E: Broke and Alone in Dubai

Today stories and images of Dubai are circulated around the media all the time, from the news about oil funded, record breaking developments within the area to glitzy music videos where people jump out of planes above the Palm Jumeirah. I had allocated myself exactly two days to see as much as possible of this millionaire’s playground with about 50 quid in my pocket. Now that may seem like a decent amount of spending money for a two day holiday but let’s not forget how expensive Dubai is. It wasn’t exactly designed with youth backpackers in mind.

I arrived at Dubai pretty beat at around 5am, not having had more than half an hour of sleep on the plane. I could have easily mistaken the fatigued blurry images of white pillars and marble flooring of the immigration checkpoint as the entrance to heaven, missing nothing but a few clouds. Still somewhat functioning, I managed to locate the airport’s metro station, only to find out that Friday was considered a weekend in Dubai and that the metro did not open until one in the afternoon. With no other choice I resentfully dragged my jet-lagged self to the information desk and asked for a fare estimate.

I waited till around 7am before hopping into a cab, that way I’d at least get a drive through Dubai as the sun came up over the city. As we exited the airport roads my thoughts immediately turned into “where’s the tallest building in the world!?” “when will it be visible?” “is that it that one?” “no…” “will I see it now?” “what about now?” All in all it took about 3 minutes of driving before all my thoughts were silenced as I stared as what appeared to be a giant golden needle in the distance. The Burj Khalifa is visible from almost anywhere in Dubai and in the morning sun, it looks incredible.

The taxi came to roughly £10 (Remaining Budget:£40) I left my bags in the luggage room of the hotel and went for a stroll along the nearby Dubai Creek. I sought out the Bastakiya quater, an old residential area now preserved as a heritage site. The architecture was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The majority of buildings are open to the public, most of the houses had a beautiful central garden which I believe is quite common in Arabic architecture. As I was unable to get the metro for another 5 hours or so, I decided to find a nice spot to sit down and collect my thoughts a little. Completely by chance I found this little gem of a place called XVA Cafe which also operates as a hotel and gallery. The space was so different compared to what I expected my Dubai experience to be like. It was so tranquil, you could hear the swallows nearby, the weather was beautiful and the surrounding building was so warm in character.

Unfortunately most of the time, beautiful hidden places in extremely wealthy countries don’t come cheap. My mouthwatering breakfast (pictured below) came to a pretty uncomfortable £10 (RB:£30), The lunch menu was a little cheaper unfortunately I didn’t realise it wouldn’t be served at 8.30am. I definitely got my money’s worth though, as I spent a good 3 hours waiting for the metro to open and recovering from my flight there. I read for a while and did some people watching of the hotel guests, whose judgemental eyes gazed my way on more than one occasion. Probably wondering what a un-showered teen was doing hogging a whole table at the ridiculously scenic hotel they had spent years of their life working towards affording.

All in all budget wise it wasn’t going well, I decided to starve myself for the rest of the day and headed to see the Burj Khalifa! (RB after metro:£27.70) The Dubai mall situated under the Burj Khalifa is impractically large. How it still manages to be crammed with countless western tourists gives you an idea of just how big the current tourism industry is in Dubai. I can’t understand why people insist flying miles away from home and wasting so much time shopping at brand stores stocked with identical things to what they can purchase at home.

I did get a glance of the massive aquarium container within the mall, also I can confirm the worlds tallest building is aesthetically overwhelming and every bit as impressive as you’d imagine. For the remainder of the day I actually took a detour and got off at a random stop and walked for about 3 hours heading towards the coast via a residential road. I cut through Safa park (RB:£27.00) , in which there was an abundance of local families and friends holding barbecues in every direction for a good mile or so. Although seeing all these locals being social and happy brought me a great deal of joy, the smell of marinated char-grilled meats did no good for my famished stomach.

My second day was spent devouring as much as possible of my included hotel breakfast, taking a boat trip past the palm, seeing the ski slope in the Mall of the Emirates and exploring the area closest to the marina. Before finally having a last few hours dehydrated and woozy at a gorgeously sandy beach beneath the Burj Al Arab and finally taking the metro to the airport (RB after metro, food, and water ferry:£2.70). Despite the fact Dubai city doesn’t have much class or heritage left amongst it, I still get it, I get why people go there. It’s cool, it’s crazy and you won’t find better weather in the middle of December anywhere else in the world.

E: Paddy Fields and the Indigo People of Sapa, Vietnam

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Of the places I visited during the winter break one of the most touching locations I had the pleasure of witnessing was the Sapa district in northern Vietnam. Although weather wise the coldest of all my destinations, I was pleasantly warmed by the scenes throughout Sapa town and the surrounding villages.

People here are poor, and although I have witnessed poverty before I’d never seen people living off log fires and mainly consuming food they’d produced themselves. Various ethnic minorities inhabit the area including the Black Hmong, Dao and Phu Lo people. Many of these speak languages other than Vietnamese. The changes brought by tourism are noticeable, but no so prominent to ruin the area’s authenticity. Many families have converted from farming to selling souvenirs with examples including, indigo scarves and various carved stone objects. It was refreshing to see the majority of what was being sold out of houses and on the street, were products produced by the people themselves.

Exceedingly obvious is the ethnic minorities cheekily ripping tourists off, our guide gave us an indication of what we should be paying. Unfortunately I found it difficult to stop the woman selling me an indigo scarf, purchased as a gift, from overcharging me by two pounds while she was sat smiling bleakly underneath a tin roof, without heating in the middle of winter. I didn’t have it in me to refuse, especially when I thought about how little two pounds is to me, compared to what this woman could use it for.

If you plan to visit be wary not to buy from the local village kids, as although they’ll give you cheaper prices than the adults, this encourages them to skip school and continue attempting to make money from western tourists doing no good for their future. Besides any money lost whilst buying gifts I definitely made back on the food, where else can you get 73p beer? Apart from the eerily lit church located centrally in Sapa town it seems due to the French’s presence in Vietnam they left some cultural characteristics such as aspects of religion behind, our guide told us that many of the villagers refused to use contraception as they were supposedly catholic, yet still maintained some Buddhist beliefs.

Breathtaking scenery in the nearby mountains means the majority of our trip was hiking and admiring the views, with the occasional stop at some of the local villagers’ homes where our guide allowed us to ask questions, try some local tobacco and test our skill of using various farming utensils. I’d like to return to Sapa, 2 days wasn’t enough. If returning I would visit again in September during the harvest season, where apparently all the rice fields evolve into a glowing gradient of yellow. The trip ended with a farewell to our guide and boarding the night train (which one day I’m sure will become my permanent type of accommodation) back to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi.

 

L: Review: Laneway Festival Singapore

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As I boarded my flight to Singapore nearly 6 months ago from, I really didn’t consider the possibility I’d end up sitting at an indie music festival next to one of the world’s most futuristic looking hotels and a collection of solar powered man made ‘super trees’. A sensational lineup, ultramodern setting and Singapore’s warm breezy weather resulted in a very chilled yet vibrant break from the stresses of city life here.

This is the 4th year St Jerome’s Laneway Festival has returned to Singapore with acts from previous years including big names such as Bat for Lashes, Kings of Convenience, Gotye, Alt-J and many more. Aside from the usual UK, Aussie and American acts, this year took an interesting turn with the addition of some local talents. Vandetta, the Observatory and Gema undoubtedly brought a welcome twist to the lineup.

The Jezabels,  a four piece band from Sydney unknown to me before, were one of the earlier acts which set the tone for the day ahead. Hayley Mary’s distinct rich vocals demanded attention from throughout the meadow and became a crowd favourite almost instantly. XXYYXX’s explosive set did not disappoint, preventing the daylight hindering the atmosphere by the cloud tent.  Unfortunately UK act Mount Kimbie’s performance later in the day felt lacking in consistency and proved a little too experimental for me at times.

Due to an unfortunate injury Gabrial Winterfield of Jagwar Ma was unable to perform at the event, yet Jono Ma fulfilled the task of keeping the crowd entertained with his impressive DJ skills. As the night fell Haim’s stage presence was simply electrifying, especially during their rendition of their hit single ‘The Wire’. Having read so many positive reviews of Jamie xx live, I was worried I may had raised my expectations too high, thankfully my expectations were not only met but in fact exceeded. Jamie xx proved to be a true master of sound, opening with Motown inspired beats with the rest of the set continuing to be varied and infectious.

As the evening came to a close, the Mercury prize 2013 winner James Blake was the final act left to perform. Blake’s haunting vocals pierced through the crowd, readily complemented by a stirring selection of electric rhythms making for a memorable performance . Any doubts I had that songs such as ‘I Never Learnt To Share’ would not translate well onto stage were completely eradicated with all songs sounding as good, if not better on stage.

Although many continue to slate live music as being far from the quality of the recorded sounds we listen to everyday, the acts at laneway festival are another example of how the stage can bring another definition to their music. After being disheartened by various nights out in Singapore with questionable club music and uninspiring live events, the  Laneway festival has restored my faith that good music can be appreciated anywhere, even to audiences as far as those in Southeast Asia.

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E: Streets of Hanoi

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Hanoi is an undeniably beautiful city. Some people may fail to see that initially due to the noise, pollution and litter but having come face to face with those issues everyday at home meant those factors were easily to looked over.

Let me explain why Hanoi is such a great city, firstly and most importantly, crossing the street has never been more fun or dangerous anywhere else in the world. You don’t wait or follow instructions from crossing lights to cross a street in Hanoi, even looking isn’t exactly essential. Just start walking and the oncoming vehicles as if by some magic force, manoeuvre around you. Leaving you feeling a little like Moses.

Another of my favourite aspects of Hanoi is just how much time the locals spend on the street, during walks it wasn’t uncommon to pass people going about their daily business such as cooking, eating and washing themselves on the streets. It’s genuinley nice to see people spending time outdoors even if it’s not too far away from their homes. Get used to the little stools around town as they are your best and only friend when it comes to sitting down in Vietnam and are a standard features of most of the best restaurants for local street-food.

It was interesting to visit the Hoi Chi Min Mausoleum, (for those of you who don’t know what that is like me initially, it’s where the body of Hoi Chi Min (An important Vietnamese political figure) has been preserved and is stored in a glass chamber.) Another interesting cultural thing to see was the planes on display captured from the Americans by the Vietnamese. The number of planes and way they have been arranged indicated the persistence and strength of the people during the vietnam war.

The cafe culture and warm bustling streets make Hanoi one of my favourite places so far. Currently I think it has a tenancy of being overlooked due to the mass tourism funnelled into the bigger city located to the south (Hoi Chi Min City) yet I think in the future, with the right sort of growth, it could attract a lot of attention as a more ‘trendy’ type of destination, it brings so much of the Vietnamese people’s culture to surface and the city feels ‘lived in’ and ‘real’. I have no doubts I’ll be returning to Hanoi relatively soon.

Thanks again to my brilliant pen pals for guiding us almost everywhere! (Minh and Khanh)

 

EAT: Food Adventures in Vietnam

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VIETNAM COFFFEE AGAINVietnamese coffee

When it comes to travelling around Vietnam, there’s little room for any fast food cravings. The number of good quality independent cafes and restaurants selling authentic vietnamese food and coffee creates unparalleled competition for the typical western chains, which is why in fact Hanoi (Vietnam’s capital) is one of the few places untouched by the demonic american coffee chain that is Starbucks. After a couple of drinks and meals you see there’s just no room in the market for brands such as starbucks.

Vietnamese Chicken soupWhile in Hanoi we met up with some local pen pals I’d met a while ago through twitter (Minh and Khanh). We were so privileged to have had them with us during our time in Hanoi as there was no need to research for the best food spots in town due to their years of living experience.Two places in particular caught my interest during my time in Hanoi, the first was this charming little rooftop bar overlooking Hanoi’s Hoàn Kiếm lake. The entrance located behind a few of the tourist shops on the road. Place your order on the ground floor and after numerous dodgy looking steps passing rooftops and building debris on your path upwards you reach this modest sheltered space out looking the road and lake.

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The most enchanting place however was this cafe borrowed away amongst more shops which appeared as if it was located in a living room, after even more dodgy steps up into this dark, well aged building which at first appears abandoned, you eventually pass through a narrow doorway into a room filled with locals perched on miniature plastic stools surrounded by cigarette smoke. All of them embedded within conversation sipping on ‘egg coffee’ and nibbling on sunflower seeds. Let’s just say I felt right at home.

Another great reason to make Vietnam your destination for an eatcation is the price. I didn’t spend more than £5 worth on any food while I was there and most plates averaged out at under 40,000 Vietnamese Dong. It pays to be careful however as like everywhere in the world a clueless tourist can easily get ripped off. For the same plate of food the price can vary from 35,000 (Roughly a pound) to 100,000 Dong depending on who’s buying. The beer pictured above next to the chicken soup actually represents one of my most prized bargaining efforts, that beer came in at 73p not to mention is was a large bottle too!

Aside from the food the local beer is actually really good, I much preferred it over it’s neighbouring more famous Singaporean brand ‘Tiger’. The Sapa locals haven’t yet caught on to the fact tourists know imported beer should be more expensive than local beer so that leaves some lee way for bargaining. When it comes to it you’re only saving a couple of pence yet it can still turn into a fun challenge of just how low you can get the price. 

‘Sữa chua dẻo sốt chanh leo,’ the first dish pictured in this post is a delicious blend of some vegetables, crab meat if I’m not mistaken on a bed of glass noodles. It was my personal favourite of all the dishes we tried in Vietnam and cost me just under £1.

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To get the true vietnamese Pho experience Minh and Khanh took us to this place that only opens in the morning to get some beef Pho (Phở bò tái chín) it’s a beef noodle soup often had for breakfast probably the most famous of vietnamese food. You can easily get hold of a bowl of Pho in central London. IMG_0946

Bún chả (Pictured above) is a dish consisting of grilled pork with dipping sauce noodles and ours was served with some mint and other vegetables. 

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‘Bánh mỳ sốt vang’ was another favourite, a sort of beef stew served with a colonial touch of baguette bread. The stew was really flavourful and after finishing this post I’ll be googling recipes I can take back home with me. 

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‘Bánh đa trộn’ is vietnamese yoghurt which makes the best dessert, I had mine with passionfruit. Could not get enough. I finally have a use other than eating the fruit for my passion fruit plant back home.IMG_0706

‘Giả cầu’ is false dog meat, pork cooked in the style dog is. We actually saw some dog meat being sold in the street, broke my heart a little and not too sure how my pup back home would have felt about me trying the real thing.

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Almost all food was eaten on the street front in Hanoi. Thanks again to Minh and Khanh for all the time they spent with us, they really made our trip so much more special!

C: Tropical Studying

IMG_0095Amidst the hell of exams earlier in December me and Ula decided we’d had enough of freezing in the study room air con and decided to live a little of the ‘exotic study life’ we’d been promised. We’d actually debated going to the beach for weeks on end, but every weekend one assignment or another got in our way. We saw reading week as an excuse because seriously who can study a whole week straight?

We only actually went for two hours then got back to studying but it was a really cracking two hours. Posing for the shot below was actually a lot scarier than you’d think, there was a very active wasps in the bush behind and I’d only realised half way down the trunk! Definitely made the week a little more bearable, Ula’s back in Poland now and we’ve said our goodbye’s but I’m pretty certain they won’t be final.IMG_0270IMG_0168IMG_0275IMG_0241IMG_0192 IMG_0254

E: Just got back from HK!

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Saying the last few weeks have consisted of regular ups and downs wouldn’t quite cover it. The last few weeks have been a heavy, energy depleting and demanding test of who I think I am a person and more spiritual bullshit continued…  within this recent time period I have undergone the hardest examination weeks of my life, (thanks again to Singapore’s education system for the joy that was), witnessed some of the most beautiful landscapes I will ever have the privilege of seeing and shamelessly devoured platefuls of dirt cheap, heavenly, world class foods.

Does the stress I endured during university time equal the enjoyment from travelling afterwards? I think I can just fold that page corner and add it to my binder of all of life’s complications that I cannot, will not and will never be able to solve. Hopefully however in the near future, just like what my hopeless memory has retained of my first year of studying in York, my mind will be vacant of everything but the pictures left behind and the simply the best memories. The only problem being as time stands is, I’m doubtful as to whether I can handle another semester in this strange bubble of a campus.

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What to say now about Hong Kong? The alpha+ city which first introduced the world to the concept of east meets west? The city is a loud, vertical, Cantonese speaking mess stuck in the 80’s, that makes it a rather fun mess too. The old housing blocks have aged beautifully into these captivating towers of unevenly shaded decaying paint jobs.

The contrast between the clean business towers and the slums, homes of everyday ‘rats’ caught in this city race cannot be see in any more clarity in the places I’ve been than in Hong Kong. The bustling night markets live up to everything they appear to be in photos and videos I witnessed as a child and the skyline with its gorgeous mountainous backdrop deserves every number 1 position it continues to earn in numerous rankings within prestigious publications.

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For a Londoner who now lives in Singapore unfortunately there isn’t much new to experience as Hong Kong. To me HK feels like a mashup of  Paris, London, New York and Singapore. Every corner I turned I couldn’t escape the Chanel, Marks and Sparks, Louis Vuitton, Pret a Manger, Apple Store, McDonalds, Starbucks and I could go on. So although not an en-lighting new place for me a pleasant weekend of interesting remotely familiar sights instead. If you’ve never been to the cities listed above Hong Kong is a great place to explore, for me, for now however the weekend was enough. Met up with some friends while I was there and really enjoyed some company and good food, Hong Kong has left me with little questions about the space unfortunately. If I ever visit again I’ll try to look at the place with a fresh pair of eyes.

Keep your eyes peeled on this space, I have a ridiculous amount of posting to catch up on. I’ll schedule the posts  for the next few weeks, sorry I haven’t been posting directly which would probably have been the best thing to do but as you can probably imagine I’ve been a bit caught up in living it haha! New posts soon!
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IMG_2438Weather was miserable the whole time I was there!
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IMG_2331Rooftops

IMG_2413The Nunnery and gardens, my favourite place in HK

IMG_2398The view from the front door of my hostel building

IMG_2443Kasper, Gustav, Sharon, Joacim and Me. I will never forget the street karaoke in the rain!

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