When Sophie Came to Stay

A few months ago, I was messaging my friend, Sophie, talking about the prospect of spending Christmas 6308 miles away from home. Sophie was already planning to visit me at some point and suggested coming out for Christmas. Cue MAJOR excitement.

Before I left for Vietnam, Sophie was probably the friend I saw the most frequently, therefore she was one of the people I missed the most. It was so good to see her again and I couldn’t quite believe that she was actually here, even though it felt like no time had passed.

The night Sophie arrived, we flew to Phu Quoc island, an hour flight south of Ho Chi Minh. We checked into our hostel, wandered around and then went to bed, since Sophie had been awake for an ungodly amount of hours. The next morning, we hired a motorbike and drove to Sao beach and spent the day relaxing on the white sand. I managed to burn one half of my bum, adding to my long list of dodgy tan lines. At lunch, Sophie discovered the slimy variety of the Vietnamese spring roll and was interrogated about “why you don’t eat?”, but other than that, the day was very chilled.

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The next day- Christmas Eve!- we visited Ong Lang beach, a hidden gem that my friends who had visited the week before recommended. The drive there featured several wrong turns and a very bumpy dirt road, but it was 100% worth it. The beach was untouched, with very few visitors and beautifully clear water. It was blissfully quiet- until two Vietnamese karaoke parties of questionably talent arrived, that is. There were also several sea swings, perfect for those classic posey travelling photos that we were definitely not above taking. Perhaps the best thing about the beach, though, was the gorgeous sunset. It was probably the least Christmassy but most enjoyable Christmas Eve I’ve ever had.

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That evening, we decided to ring in Christmas day with cocktails at Rory’s. There were only four cocktails available that night, and they were strong. So strong, in fact, that I felt like I was going to vomit after just three. Christmas, therefore, began with a hangover and an early flight back to the city- an excellent combination. We were headed to my friend, Jackie’s, place for a Christmas bbq but Sophie collapsed on my bed pretty much as soon as we got in. Since I’ve managed to teach kids with a hangover more times than I care to admit, I went and she joined a few hours later. When I arrived, I discovered that a Christmas miracle had taken place- a typhoon was scheduled to hit the city that evening (it never actually arrived) and so everyone had the next day off.

I also had quite a few presents from home. Everyone loves opening presents, of course, but it felt extra special this year and, I won’t lie, my Christmas card from the Rolfes might have made me tear up just a little

Jackie and Tom did an amazing job of putting on a delicious Christmas bbq and although the cool, damp weather meant no-one ventured into the pool, we had fun playing games, drinking copious amounts of iced mulled wine and taking photos with Jackie’s new polaroid camera.

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On Boxing Day we jetted off again, to Hanoi this time. We booked into a lovely homestay and spent the day rambling around the city. Since Saigon isn’t a walking city, being able to ramble was a great feeling. I was charmed by Hanoi the first time I visited and going again just deepened my love for the city; I began toying with the idea of moving there once this year’s up, even though I adore Saigon life. We also did quite a lot of shopping in Hanoi- the chilly weather meant we took full advantage of the abundance of fake North Face coats on offer in the Old Quarter. We also found some glorious, classic-traveller ‘shit shirts’ which were frankly too garish to resist.

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We were planning to visit Ba Vi national park the next day, but dismal weather meant we didn’t fancy it much, so we visited the Temple of Literature and Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. ‘the Hanoi Hilton’). Basically, the French were awful, terrible captors when they owned the prison, but when the Vietnamese held Americans there, they kept them in the lap of luxury…

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That night, we had dinner in our homestay with one of the staff and some other guests. We were a little nervous about what to expect, but the dinner turned out to be delicious. Later on, we went for massages at a spa the homestay recommended. Whilst the spa itself was lovely, a guy in the same room as us was showing just a little too much appreciation for his masseuse. Thankfully, the overlap between our treatments and his was very short, because it was quite difficult to relax next to those groans.

The weather wasn’t any better the next day, so we decided to forego the national park and travelled to Ninh Binh on the train. When we booked, almost all of the seats in the carriage were taken up, but we didn’t think anything of it. We boarded the train with two other girls who were sitting opposite us, and the rest of the carriage remained empty for a while. It seemed like a vaguely odd coincidence until what seemed like the entire Vietnamese army swarmed into our carriage. One poor soldier was going to have to sit next to Sophie and I, and it was clear that none of them wanted to; the first guy that sat down actually got up and ran away.

We were greeted in Ninh Binh by a very persistent taxi man, who relentlessly followed us about and even waited while Sophie used the toilet. Thankfully, we managed to shake him off and find an alternative driver. It was almost dark by the time we arrived at our homestay but we could see that the area was beautiful. We ordered some food and relaxed, since there’s not much to do in Ninh Binh after dark, and headed to bed fairly early so that we would be up ready for the next day.

The next morning, we hired a motorbike and explored Ninh Binh. We’d barely left our homestay when we saw two perfectly preserved, skinned goats for sale by the side of the road. Sophie actually thought that they were statues. This was the first of several vaguely disturbing animal incidents in Ninh Binh. We also saw a pig trailer clearly headed for a slaughter farm and had several chickens and dogs run at our bike. We squealed as we saw one dog running straight for our bike, squealed louder when it was hit with a very loud BANG by a van and bounced off, then sighed with relief when it got up, seemingly unharmed, and ran back the way it came.

Strange animal behaviour aside, Ninh Binh was incredibly beautiful; it’s described as ‘Halong Bay on land’ because there are limestone formations all over the province. The weather was cloudy, misty and often wet, but that didn’t lessen the beauty of the place; rather, it just gave it a mysterious kind of appeal. We enjoyed a river boat tour of Tam Coc, explored Bich Dong pagoda and finished the day with a visit to Hang Mua, a.k.a. Mount Dance. There. were. so. many. steps. Sophie managed to get me to the top with the clever employment of distraction techniques- i.e., asking me questions about the Kardashians so I forgot how sweaty and out-of-breath I was. The view, however, was absolutely worth it once we arrived, and it was a beautiful way to finish our day. Back at the homestay, we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate and electric heaters because Ninh Binh was cold.

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The next day, we headed out again to Thung Nam national park. It started off beautifully, with gorgeous views and a beautiful cave to explore. However, I started to really need a wee and there were no toilets in sight, so I lost what little dignity I had peeing behind a tree and being spotted by two Vietnamese guys on a motorbike. Joy. It also began to rain and we arrived at the start of another boat tour. We didn’t much fancy sitting there being rained on and scammed again- I’ll get to that later- so we decided to skip it and head to our next planned destination, the Bai Dinh pagoda. As we drove there, we realised that we had a flat tyre. By the time we got there, we were soaked, not to mention cold and very uncomfortable. Google Maps led us through a gate but we were stopped by a screaming Vietnamese man, who was adamant that we turn around. He also kept pointing to our flat tyre, as if we didn’t know. After being laughed at by another woman- who was leading cattle through the middle of nowhere in the rain, and so really was in no better position than we were- we decided to call it a day and head back to dry off and drink more hot chocolate.

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Ninh Binh was beautiful, but it was also riddled with scams; far more so than any other place I’ve visited in Vietnam. When we took our Tam Coc boat tour, we were stopped by a woman in another boat insisting that we buy snacks as a tip for our rower. Caught off guard, we agreed and the woman added more and more snacks and upped the bill; but we’d already agreed, so it was either get shirty, or cough up. When we presented our rower with the snacks, she just tossed them into a bucket full of other snacks she’d been bought that day; clearly ready to give back to the sellers. She then demanded a cash tip when we left the boat and when I thanked her for the boat ride in Vietnamese, she just got snappy and corrected my pronunciation. We were also scammed at the Bich Dong pagoda; when we parked, we were charged an extra 20,000 dong each by the parking warden for ‘tickets’, only we noticed that those who arrived on foot weren’t charged anything; entry to the pagoda was actually free. Again, at the train station, we bought some snacks and were charged at least twice as much as their usual price. It was never a lot of money we were cheated out of- nothing, really, in the grand scheme of things- but the principle of it did leave a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. That being said, I loved Ninh Binh and would definitely return; I’d just be more on guard next time.

That night, we had booked a train to Dong Hoi to visit the Phong Nha caves, but the weather there was going to be the same and we were sick of being cold and wet, so we moved our flight back to Ho Chi Minh to the next morning and decided to spend New Year’s Eve in the city. It was a relief to get back to the heat, and we anticipated a great night. However, our misfortune wasn’t over.

The plan was to spend the evening at Barney and Jonathan’s in district 4 and then maybe head to a bridge party after midnight. This was poorly thought-through, because to get to district 4 from my district, you have to drive through district 1, where all of the parties were happening. After getting stuck in a traffic jam for the best part of an hour, we decided to turn back and try a different route, but every route we tried was the same. After about another hour of this, we dumped my bike at a Starbucks and decided to walk the rest of the way. Unfortunately, the city was so crowded that we were almost crushed to death several times and it took forever to get through the crowds. At twenty minutes to midnight, we finally made it, gulped down several glasses of wine on empty stomachs and then did have an admittedly lovely time watching the fireworks from Barney’s window; we probably had a better view than all of the people standing on the street.

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Our last few days together were spent exploring the city, shopping and visiting excellent breakfast spots to make up for the lack of Cambridge breakfasts over the past nine months. When the time came to say goodbye, it certainly wasn’t easy; for me, it felt like leaving all over again, even though I was the one staying put this time, as Sophie jetted off to conquer Malaysian mountains.

Even though virtually nothing went to plan, the two weeks Sophie and I spent travelling together were two of my best weeks so far in Vietnam. As cheesy as it sounds, her presence was the best Christmas present I could have asked for.

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