Do you know the Joni Mitchell song "Both Sides Now"? (It's played at THAT heart breaking moment in the film "Love Actually" when Karen (Emma Thompson) opens the Christmas present from her husband (Alan Rickman), hoping it will be the necklace she'd seen in his pocket, which he in fact bought for the girl in the office who is flirting with him, but it's a Joni Mitchell CD instead she finds - gets me everytime that scene!). Well I sing my own variation of the song to Luca sometimes when he needs a little bit of soothing or to help to go off  to sleep and he just loves it. He calls it the "Ice Cream Castles" song. My version goes like so (substituted words in bold):

"Rows and flows of Luca's hair, 
and ice cream castles in the air, 
and fairy canyons everywhere,
I've looked at clouds that way.....
I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
from up and down, and still somehow,
it's clouds illusions I recall
I really don't know all

Moons and Junes and ferris wheels, the dizzy dancing way you feel
as every fairy tale comes real; I've looked at love that way.....
I've looked at love from both sides now,
from give and take, and still somehow
it's love's illusions I recall.
I really don't know love at all."

Sometimes I hear him singing the last two lines out loud to himself, very much in earnest, which is very cute to hear from a three year old. So what has that got to do with Sapa? Well, for me at least, everything in fact. All shall be revealed...

We arrived in our overnight express train into Lao Cai, the train station closest to Sapa, at 5am. We had a comfortable 4-berth carriage, which we shared with a Vietnamese couple, but the bunks were small and I, who am a poor sleeper at the best of times, like my own Mum, never sleep on such things anyway. Phil, who I always maintain, would sleep on a bed of nails beside Hitler soundly if the need arose (!), actually didn't sleep very well on this particular occasion either because he had Luca sleeping at an awkward angle up in the teeny top bunk with him. So we emerged from the train station a bit tired and bemused. But for once we, usually independent travellers, had signed up for an all-inclusive deal to Sapa and so were given the VIP treatment. We were actually greeted by a driver holding up a sign up for us, with our names upon it, for which we were very grateful in our sleep deprived and befuddled state. So we duly followed this sight for sore eyes driver appreciatively and collapsed  into a mini-bus, of which we were the only passengers, to be taken up the steep and windy mountainous roads which led to Sapa Town.

Despite the persistent and creeping feeling of nausea which rose within me as we ascended (morning sickness exacerbated by lack of zzzz's) I couldn't help but think about that very song I've mentioned which I sing to Luca, whilst looking about me in wonder and awe, because it were as though we were driving into a veritable fairy tale world in the clouds. An ethereal world which seemed somehow transcient such was it's sublime beauty. As though it were here on borrowed time here on the earth and might, at any minute, disappear into the clouds and mist which hovered jealously over it's seemingly endless terraces of  rice paddies as though biding their time to claim it's beauty for the skies. I know that it all sounds dramatic but the scenery on that ascent was genuinely breathtaking. Literally breathtaking. And intensely verdant. I have never before seen such multitudinous layers of green as I saw then and continued to see during the coming days in those slopes in and around Sapa. I didn't actually know that so many variations of the colour existed  in nature up until then. And they are impossible to capture properly in all of their mainfold shades on camera - even by Phil's capable photographer's eye by his own admission.

So there we all were...silenced by the sheer beauty of the landscape through which our mini-bus was hurtling at breakneck speed, in true Vietnamese fashion, up the relentless spiralling inclines. All feeling a bit mesmerised and moved by the enchanting world which appeared to us as the day broke. And there Luca and I were......gradually turning greener and greener in keeping with our surroundings. Until poor Luca (whom, incidentally, has not been ill for the nigh on six months of our travels in Asia save for the very occasional bout of tummy upset) piped up that he had a pain in his tummy and was going to be....He didn't get to say anymore. His actions spoke louder. All over his Dada in fact who was holding him as he missed the flimsy plastic bag I was holding out for him. And that set me off then in turn. With only one plastic bag between us. We were all a very sorry sight when we arrived at our accommodation, the Topas Ecolodge, which is situated a (bumpy!) 20km's or so beyond Sapa Town. 

But, boy oh boy, was it worth it! The Ecolodge is located deep in the lush Sapa Valley in the Hoang Lien National Park; a truly divine, remote and peaceful setting. Guests lodgings comprise bungalows harmoniously set into the landscape with balconies to the rear which reveal spectacular views. The food there, served in the main lodge, was simply heavenly. For breakfast, for example, there was a choice of fresh mango marmalade, apple jam, banana jam and local Sapa honey to choose from to smear over your homemade piping hot baguette or pancakes.

Due mainly to the surroundingings of sloping terraces of rice paddies the immediate landscape reminded us both slightly of the Mudbrick Winery and Restaurant in Waiheke (Auckland, NZ) or of Franschhoek wine valley (South Africa) - places we'd been when I was last pregnant actually. But ultimately it brought to mind the images we've seen of Machu Picchu -  a place we'd love to go to. And the colour of the local Hill Tribes women only added to that sense. There are several different ethnic tribes, all related to one another, but each with their own distinct traditions and dress, living in or around Sapa: the black H'mong, the Zai and the Red Dao.

It was the latter whom we met during our walks in or around the Ecolodge or rather the latter who followed us on our walks. We ventured out for a walk to one of the local villages on our first day at the lodge and were greeting by the sight of a sea of glorious red head head dresses which crowned the smiling tribes ladies sporting them. Upon seeing us a group of them comprising about seven sprinted to their baskets, filled with their homemade wares, which they hoisted onto their backs and proceeded to carry the whole way as they accompanied us on our walk for the entire 2 1/2 hours it took. Virtually all carrying umbrellas too - a useful double shield to the sun and rain which are both characteristic of Sapa at any given time. It was a brilliant and funny experience to be flanked throughout our walk by these charming companions who all the while pointed out local flora and fauna to us and who each told us their ages and how many children they each had. Not all mere altruistic on their part though. Ultimately the goal is to have you buy their hand crafts. The hard sell though didn't really kick in until we were nearly back at the lodge having enjoyed amazing scenery and snipits of local ethnic life. Having noticed that I was the easy target it seemed that their tactic was to divide and conquer; herding me further along ahead from Phil to negotiate what I would buy, from whom and for how much. I had been warned off doing any negotiations by Phil as I am absolutely chronically bad at bartering - for example we had bought a baby sling from one of the Black H'mong at Sapa town and I had somehow managed to barter the price up - don't ask! So I just smiled and laughed at their questions as though I didn't understand. And approaching the lodge I just left it up to Phil to do “the deal”. I think that seeing Phil in the midst of these frantic ladies who were all scrambling and vying for his attenion - both parties wheeling and dealing but good humouredly - was one of the funniest things I have ever seen. At the end of the exchange - we all parted company agreeing that we were all happy. Well - how couldn't you be happy in such a sublimely beautiful place.

We're back in Hanoi now from Sapa for the last 3 days and we agree that, along with Hoi An and Halong Bay, it was one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam and indeed our time in Southeast Asia. A trip that is now coming to an end as we board our flights to Sydney tomorrow. We're all a little bit sad to be saying Goodbye to this leg of our adventures. Southeast Asia has been good to our little family. We've loved it. Throughout Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam the people, the food, the weather and the scenery have been truly wonderful. All of the countries we've visited hold a very special place in our hearts. If we had to choose our favourite country of the three it'd probably be Vietnam. But it's really hard to call. Afterall we picked up some very special cargo in Thailand....

Phil was at his “regular” bia hoi (beer) joint last night and made friends with one of the locals, Tuan, who asked him about the white (well now off white) band he was wearing on his wrist which Phil has been wearing for over 4 months now. He was surprised Phil was wearing one as it is a Buddhist band and he asked him how it had transpired that he had come to be wearing one. Upon which my atheist husband explained that it'd been tied around his wrist when he visited Doi Suthep Wat, a temple in Chiang Mai, by a Buddhist monk who did so unprompted and in silence. And he couldn't explain why but he really liked it and hadn't taken it off since. It was later that very day he'd been given that same band that we found out that I was pregnant. Last night Tuan explained to Phil that this band is a Buddhist symbol for good luck. Phil and I have vowed that this band will go into bump's special little treasures box for posterity after his/ her arrival.

So, folks, our next post will be from the Antipodes where we wil be reunited with my sister Aine and family which we are all very excited about. Luca is (trying!) to be on his best behaviour and telling everyone he meets that he is going to see his cousins and Auntie and Uncle in Bondi. He has never met them in person as the last time we were in Sydney, four years ago, he was a twinkle in his Daddy's eye as I was about 4 months pregnant with him. In a way I guess that going there with me 4 months pregnant again we have come full circle. So keep following guys and do, please, keep in touch. 

Linda, Phil, Luca & our (Buddha blessed) bump x

Sometimes you have to go half way around the world to come full circle”
Lost in Translation


Halong Bay

Luxury cruising through the stunning Halong Bay, swimming in turquoise waters, lazing on island beaches, kayaking through caves, cocktails on deck - for me anyway - and amazing 6 course meals.... such has been our lot for the last few days. It's a hard life!

As north Vietnam is our last stop in what have been an incredible six months in SE Asia, we decided to treat ourselves to a bit of luxury and see Halong Bay in style. A decision we did not regret. Our three days cruising with Indochina Sails around the beautiful Halong Bay were perfect - a memorable experience and a definite highlight of the trip. Luca loved every minute of it and joined in every activity - from captaining the ship, to jumping off the boat for a swim, to owl spotting in caves and even kayaking. His energy never ceases to amaze.

From Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi for a brief 24 hours, then headed to Sapa on the overnight train. Again we decided to spoil ourselves with a few luxurious nights in Topas Ecolodge, a peaceful bungalow resort set amidst the misty, ethereally beautiful rice terraces. But, a rice liquor awaits me, so more on Sapa anon....



"Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting." - Robert Thomas Allen
As I type this I am sitting alone, under a much needed cooling fan, in an old world teak tea house in Hanoi with a mug of tea in hand...Very peacefully and happily reflecting on a lovely afternoon at the Temple of Literature and, indeed, a wonderful five and a half months in South East Asia. And yet I find myself scanning the doorway for a familiar and friendly face to join me for a cuppa. I find this oft happens and usually when it does it's in atmospheric cafes in thronged cities. I know that no-one who fits the bill will appear but it's a compulsion that I can't seem to suppress. It comes upon me when I have the feeling of looking down at oneself in a very particular time and place, which stays with you, as though in a scene of a book or film; a sense of being very much of a moment and place but longing for someone to share the experience to validate it somehow perhaps? 
It's just after 10pm and I am looking out at the street in Hanoi's atmospheric,quixotic but chaotic Old Quarter on which we are staying as its characteristic craziness begins to subside for another day. The usually relentless cyclo and motorbike traffic slowly begins to disperse and the crowds of tourists dissipate as weariness, tiredness and the nightly bar curfew set in. I am grateful for these moments of relative peace and for the cooling influence of the fan above. We are enjoying Hanoi but it is hectic, frenetic and hot. Having spent a month in Saigon, over 2 months in Vietnam and cycled on Highway One I would have thought that we'd now be somewhat inured to the country's crazy traffic and humid climate but Hanoi represents, for us at least, Vietnam's zenith in both respects.
But what makes it all worthwhile is the undeniable sense of place here. A lot of Asian cities, as they modernise, prosper and thrive, have become relatively homogenous. For example Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and, even to some extent, modern day Bangkok. But as I survey the street scene outside I know that I couldn't possibly be anywhere else in the world save for Vietnam's capital city. This is a city which is unapologetically and, even, brashly Asian; a grand old dame of the Orient. The Lonely Planet describes it aptly when it says: "Hanoi is probably the most graceful and exotic capital city in Asia...there are sweeping boulevards, tree fringed lakes, ancient pagodas and a compact historic centre where a constant tide of motorbikes swarms, hawkers in conical hats ply their wares while locals sip coffee and bia hoi (beers)". Phil joined said locals at a bia hoi joint last night for an hour or so. Which is, to put it in context, a bit like the bar part of a rural Irish pub; a strictly male preserve except this version is al fresco with tiny plastic tables and seats. He arrived back to the hotel room smiling at, no doubt the effect of the bia hoi, but also at the prices. At 5,000 Vietnamese dong per glass (70 cent in Euro) and preservative free grog there's certainly reason to smile. 
I haven't been writing much lately I know. I find that pregnancy quietens me somewhat and makes me more introspective. But I have been inspired today by our visit to the beautiful Temple of Literature. I feel a need to write re-surface.  But I had better sign off and to bed as we are up in just a few hours to head on a 3-day 2 night cruise to Halong Bay. We opted for one of the more expensive tour options as we did a lot of research and it seems, with Halong Bay tours in particular, you get what you pay for; if you go budget your boat could have a hole in it. All reviews of our seaworthy vessel are exceptionally good, thankfully. Their slogan is "Luxury you deserve". Our hopes our high. We've never been on any kind of a cruise before so we are all really looking forward to it. Luca is extremely excited and has come up with pirate names for all of us to be used for the duration of our sea voyage (I'll leave you guessing on that front me hearties). Phil has even downloaded "Death on the Nile" to watch onboard. So, I'd better be joining me bosuns in their slumber and bid you all Goodnight. For now.