently to download the seemingly endless photos I'd taken in Ha Long Bay, before we were again efficiently whisked away and off to our waiting carriage.

For those of who are not familiar with the train to Sapa, there are a number of different companies offering train trips to Sapa.  However, all these companies simply have their own carriages attached to a government run train.  Meaning no matter which company you choose or how much you pay you are essentially on the same train.  The company/price simply determines how nice the carriage is.  And the Victoria Express carriage is the nicest, and the most expensive.

We were greeted at a red carpet (well red mat, but close enough) with cool refresher towels before being shown to our cabin.  We were sharing a four-berth cabin with what turned out to be another Australian couple.

The cabins are nicely appointed but very cosy, and climbing into the top bunk required a fair bit of coordination and a bit of flexibility.  The truth is you board around 9pm, so there's just a bit of chit chat before hitting the sack so to speak.  I really wish I had taken a photo of the toilets for you (but I'm not in the habit of taking my camera with me) because they were beautifully fitted.

We agreed with our cabin mates to leave the curtains open and I enjoyed waking every so often to peer out into the darkness and see what I could make out.  I think the journey would have been quite pretty.

The staff knocked on our door bright and early (around 5.45am, I think) with tea and coffee and a little cookie to wake us up with.  It was all very civilised.

On the way back to Hanoi we were fortunate enough to be offered a private cabin.

In addition to the extra space and privacy, the two-berth cabins also come with a complimentary gift and ear plugs (personally I think the earplugs would be more useful in the four-berth cabins, but anyhow).

The trip back also had a dining car.  The dining car, as you might expect, is expensive.  But we splurged.

The food was good, but not brilliant, and the service friendly.  I'd only recommend it if you want the experience.  We were well and truly full by the time we trundled back to our cabin.  I enjoyed the privacy of the two berth cabin and it was nice to be able to change into my PJs.  However, given the significant extra expense of a two-berth cabin and the fact that you spend almost your entire time on board asleep, I think the four-berth cabins are quite adequate.

In the morning we had to head down to the dining car for our tea and coffee.  In this respect, I actually think it's better to be on a train without a dining car as your coffee is delivered to your cabin giving you more time to come to life and sort yourself out.  Coffee in the dining car was very rushed as they only allowed around 10 mins for everyone to get in and out.  There were a few extra items on offer, but we wouldn't have had time to order them even if we had wanted to.

Overall, I'm glad we did the Victoria Express.  It certainly is reminiscent of the romance and charm of an era where travel was about more than getting from A to B.

If you want to take the Victoria Express, you must stay at least one night at the Victoria Hotel in Sapa (which I'll tell you about in another post).  You'll also need to book early, as the train does fill up.  Not all trains .have a dining car, but you can check the schedule on the Victoria Express website.

We booked through Aurora Travel which was significantly cheaper than booking direct with Victoria.

Please also note that the Sapa train terminates at Lao Cai train station, which is about 45 kms from Sapa.  You can arrange transfers through Victoria for around USD16 ++ per person or you can book a private car through a travel agent for a few dollars less.  Alternatively, when you get to the station you can arrange your own transport to Sapa directly with one of the many minivans out the front of the station (you can't miss them).  Be prepared to bargain as they may try to rip you off; the correct price is VND50,000 (USD2.50) per person. 
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On the street: Milk Fruit

Fresh fruit is one of my favourite things about living in Cambodia.  Especially in our area, the side of the road is lined with tables laden with all types of fruit.  Most of which I had never set eyes on before we moved here.

There is just one problem, how does one eat all these fruits?  It may sound stupid, but this problem is always in my mind when buying new fruits.  Can I eat the skin?  Should I swallow the seeds?  Which is the best way to open it?  My concern over eating fruit the "wrong way" was exacerbated buy biting into some unknown fruit only for it to make my entire mouth and throat dry up and seemingly contract to the point where I thought I was going to choke to death.  (I know this sounds very melodramatic, but it was really very unpleasant).

A few weeks ago a friend dropped by with some fruit for us.  It's milk fruit, she announced, "jeh nyum dtay?", which literally means can you eat it?  "Yes", I answered, enthusiastically.  Actually, I'd never seen one before in my life.  But, I'm always eager to try new things and I thought for sure Google would be able to tell me anything I needed to know.

As it turns out, Google doesn't have a lot to say about Milk Fruit so I questioned another Khmer friend.  He cut the fruit in quarters and instructed me to eat it in much the same way you would eat a quarter of an orange.  Avoid the skin he warns, using a Khmer word I am unfamiliar with.  Not knowing the exact consequence of eating the skin I carefully ate only the very centre and discarded the large seeds.

Yes, they come in two colours.  Don't let my camera deceive you, the one at the front is green, not yellow.

My lips did come in contact a little with the skin, and I understood what he had meant.  It's hard to describe but itmakes your lips feel quite unpleasant, kind like the inside of a banana peel, and a bit sore.  However the  flesh is quite tasty refreshing, with a jelly-like consistency. Although, I wouldn't describe it exactly like milk.

Since first trying the fruit I've noticed it's on sale everywhere at the moment, so if you see it and haven't tried, give it a go!
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Sleep: At the atmospheric Governor's House

A while back the Boy and I decided to check out The Governor's House hotel, here in Phnom Penh.  Being nosy like I am, I had had a bit of a look around shortly after the hotel opened.  The Belgian owner had shown me the rooms, the beautiful furniture and the obvious care and passion that had gone into some of the fittings.  So we thought we'd check it out properly.

The building itself is beautiful and filled with antiques that the owner has acquired from around the world.  If he ever has a garage sale, I'm going to be the first in line!

I love that there are plenty of quiet corners where you can sit and chat, read or even play scrabble (which is what we did).

Another thing that I really loved about this hotel was that wherever you went there was unobtrusive background music which gave it a great atmosphere, like you were in a home, rather than a hotel.

We stayed in one of the tiny cosy attic rooms.  Which was aptly called 'Le Petit Reporter'.  It was small but comfortable.  However, if you are staying at the Governor's House for any length of time, go for one of the bigger rooms.

The complimentary Cambodian sweets served in our room with our tea were a nice touch.  The sweets were delicious, kind of like Cambodian Turkish Delight!

We had our breakfast by the pool (which was sadly not in use that day); it was lovely.

The breakfast selection was simple but good and covered all tastes.  We opted for an American Breakfast, served with juice, fruit and very good coffee.

The location of the hotel is quite good, half way between Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) and the Riverfront.  But there aren't many spots to walk to, so you'll find yourself using a lot of tuk-tuks from here.  (Although Gasolina is close by.)  However, if you are looking for a quiet and atmospheric hotel, not to mention the friendly staff and good breakfast, this might be the one for you.

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Eat: Cheap Loyalty - Costa Coffee

I've been spending a lot of time at Costa Coffee lately.  I wanted to check it out when it opened, of course.  But since then I've been coming back quite regularly.  What has swept me off my coffee-loving feet you  might wonder?  Perhaps fantastic coffee? great service? comfy sofas? lightening quick wi-fi?

In a word, no.  (Although I am a sucker for cappuccino art!)

What has secured my devotion is this little card...

Yep.  Sad, but true.  You promise me a free cup of coffee in return for my loyalty and it's yours.  That's the kinda girl I am.

Oh, I also like the bags they give you with your take-away (take away coffee in a bag??)

Happy Friday!

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