A week in Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Over Tet, we had just over a week off work as the schools shut and everyone prepares for the celebrations. This gave us the perfect  opportunity to get out of Hai Phong a little further than a taxi ride can take us and do some travelling so a big group of us decided to head South, towards sunshine, beaches and cocktails to an island paradise. 

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The panoramic view from the 5th floor of the Praha Hotel, Phu Quoc

Phu Quoc Island is Vietnamese territory and is positioned West off the Vietnamese coast, just South of the Cambodian Coast. There is a spot on the North of the island where you can apparently see Cambodia when the weather is good. While Phu Quoc is a relatively small island, there is plenty to see and do there. 

 

Beaches

Long Beach was right near where we stayed, booked on the advice of a friend of a friend as well as a bit of research. The beach is, in fact 20km long, hence the name I suppose. This lies up the west coast and starts about 10 minutes from the airport, working it’s way up north. The beaches are beautiful, clean and the water is pristine clear blue. Our hotel (which was also amazing by the way) was about a 10 minute walk from the main hotspot on Long Beach so we usually made our way up towards the centre along the beach. There are tons of restaurants, beach loungers, massage places and more along that stretch of the beach so it doesn’t really matter where you decide to stop – you won’t go hungry, lonely, sandy or unmassaged! 

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Day one, cocktail bar one.
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same same
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Can you even?
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Fresh fruit on the beach
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It’s a hard life

We also ventured south east one day to Bai Sao beach for a day which was about a 30 minute taxi ride from where we stayed. Think white sand beaches, set back in a cove so there is practically no current and the water was as still as can be. There’s a swimming area that’s buoyed off and outside of that there is space to go venturing on jet skis or go para-sailing. Restaurants abound here with views of the water and the only potential downfall of this side of the island is that you don’t get to see the sunset from here, and they are pretty spectacular, so worth getting packed up and heading back across to Long Beach to catch the end of the day.

 

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Bai Sao Beach views

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Sim Wine Factory 

Isn’t really a wine factory but whatever the liquor is it’s most certainly alcoholic. There isn’t really very much to see here except some very pretty flowers and you can do a free tasting of a few of the variations including a syrup which they put over ice like a slushy. They’re also pretty strong so take it easy if it’s breakfast time 🙂 

Phu Quoc Pepper

Phu Quoc is specifically known for producing pepper in Vietnam and quite a few dishes, specifically on the island specify that they’re made with Phu Quoc pepper. If you’re looking for THE pepper farm you can find a couple relatively close to Long Beach, but if you keep driving up north, you will see countless pepper farms and again, there’s not a lot to see, except rows and rows of pepper plants, which is pretty cool. You can also buy various types, combined with different spices, whole peppercorns, ground with chili and so on. It was pretty cool to se them on the stem, changing colour etc but don’t expect a guide or anyone to tell you about the process or anything. We wandered around a bit, got a few pictures, bought a couple of bottles and then asked them to call us a taxi to move on to the next place. 

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green
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turning to red
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rows of pepper plants with a view
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for sale

Bee Farms 

The same sort of deal goes for the bee farms as for the pepper farms. There is more than one and there’s not really anything like a tour of the place. Some of them seem to have food while some only have drinks. The one we went to had a drinks menu and a honey tasting as well as jars of infused honey to buy. They were infused with things that would never have crossed my mind, including the ever-present Phu Quoc pepper! 

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freshly squeezed orange with raw honey
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yummmm
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different types for sale
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testing station
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more pepper, anyone?

We had freshly squeezed orange juice drowned in raw honey which was absolutely delicious, and after that I couldn’t possibly put any more honey in my body but Claire tasted a bunch of different ones before buying a couple of jars. 

We wandered around here again, to see the “yoga house” – a wooden hut with a yoga mat in it, the “bee library” – a small housing with some books in it, 

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Bee Wise Library

and the “mushroom house” – a room where a bunch of mushrooms looked they were probably drying out. 

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Just some mushrooms, drying out in their own little house

Also, check out his pineapple plant! I mean, how did I not know that this is how pineapples grow?!?

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The best!

Restaurants 

The Spice House at Cassia Cottage was a revelation. It is one of the highly recommended restaurants in the area and not by mistake. The food was delicious, service was excellent and dessert was spectacular. Three of us ate there and we had the vegan curry and rice, beef strips and pineapple with Phu Quoc Pepper (served in a freaking pineapple), and cheese stuffed chicken breast with ratatouille. I had a Bloody Mary which was also divine. We couldn’t resist ordering dessert as well and shared two between the three of us. We had a chocolate lava pudding which was mind blowing, and ice cream sundae which consisted of 2 scoops of Cassia ice cream and one vanilla. The two couldn’t have complemented each other better – ice cream and chocolate pudding? I mean, come on. 

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The view from The Spice House
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Vegan Curry
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Beef and pineapple with Phu Quoc Pepper (in a pineapple)
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Chicken breast (stuffed with mozzarella) and ratatouille
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Chocolate lava pudding
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Cassia and Vanilla ice cream (OMG)

There was also, naturally seafood for days along the beach front, fresh fruit smoothies in all the restaurants, as well as fruit, chopped right in front of you on the beach. Phuong Binh House does an incredible Grilled Squid with Chili and Salt. You can’t go wrong with a Rory’s Beach Bar pizza, and Jo Jo’s does a fresh Seafood barbecue on the beach, where you go and select your own fish before they cook it, as well as a whole menu, and reasonably (ish) priced wine. 

I would definitely go back to Phu Quoc. I only have a couple of hundred other places I haven’t been before first. 

 

Vinh Bao Saturdays

Once again this morning we had the 6.25am bus out to Vinh Bao for Saturday morning classes. Classes start around 8am but Vinh Bao is a solid hour and a bit drive away so off we trek bright and early. Well, not so bright, but definitely early.

I only teach two classes on a Saturday morning while the other 4 teacher have 4 classes each. This means that I teach my two lessons and then have about an hour and a half to wait before everyone else finishes and we can all go home. Because we’re so far out, the bus only does the one trip each way. While this is not my ideal Saturday morning, it does mean that I get to see some things that not many other people have had a chance to see.

Last time we came out and I had to wait around, the bus driver and my TA took me to a really famous pagoda (I need to find out the proper name and will update).

It’s also the perfect place to get pictures of the iconic scenes of people working in the fields with the conical Vietnamese hats on. Last time we came out I tried to get a pic of two women in a field with their hats on but they insisted on taking them off to pose for the pic!

This morning I spotted a couple of people down the road from the school so I took a wander and got a few more photos.

It is so incredibly green once you get out of town! And I also snapped this lady who was selling treats to the kids as they came out of class.

Vietnam: Three weeks in

Hanoi

I cannot believe it’s already been three weeks since we finally arrived in Hanoi. Orientation was a bit of a blur to be honest. We arrived at the hotel the Monday evening when we finally got here, dropped our bags off and went straight out to the welcome dinner, followed by a visit to beer street which ended up with us staying out till about 3am that night. Tuesday through Thursday were a combination of weird hotel food, intense practical sessions in the mornings and Vietnamese lessons in the afternoons, interspersed with lots of coffee, trips to the Vinmart (local 7eleven type shop just down the road which sells snacks, basics, water and beer), getting new sim cards organised and buying airtime and data so as not to have to rely on the WiFi at the hotel and various coffee shops.

Friday morning was our final session which was do’s and don’ts, what to expect specifically in Hai Phong as well as a bit of Vietnamese culture. The expectations for the hotel we were to be staying in was played down significantly (although in hindsight, probably still not enough) and warnings of rats, cockroaches and various other creepy crawlies were put out there. We then had a free afternoon for the first time since arriving which I spent re-packing my suitcase, the contents of which had managed to find their way pretty much to every corner of the room, and to have a bit of quiet time. Having been on planes and in each other’s pockets for almost a full week, sharing a room in Hanoi and spending days on top of each other, it was a welcome relief to actually have  an afternoon of nothing. I had the TV on, playing old movies in the background (something with Owen Wilson and a bunch of kids, the title of which was the name of Wilson’s character but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was called) and grabbed a tin of Pringles and a Coke from the Vinmart for a taste of familiarity.

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The wall outside the coffee shop
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The place that became our regular for the week 
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chocolate and caramel iced coffee
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The view from our room on the 5th floor

Farewell Karaoke

Friday night was our farewell to orientation week which saw us across the road from the hotel with Karaoke Microphones, Bia Hoi (a kind of home brew that is way cheaper than anything else, and also a bit lighter) and 130 odd people singing, dancing and going a little crazy. The knowledge that we had to check out on the be on the bus to Hai Phong before 8am on Saturday did little (nothing) to dampen our spirits. When the Karaoke place essentially closed around 11.30 plans were made to purchase excess and take it back to the hotel to carry on with the party. Which we did. I think I made it another 3am-ish night and was up and finalising packing at about 6.30am to head down to check out and get breakfast before leaving. Which only happened after 9 in the end (something which we could have predicted had we really thought much about it). The bus that arrived to fetch us wasn’t big enough for everyone let along everyone and their luggage and so another had to be organised before we could leave.

 

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In the beginning

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Closer to the end
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The view much earlier in the morning on the day we left

Hai Phong

The drive to Hai Phong wasn’t long and after the first half hour or so I think most people drifted off to sleep. I have to say the noise cancelling headphones Rhys sent over from the UK have really been a life saver. From the plane, to a noisy hotel and sharing rooms, it really makes sleep easier when you can’t actually hear anyone else, including on the bus when I had a little nap. We got to the hotel and got our room allocations (more sharing for the weekend) and then lunch was delivered. Banh Mi. I couldn’t eat mine. I’m not sure if it was a combination of a week’s worth of drinking or if there was something in it that didn’t agree with me but I had about two bites. Apparently it was from the best Banh Mi place in Vietnam. I’ll have to try something different there and actually check it out.

We went for a wonder around the hotel coz we had a couple of hour before we needed to be at the language centre for our first Hai Phong orientation session. We got a coffee and had a quick look around. Walked a bit and discovered the dusty, dirty streets. Even though I’ve been to Vietnam before, I’d never been to Hai Phong. It’s not exactly your ultimate tourist destination…

We spent the weekend at the language centre, breaking for meals and a bit of exploration. For dinner on Saturday night we went to Texas BBQ which is about the most western restaurant there is around. I got a burger and chips which was really good after a week of unusual food, a lot of tofu, pork and fish sauce in everything. It was also good to pick something up with my hands on purpose instead of because I’d dropped it out of my chopsticks! Sunday morning saw us teaching practice lessons to our peers which was about the most nerve wracking thing I’ve had to do in a really long time. We then had a culture workshop, schedule allocation and handout of materials (chalk, dusters, magnets, flashcards and so on), ready for the first classes on Monday. I got allocated Monday off so I guess it was an easy start. Also, I woke up sick on Sunday morning with a cough and a sore throat and a nose that needed blowing every few minutes so it was a bit of a relief that I didn’t have to go an teach first thing on Monday.

 

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On our way to Hai Phong
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Apparently the best Banh Mi place in Vietnam
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phê sữa đá – Iced Condensed milk coffee 
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The coffee shop near the language centre
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An interesting version of a Banh Mi – pretty damn tasty
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Morning Glory. Yes, I’m serious. And just a touch of garlic.
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The view from my room…
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Fishing around the corner
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Pizza and beer – you can’t really go wrong

Teaching

And so it began. With a grand total of about 3 days of practical sessions and a 120 hour online theory course, off we went to class to go and teach English as a Second Language to a bunch of people. The girls were mostly allocated to primary schools, meaning we would be teaching children between the ages of 6 and 12, or secondary which is 12 – 15 years, while the guys were allocated to high schools, teaching the older kids more advanced English. Not sure why it was done this way. It just seems to be the way it goes here. The little kids are super cute, except for when then they tell me “Teacher, you so fat”. The Vietnamese people are generally a pretty small nation, height and weight wise so that’s a fun part of my day, mainly with the grade ones.

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At break time the kids all line up and do some exercise type stuff before they get to play
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For a second I really thought my taxi driver was drinking beer. It’s Red Bull
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Authentic Kids H&M?
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Memory Coffee Shop – so pretty
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Really good cup of coffee
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There’s a temple just down the road from us
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One of the guys bought Hai Phong decorated cake 
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Bunny Rabbit chilling under the warm stove while we had dinner
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Beef fried rice. One of my best meals here so far.
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White wine is expensive and there’s not a lot of variety. Sad Face.
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This cucumber comes in some kind of pickle/vinegary sauce – so good.
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Unknown broth. Totally delish
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When we were told that the drivers don’t care about what’s behind them I didn’t believe them. I do now. 

Getting to Hanoi. Part 2

So I wrote the last post about 10 days ago when I was still pretty fired up about the whole thing. I’ve totally calmed down now and am now more amazed at the whole situation than I am annoyed or frustrated. Not that I was that much of either of those things in the first place. If I’ve learnt anything from my time on this earth and my travel opportunities, it’s that there’s really no point in expending energy getting angry and frustrated when there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about something. Obviously this is easier said then done and I definitely don’t always keep my cool but I think in this situation I did.

We FINALLY arrived in Hong Kong, after a 13 and some change hour flight (change because, as we were so heavily delayed, we couldn’t land straight away when we got there and were put into a holding pattern for another half an hour or so before we could actually get onto the ground). It wasn’t a good flight for me. I didn’t sleep well – I think I got about 4 hours just after dinner and then I flipped between wide awake and totally exhausted for the next however many hours. Also, the guy beside me had exceptionally bad breath and I spent most of the rest of the flight trying to breathe through the sleeve of my hoodie. It was very unpleasant. The only slight relief from this was when he spent half an hour away from his seat, I assume ‘freshening up’. He didn’t brush his teeth at this point by the way. He just sprayed half a can of deo so that when he came back that was all I could smell for half an hour. And then the breath returned in a wafty haze of browny green (in my head anyway).

We got off the plane and everything seemed incredibly organised. There must have been about 30 odd connecting flights off that SAA flight from Hong Kong. And I think that’s even a conservative guess. The ground crew (NOT SAA) at this point did an epic job of wrangling everyone off the flight into sections/areas and leading them off in different directions. For some reason our group (of 9 different connections, being managed by two ground crew) were the last to head out from our landing spot. They lead us all through the airport, down a seemingly endless passage of travelators (WordPress is telling me that’s not a word but the moving walkway things) which we got on an off like lemmings until we finally reached a new area. At this point here were airport staff approaching people with what looked like radar guns to their heads. Turns out it was just a temperature check point. And then on to the next area which had counters with airline staff. At this point I had thought, oh good, they had all of our names and which flights we were meant to be on. We’re flying through this airport like we’re about to be late for our new flights so they must be organised and we’ll be on our way shortly. I need to teach myself not to think such things it seems.

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We got there and then we stood. Some people from other connections filled out forms, and got ferried off somewhere else. And we stood. I ran to the bathroom making everyone else who was supposed to be going to Hanoi (there were 6 of us) swear that they wouldn’t let them leave without me. I ran back. And we stood. And then I sat on the floor because it didn’t seem like anything was happening for our group. One couple got annoyed, angry, irate. We were told there were no more flights leaving tonight for Hanoi. Everyone got out their phones to check. Everyone could see that there were other flights leaving for Hanoi. Not flights operated by Vietnam Airways unfortunately. Nobody cares, get us on other flights. Nope, everything’s full. Fill out these immigration forms because you don’t need visas so you can stay the night here and we’ll get you on a flight tomorrow. When tomorrow? Some people have work starting in the morning. They’re not impressed. There’s a flight that goes direct to Hanoi at 7.55am. Ok, cool that sounds good.

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Vantage point from my floor seat 

 

Fine, so we fill out our forms, go through immigration and head off to get our luggage. At this point everyone realises their luggage was overweight on the way here and while it would have just been checked through, they’re now going to have to have the fight in another airport and potentially have to pay in forex. The joy extends. We all find our luggage looking abandoned next to the carousel. One girl’s suitcase is now missing a wheel. We stand and wait for the ground crew staff. Who is now a different person because the original person palmed us off on someone else. I think she might have had a small cry. And we stand and wait. And some people sit down. And eventually she comes through and finds us. And she has hotel vouchers and new flights in her hand.She starts running through the hotel details and then she gets to the flights. So you’ll be flying out of Hong Kong at (whatever time it was) in the morning and land in Ho Chi Minh… Fireworks. WHAT? The angry couple are angrier. At this point I could honestly not care less. I actually just want to take my stinky wrinkly clothes off and have a shower, put my feet up, wash my hair and sleep in a real bed, which has already been promised.

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Boulevard of broken baggage dreams

Nope, we’re not flying via Ho Chi Minh. No, they can’t get us on the early flight tomorrow morning, it’s fully booked. You can come and wait on standby but there’s no guarantee.  Or, we can book you for sure on the morning flight to Ho Chi Minh and then you can change and leave for Hanoi at midday. Ooooor, we can book you to Hanoi via Bangkok tonight but it leaves at 2am (at this point it’s about 7pm and we’ve been sitting in airports or on planes since 2pm the previous day. Everyone’s exhausted and no one even contemplates that option). So now that they’ve booked us all on the wrong flights, they must wait for the supervisor before they can change the bookings. We sit down on the benches. I put my flight induced cankles up on my suitcase. And we wait some more. At 9.30 we finally have confirmation from the ladies that they’ve changed our bookings. We can take our hotel accommodation vouchers and just make sure we’re back here in time for our 2.30pm direct flight to Hanoi. That’s the best they can do. I’m not phased anymore I just want some water, something to eat and preferably glass or three of wine.

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So we found our way to the bus stops. Waited for about 20 minutes. Hopped in a bus which took us to the Auberge Discovery Bay Hotel. The dinner buffet is still up and running. Water is being poured at regular intervals. I stuff my face without remorse. Dessert is even better. The bar is closed 😦 It’s probably a sign. The rooms are amazing, the bed even better. I set my alarm thinking I’ll be awake way before then but the combination of a comfy bed, a long trip and block out curtains means I slept till my alarm went off. It was obviously much needed! I also checked the room service menu just out of curiosity to see what wine they had. Expensive. They had expensive wine.

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Granted this is HK Dollars so divide by 8 but still. 

We realised in the morning that the whole hotel was actually really nice. And the weather outside really wasn’t. We got up and went for breakfast at about 10.30. Hopped on the shuttle to the airport at 11.15. Got there without any tickets or proof that we were even booked on the flight but thank goodness that part went smoothly. They didn’t even question the overweight baggage. We think they put something in the system not to mess with us after the previous night and the angry couple. We went straight through security, which made all of us unpack our hand luggage basically down to the last bit and put it out into separate containers so that they could scan it again and go through everything in minute detail. Trying to get that lot back into my backpack was fun and games.

We went straight to our gate and waited for our flight. It boarded late and took off late. They had the smallest wine “glasses” you’ve ever seen.

We landed on time though so that was something. Then we headed through to the Visa queue as we had to do our visas on arrival and lo and behold there were about 200 people sitting on the floor waiting for their visas. We went and handed in our forms and photos (and passports) and then we sat. One guy came back from picking up his visa and said it had only taken two hours… There were two of us waiting at this point. The visas took an hour and a half. We got through immigration easily enough (although the woman who was doing mine was so busy texting someone that she took twice as long as anyone else) and then had to locate our once again abandoned luggage.

We got through, found the poor person who had been waiting for us since our landing time, got in a taxi and headed to the hotel. By the time we reached our final destination it was 6.30pm Vietnam time (which GMT +7, 5 hours ahead of SA). So it was 1.30pm in South Africa and I had been essentially “travelling” for 47 hours (starting from the time we left home to head to the airport).

Suffice it to say that I was very glad to finally be there and that I will probably never fly South African Airways again if I can do anything whatsoever to avoid it!

 

Olives, postcards and flights

Seeing as we were only in the Western Cape for the weekend we really wanted to do as much as we could fit in without stressing ourselves out. So on Sunday, even though we had a much more leisurely start than our early breakfast and 9.40 wine tram from Saturday, we were up and about and heading out of our accommodation by about 10.30.

Knowing that we had lunch booked at the Postcard Café in Stellenbosch for 12.30, we made our way to Tokara for a quick tasting and to stuff our faces with olives, on the way to lunch. The olives were freaking delicious in case you were wondering.

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Olives from Tokara
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The tasting room at Tokara has a sensational view

Next we meandered on to Postcard Café which has yet more spectacular views and is aptly named. I didn’t get any shots of the food, which was nothing short of mouthwatering, but I did get a couple of the surrounds.

I had beef medallions which were just melt-in-your-mouth delicious, with a light peppery sauce, baby potatoes and baby veggies. We drank, you guessed it, more wine and also indulged in dessert – I can highly recommend their carrot cake. It came close to as good as mom’s and that’s high praise!

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The view from the parking lot at Postcard café
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more parking lot views
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panoramic parking lot Postcard Café

After we were full of lunch and dessert and wine and everything we could get hands on, we headed out to find our last stop before we needed to start thinking about heading to the airport. The thinking was to hit High Constantia for a quick look, but it turned out that we were running out of time so instead we stopped in at Spier for one last tasting (because we needed more wine, obviously).

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Spier tasting
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Spier tasting area
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Spier tasting area

And then we made our way to the airport with not many minutes to spare and hopped on the plane back to Jozi. All in all, a beautiful and delicious weekend. Franschhoek (and Stellenbosch and Cape Town) is a feast for the senses.

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Flying home

 

 

Wine Tram – Franschhoek, Western Cape, South Africa

This weekend past, I went to the Western Cape, South Africa with some friends to visit the wine lands. I’ve popped into a couple of wine farms on a whirlwind visit after the Loerie Awards one year, 2010 I think it was, but have never actually spent any real time down there, enjoying it. So we went on Friday night and came back on Sunday night, which is by no means enough time but at least was more than a couple of hours.

On the Saturday we had tickets for the Purple Line of the Wine Tram which meant we got to visit a bunch of different wine farms that were on that line and do tastings and then get delivered back to town and none of us had to drive anywhere.

Farms on the purple line include:

Vrede en Lust 
Plaisir de Merle
Alée Bleue
Noble Hill 
Babylonstoren
Backsberg
Glen Carlou
Solms Delta

There are only 6 hours, with one hour per farm so you have to be relatively selective and you aren’t able to visit every farm on the line. Backsberg was closed that weekend which made that selection one less difficult. We were luck enough to have some seasoned veterans with us who helped with the other decisions based on past experience. In the end, we decided to skip Alée Bleue and Solms Delta, and we spent an extra hour at Noble Hill and booked a table for lunch so that we could make sure we lined our stomachs again.

There aren’t really words to express just how stunningly gorgeous that part of the world is so rather than ramble on about it, have a look at some of the pics I took.

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The view from our accommodation – Hannepoot Cottage
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The braai pit at the accommodation
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The Wine Tram
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Stop one
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Vrede en Lust
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Leaving Vrede En Lust
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A little panoramic looking out from the balcony at the tasting room on Vrede en Lust
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Plaisir de Merle
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Plaisie de Merle
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The ladies
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Add some bubbles
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To the veggie garden
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Noble Hill – veggie gard
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Crates of bottles
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Crates round the back
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Behind the Noble Hill restaurant, Cosecha
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Noble Hill Tasting
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They made the Guac at the table and the avos were perfect
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Down by the lake
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Babylonstoren
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Between the vines
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Babylonstoren Shiraz
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Babylonstoren
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Babylonstoren deliciousness
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Wine tram heading out
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Views from Glen Carlou

On Sunday we did a bunch more – next blog post!