Chapter 5, Part 4: Hoi An, Vietnam

It was our last full day in Hoi An, and we decided to hire bikes (for all of 60p) to explore the surrounding area a bit more. Not, however, before we had got our last fix of tailoring. With only 30 hours or so before we would have to leave to catch our next flight, we made an impromptu decision to get dresses made. Our approaches to the process differed quite drastically. Ellen found a design on the internet which she wanted to replicate, and picked an appropriate fabric and colour. Emily couldn’t handle the pressure of choosing any dress from an infinite selection and simply asked for whatever Ellen was getting but in a different colour. Katherine decided to go off piste and create a silk dress in a design essentially of her own invention, having only got as far as finding a picture of the back she wanted. It turns out there’s actually quite a lot to designing a dress, and none of us really had the requisite powers of imagination to visualise what the end result would be. We had by then spent a considerable length of time confusing ourselves with the myriad options available so, after some brief sketches  by the tailor, we decided to sack it off and go to the beach, leaving the fate of the dresses in the far more capable hands of the tailors.

We set off on our bicycles to a nearby beach, all the time competing for the limited road space with pushy mopeds and intimidating trucks, their horns blaring constantly. At the beach we left our bikes with one of the many cycle park attendants, who insisted that we couldn’t simply chain them somewhere nearby. We avoided the sun bed touts, opting instead to set up camp on the sand, and tried to top up our tans, which were significantly faded after a couple of weeks off.

The cycle home was even more hair raising, with the light now diminishing, and some sort of Vietnamese rush hour underway. We managed to stop off along the way to admire the beautiful views of the sun setting over the paddy fields, with cattle on tethers grazing nearby and rafts floating down the still river.

Given the time constraints, the tailors managed to fit us in for a dress fitting that evening, allowing enough time for alterations to be made before we had to leave. On the way into the shop we spotted a garish pink number, and wondered briefly who would have chosen such an awful shade of candy floss pink, before being handed our dresses. Unfortunately it turned out that the Disney Princess outfit was actually Katherine’s. She tried it on to the delight of the others and came close to just accepting that was what she was ending up with out of sheer British politeness. We even wondered if we were just such bad judges of textiles that the tiny swatches we had chosen from really did look that different scaled up. Eventually though, the sheer pinkness of the shiny silk was too painful on the eyes, and she had to say something. It turned out there had indeed been an error in the ordering of the silk, and the tailor hurriedly agreed to have a new dress made and ready to try on by the morning before our flight.

We were recovered enough from our gastronomical excesses of the day before to take ourselves out for a celebratory last dinner at what looked like quite a fancy restaurant. The local Vietnamese wine might have been an error, although it certainly did live up to the blurb on the label which described it as “unique”.    Afterwards we managed to complete our pool match, which unfortunately ended in a loss for the girls, and found what seemed to be the one club in Hoi An, in which to spend our last night.

In the morning we packed up our staff, vacated the dorm and hurried down to pick up the dresses and other items the boys had ordered last minute. To Katherine’s relief, but everyone else’s disappointment, the new dress was a considerably less offensive shade. Our other purchases were a success too, such as the boys’ shorts with mismatched colours, and Emily’s and Ellen’s matching dresses. We were so inspired by our success that we proceeded on a veritable retail rampage for the rest of our limited time. Emily, in particular, over indulged to the tune of three coats, a jacket, two dresses, a purse, a pair of Harem pants, three silk robes and no fewer than seven pashminas. Making space in our luggage would be the next challenge.

We bid farewell to Nick and Ben, unsure whether we would see them again, given their plans to go motor biking around the rest of Vietnam, with almost no prior experience. We left them in Da Nang and headed back to Ho Chi Minh, where we spent a terrible night in a room essentially on top of the busy highway. This followed from one of our strangest meals of the trip in an entirely Vietnamese speaking cafe. When asked for prawns the waiter simply pointed forcefully at the picture of a goat on the front of the menu and performed other completely unintelligible  actions, which left us completely at a loss as to what he was on about. In the end we managed to convey the notions of noodles and rice, which we shared resignedly while other diners eyed us suspiciously.

We caught an early morning flight to Singapore, and were able to spend most of the day with Kate back at her house, since torrential rain left us more or less housebound. Kate took us out for lunch at a vegan restaurant around the corner, which was delicious by and large (although bean curd fashioned into a fried egg was more than a little odd). The sun came out in time for us to have a few hours by the pool, before it was suddenly and dramatically overrun by several French families who embarked on a game of under water hockey to our bemusement.

Our last evening together was a poignant one, and we were all filled with a sense that something great was coming to an end. After this we knew we would have to get jobs and houses and behave more like responsible adults all together. We pondered this on the edge of the harbour, where the lights from countless ships reflected off the surface of the water in a picture postcard backdrop while we savoured our last cocktails. An evening stroll through the park lead us to a seafood restaurant where we finally tasted the chillie crab Singapore is famous for, and whiled away the hours before our flight departed.

The fourteen hour flight home gave us ample time to reflect on what an incredible experience we have had, and to savour the thousands of memories we have made together: 131 days, 15 flights, 6 countries, countless new friends, 3 young vets abroad and 1 trip of a lifetime. Until next time!

Chapter 5, Part 3: Hoi An, Vietnam

We spent a morning at the bustling Ben Thianh market buying souvenirs and presents for people at home. We had split up from the boys, who had tired of shopping almost immediately, and agreed to meet at a central point in the market at midday, which should give us just enough time to get back to the hotel and get a taxi to the airport. Twelve came and went, with no sign of the boys. We became sufficiently exasperated that we left a scribbled note with a security guard loitering nearby, gave him instructions to look out for two lost Englishmen and made our own way back. By this point we had also lost Emily

to the lure of a McDonalds coffee from down the road, and Ellen and Katherine were becoming increasingly fractious. We might have been grumpy enough to leave in a taxi on our own, but fortunately the boys rocked up to the hotel just in time, and unity was restored.

We were catching a flight to Hoi An, a small town further up the coast, famous for its textiles and tailoring industry. We would be staying at the Sunflower hostel, where our six man dorm was already occupied by a wristband-covered Canadian on her gap yaah. Nick and Ben quickly came to the decision that ‘banker’ and ‘pharmaceutical consultant’ wouldn’t go down well as answers to the ‘what do you do?’ question in this crowd and began brainstorming for more backpacker-appropriate job titles. Ben had already tried and failed to explain his job to a Vietnamese masseuse in Ho Chi Minh. This was probably a bit ambitious given her English had only just been good enough for Nick to be able to convince her that he didn’t like Vietnamese girls, at least not in the way she probably meant when she repeatedly asked him.

That evening we met up with Ellen’s school friend Millie, and her boyfriend Daniel. They took us to an incredible restaurant rated top in Lonely Planet. We sampled every Vietnamese delicacy we could manage, such as white rose dumplings, crispy pancakes, prawn rolls and exquisite pork-stuffed barbecued squid, until we were almost as full as after the fish incident in Saigon. This was probably the best meal of our entire trip, and all for next to nothing. Ellen and Katherine were feeling experimental and, in an attempt to follow on from our novel experiences of a culinary variety, made a rogue decision to order a multicoloured ‘rainbow’ shot, made up of seven different layered spirits (see below). Our subsequent alimentary discomfort was matched by Ben’s social discomfort in the face of overly-friendly advances from the waiter, who was attempting to force Ben into posting the picture of ourselves, plus shot and waiter, onto Facebook. Ben proudly remarked that he hadn’t published a post since Wimbledon 2010 and he didn’t intend to break that silence at the behest of a strange Vietnamese bartender. The ensuing battle of wills ended with Ben not only putting up the photo, but also accepting a friend request from the dogged barman, to his obvious delight.

At the next bar we spotted a pool table, and decided to dust off our cues and challenge Nick and Ben to a match. Maybe it was the after effects of the mysterious rainbow shot, or perhaps we just weren’t quite as good as we remembered, but the first game went to the boys. Needless to say we immediately clarified that the challenge had been best of three, and managed to turn it around for the second game. Then it was time to quit before we hit the ‘third game wall’ which had got the best of us too many times historically.

It would be impossible to spend more than a day in Hoi An and not leave with at least one item of clothing, such is the quantity of tailors, outfitters and rip off clothes shops in the area. The tailor the hostel initially sent us to turned out to provide a hefty commission for such recommendations, so we thought we ought to at least make a pretence at being savvy customers and shop around a bit. In the end, the volume and variety of fabrics, designs and pushy seamstresses in each shop proved overwhelming so we settled on the second one we had been in. Conscious of the climate we would soon be entering back into, even if the idea of them seemed laughable at the time, the three of us all decided to get winter coats made. We were shown a huge number of designs in folders and on mannequins, as well as being invited to pick any photo from the internet, which they could then replicate exactly. This left us a bit baffled, but we managed to put together an idea of the design we each wanted before it was time for the onslaught of possible fabrics and colours. When we left we were a little unsure as to what we would end up with, but the experience was fun in itself, if a bit exhausting. Nick had a far clearer vision for his outfit, which was to be a three piece blue silk suit, covered all over with oriental gold dragons and put with a gold silk tie. He casually dismissed our suggestions that this might not be the most wearable combination. Ben was more conservative, choosing a selection of shorts and shirts in jazzy patterns. We left the tailors to do their work and set off to recover from the assault on our senses with a large lunch.

Two courses later we remembered, too late, that we were meeting Millie and Daniel for a cookery class shortly, which would itself involve the preparation and consumption of five separate courses. We accepted the challenge and waddled off to where the boat departed for the cookery school. Our instructor was Phuong, a tiny Vietnamese lady sporting the traditional conical hat that we had seen throughout the country. She came with us on the 40 minute boat trip to the tiny An Hoi Islet, where her family came from. While we drank the juice refreshments she talked about Vietnamese culture and how her parents’ departure to the city had left her living alone with her grandma, who brought her up and taught her to cook. She and her cousins had the idea for opening a cookery school in the ramshackle open air building her grandmother had decided was too big for her to manage. She talked about rural village life on the island, which was so isolated from the mainland that, until recently, any trip to hospital had to be taken on the back of a moped across a makeshift bridge, which would then get destroyed with the floods each year.  She said that when the classes first opened, they attracted almost the entire village to come and watch. Now there was a pretty professional appearance to the whole thing, with individual cookery stations, matching utensils and crockery, and a number of other staff to fan the flames of the brick oven and bring out the pre-prepared trays of ingredients.

First we made Thit Nuong (barbecued pork on bamboo skewers) on little individual barbecues with hand held fans to regulate the heat. Then it was Goi Du Du (green papaya salad), which involved the grating of huge volumes of papaya and carrot before Phuong was satisfied. We then had to eat all the aforementioned vegetables to avoid offence even though we were filling up already and were uncomfortably aware that we had many more courses yet to come. Next was Banh Xeo, traditional rice pancakes. We made thick pancakes with shrimp and pork in, which were then wrapped in our rice milk pancakes from earlier, along with assorted leaves. By now we were all feeling pretty uncomfortable, and the appearance of a great slab of fish each for the Ca Kho To (fish clay pot) course was greeted with varying degrees of dismay. Ben, in particular, ended up with a small whale on his tray. We took our clay pots up to the main table, which was a already laden with pumpkin soup and rice, for the final course. Daniel managed to gallantly shift most of his fish onto the locals who had been helping out and were now sitting with us, leaving the rest of us to soldier our way through. When we had pushed the food around our plates enough and eaten as much as we could, Phuong whipped out a dessert of black sesame pudding (Xi Ma). This was somewhat of an acquired taste, but when Phuong explained that it was produced solely by one old man in town by a secret recipe, we felt obliged to finish it.

When we went to try on our new coats that evening, we worried that our waist lines might have altered enough to throw out our measurements completely, but in the end we were pretty pleased with the result, even if we wouldn’t be wearing them for a while.

Chapter 5, Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Our first impression of Saigon was a demented whirlwind of mopeds and pedestrians accompanied by a cacophony of frenzied beeping. The roads were lined with colourful but ramshackle buildings, tangled spider webs of electrical wires and countless street vendors and hawkers, their produce spilling out into the road. If the view from the car was frantic, stepping out into the madness was even more nerve wracking. Swarms of mopeds careered back and forth five abreast, with very little regard for pedestrian well-being. After waiting doubtfully at more than one crossing point, which the drivers appeared to disregard completely, we realised that the only way to get across was to follow Nick’s mum’s advice: just step out confidently and walk at a constant speed without looking left or right. We tried putting this into action and, sure enough, the bikes swerved around us without any deceleration at all, as we shuffled across en masse. The key, we learnt, is not to hesitate or try to second guess a driver’s intentions- you just have to trust that they won’t mow you down.

We wandered up and down the Main Street, dodging piles of rubbish, stray dogs and the odd moped which would mount the pavement without warning, looking for somewhere to stay. Very quickly it became apparent that nobody in the hostels spoke a word of English. After much hand gesturing, charades and even drawing on paper, we were getting nowhere. In particular the concept of five people travelling together seemed incomprehensible and we were shown room after room with only four spaces. In the end we came across a hotel where the receptionist actually spoke excellent English, albeit with extremely unusual intonation, and we decided to cut our losses and book in to a family room here. The problem of the fifth person was to prove insurmountable, however, as half hearted assurances from the porters that they would locate an extra bed proved empty.

After showering, and flooding the entire bathroom in the process, we headed out to explore and find somewhere to eat. Leaving Ben in charge of navigation meant we ended up criss-crossing the treacherous highways many more times than was strictly necessary, but the constant velocity technique held firm and we made it to the restaurant in one piece. We had picked the place due to the large number of locals inside, although the unintended side-effect of this was that the menu was almost entirely in Vietnamese, with infrequent garbled attempts at a translation. This, combined with the lack of English spoken by the waiting staff, meant that neither we nor they were at all sure what our order comprised. The three of us girls had each ordered seafood dishes, but when a man appeared at our table with a huge fish in a net, we were a little surprised, especially when it began jerking violently. The man repeatedly pointed at the fish and signalled ‘one’ and something else unintelligible. At the time we took this to mean would one fish between the three of us be OK, which it definitely would have been. We realised retrospectively he had actually been checking that we really wanted one of these enormous animals each. Our mistake became apparent when, after all tucking in to the first fish to arrive, a second and then third appeared, each one bigger than the last. This was a lucky turn of events for Nick, whose dish of venison tendon had turned it to be just as unappetising as you might imagine. By the end of the meal, we had all eaten as much as physically possible, and had completed almost all the fish. When the bill came we were pleasantly surprised that we had hardly spent any money, despite our best efforts, helped by the fact that a bottle of beer cost only 30p.

After dinner we sat on the balcony of a local bar drinking cocktails and speculating about the relationships between multiple balding white men and their suspiciously young, good looking companions. At the hotel, we settled on a suitable sleeping configuration to fit five people into two double beds. This was how the three of us ended up three way spooning lying across the bed width ways, which left a fair amount of leg hanging over the edge of the bed. This was less than optimal but fortunately by this point we were all pretty used to each other’s company and were actually happier with this arrangement than when put into separate rooms in Canberra.

We only had one full day in Ho Chi Minh City, so decided to pack as much as possible in. Since everything in Vietnam is insanely cheap, we hired a taxi to take us to our first stop- the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Advertised in ‘Lonely Planet’ as a top tourist destination, we were surprised to find the ageing Taoist temple in a pretty dilapidated condition. The front courtyard contained a small, dirty pool, teeming with turtles, most of which were almost completely covered in algae, and some of which had inscriptions on their shells. Inside the temple was packed with altars, shrines and statues with grossly disproportionate heads, surrounded by years of accumulated debris. It was difficult even to work out what gods were being worshipped here, as there seemed to be various conflicting images. We were later told that this temple was used by multiple religious groups, but was especially frequented by women praying to become pregnant.

A brief moment of respite from the heat in an air conditioned restaurant was followed by a trip to the war remnants museum, which gave detailed and gory accounts of American aggression without even a slight pretence at historical neutrality. None of us were exactly sure what had actually happened in the war but we felt certain there was a bit more to it than arbitrary viscious attacks by the Americans and the valiant Viet Cong resistance. We decided to Wikipedia it later. Nonetheless, the exhibition on the use of a potent herbicide, Agent Orange, which turned out to be extremely mutagenic and carcinogenic, was pretty interesting.

One last sight to fit in was the financial centre tower, the tallest in the city, which contained a sky deck with a 360 degree view. Annoyingly, there was an enormous queue stretching out of the door and around the building.  We were standing near the doorway contemplating this, when a smiley ticket officer came bounding out and gestured for us to follow her inside. We proceeded to be whisked past the fifty or so waiting Asians, and through into the lift with barely time to understand what had happened. Once in the elevator, Ben summed up our collective thought process: ‘Guys I’m not sure whether that was possibly really racist. Should we have stopped that happening?’. It turns out Vietnam really does have positive discrimination towards westerners, which I suppose was no bad thing for us, but did result in rather a lot of disgruntled locals.

That evening we had what Nick described as the saddest meal of his life, when Ben Thianh market turned out to be entirely clothing and souvenir stalls. We ended up at a cheap chain restaurant eating cold noodles grumpily. In a bid to turn the evening around we set about trying to find a karaoke bar, of which we had spotted many. Unfortunately google maps took us further and further away from the main town, across a dual carriageway and finally down a dark alleyway, at which point we decided we had better turn around. We had already been told to take our necklaces off in case they got ripped off our necks, and to watch out for muggers on mopeds, which made us glad the boys had come along and pretty certain that we shouldn’t go wandering off away from the streetlights. Instead we found a bar near the hostel where we ordered a beer tower and played cards much later than was really necessary.

Chapter 5, Part 1: Singapore (bus tours, laws and 57 floors)

Singapore airlines replaced Virgin at top of our airline leaderboard with their glamorous air hostesses, frequent drinks trolley visits and excellent food. Several hours later, however, their ratings took a nosedive when Ellen went down with food poisoning presumably contracted from the prawn nasi lemak. This put a bit of a downer on our brief stay in Singapore, the first night of which was spent watching Ellen hunched over a loo.

We were staying with Kate, an old friend of Ellen’s dad’s who had moved to Singapore from Australia. She lived in an airy townhouse on the outskirts of the city, which backed onto a beautiful shared courtyard strung with lights. There was even a water feature in the hallway containing tiny fish and two turtles. We were welcomed with a fruit platter and champagne al fresco, which was extremely welcome after a long day of travelling, but might have tipped Ellen’s fragile constitution over the edge.

In the morning we met up with Nick and Ben, friends from Trinity Hall, who we had convinced to fly out and join us for the remainder of our trip. We were looking forward to re-living some of the hilarity of our previous trip to Malaysia with them despite missing our fifth gang member, who had regrettably decided to prioritise his PhD instead. The tropical heat and extreme humidity was a bit of a shock to all of us, but none more so than Ben, who had gained about 40 degrees since being in freezing Berlin all week. We took a bus tour around the city, which was fairly expensive even before a miscommunication led to buying an extra ticket, which Nick promptly lost, along with his own. This came as no surprise since, despite being a Cambridge graduate, city banker, and now homeowner, Nick had an unrivalled reputation for misplacing important items. His debit card hadn’t even made it out of Qatar.

Singapore has very little traffic, which may have something to do with the 100% car tax and £30,000 licence fee, making cars an extreme status symbol. There are other ways in which the country is pretty draconian, such as the laws against spitting, high penalties for littering, and even a ban on being naked in your own home, since being inadvertently spotted through a window would be deemed to amount to pornography. This last rule seems bizarre for a city with an apparently thriving red light district. Mind you the whole idea of a country designed and built from nothing almost single-handedly by an Oxford-educated Malay politician, who governed as a benign dictator seems extremely foreign to us to say the least. The result is a meticulously maintained and efficiently run metropolis, with unique futuristic architecture and world class attractions, but somewhat lacking in soul, especially when compared to other chaotic and vibrant Asian cultures.

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First stop on the tour was the Botanic Gardens, where we walked through a tropical rainforest, tested the weight bearing capacity of what was presumably a children’s’ swing, and taught Nick what a frangipani looked like. After a brief navigational mishap we wound up on Orchard road, where all the luxury designer shops were clustered. Feeling a little out of place, and more than a little sweaty, we took refuge in an air conditioned Starbucks nearby to regroup. Then it was back on the bus and off to the remarkable Marina Sands Hotel, where we avoided the extortionate fee for a rooftop viewing by heading instead to the bar on the 57th floor, where we were met with fantastic views across the city, including the Gardens by the Bay, with its weird space age sculptures. After trying, and failing, to gain access to the rooftop infinity pool reserved for hotel guests, we snuck back down in the lift without even ordering a tap water. We did, however, resolve to come back later for cocktails and to watch the nightly light show.

From the hotel we walked over the so-called Helix bridge, which claimed to represent the structure of DNA and symbolise the synergy between nature and human design. Unfortunately our scientific education made it impossible to ignore the fact that the bridge wasn’t a double helix at all, with Ben geekily pointing out that it looked more like an alpha helix protein structure, which ruined the poeticism of it somewhat.

In Chinatown we found more of the typical Asian aesthetic we had envisaged, with colourful temples, gaudy decorations and pungent street food spilling out of hawker establishments on every corner. By this point Ellen was feeling pretty sick again so after a lunch of greasy, spicy noodles (possibly not the best food for a stomach upset) we left her in a cafe, the awning of which portrayed the proprietors as a slightly creepy Asian Ant and Dec double act. The rest of us wandered around the Buddha’s Tooth temple, which was filled with incense and almost entirely gold plated.

Afterwards we headed to a locals drinking hall that had been recommended to Nick by a colleague as an authentic Singaporean experience. Sure enough we were the only westerners there, the remainder of the clientele being middle aged Chinamen. Moments after settling down with some Tiger beers, we were approached by an ancient, slightly mad looking local with a long, white, wispy beard and almost no teeth. Without any preamble, the elderly gentleman (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Confucius) announced that he and his friends all thought Ben was extremely good looking. Without further explanation he pulled up a chair and introduced himself and his two friends who had by now come over to join us. A lengthy and bizarre conversation followed, during which Confucius continuously poured beers into our glasses (and into Emily’s Coke), while Ben pondered his attractiveness to ageing Chinese men and Nick attempted to make himself seen around Emily, who he reasoned had probably been blocking the group’s view when they decided Ben was the good looking one.

We realised we had been chatting to our new friends for a pretty long time and that Ellen would need picking up from Asian day care before she thought we had abandoned her. We found her feeling not much better and decided to head for home. She put herself to bed while the rest of us got smartened up for a trip into town.

We went back to the Marina Bay Hotel sky bar in the evening, where we spent a fortune on one cocktail each and found a table on the edge of the terrace from where we could watch the much advertised light show. This turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, in no small part because the building we had chosen to watch from was actually involved in the show and most of the lights were coming from just above us. Nevertheless the view over the city was spectacular and the venue pretty impressive. We were enticed into a slightly grimy looking restaurant on the harbourside, having walked past plenty of smart looking places, by the offer of a free drink each. We realised our error when the food came and Nick had to send his pork dish back because it didn’t have any pork in it.

The next day Ellen woke up refreshed from her twelve hour sleep, and hungry for breakfast after not eating for a whole day. Emily and Katherine had got up early to deal with some potentially fairly serious issues that had arisen with our homeward flight (I.e. schedule changes meant we would now be missing it). Confusingly, the phone number supplied to us by the budget airline we were using to get back to Singapore actually put us through to a phone company, although it took Emily several minutes of frustrating and circular conversation to ascertain this. We were starting to think it had been optimistic to book two back to back flights with different airlines aiming to get us to Singapore airport a few hours before our long haul flight departed. With the matter finally sorted Kate took us to a local food market down the road to meet her friend Khush, a Singaporean native, who was a mine of information about the area. He ordered us a selection of regional curries and breads, which Ellen and Katherine devoured happily, while Emily picked her way cautiously, being less sure about spicy food first thing in the morning. Probably it wasn’t the most sensible fare for Ellen to start back on after being ill either, but she seemed to handle it. Khush showed us around his beautiful old listed house, which was completely open with no window panes and still boasted many original features. Then it was time to catch our plane to Ho Chi Minh City.

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Chapter 4, Part 11: Sydney, Australia (Saying goodbye to Sydney)

We were all very sad to be leaving Australia, where we had spent such a happy six weeks, and were determined to make the most of our last few days. The weather brightened up enough for us to take a bicycle tour of the city with Jono’s sister Lucy, who made a highly entertaining addition to the group. Our initial plan of taking out tandem bikes was thwarted by a tardy repair shop, so we had to make do with standard city bikes. This may have been no bad thing in retrospect, having witnessed Lucy nearly swerve into the harbour and then immediately crash into a wall. We cycled over to Darling Harbour, with its smart yachts and waterside restaurants, and on to the fish markets. Here we perused delicacies such as live sea urchins and huge crabs before sharing an incredible seafood platter outside on the docks. The weather more or less held out for our cycle back past the observatory and over the Harbour Bridge, although the view wasn’t as spectacular as it might have been on a brighter day.

Although the sudden increase in our activity level was a bit of a shock to the system, we decided to continue with our original plan of completing the Bondi to Coogee walk that afternoon. We were largely spurred on by the prospect of the amazing ice cream shop Patagonia at Coogee so took a bus straight there with a view to walking back up to Bondi. We were fairly devastated to find our favourite shop had been replaced by a Mexican restaurant, and that we would have to make do with second rate ice cream from a regular shop.

The walk itself took a couple of hours once we had taken several stops to watch the pro surfers tackle some of the huge waves that were crashing into shore in the wake of some storm. The beaches were all technically closed, and not even Emily was tempted to brave the enormous surf. By the time we got to Bondi, which was uncharacteristically deserted, it was getting pretty late, and we had to leave pretty much straight away to catch the train back.

For our penultimate night in the city we made the slightly strange decision to go bowling with Miles, Tom and Tom. We were forced to admit it was definitely harder than we remembered it being, but possibly that was because we were used to having the sides up, which the boys were adamant was not allowed. After a slightly embarrassing start, we managed to hone our technique enough to not be left completely behind, although it was a walkover by any standards unfortunately.

To our relief, the sun was back out in full force for our last day in the country. We took the opportunity to drive up to Palm Beach, north of Sydney, the location where Home and Away is filmed (Emily was the only one excited by that). Lauren came up to meet us and we spent the day topping up our tans, which had suffered a bit in the recent weather, and have our last beach picnic. Even in the so called ‘kiddies corner’ the waves were pretty daunting, and Ellen got dumped several times before beating a hasty retreat.

Typically, we hadn’t allowed nearly enough time to get back and ready for the open air cinema viewing that Jono’s mum had arranged for us, so we had an extremely hasty shower at home, shoved our makeup in our bags and gunned it back out of the house. The venue was the beautiful Botanic Gardens right on the harbour, from where the audience had a view straight out over the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. As evening set in, all the lights of the city illuminated the skyline in a breathtaking backdrop. The director who introduced her film for its premiere had a point when she asked us to occasionally look away from the view long enough to watch some of the film at least. She also made some ominous comments about how weird the movie was, before wishing us ‘Good luck’ and dashing off stage, leaving us a little concerned about what we were about to be subjected to. When the time came for the viewing, a huge screen rose up out of the water and surround sound speakers came on. The film was an Australian arthouse production about a young girl who goes missing in rural Western Australia, providing plenty of opportunities for stunning desert landscapes. We also got a taste of Australian humour, which didn’t always match up with our own, but we all really enjoyed the experience, despite our reservations.

When the film was over we headed into King’s Cross, a slightly grimier end of town as it turned out, to meet up with the boys. The juxtaposition had something of the sublime to the ridiculous about it, and we took a while to get into the right frame of mind for the packed club playing house music that we found ourselves in. Nevertheless we danced the rest of the night away and even managed to persuade the boys out of their musical comfort zone and into the considerably cheesier adjoining room where we felt more at home. When we had had our fill of Bon Jovi and Queen (and because the club closed) we made our sad farewells, with promises of reunions in the future, and headed home ready for our flight to Singapore the next day.

Chapter 4, Part 10: Sydney/Canberra, Australia (Canasta, Kangaroos and Canberra)

The first day of 2016 started with a delicious breakfast of pancakes and fruit on Lauren’s balcony followed by a day spent lazing on the beach just down from our flat. In the afternoon we moved our stuff over to Jono’s house, where we planned to spend the rest of our time in Sydney. Then it was a film night and early to bed before Ellie’s flight the next morning. We drove Ellie to the airport, by now used to the ubiquitous demented road layouts whereby lanes appear, disappear, merge or just suddenly fill up with parked cars without explanation or warning. In addition, the complex road laws mean many of the signs resemble short essays, with time and day dependent speed limits and even turnings, and notices about how many people must be in a car to be in a certain lane at a certain time. Sydney also seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of traffic lights, so time and again we find ourselves zooming through a green light only to find a swathe of pedestrians milling around the road, having also been given the all clear. Our sat nav is at least as confused by all this as we are, which definitely doesn’t help the situation.

From Jono’s house we can catch the ferry over to the centre of town, which is an experience in itself, especially when the sun is shining and we are met with fantastic views across the harbour. We have experimented with local food, such as the tiny barbecued octopus kebabs we bought from The Rocks markets, and yet more enormous prawns, which we have yet to get sick of. Miles took us to the opera house to touch a tile, which he said was obligatory for our first time in Sydney, and we ate ice cream by the harbour followed by rooftop Pimms in the sun.

We had a hilarious night out in town, which started with twenty two cricket boys in a park at sunset, who were fairly surprised to see us rock up, progressed to a nearby house party where we were given, and immediately misplaced, a bottle of Bollinger, and ended up by sneaking out of Tom’s parents’ house like naughty teenagers.

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The next morning called for a bracing walk with Jono’s Mum, during which the heavens decided to open on us, which meant the rest of the afternoon was spent hiding inside with a film followed by Ellen’s grandma’s famous baked bean casserole.

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With the forecast set to stay miserable, we decided to take a trip to Canberra for a couple of nights where we could stay with Ian and hone our cannaster skills. Lauren cooked us a delicious breakfast at hers to set us up for the long drive, then first stop was the war memorial in the capital. We were all moved by the WW1 exhibition and Hall of Honour and managed to catch the memorial ceremony and performance of the Last Post before heading to the house. On the way we passed countless wild kangaroos grazing nonchalantly in the scrub.

The weather has been no better in Canberra, but we’ve managed to entertain ourselves with indoor pursuits such as the science museum, where we learnt a lot about spiders, and an incredible milkshake cafe, all followed by board games and cards in the evenings. Then it was back to Sydney with the hope of some decent weather for our last few days…

Chapter 4, Part 9: Sydney, Australia (Starting the New Year with a bang)

In the run up to New Year, we were staying in a flat in Mosman belonging to Ellen’s cousin Lauren. We moved our stuff in and met up with Jono, a friend living nearby, for a walk around the area and to suss out points from which we would get a good view of the fireworks. In the end, however, we agreed to go along with the plan put forward by our Fraser Island friends, who were back in Sydney, although we were pretty doubtful about their organisational skills after they had overslept and missed their flight home days previously.

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The day before New Year’s Eve our friend, and fellow Cambridge vet, Ellie, was arriving from New Zealand. Before picking her up we went down to Manly for a morning on the beach. What started off as a relaxing morning, quickly turned into a farcical routine as we stupidly split up and tried to reconvene with only two mobile phones and a hopelessly confusing and busy road system. No sooner had one of us gone off to search for another than the third would turn up at the car, which was forced to crawl endlessly up and down the congested road, until at one point Katherine was left with the car, both phones and everyone’s bags without any idea where the other two had got to. Eventually we found each other and managed to get to the station to pick up Ellie, only slightly late.

That evening the boys came over for a barbecue on the balcony, for which we insisted they bring only kangaroo meat. We also forced them into playing articulate with us, which was a bit unfair really, given the amount of practice the three of us have had.

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We had been warned in advance about the strict no alcohol laws enforced in the parks on New Year’s Eve, although the boys, typically blasé, didn’t seem to think this would be a problem. With this in mind we had spent the last few days coming up with increasingly far fetched plans for smuggling in booze. It was actually Belinda Stoneham who surprisingly suggested injecting vodka into oranges, an idea we built on to come up with the apparently tried and tested technique of infusing a whole watermelon with spirits. We had also heard stories about the huge crowds and the stress of trying to get a decent view of the fireworks, so we set off to Birchgrove Park ludicrously early to secure our spot. Needless to say we were there several hours before the others, who had adopted a significantly more laid back attitude to the whole thing. This, annoyingly, was vindicated when we arrived to find almost no one else in the park.

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Eventually the crowds did come trickling through and our friends arrived with a cooler and food for a barbecue. We spent the many hours before the first fireworks at 9 playing games (obviously cracking out the new beer pong set) and working our way through the gin we had painstakingly decanted into plastic bottles in fear of the no glass rule (the boys smugly rocked up with tens of beer bottles and no one batted an eyelid). We even took the precaution of befriending the nearest security guards, but the prominent police presence seemed completely disinterested in us anyway. The watermelon we had taken some trouble to procure sat, unneeded, on the picnic bench, until someone came up with the idea of mashing it up to make cocktails.

Come midnight we were in prime position with a spectacular view of the fireworks on Harbour Bridge and all along the waterway. I think it would be fair to say we saw in the New Year in style.

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