Counting the days… Fearing the count!

‘All good things have to end…so that there will be new ones!!’(Tytti K.)

While struggling to find the right words for this entry, I am truly trying hard to focus on the words up there, said by my wise friend Tytti…. Still, I am failing! (And yes, there will be posts about Nepal, Malaysia and Singapore, I promise, but this is not yet the time for those!)

This is the entry that all RTW travellers have to come to, at some point, but I wonder how many of them actually can voice all the feelings and emotions that they must face when that time comes…

I am now sitting in my hostel room in Kuala Lumpur, tired after a bad night sleep (not due to the hostel at all, but to my weird mind and all the thoughts currently going through it!) and a last shopping spree at some of the city’s numerous malls.
In 5 (five!) days we will be back in Italy…. Only one more place remains to be briefly seen, Hong Kong. We are spending 48 hours there, in between flights, and on Nov.28th we will touch ground in Milan again. By then we will have travelled for exactly one year. One amazing and spectacular, albeit not always easy, year!! πŸ™‚

To say that the thought of being back is scary would be an understatement!!
I have been fearing our return for many weeks: sure, I’m trying to think of the good things I will get back once not on the road anymore, namely my cat, my ‘real’ clothes & shoes (not the ones I have worn this year which seemed like something I borrowed from an unknown person and that you would not have caught me dead in under normal circumstances!!), some of my hobbies…. But this is a very hard time for me. Although I would not really keep on travelling forever, if somebody offered me a couple more months, I surely would not refuse! But that way I’d probably never get back! πŸ˜‰ So I might as well face reality and catch that British Airways flight carrying me back to a country where I have never wanted to be and get things done!

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There will be other trips, other dreams, other plans, other adventures! Because the wise writer who inspired this blog title did say that ‘The road goes ever on and on…’, didn’t he?! πŸ˜‰


Island time!

Perhentian Islands, 22-28 September

The week spent at the Perhentians was basically our holiday inside the RTW trip! Unlikely more or less commonly believed, traveling the world for a year is not a long vacation, but a full-time occupation that might sometimes be even harder & more stressful than your own job (mostly because you’re less prepared for it!). Particularly after the hard months spent in South East Asia and even more the recent problems in Laos, all we needed was having some days of relax, with no need to check bus timetables, find new hotels and restaurants every other day or so, deal with (too many) people, bookings, maps etc… And even to someone like me who’s never been a beach fan, a week of white beaches, blue water, snorkelling, reading and eating fresh sea food sounded just perfect!

But it’s a tough ride to paradise, isn’t it?! Of course it is…

We had decided to spend our time on the Perhentians on the Big Island, which is a little quieter than the small one, and at the resort called ‘Mama’s Chalets‘. After reading lots and lots of reviews about different resorts, checking quotes and looking at photos, this seemed to be the only decent one we could afford (yes, the Perhentians are not a very cheap destination…). We had booked the chalet by phone, something I was highly doubtful about… But they had no internet connection and there was no other way of reserving the place, so all I could do was keeping my fingers crossed!

Once landed at Kota Bharu airport, the transfer which was supposed to be waiting for us according to Mama’s promise, is not there…. A voice inside my head is whispering ‘didn’t you know this would happen?’. Fortunately it’s quite easy to find a taxi from the airport to the ferry pier (a one and half hour ride we share with a German couple), so eventually we do make it to the island…. just to find out that our reservation had mysteriously gone ‘lost’! Phone bookings obviously do not work!
35 minutes and a lot of arguing later, we manage to get our chalet, though, and although we still have to swallow the management’s lies and excuses, we are at least settled in! The holiday can finally start!

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Beaches here are quite perfect (especially now that the season is ending and they are not very crowded at all) and the ocean water is even warmer than in Bali! But my favourite thing about them is that they are a snorkelling heaven! Tropical fishes, sharks, corals, sea stars… but especially turtles! I swam with huge sea turtles, so close by that I could have touched them! πŸ™‚ After swimming with seals in Kaikoura, NZ,Β  snorkelling with turtles was definitely my other fave water activity!!

Shell picking wasn’t bad, either, I must say! πŸ˜‰

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After a week on the island, it is however time for us to leave the tropical land and return to KL for a couple of days to get ready for our next adventure…

From beaches to mountains, Nepal, here we come!


Back to the future!

Kuala Lumpur, 19-22 SeptemberΒ  & 28 September – 1 October

We had not seen a real, modern city in three months, namely from the day we had left Seoul… So arriving in Kuala Lumpur, the super technological, modern, eclectic Malaysian capital, really felt like a big jump into the future! And I loved it! πŸ™‚

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DSC08544The famous Petronas Towers!

KL is a futuristic, colourful, weird circus: it’s a place where you can get any kind of food at any time of the day, meet the most different people, shop like you drop and fully realize the meaning of the word ‘multicultural’. My first ten minutes walking in the city were absolutely shocking, but in a positive way: I had never seen such a diverse population living side by side, mixing and coexisting with apparently no difficulty! The punk girl with combat boots and purple hair, the ‘statue man’ completely painted in blue, the old Indian man wearing a turban, the strict muslim woman totally covered in black, with not even eyes to be seen, ladies in sari and others in tank tops & hot pants….all of them kept catching my attention at every step! And then the different flavours, cousines, architectures, languages…. what an amazingly well-shaken world set in a jungle of beautiful modernity! I had never thought I’d like it so much, but it just conquered me!

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Different religions side by side…

(To be totally honest, though, not everything in KL was easy for me: I had never been in a Muslim country before and I did feel a bit awkward at times besides the strictest believers, not to mention furious when accidentally jumping into a protest against the US and Barack Obama!!! But apart from these ‘little details’, it was a great place to visit!)


The natural beauties of Laos in pictures

This is what local people’s change for the worse cannot take away from the country…..

Luang Prabang & surrounding area

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Vang Vieng

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Kong Lor

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Vientiane

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And then there was Laos…

Laos, 30 August-19 September

‘…It doesn’t take more than a different nationality
Or being in the wrong place at the wrong time
To get abused and accused of committing a crime…’
(Clawfinger)

After spending a few more, pretty uneventful days in Cambodia, between Phnom Penh and the miss-able Kratie (at least during rain season there is truly nothing to do here, except getting soaked wet!), it’s time for us to start the long, dusty and uncomfortable bus journey to cross into Laos. This is the first (and hopefully last!) time that we have to share our already over crowded minivan with a fully grown plant! I cannot guess any good reason why one should travel with a mini tree for hours in a van, but that’s what happened! And yes, the plant survived, fear not! πŸ˜‰

People had praised the natural wonders of Laos, the kindness and honesty of its people, the relative quietness of the country compared to its neighbours…. Laos was promising to be a sort of ‘paradise’ in South East Asia, everybody’s favourite country! So I was eager to get there and finally relax a little, after one and a half month of constantly being en guard, fearing scams and dishonesty.

Unfortunately, it will not take us too long to understand that things can change quite rapidly in this part of the world (or maybe everywhere?) and what a big mistake we were going to make…

But the first few days in Laos were indeed pretty relaxing! Trying to forget what an awful ordeal getting there had been (and sure enough we got scammed by the bus company, but we’d later realize that losing 1.5 euro each is not such a big deal after all…), our first stop is the island of Don Kong – ‘Big Island’ – in Si Phan Don, or ‘4000 Islands’ in English.

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The location choice was made in order to avoid the wild, intoxicated party life of Don Det and actually just rest for a couple of days, enjoying tasty fish meals and admiring beautiful sunsets over the Mekong…. We could hardly have chosen better!

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From the mellow life style on the islands, we then moved North, to the still very quiet Pakse. The few tourists coming here are just passers by – there is no way to avoid the town while travelling over land in Laos. But nobody stays here more than one or two nights. Yes, it is really that meaningless, but it does have one strong side (besides the airport which makes it possible for you to quickly and swiftly leave for more interesting destinations!): it’s an excellent starting point for exploring the Boulavan Plateu, a very green and lush areas which is famous for its tea & coffee plantations as well as for some of the most beautiful and highest waterfalls in Laos! Seeing these places made it definitely worth while to give Pakse a couple of days!

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A flight later, we reach Luang Prabang, one of the most important tourist destinations in Laos: here is culture, temples, ancient rites, beautiful mountain views, great shopping possibilities, good restaurants… here is where everybody wants to be for the largest part of their time in the country!

‘Laos’ pearl’ is indeed a beautiful and very relaxing place, which offers lots of things to do: from bike tours, to temple hopping, to tons of interesting courses, to contemplating life from the river banks or going day tripping in the nearby mountains.

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I would have loved Luang Prabang…. if things had just not got so complicated, scary, dishonest…

Victims of one of the oldest motorbike scams in SEA, that’s what we became in Luang Prabang. We spent over two nightmare-like days arguing with the rental agency, the police, the associated people… begging our consulate for help and assistance… hoping that fighting for our rights would make us come out of this nasty situation in a decent way. But all the words, the documents, the phone calls, the help we did get proved useless.

In Luang Prabang I learnt what racism and corruption really are: if you are a ‘falang‘, foreigner, you have no rights; if it’s local police you’re dealing with, do not expect justice. I do not think I have ever felt so powerless in my life, trapped in a machine that was so much bigger than me and which worked with rules I could not play.

Eventually, we lost the battle. Two sleepless nights, hours of arguing and the situation becoming nastier and nastier made me give up. It’s only money, after all, and hopefully in this very buddhist town kharma will work its tricks and one fine day justice will be restored…. That’s what I tried to convince myself of, at least.

But Luang Prabang left a bad taste in my mouth (as well as a hole in my bank account!), a bitterness and anger I have not truly been able to get rid of, yet. I wish the worst things for Ms.Β  Sai, who scammed us so badly… and I truly want to believe that in the end she will pay for what she’s been doing too many times. Forgiveness and compassion, recommended by Buddhism, are too hard to apply to a society based on scamming ‘falang’ because of what they are, no matter how much money they are already bringing into the country and how big the economic help received by the previous European colonizers still is. Yes, there are some honest people there, but they are becoming a minority.
Laos has obviously taken Vietnam as its foremost model and stopped being the ‘paradise’ it was considered before…. It’s a sad change.

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We finally left Laos from Vientiane International Airport on September 19th. I had had more than enough of South East Asia by then and for more than a few reasons! Visiting Indochina had been on my to-do list for several years and I am not going to label the two months we spent there as a completely negative experience. We did see and do great things, and learnt a lot. But in general it was the most tiring and difficult part of the whole trip (as well as of all the travelling I’ve ever done in my life so far!) and I feel no wish to return to this part of the world.

So all I truly, really wanted on that September day was to board the flight taking us to Kuala Lumpur, a different world… a new part of our RTW adventure.


The magic of Angkor & Siem Reap

Siem Reap
21-27 August

I like travelling by boat and the slow boat journey between Battambang and Siem Reap is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in South East Asia. So although it’s going to be long, hot and making us leave at the crack of dawn (there is only one boat and it goes at 7am!), that’s how we are going to travel on! I had read about these journeys, so I am prepared: ear plugs for the noisy motor, plenty of water and some snacks are ready! And the trip will be quite interested indeed: most of the passengers are foreigners, but the boat is far from being a touristic one and during the trip it will make random stops to pickup more local people, goods and even some chicken! At each stop, a smaller boat will come closer to ours, so that everything and everyone can be transferred to or from land without actually stopping our boat!

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We will see lots of floating villages and some living conditions which are quite hard to imagine… ‘Houses’ here are no more than huts, but still they have curtains and pictures hanging from the walls, showing that you can decorate even a floating hut if that happens to be your home! And people have an amazing number of floating pets, too: I am still mesmerized by life on the Mekong, both the one led by people and the animals’ one!

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During the trip we also go through some very narrow canals where vegetation barely leaves enough room for the boat to pass, but eventually we make it there: Siem Reap, here we are!

On our first day in town we decide to check out the local museum, learning about the history of this area and the meaning of the many temples we will be visiting soon… It’s an interesting, big and well-designed museum and it does help to make more sense out of the big highlights that are the Angkor Temples. But at last it’s time to enter the magic world of Angkor! After pondering the various options, we decided for a 3-day pass to the temples and to visit them by tuk tuk: biking all the way to the temple complex and back as well as between temples each day would have been way too exhausting, especially in this weather, and since renting motorbikes is not allowed here, the only other feasible option was a tuk tuk! We pick the most well-mannered and almost shy driver we come across and it all goes smoothly with Mr. Naan as driver/guide! πŸ™‚

DSC07777Our tuk-tuk!

I guess Angkor does not need descriptions or explanations… No matter the number of pictures I had seen, it is totally amazing! Angkor Tom and Bayon were our favourite temples there, but the immensity of the complex and the beauty of its art is just… incredible!

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In three days exploring both the most famous temples and some of the less known and oldest ones (still very impressive), we never got bored, tired of taking photos and never stopped gaping at the architectural wonders in front of us!

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After exploring the temples, there is still one more thing we want to do before leaving Siam Reap: attending a cooking class to learn some of the secret of our favourite South-East Asian cousine!
Our teachers are the skilful ladies of the well-known Tigre Du Papier Restaurant and after chopping, cutting, boiling and frying for a whole morning we are given a tasty meal and a master chef certificate… well, not quite! πŸ˜‰

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Crossing into Cambodia

Phnom Penh Battambang, 17-21 August

Since planning this part of the trip, one thing I was particularly looking forward to was the border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia by boat on the Mekong river! So, today we can finally get on that boat! Our day starts way before dawn and for the first 4 hours on water I can say I actually enjoyed it… The other nearly as much time was not quite as interesting – there is a limit to the appeal of floating villages and rice fields seen while zooming alone on a speedboat!

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Still, at least we skipped a fair deal of bad roads and arriving in the Cambodian capital city by boat was actually pretty exciting!

Phnom Penh is prettier, cleaner and quieter than Hanoi (finally no more never-ending honking!)and we spend a couple of days there, taking in its sights and experiencing the tasty Khmer food (definitely better than Vietnamese one, in my opinion!).

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The Royal Palace… where we also got a postcard ‘signed’ by king himself as gift! πŸ˜‰

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From the Capital we move on to a town named Battambang, close to the Thai border. This is going to be one relaxing stop for us, but we do manage to check out Battambang’s most famous attraction: a contemporary circus show put on by disadvantaged kids. The organization behind the circus, Phare Ponlue Selpak, is actually a sort of art school, enrolling kids coming from very poor families (and sometimes the street…) and teaching them circus tricks, art and music skills. The show we saw was called ‘Have you seen my bicycle?‘ and was an amazing mix of acrobatic tricks, juggling, dancing, funny gangs and breath-taking jumps!

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I was also totally impressed by the fact that all the stage tools and costumes were made with the very simple things they could find around in town, no safety nets but big smiles and a lot of enthusiasm! Those kids were amazing and the show was just a great way to spend a night out in Cambodia! We were also told that two of the school kids are now actually studying circus arts at one Canadian University: kudos to the organization that managed to not only save these street kids, but also sending a few of them to a university overseas!!

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The last bits of Vietnam

Dalat & Saigon, 10-16 August

Our time in Vietnam is running out (our 1 month, single entry visa will expire on August 17th), so after recovering from the motorbike trip by relaxing for a couple of days in Dalat (which I really liked for its cool climate and the nicest people in the whole country!), we head to HoChiMinCity, or like all other foreigners say: Saigon!
Our first impression of the city is that it’s much more international (and we guess richer, too) than any other big city we have visited in Vietnam: here you have all the international restaurant & cafe chains, big, clean parks, fancy cars going around and a general ‘French’ atmosphere we had not noticed anywhere else, yet. I cannot say I particularly liked it as a city, but I definitely found it more pleasant than Hanoi and surely less polluted and crowded!

 

The main sight we checked out while here is the War Memorial Museum…. definitely not a upcheering visit, but we both felt we had to check it out and learn a bit more about a war that is so recent but often only known through movies and never really studied at school. This museum was probably the hardest sight on the whole trip, closely accompanied by the Peace Memorial Park & Museum in Hiroshima….

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The museum is indeed quite propagandistic but it’s still well done and designed and it also contains one pretty objective international exhibition dedicated to war journalists from all over the world and to the international press’ role and fate in those war years. It was rather touching…
I will admit I skipped some photos and some glass exhibitions: the concept was clear enough without indulging on the gory details! My opinion will still be that it was a horribly tragic,crazy war where awful deeds were committed by BOTH sides and were many innocents were touched no matter which country they were from. If in Vietnam you can easily still meet many people with physical handicaps due to the effects of Agent Orange, the museums tells that many American children were born with the same deformations – they are the veterans’ kids…

Nobody won anything in this war. And although Vietnam still celebrates its victory in its propaganda, the defeat is just as clear every day…

The rest of our time in Saigon is spent doing a little shopping, watching people playing the national version of badminton in the parks and eating nice food, including a quite tasty veggie meal and one good Italian pizza! πŸ˜‰

But soon enough it’s time for us to reach the border: a long bus journey to Chau Doc, on the Mekong river, and then the crossing awaits…

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Riding through Vietnam

From Hoi An to Dalat, 6-10 July

Why don’t we go to Dalat by motorbike instead?’

That’s what I suggested one day, after hearing and reading so much about motorbike tours here in Vietnam and being quite fed up with long journeys by public transportation… It was a fine day when I must have lost my mind!!! πŸ˜›
But back then it sounded like a good idea: we would drive on the mountains, thus in a cooler climate and greener environment, see places we would not get to visit in any other way, avoid another night train as well as the gate to hell which is supposed to be Nha Trang (an otherwise unavoidable stop if travelling by train/bus), and would really get off the beaten trek! Yeah, right… I got to see the real face of Vietnam, including its most rural part, and maybe I got just a little bit more than what I had asked for…

We found our guide in Hue, pretty much by chance… He is named Cuong, comes from Dananag, says to have women all over the country and to be working for ‘Easy Riders‘ (the latter is something said by all motor guides/drivers in the country, so there is no guarantee about that at all!). We have also met some of his previous customers, who could only talk well of him, so we are somewhat confident… Still, we also have our doubts and fears because almost everything here in Vietnam seems to be scam-prone, but he surely cannot run away with two motorbikes, right?! And at least he does show up on time on our departure day! Packing all our stuff on the two bikes proves quite tricky, but eventually we manage to get everything securely strapped and off we go…

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View from behind our guide…

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We will ride for 5 full days, about 8 hours per day, through a lot of thunderstorms, on awful roads (can they still be called ‘roads’ if there are more holes than anything else?), across mountains and rice fields, through small villages where locals hardly ever see a foreigner, by national monuments celebrating winning the war (ahem…), stopping for meals at the most absurd places where you can only hope that your stomach has learnt to deal with the local dangers and all the vaccines you took before the trip will prove useful, meeting people who seem to come from another world (but probably we looked even more like aliens to them!). We saw the untouched natural beauty of this country, that can be so hard and harsh but also offers some breathtaking sunsets over emerald-green rice fields; we got too close to the true reality of villagers and saw animal scenes that a vegetarian animal lover like me would have never wanted to witness (and I did weep…), we understood more of Vietnam than we could have ever done because we did not see other foreigners in 5 days and we spent all our time with our guide. We also kissed the road by falling down on day 2, but were lucky enough not to get anything broken and, although badly bruised, we were able to continue the journey, blessing the first aid kit we had carried with us for all these months and never opened before!

Life on the road…

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We had funny moments and bad ones, we got annoyed by our guide (after the first good days, he just seemed to be more interested in chatting on his mobile phone than guiding us..), got soaked wet on the mountains and eventually made it to Dalat in one (exhausted) piece!

Traffic jam! πŸ˜‰

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Would I do it again? Probably not… Five days on a motorbike are a LOT if you are not used to riding one and especially if the roads are so bumpy! Cuong’s accommodation choices were not always the best possible ones (to put it mildly..) and the Vietnamese full immersion we got was …well, quite intense! But if I look at it as a one time experience, than it was worth doing it! Getting off the beaten path was exciting and some landscapes were truly amazing, just like some of the food we had was actually tastier than it’s ‘cleaner’ version at the more foreign-oriented restaurants!

Lunch break!

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I saw and learnt what Lonely Planet or other travellers cannot tell you and after all, this is one reason why I’m travelling… I wanted to see the world – if some parts of the world are ugly and hard, well, I’ve to deal with that!

Meow!

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Beautiful Hoi An!

Hoi An, 2-6 August

If it had not been for the incredibly hot weather (yes, even worse than usual!) and the lame hotel with annoying staff rubbing me in the wrong way from the very beginning, Hoi An would have definitely been my favourite Vietnamese city! This is Asia the way it’s shown in movies: with cute small alleys, paper lanterns everywhere, beautiful blooming trees, a colourful bridge on the river and lots of picturesque views!

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The place is made even nicer by the no-traffic hours ruling the old city center a couple of times a day, allowing people to walk and breath freely without fearing the ever-present motorbikes…After dodging motorbikes for days, these quiet hours are definitely a blessing!!

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And while here we also manage to meet up with our new friends from the Sapa tour and can therefore enjoy one more dinner all together – fun! πŸ™‚

Hoi An is famous for its numerous tailors – there is a whole street full with tailors’ shops, plus others spread here and here in the Old City. Their fame says they are able to copy and sew most things, from clothes to shoes, at very cheap prices and record quick times… Or so we had been told by several other travellers who had been before and praised the tailors’ quick and experienced hands, mentioning all the dresses and suits they had got here… Well, of course our fashion ideas must be a little different from most others (despite the fact that all these months of backpackig have almost killed any sense of fashion we might have had in the past!) and although we reach Hoi An with several pictures of the clothes we would like to get made, finding somebody able to sew those particular garments proves a lot harder than we had imagined. The only thing I really wanted to get made was a Victorian dress, a special something for my next Victorian picnic, once I return to the ‘other life’… Something like this:

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But Hoi An tailors, used to H&M and Zara catalogues, looked at me in horror and shook their heads when I showed them the picture of the dress…Most of them laughed really hard, too! πŸ˜› I was almost ready to give up, when I decided to give it one more try and go back to a young lady’s shop… She had been the only one believing that at least the top part would be doable, so with new pictures and paper models, eventually, after much explaining, I manage to convince her: she takes up the challenge for a price which is totally acceptable for me: even if I may end up not 100% satisfied with the final outcome, at this price I could probably only get the fabric back in Europe! I get measured, choose two fabrics, explain some more and then off I go, keeping my fingers crossed it’s not going to be a total disaster! In two days I’ll see what happens when you convince a young tailor to sew ‘funny things’ (like she put it) for you! πŸ˜‰

We also got some extra things made inΒ  Hoi An: trekking pants for both of us, a military-style jacket for Corvus, a pair of ΒΎ pants to replace one pair that was falling apart for me, and… two pair of boots! So now, I’m the proud owner of a pair of black silk boots with dragonfly design! πŸ˜‰

While waiting for our new clothes and trying to survive the heat, we also go for a diving & snorkelling trip to Cam Island, which is a natural reserve island about one hour off the coast from Hoi An. Being on the water for the whole day, away from the city heat and noise, is a very welcome change and the place quite beautiful! And although Indonesia Amed probably ruined our future snorkelling experiences (it’s really hard to come close to that level of tropical aquarium!), we got some good views here, too!

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Our swimming our day away, the following morning is time to and pick up our clothes…. Some adjustments are necessary, but by the end of the day we are the happy owners of new garments, including a new Victorian outfit for me! Despite my fears, this turned out to be the best of all the clothes we got and I can’t wait for wearing it,hopefully at next year’s WGT!

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With ‘my’ little tailor girl… πŸ™‚ (but no pics with the new dress, I’m afraid!)

Half an hour later everything is stuffed into one box ready to leave for Italy! And I just have to mention that in Hoi An the post office clerks actually come to pick up your parcels – there is no need to go to the post office, it comes to you! Amazing! πŸ™‚ Some things here in Vietnam work incredibly well – the mail system is definitely one of them!