New Zealand; we love you.

We have been back from our round the world jaunt for just over two months now, so it’s about time I filled you in on the last leg of our journey. It feels very strange to be writing about camper vanning in New Zealand from my dining table in Brighton but that’s a whole other post.

We got our first taste of the quirky Kiwi sense of humour on our Air New Zealand flight from Sydney. The safety briefing video was performed to ‘Men in Black’ by members of the All Blacks (the national rugby team); giving me and Nick a good laugh. We picked up our Jucy camper van rental at Christchurch airport and were ready to hit the road for intrepid adventure. Our first stop was my friend’s driveway just outside of Christchurch (ahem). Where we enjoyed her hospitality for a couple of days while we got to grips with the van, filled it with food and formulated a plan for our month in New Zealand.

 
Christchurch is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. The town centre was flattened and our walk around was extremely sobering, not least when we visited a poignant memorial near the temporary cathedral. An installation of 185 chairs, each painted white and donated by a family that lost someone in the earthquake, the baby car seat in particular brought a lump to my throat. We also perused the pop-up shipping container shopping precinct which is helping to fill the void and enjoyed a romp around the Botanical Gardens.

 

Our first true taste of life on the open road was through the gorgeous countryside of Banks Peninsular. Every bend in the road brought a new ‘wow’ from my lips and we had to pull over often to drink in the views. We moseyed around Akaroa, enjoying our first hokey pokey ice-cream and then went in search of our first campsite. We didn’t find it but a helpful local told us we could free-camp anyway. I played on the beach with the boys while Nick made dinner. I felt happy to my very bones.

The following days and weeks passed in an eat, drive, sleep, repeat cycle. We used a fab app to find our campsites, varying from free camping to holiday parks when we felt the need for wifi and a shower. It was great to be travelling under our own steam for the first time in nearly a year and we absolutely loved the freedom that having the van gave us.

We covered many miles on the South Island, ticking off some of New Zealand’s finest tourist attractions. We pondered the improbable geology of Muraki  and Punakaki. We hid from wild

weather at Mount Cook, then were awed by the views when the storm cleared in the morning and we were able to hike. Dunedin kept us all happy with a chocolate factory for the kids and a brewery for the adults. Nick and I were bowled over by the beauty and scale of Milford Sound where the boys were more interested in what was in the cruise’s packed lunch.

New Zealand’s wildlife did not disappoint. We had amazing experiences seeing albatross, seals and penguins. Driving one day we saw an eagle soaring away with a rabbit in its claws, but the highlight was our encounter with a majestic sperm whale. Our time on the South Island was running out so we did a silly long drive to get to Kaikoura. Nick woke early and called the whale watch place and was informed they had a boat going in ten mins but there were no guarantees for later trips as the weather was due to change. This therefore could be our only chance. We hot footed it over, getting the boys dressed when we arrived and took food to breakfast on the boat. The sea was very rough and I was glad the boys were seasoned travellers. As our fellow passengers sought seasickness bags, they tucked into peanut butter sarnies. It was all worth it for the 10 minutes we got to spend watching this amazing creature spout from it’s blowhole, fill it’s lungs and dive back below the choppy sea with a flick of its tail.

 
I would also like to mention that the Kiwis certainly know how to do playgrounds right in New Zealand. We wiled away many happy hours as the boys clambered, swung and slid on whales, dinosaurs and a steam punk elephant. All with beautiful backdrops of lakes, mountains or coast. There was even a play area on the inter-island ferry which kept the boys entertained for the entirety of the 3 hour crossing from South to North.

I would have enjoyed Wellington more, had in not been from the excruciating pain of an infected sandfly bite. Nevertheless, we visited the awesome Te Papa museum and the only Lord of the Rings-related attraction of our time in New Zealand. The Weta Cave is the studio of the special effects company behind the movies and location of Nick’s best ever selfie.

 

As we left Wellington we didn’t have much of a plan other than heading North. And after a brief stop to visit New Zealand’s museum of rugby we ended up at our favourite freedom camp of the duration. A gorgeous deserted spot by a stunning beach where we had heaps of fun building a den and splashing in the chilly sea. While we were there a school of fish flung themselves out of the water and onto shore. Nick and George went all hunter gatherer and had them for lunch.

 
Next stop was with some friends we’d made in Cambodia. Trevor and Kat happen to run a winery in Hawkes Bay and by happy co-incidence (OK, meticulous planning) they invited us to stay the weekend of my birthday. We had lots of fun, eating, drinking and being merry with them. It was really interesting to get the winery tour and taste the wine direct from the barrels to see how that differs from the finished product. They also took me to their local doctor’s so I could get some antibiotics. The doc had a chuckle with me about the irony of getting ill in New Zealand and not India.

 

We continued North stopping to enjoy the geothermal activity in Rotorua and then onto Coromandel. Where we ate “fush ‘n’ chups” on the beach like real Kiwis. We toured round the peninsular taking in the gorgeous coastline and empty beaches. Our next stop was with some friends of friends who live on their land in a yurt. I’d been following Lucy’s blog for some time and am incredibly inspired by what they are doing; unschooling and simple living. We had a lovely evening round the camp fire and the kids became thick as thieves. Actual thieves. The little monkeys managed to pinch a wedge of cash that nearly ended up in the river when they went for a swim.

Photo credit Lucy AitkenRead

The time had come to return the van. We tried at the last minute to extend the rental but as it was a bank holiday we were politely informed that we had no chance. Navigating round Auckland’s one-way system resulted in mine and Nick’s biggest ever row. Tempers were frayed as we had to return the tank full of petrol and somehow ended up back on the motorway heading out of town. It was the only time I wished we had hired a sat nav.

Our last week was spent with some lovely friends and their three boys who moved to Auckland from Brighton. I was apprehensive of how it would go with 5 boys, aged 6 and under all under one roof but they got on like a dream and we were very grateful of Aoife and Steve’s hospitality. Their place was a great base for exploring the city and on the weekend we all got out into the Waitakere area together. A creeping sense of dread came over me in the last couple of days. I had fallen head over heals for New Zealand and really, really didn’t want to leave.

 

We were lucky enough to spend time with lots of friends; old and new. Including the super siblings of a Brighton friend. And we treasure happy memories from those times. Be they frolicking in streams, bouncing on trampolines, having fun on a vineyard or sharing a meal around the dinner table. The people certainly helped make our time in New Zealand really special. We loved the wide open spaces. We ate kiwi fruit by the bucket load. Affected a Kiwi twang with our speech. And pondered a future in the Land of the Long White Cloud. If it weren’t so bloody far away.

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From New Zealand there was just one stop left… start spreading the news… New York blog coming soon.

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Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.

Vietnam Part I

The geography of Vietnam lends itself to one of two routes for exploring. You either go from North to South or from South to North. The flights worked out cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City so that’s where our Vietnamese adventure began.

The heat and noise hit us as we left the arrivals hall. It felt strangely familiar, despite never having been there before. We couldn’t get a price we were happy with for a taxi into town so climbed aboard a local bus and whilst the children were free we had to buy a ticket for our large backpack. We trundled through the swarms of motorbikes and were set down somewhere near our hotel. The welcome in HCMC couldn’t have been more different than in Tokyo. “The room you have booked is too small for you and your children.” Oh, here we go again we thought. “I’ll put you in a bigger room for the same price. Your kids are so cute!” I knew then that I’d like Vietnam.

We spent a happy few days in HCMC. My faithful flip flops from Western Nepal gave up on me so we wandered round the market looking for replacements. Everything is fake branded so I am now the proud owner of a pair of Aberconnbies [sic]. There are some cool playgrounds which the boys enjoyed no end. Not least because a random encounter with a lovely family from New Zealand provided them with a playmate for a large portion of our time in Vietnam.

We weren’t sure about visiting the War Remnants Museum with children but it worked out really well. They enjoyed seeing the planes and tanks outside and there is a playroom on the top floor. Nick and I meanwhile took it in turns to play with the children whilst the other visited the museum. I walked through the exhibition with tears streaming down my face. I learnt more about the American/Vietnam war and the far reaching implications of Agent Orange. There are some truly horrific photos of the brutality of war, in particular of children, which made me despair for humanity and stayed with me for a long time.

After zipping round the Far East we were in need of a rest. The plan had been to settle for a month in the beach town of Mui Ne to recuperate. We had a not-so-little house that I’d found on Air BnB and we were happy to fall into the routine of domesticity after so many hotels. We were excited to cook our own food and do our own laundry. We loved having mango trees in the garden and having time to think about where we’re going (literally and figuratively).’

 

Mui Ne is a big draw for Russian tourists so between self catering and all the Cyrillic signs we didn’t really feel as though we were in Vietnam. We enjoyed the company of our Kiwi friends who joined us for a few days and all had fun in the nearby sand dunes. The beach was a let down however, as the water was dirty and I was savaged by sand flies. We took to using the pool at Joe’s (a local cafe/resort) where the boys perfected their swimming. After a couple of weeks, feeling rested, we cut our losses and were back on the road.

We headed up to the Central highlands and the hill town of Dalat. Enjoying the cooler climes whilst we saw the sites including Hang Nga Crazy House, Elephant falls and the beautiful Xuan Huong lake. Dalat is well know for growing vegetables and the surrounding countryside is covered in poly tunnels.

We had planned an overnight trek with camping at nearby Mount Langbian. The start of the trek was rather disappointing with lots of rubbish and noise from jeeps. However after a steep climb we were soon away from the busy tourist area and horses painted to look like zebras. The next part of the walk was really enjoyable as we ambled through lush pine forest, even Tom managed the whole thing without complaint. As we got to the top the clouds had rolled in and we seemed to be right inside the peals of thunder. The heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin on our way down the mountain. Slip sliding on mud and trying to avoid the torrents that cascaded down the path next to us. At one point I had a couple of kilos of extra weight in clay stuck to my feet. We decided we didn’t have anything to prove by staying in the tent and beat a retreat to the warm shower in our hotel.

From there we hit big brash seaside town of Nha Trang. The beach was lovely, if crowded and the boys loved jumping off the diving board at the Central Park pool. We attempted the ‘Total Wipeout’ style bouncy stuff in the sea, but didn’t really get the hang of it. It was a good place to break up the journey northwards but boy were we happy to reach Hoi An.

 To be continued…

Highs and lows in Japan

Tokyo did not give the Johnsons a warm welcome. George got kicked on the metro and our hotel refused to let us check in until we’d paid for an extra room. The hotel had us over a barrel, it was the beginning of the Golden Week period when the majority of Japan is on vacation and accommodation in Tokyo was rarer than a bleu steak. When you get a bad first impression of somewhere it can be hard to move on. I spent our first couple of days in the capital in a foul mood feeling like the whole place was against us. And I didn’t even see Bill Murray.

Our accommodation woes followed us to Kyoto. Where we were informed that children weren’t allowed in the room we had booked and we would have to pay more for a different room. We sucked it up. Clearly this was how they rolled in Japan. The guest house, owned by an ancient matriarch, was run down and infused with the delicate aroma of cat piss. It was interesting to stay in a traditional japanese house but with the warning from granny to keep the children quiet I didn’t warm to its paper-thin walls.

Happily our digs with their lumpy futons were the lowest point of our stay in Kyoto. The neighbourhood was great. Although a way out of town we were right next to a massive temple complex, with exquisite gardens, a playground nearby and wonderful local restaurants. We made the most of our Japan Rail passes, enjoying day trips to enchanting Arashiyama and to visit the tame deer in Nara.

And so it was we went from the ridiculous to the sublime. A yurt, on a smallholding, in the Japan Alps. Our own space where the kids could run around and make as much noise as they liked. Yuu and Megumi run a book shop/cafe/gallery space as well as guest house accommodation. There are a couple of fabulous installations in their grounds including a giant organ and camera obscura.

Our days were filled with happiness: hunting tiny frogs, hiking in the Alps and soaking in the local Onsen (public bath). Our evenings were spent feasting on Megumi’s wonderful food, sipping sake and conversing with their artist friends. On our last night we were treated to a mini-gig from Yuu’s band. The hills were alive with the sound of Beatles covers.

We were dreading leaving our haven in the hills and we bickered our way through the bus journey back to Tokyo. We’d had no luck finding somewhere to stay but Yuu and Megumi came to our rescue, securing a place to stay with a family friend in the suburbs.

That’s how we found ourselves at Maki and Yossy’s house where we were embraced as part of the family. They live in a lovely old house in an inspiring community and run ’Alumonde’ a workshop space where people can use tools to fix their stuff or swap unwanted items for things they need. They live near a city farm where we gatecrashed a bbq and got to make gelatinous rice cakes. We hiked a nearby mountain, enjoyed a full moon dinner party, ate Wagyu beef and experienced the intensity of a Japanese festival.

We didn’t  see a Geisha, Sumo wrestler or Mount Fuji but Nick did manage to soak himself pressing the wrong button on a high-tech toilet. The trains are super fast and the food is sublime. However it was away from the stereotypes that we saw Japan at its best. We got to experience a side of Japan that many visitors to the country would not see. I certainly would not have missed our haven in the hills or the sense of community we had for all the sushi in Japan.

Friends, fresh air and food in South Korea

Our time in South Korea could be summed up with three Fs: Friends, fresh air and food. Or, come to think of it, three Ms: mates, mountains and meals. Or maybe three C’s; chums, countryside and cuisine… Ahem. You get the idea.

The spring sunshine and blossom in Seoul was a delightful backdrop to our explorations of this vibrant city. We enjoyed the changing the guard ceremony at Gyeongbokgung palace.

Wandering along Cheong-gye-cheon, a stream that runs through the centre of the city. Riding the cable car up to Namsan Peak for love locks and city views. Visiting Insa-dong’s quirky shopping district. Seeing the beautiful blossom at Yeoido spring flower festival. And dancing on Gangnam Street’s  eponymous stage. For the children there were numerous museums and parks. But the real highlight was catching up with friends that we’d made whilst trekking in Nepal. Yuni and Jo were wonderful local guides and it was great to have their insight into Korean culture.

From Seoul we spent two nights in Busan but the wind and heavy rain meant it was hard to explore. We ended up succumbing to pester power and shelled out to visit the Busan Sealife centre. The boys enjoyed it but I cant help but think they got just as much enjoyment looking at the tanks of fish, eels and octopi in the seafood market.

Jeju Island was the destination for the second part of our trip. We arrived at our accommodation in Seogwipo by chance with the aid of a helpful coffeeshop manager. We had snuck in to use the wi-fi and having struck up a conversation he phoned his friend who worked in a hostel round the corner. Kenny the owner of Slow Citi hostel did us a great deal and we got a free night on the understanding that our boys would play with his son. Now thats a win:win. The sign on the reception wall reading ‘Don’t be inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise’ was rather apt.

Jeju is a volcanic island to the South of the mainland. It is a big holiday destination for the Koreans. This is probably why there is a museum/theme park for everything. From sex to dinosaurs; teddy bears to chocolate. Happily we managed to avoid these and spent our time enjoying the fresh air whilst exploring Jeju’s stunning coastline. It was sunny but the sea was pretty chilly, that didn’t deter the boys from taking a dip at Jungmung & Hyeopjae’s beautiful beaches.

The football fans amongst you may recognise Jeju as one of the venues from the 2002 World Cup. Many of the islanders we met claimed to have met David Beckham et al and would let us know at the earliest opportunity in our conversation.

We used Jeju’s extensive bus service to get around and at a bus stop one day we met some Neuro surgeons who were on Jeju for a conference. They couldn’t figure out which bus to get and ended up hailing a taxi. It was a little complicated but certainly not brain surgery.

We spent a day climbing Mount Hallasan. The route up was not particularly scenic but the views across the island from the top made it worth it. Hiking is somewhat of a national past time in Korea. There are an abundance of outdoor clothing stores and people get kitted up in technical clothing for the shortest stroll. Even in Seoul we saw older people on the metro decked out in vibrant rain coats (we dubbed them the ‘Goretex grannies’). We must have looked woefully underprepared. As we learnt in Nepal, Koreans take a good supply of treats with them on a hike and the boys were kept happy by a steady stream of sweets and chocolate.

I couldn’t write about our time in Jeju without mentioning the incredible Haenyeo. These female free divers collect sea products by diving to depths of up to 20m. It is somewhat of a dying art as young women no longer want to take up the profession. Many of the remaining Haenyeo are in their sixties still diving to collect sea slug, sea weed and other such delicacies.

Which brings me round to the last F; food. Korean food is delicious and with the help of Yuni and Jo we managed to navigate some dishes that we may not have known about (or dared try) otherwise. Culinary highlights include: Naengmyeon (buckwheat noodles in cold broth), Hotteok (pancakey thing with a sweet gooey middle), Pakeon (green onion pancake) Bindaettok (mungbean pancake), Jokbal (pig trotters), Modeumhoe (mixed raw fish/seafood platter – I’ll pass on the sea slug next time) and of course the famous Korean barbecue.

It had not been high on my list of countries to visit on our round the world trip. In fact I didn’t know much about South Korean apart from kimchi, Gangnam Style and the troublesome neighbours in the North. But I soon fell in love with the warm people, beautiful scenery and delicious cuisine. The one downside was that we only spent two weeks there. Annyeoghi gyeseyo Korea. I hope we meet again.