Hoi An

Knowing little about Hoi An, we started out dropped off in a tailors shop who were friends of Le Family Riders. We naively assumed they were just making small talk and giving us tea before we paid the bill and headed to our hotel.

Hoi An is famous for it tailors, the streets are lined with shops who will make you anything you want, a suit? Jacket? Shoes? Nothing is too hard for them. We were sat in front of catalogues, I was initially confused with the prices being in pounds until noticing the “Next UK” logo, and asked if we wanted anything. I have no use for a suit, my current suit is only dusted off when someone dies and I really hope I never get a job that forces me to wear one, so quickly dismissed their sales pitch. I was tempted with some form of smart jacket, but decided to stick with we are backpacking and this is far from essential, plus we would have to post anything home as carrying that sort of thing when it’s this hot is just silly. We made our excuses, ignored the hard(ish) sell and moved on.

The colourful streets of Hoi An at nightThe town of Hoi An is simply beautiful, a river runs straight through the middle with streets of shops, restaurants and bars all lit with Asian style lights. The locals sell cardboard Chinese style boxes with candles in them which you lay in the river and watch them float down, charming doesn’t quite cut it. We were once again in oldie travelling territory, lots of groups of people aged 50+ wandering the town, I can see the appeal as it’s all very easy to eat, drink and relax for a few days.

Renting some bikes, we headed down to the beach side where Annie got cornered by some guy who wouldn’t let her go down the road. We couldn’t quite figure out who he was employed by, as he was insisting that we park our bikes in the parking lot whilst letting tons of other cyclists past. When asked why they were allowed through he replied he knew them, they lived there – this was big groups of tourists and locals – ridiculous. Instead of making a scene, we just went around the back of his car park and continued on our way, you ain’t scamming us! A little secluded bar and beach area made a fine way to spend the afternoon.

Booking in for a local farming and cooking day just outside of the town in a small village, we hired a couple of bikes again and headed to the local market, Helen from the tour showed us the local fruit, veg and seafood before we headed to the farm to get stuck in.

FarmersStarting with farming, we were handed local clothes to put on and headed out to collect seaweed from the the water. Taking the seaweed we then went though the locals’ method of plotting, planting and watering. All good fun, the family really seem to enjoy what they do. I doubt our pitch was going to be great – I suspect they will dig it up for the next set of visitors.

Next up was Water Buffalo Riding, animal rights over here are non-existent, I do my best to avoid all activities where they are used, previously Annie fancied going to an Elephant “Sanctuary” but from experience these places should be avoided as most are just animals dragged around for fat western tourists, though we have our eyes on visiting a proper sanctuary in the future. For the buffalo I was undecided as they are used in farming here and appear to be in okay condition. Annie asked one of the owners “does this hurt the animal?”, language barrier kicked in and we got the usual reply when you haven’t been understood of “yes”, um… We ended up going on for a quick trot around the paddock, it wasn’t comfortable or an enjoyable experience at all, I’ll stick with my gut instinct in future.

Annie Making Rice PaperThe final part of the day was cooking some Vietnamese dishes, we went through the process of making rice paper; grinding the rice down to flour, cooking the flour on a thin cotton sheet, then rolling them into spring rolls filled with herbs and eating fresh. By this point I was so hungry and would have eaten anything, turns out they were superb, really tasty. Will try and recreate the method at home for sure. After them we were shown how to make various other Vietnamese dishes which turned out rather well.

A great experience and a really lovely town, glad we stopped here on our way south.

Heading for Hoi An

Sunset

Hue turned out to be just an overnight stop, after our longer than expected journey we wandered the hotels looking for a deal. The going rate seemed to be $15 a night but the standard was a bit low, we walked in to a posh hotel after the friendly concierge guy outside said they would do us a good deal, $75 a night was way out of a backpackers budget, though funny when you show no interest at all, they rapidly drop the price to $30. Probably ended up an amazing deal but we stuck to our guns and wandered on – we still have quite a while to go, no point squandering cash on accommodation

Biking To Dong HoiA random motorbike taxi was touting for business and showed us to a $10 a night hotel around the corner, after the lovely hotel on Hanoi we were disappointed but it was only one night so paid and got on with it (dropped our bags, went to the pub).

The next morning we had arranged to be picked up by ‘Le Family Riders’ for a motorbike journey down to Hoi An, the route is famous and now seems to be publicised as “as seen on BBC Top Gear”. Personally I’ve seen the episode but couldn’t really remember much about it, though was up for the journey none the less as it makes a change from buses, damn buses.

Jump!An very friendly meeting started the day as we joined in with another few, getting on the backs of the bikes and beginning our journey. Stopping at a waterfall gave us time to play in some cracking water, a large rock made a good jumping point in to the deep water below. Lunch was provided at a seafood restaurant on a pier above the water, walking in they had a market area filled with live fish, crabs and prawns, fresh as it comes!

The afternoon provided some epic views as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, cars go through the tunnel leaving bikes to go up amd over the hill. Sitting on the back of the bike whilst the driver wound around the corners as we got view after view, was really something special.

Final afternoon stop was at a pagoda and caves, getting a bit fed up with temples and pagodas, there is only so many you can see. These were quite nice and the caves had lots of extra exploring if you were up for a rough climb and scramble, but enough was enough, back to the bikes for a final cruse along the beach coast and in to Hoi An.

Hats off to the tour group, they pulled out every stop to make us feel so welcome, fed, watered and smiled their way through the day.

Hanoi to Hue

Hanoi is a city to be experienced outside. Shops, restaurants and bars don’t bother with buildings and base themselves on the street, and even museums spill out into the gardens. Scenic lakes and temples are dotted around the city, to be experienced in the fresh air. Which made it difficult for us to enjoy, as the horrible weather in Sapa had followed us to Hanoi. We had hoped that moving South would bring us sun, but we arrived in Hanoi to find rain, clouds, and lots of grey.

Water Puppet ShowTrying to stay optimistic, we spent our first couple of days visiting museums, trying street food, and generally getting lost wandering the streets of the Old Quarter. We met Paul’s friends, Lisa and Paul, and they introduced us to Bia Hoi; super cheap beer brewed and sold in ‘pop up bars’ (read tiny seats on the pavement). At about 11p a glass, I liked it. I thought it tasted a bit like Brewdog, Paul disagreed…

One thing I didn’t want to miss was a Water Puppet Show. Based on traditional Vietnamese song and dance from the rice fields, it’s been transferred into theatres for tourists to enjoy. It is cleverly done, the stage is totally submerged in water, with the band perched on the side. The puppeteers are waist deep in water the whole show, hidden by the set. The fables were lost on us, as they were sung in Vietnamese, but it was interesting to see.

UntitledWe had planned on visiting Halong Bay, but the clouds refused to budge, and keen to avoid another Sapa situation, we decided not to take the risk and save our days for the sunny south. Before leaving Hanoi, we signed up for a day trip to Tam Coc, which translates to three caves. You hop on a row boat and row through endless paddy fields and then the caves themselves. I think in sunshine it would have been beautiful. As it was, half our attention was on trying to keep warm – maybe we should have offered to row and work up a sweat! Saying that, I don’t think we’d have been up to the challenge, their strength and technique (some use their feet, others their hands) is impressive. And the ladies are just as strong, one even ended up giving a tow to another boat when their oar snapped. A tiny Vietnamese woman hauling 2 boats and 4 big Westerners along was a sight to be seen.

Our next stop was Dong Hoi, and for a break from buses, we took the night train from Hanoi instead. This was definitely a step up, as we went for a 6 berth room and managed to get a decent night’s sleep. The cheapest option is hard seats – think park bench comfort level -, but for an 8 hour journey, that wasn’t going to happen!

Dong Hoi was picked due to its proximity to Paradise Cave. Yet another cave that I dragged Paul to, this is one of the biggest dry caves in the world. Instead of taking an expensive tour, we decided to hire a motorbike and travel the 70km ourselves. For 180,000 dong (under £6) we got a decent bike for the day. After answering our very novice questions – how do you start the engine? How do you change gear? – I think the bike owner might have twigged we weren’t experienced bikers. Any doubts were confirmed when, after finally managing to get the bike to start, we watched Paul wobble and jutter off on a practise ride. The owner turned to me and said ‘If he can’t ride, it’s not safe’ Yep, thanks for that.

But all was well! We quickly became expert riders, or at least competent, though I think I may have given Paul a few more grey hairs when accidentally driving towards oncoming traffic on a couple of occasions. After Paul navigated the city and the crazy drivers that come with it, we had a lovely ride out on country roads. The cave itself was amazing; absolutely massive and brilliantly lit. They’ve set up excellent wooden walkways in the cave that take you 1km in. We were lucky enough to have the cave to ourselves when we arrived, and the silence was eery. Definitely a highlight.

The next day, after a nightmare trip on a local bus, we found ourselves on a bike again, but in slightly less happy circumstances. We were dumped off the bus 10km away from our destination – the city of Hue – and in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to pay the amount taxi drivers were demanding, we ended up taking the option of getting a lift on one motorbike between us, mainly out of curiosity as to how it would work. Paul’s big bag went between the driver’s legs, then me with our two small rucksacks, and then Paul clinging on at the back, with my big backpack on. The fact the driver only had 2 helmets was a clue that this wasn’t right, another being that we only made it halfway before the driver gave up. Not the most effective means of travel, but an interesting experience. What a memory, I’m just disappointed we didn’t take a photo!

The Bumpy Road to Vietnam

Leaving Laos with Visas in our passports, we had a rough plan to cross the border just after Oudomxai over two days. Having booked our ‘VIP air conditioned’ bus, we arrived to find a rusty old local mini bus full of Chinese people heading towards their border. We struggled to figure out where we could sit, eventually getting one proper seat and one piece of junk that folds down to the isle, sitting at an angle with no back support for six hours was never going to be fun. Those who say “the journey is the adventure” are idiots, this sucked.

Arriving in Oudomxai , we quickly realised it had absolutely nothing to offer, we picked a hotel close to the bus station, grabbed some food from the only place that looked like it may have something we could handle, picked an early bus and moved on.

The border crossing was basic and a little bit messy, the Laos side worked reasonably smoothly, we expected a “checkout fee” but did not have to pay, result. Moving over the border, we went in to the Vietnam office and left our passports in what was a foreigner pile. I noticed the other westerners had taken their bags from the bus, but none of the locals. Not wanting to be the odd ones out, I went back to get ours but was unable as the bus was locked up and the driver was no where to be seen, I’m sure it’s not an issue I said to myself.

The immigration officer was working though the Vietnamese passport pile, as more and more locals pushed in, he continued to ignore any others. One bus driver dropped a pile of passports in, slipped him some cash which went straight I’m to his pocket, welcome to Communism! After a while I started to get concerned, especially as I saw our bus move around the building and start to load the locals on. I tried to have a word with the driver but was not allowed outside without my passport, frustrating to say the least. Eventually when there was nothing else for the immigration numpty to do, he started slowly to stamp ours. We were glad to get through and back on to the bus, who was tooting his horn as if to say “hurry up”, we are trying!

Welcome to Vietnam!Arriving in the North Vietnam town of Dien Bien Phu, we checked in to a nice hotel and left ourselves a full day to relax and explore, this was needed as two full days of buses wears you down. The city has not a lot to offer, the views coming in of the rice paddies was nice, looking down from the Victory Monument which celebrated their win over the French was lovely, running up it was hard on the lungs!

We were undecided where to head next, at dinner with some other backpackers we discussed the northern mountain town of Sapa. Sapa was first recommended to us in South America, ask anyone and they say “Sapa, beautiful”, “Sapa, oh you must to there, beautiful”, “Sapa, highlight of my trip”. When pressed on what there is to do, not much came back.

Happy to take on the recommendation and adding that Annie said she would regret not going since we had the chance, we booked on to the 06:30 bus and headed further north.

Sapa TownThe bus journey was indeed scenic, driving though valleys and local villages it was nice until the bus headed up to the mountains surrounded by grey fog. Arriving at Sapa in the late afternoon, it was dark and dingy. You couldn’t see five meters in front of you, “Beautiful” eh? With the temperature at night being about 3c, it felt like a ski resort without any snow. Being aware of the cold nights we booked a hotel which had electric blankets and a electric heater. I don’t think I’ve been so cold since I left Scotland, it was hard work.

There seems to be two things to do in Sapa, trekking and hiring mopeds/motorbikes. Neither was an option with this fog, we eventually stayed two cold nights, spending one day kicking around, putting up with locals trying to sell you all sorts of shite before leaving for Hanoi on another early day sleeper bus. The buses over the last week have been a mix of crazy and crap, this one was all fully reclining seats and made the journey so much easier, surely heading south would be warmer…

Vang Vieng & Luang Prabang

Mekong River Winding Through Vang Vieng

Leaving Vientiane, our final destination was Luang Prabang, but we decided to stop off en route at Vang Vieng. VV is well known as a backpacker haven, attracting the crowds due to drinks, drugs, and a brilliant tubing/pub crawl route. It’s a strange place, because in theory I should hate it – hundreds of early 20s backpackers (making me feel old) getting drunk in one of the many similar bars and restaurants -, but actually it had a charm, with a lovely laid back feel; it lives in its own little bubble, with no relation to the rest of Laos. Plus, Friends was on 24 hours in many of the restaurants, which I loved (Paul, not so much). We ended up spending 4 days in VV, and by the time we left we were ready to escape the madness.

Tubing Down The Mekong On day 1 we got involved in the main attraction – tubing down the Mekong. We hired our tubes from town, jumped in a Tuk Tuk for a 3km ride and were left at the side of the river. Before we started the tubing, we went to a lovely garden bar for our first drink and free shot of Lao Lao Whisky – made from rice, it tastes as horrible as our stuff. It was here we discovered that there were only 4 bars on the river, before a 2 hour ride on the tube all the way into town. Because it’s dry season, what would take 1 hour when the water was high took over 3 hours, and so most people chose to skip the end section and get a Tuk Tuk from the final bar. It was slightly disappointing; although the scenery was beautiful, we did very little actual tubing as the current was so slow, and the water level so low. So while tubing was what everyone came for, it was much more about the pubs…so we got involved in that instead. Hula hooping, basketball under hoses, boules, flaming limbo, cliff jumping, beer pong, and lots and lots of free whisky shots, there was lots of fun to be had.

Kayaking on the Mekong Our second attempt at tubing was slightly more successful, when we signed up for a trip into a cave, on tubes, and then kayaking. After a frustrating 1.5 hour wait while our guides tried to find us head torches (that’s what you get when you go cheapy), we were eventually led into the cave. With ropes to pull yourself along, you go right into the depths of the cave, with only your head torches giving you any light. Add into the mix the fact that the water was absolutely freezing, it was an exhilarating trip.

The afternoon involved as kayaking back into town. Our second attempt of the trip, Paul and I were much more coordinated, and managed to navigate a few rapids without capsizing.

Luang Prabang offered everything VV didn’t: a real taste of Laos culture, temples, architecture, things to do that didn’t involve alcohol, and history. And most importantly, lots of old American tourists to make us feel young again, yay! It’s the little things.

Luang Prabang Market LP was all about the food. Street-side juice bars, baguette stalls, Laotian BBQs you cook at the table yourself, and crepes. Yum yum yum. After the limitations of South America (fried chicken anyone?), it was a welcome change. With this is mind, we spent our first full day doing a Laotian cookery class. First up, we went to the local market to get our produce. Fortunately neither the grilled rats nor dried buffalo skin on display were on the menu. After our tutors demonstrated the dishes, we were set free to do our best. Apart from burning the garlic (many times) and getting our oyster/soy sauces mixed up, we managed to pull together 5 tasty dishes. We were given recipe books to take away and we’ve kept our favourite recipes to try at home.

After all that eating, we had energy to burn, so we hired bikes and cycled out to the Kuang Si waterfalls. These were a beautiful 32km ride away. Apart from the ridiculously steep final 5km, which nearly killed us, there were lovely gentle rolling hills through local villages, and we got out early enough to beat the midday heat. Since arriving in Laos we had seen nothing but blue skies and sunshine, which is lovely, until you want to do anything mildly physical, and then you feel like you’re going to die.

WaterfallOn the walk up to the falls we passed by a Sun Bear sanctuary. Sun Bears are endangered, and the ones we saw had mostly been saved from poachers (who want their bile for Chinese medicine) or from dancing in the streets. Safe to say they looked like they were enjoying life now, lounging in hammocks in the sun.

The falls themselves were beautiful, with cloudy blue water and lots of natural pools. Before jumping in for a swim, we clambered up to the top, where you can stand at the lip and look down. It was a little bit daunting trying to get your footing on the slippery rocks, knowing that there was a sharp 60 foot drop if things went wrong.

What started off as a brilliant day took a horrible turn of events when we saw a young Korean man drown. In one of the pools there was a rope swing which everyone was jumping in from. What happened exactly remains unclear, but standing waiting for our turn, we noticed a distressed Korean guy in the water – we now know he was looking for his friend. The language barrier was a massive problem, and though a group of us jumped in to try and help find the man, it was no good. Visibility was non-existent, the water was freezing, and none of us were entirely sure what or who we were looking for. Adding to the confusion was the fact that many of the man’s tour group were filming the incident or taking photos, with only one lady showing any signs of distress. After around 20 minutes of uncertainty, locals with a diving mask eventually pulled out the body. Throughout this, tour groups were arriving, unaware of what had happened and were trying to get in the water. One older lady in a tour group by us, despite being informed that she couldn’t swim because of what had happened, was complaining to her guide that they wouldn’t let her in the water. Paul challenged her on her behaviour and she quickly shut up. Unbelievable.

We came to LP to organise our Vietnamese visas, and happily we did this without hassle or hitch. We were now ready to plot our route into Vietnam, just a few weeks after originally planned.

Vientiane & Kong Lor

Kong Lor Cave

Leaving KL, we flew up to Vientiane the capital of Laos, basically because Air Asia were doing cheap flights allowing us to get to the northern area of South East Asia. Air Asia seems to be the airline that Easyjet aspires to be – arriving at the airport you do a self check-in for your boarding pass but even go as far as to print out and attach your own check in baggage labels, cheap and efficient.

Tuk Tuk AnnieKnowing very little of Laos we explored what seemed like a decent enough small city located on the Mekong River, which runs from China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and then down to Vietnam, it’s a beast. Beerlao is the drink of choice here and is dirt cheap, a 640ml bottles cost about 75p around town, it’s actually not bad – a welcome step up from overpriced Tiger in KL. A few evenings were spent in various bars drinking and watching the locals, backpackers and what seems to be a bit of an older middle aged tourist/expat crowd. Laos has a 12pm curfew so everywhere closes at 11:30 and you are expected to be home and off the streets by then, seems a little strange.

Our plan is to head north and enter Vietnam once we have a Visa sorted, but the Kong Lor cave located seven hours south was calling. The village used to be a bit of a tricky place to get to, but now with a direct local bus running it seemed worth the journey. The bus was packed with locals who don’t mind endlessly staring at you, I found out making eye contact back soon stopped that. Boarding the bus, we had to sit right at the back which is never ideal and quickly noticed that the two sets of seats in front were not fixed correctly, when the bus cornered the seats would start to pivot around. As the bus seats filled, the locals still proceeded to get on, no one is asked to stand but instead little plastic seats come out and the isle is filled with people sitting all the way down. Needless to say this bus did not have seat belts…

You what?Arriving early evening, we had no accommodation booked so started walking door to door asking each guest house and hotel if they had space. A few other backpackers were doing the same, we all had the same concern “what if someone else gets the last room” and sped up our search accordingly! Turns out there was plenty of room, we checked in and got some food with a few others before heading to bed as the town has nothing else to offer bar the caves.

The Kong Lor caves run with a 7.5k river below them in darkness. We walked down to the entrance, rented a head torch, chartered a long boat and headed in. The boat driver was super confident, racing along the water with a small boy guiding at the front looking for rocks and low water. Its really impressive inside, some of the features are lit up and theres a little pathway where you dismount for a wander. As it’s dry season the boat gets stuck at a couple of points, you have to jump out in to the water whilst they guide it through before hopping back in.

Kong LorThe other side does have a village which you can arrange a “home stay”, basically staying with a local family in their house, reviews say you may end up in a spare room or in their living room. We chose a beer at a stall before getting called to return back to the start. One more night in the Kong Lor village before an early start on the 7am bus back north to Vientiane.

Coming back to Vientiane, the evening was spent with a lovely sunset jog along the river and closed roads of the city which were filled with people who come out for the view, making a nice atmosphere. We are starting to get in to a nice laid back approach to South East Asia travelling, suits me fine!

Kuala Lumpur

Visa? What visa?!

Despite Paul being in arcade heaven, we arrived at Tokyo airport keen to leave Japan, and ready to start our South East Asia adventure. When doing self check-in, we were asked if we had visas for Vietnam. Nope. Ever the optimists, we thought we’d just have to go to a check-in lady to do her magic. Nope. Turns out, ‘visa on arrival’ means ‘you must have a pre-arranged visa on arrival’. Shit. After a little bit of panic research we discovered that we’d have to go to the Vietnamese embassy in Tokyo, which was now closed for the weekend, it being Friday afternoon. So we were left with the option of staying in Tokyo for another 3 nights (something we wanted to avoid, if possible, as we’d intentionally cut down our time in Tokyo because of the cost of accommodation) or source alternative flights. We went with the latter, and after the ever-helpful Japanese Airlines lady did some research we were offered Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Jakarta (the only 3 destinations available that didn’t require visas). We went with KL, mainly because we thought that would be the easiest starting point to reach Asia from. So the next day, completely unplanned and unexpected, we found ourselves a good bit poorer and on a flight to KL.

We had 2 days in KL, during which I had a taster, and Paul had a reminder, of Malaysian culture. The highlight was definitely the food, it was amazing. We started on a low – Nandos – and then things got much, much better, Our hostel (the cheapest and also grottiest place in the world) was near Chinatown, and so one evening we had the best Chinese meal I’ve ever had. It was just a street side cafe, but the food was fresh, delicious, and cheap. We finished off with an Indian from a Banana Leaf restaurant, where we once again ordered way too much food and spent the rest of the night with rice belly.

Monkey & Coconut We spent a day on a hop on, hop off tourist bus, visiting mosques, palaces, and a butterfly farm. We also took a trip out to Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship nestled in giant caves. Paul had been before and had warned me about the super vicious monkeys stealing food, which left me suitably panicky about removing any trace of nuts from my bag. However, Paul must have caught them on a bad day, as this time they were super cute, running around with babies clinging to their bellies, politely accepting any food offered to them.

The caves themselves were pretty impressive, though we couldn’t understand why there was so much rubbish and dirt (as well as dead chickens) lying about. Surely if it’s a sacred spot, they would want to keep it tidy?

After 4 months of travelling we were ready for a little bit of pampering, and so we went to a fish pedicure place. I know these are illegal at home now, but I like them. The fish here were unlike any I’ve seen before – they were HUGE! It took courage, and a lot of encouragement from the owner that we’d be okay, to put our feet in, the fish were so vicious. The session lasted 15 minutes, but after 10 I was done, I wanted some feet left!

Soon our little detour was over and it was time to go back to Plan A. Personally, I was happy to leave, as the men in KL seemed to think it was their right to stare at women as much as they wanted, and it did make me feel uncomfortable, especially when I was on my own. After checking and double checking the visa requirements of various Asian countries, we picked Laos as our next destination. We headed off for our early flight with fingers crossed. Second time lucky!

Tokyo

Akihabara By Night

Heading to Southeast Asia, it was an easy decision (for me at least) to stop in Tokyo. Any tech geek knows full well about the city and the famous streets of Akihabara, I count myself very lucky to be back here once again.

Coming from Honolulu and its lovely weather, we knew that heading north means Japan was right in the middle of winter and the temperatures would be in the single digits, when checking in to the flight we were prepared by the JAL staff to be ready.

For accommodation, we picked a slightly different style hostel with more of a budget hotel feel to it. The first night turned out to be a bit cold, I spent a while the next day with the Aircon controller which was all written in Kanji, pressing every button until I could get it to heat the room up. It was a nice place to stay, great facilities and most importantly a washlet, basically a toilet seat that warms up as you sit on it and washes your bum with a spray when you are finished, brilliant.

Taito's Groove CoasterThe next and first full day, Annie went off to find a swimming pool leaving me at 9:45am standing in Akihabara with a pocket full of 100yen coins and the streets of tech city to explore, tremendous! First thing I noticed was queues outside the big arcades, waiting for the doors to open at 10am, now that’s a queue I don’t mind joining.

The arcades here are nothing like you have ever seen, up to eight floors each themed from UFO pickup machines, sticker printing machines, sit down arcade cabinets, full sized cabinets and rows and rows of beat em ups. I worked my way though as much as I could, one game that stood out was Taito’s Groove Coaster. I’ve since looked it up and it’s an iOS ported to the arcade, normally something I avoid. It reminded me of Dreamcast classic Rez, basically a rhythm game with trance and J-Pop (Japanese music) blasting out as you tap along, addictive stuff.

The toilet in Sega World make me laugh, they have a screen and sensor above the toilet that counts as you pee, the display shows how many cups you have filled, I got to three and 605ml, I sadly didn’t get a chance to go back so I’m unable to tell if that’s a lot.

I was trying to avoid buying gadgets as my backpack is already crammed with boring essentials such as clothes, with the shops selling amazing items left right and center, it was hard work. The retro shops especially Super Potato is where I spent a lot of time, drooling over rows and rows of 80s and 90s nostalgia. I almost picked up a NeoGeo Pocket colour, a Wonderswan and a Famicom Bluetooth iOS controller. In the end I stumped for a PS Vita with a lovely OLED screen, should make long journeys coming up a bit easier.

Sensoji Temple Good FortuneEnough with the geek chat, for culture we explored the city by foot and metro, from the busy intersection of Shibuya (which has the strange tag of worlds busiest crossing, it wasn’t rush hour when we were there but still a ton of people flooding the road) to the rituals at the Meiji Shrine where you can join in with various local ceremonies including picking your fortune. We picked ours and both ended up with a bad ones, the rules allow you to fold and hang it up in order to get a second attempt, which resulted in better luck, hooray. Mine told me “Employment should be stopped”, um okay… I’m particularly anti religious and hate churches and all the brainwashing that goes with it, but Buddhist temples have such a nice feeling to them, gone is preaching and hymns, instead you have rituals and respect, very cool.

What amazes me about the city is that vending machines pop up all over the place, every few minutes you find one selling drinks, both soft and beer in the strangest of locations. We tried to work though as many as we could, highlights included strawberry milk in a can and hot sweetcorn which was more like a soup. With all these machines, it’s a sign of how well brought up the people are that you rarely see rubbish, the streets are clean as a hospital, yet I found myself walking for ages looking for a bin.

Full HouseA sumo wrestling match was something we were keen to see, Lady Luck was watching over us as the Grand Sumo Ryrogoku Kokugikan 12 day tournament was in mid flow. Its on every day during the afternoon until 6pm, we went along early to get some cheaper tickets. We made a half assed attempt to find our seats, the numbering made no sense, something confirmed with another westerner who asked us for help. I told them just sit anywhere, that’s what we did and it worked out fine.

The game is very easy to follow, two wrestlers are paired off, not taking into account of weight or height, they stare each other out and then rather violently clash together. The first one to either be pushed out of the ring or touch the floor with anything bar the soles of their feet loses. Matches last between a few seconds up to about half a minute, very entertaining stuff. The normally über quiet Japanese get behind their favourites and shout out their names.

Whilst there we ordered some food, I went for the “Beer and Octo Ball” combo, I like beer and seafood, what could go wrong? I love new foods and will happily try most but this gooey substance didn’t sit well, I thought I was going to puke it back out. We managed to finish the three and happy to leave the under “tried, not recommended”.

Skytree Towering Over The CityThe Tokyo Skytree Tower sits looming above most of the city, it’s really gigantic at 605 meters high, second tallest in the world. Inside was a bit of a long queue, this being Japan it was dealt with efficiency, no pissing about like South America here. Views from the top were great, enhanced by interactive displays showing historical and nighttime views of the city, got to love a tech spin on it.

Food in Japan is always interesting, the problem starts when menus do not have any English, looking at a page of Kanji is rather tricky, what is a starter, a main or a drink? We looked around lots of places and managed to find either English menus, or places with picture that give a hint on what you are ordering, don’t want to end up with more Octo Balls!

Annie & Her CakeThe sushi was phenomenal as expected, cheap and really good. At home you normally get sushi with wasabi (the green playdoh looking stuff) on the side, here it’s spread on top of the rice hidden under the fish, a bit of a surprise on first bite. I had more than my fair share of soups with gorgeous udon noodles and even a rather good kaitsu curry. Though I loved the food, at the end I was happy to be moving on to different flavours as it does get rather repetitive.

Final day I went to the Taito drumming museum whilst Annie went off to find a temple, it was quiet and I had the whole place to myself. They have over 800 drums, the majority had a note beside them which means you can play with it. I obviously wasn’t making enough noise as the lady working there came in to tell me that I can play them – I already was, best get hitting harder! Some cracking drums there, none that would fit in a backpack.

Another fantatsic time im the city, now heading to the airport nice and early for a flight to South East Asia and our first port of call, Vietnam, or so we thought.

Hawaii

Ala Wai CanalChoosing to visit Hawaii had been an impulse decision made in Trailfinders. We had a free flight and were passing over that way, so thought we’d take the opportunity to visit somewhere we might never be again. We had originally planned to stay 5 days, but after doing some research on accommodation, we decided to cut it down, to save costs.

Waikiki BeachWe landed on the island of Oahu and stayed in Waikiki, a beach district of Honolulu. Making the most of this, we hit the beach both days, which was only a 5 minute walk away. Although beautiful, the sea itself wasn’t great for swimming, or much else, as nearly all of the ground was rocks and/or reef. To beat this, on day two, Paul hired a paddle board and I used it as a taxi, hopping on for a relaxing ride with Paul paddling the way. Once we got far enough out to pass the rocks, I had a swim whilst Paul touched up his paddle boarding skills.

Ihop All You Can Eat PancakesHonolulu was also host to our Ihop challenge. They had an all you can eat offer that we decided to take up. We worked up our appetites with a very hot 12km run in the morning sun and then went to work. I had (optimistically) set the bar at 12 pancakes, but only managed 6 and a bite. I was still the champion, though, as Paul only squeezed in 4 measly pancakes [excuse me, and the eggs/hash brown! – Paul]. I absolutely love pancakes, but after that, even the thought of eating another made me feel a little bit queasy.

We had hoped to get out and about a bit more, as Oahu is meant to be beautiful, and is also home to the Pearl Harbour museum. However, due to flight times and our complete inability to master the bus stop system, we didn’t manage to get any further afield. It was a nice taster though, and a lovely beach stop before Tokyo.

Los Angeles

LA Sun

America, America, I’m back once again. I do nothing to hide the fact I love America, the culture, the people, the weather and therefore was more than happy to stop here on route before heading west to Asia. We initially looked at stops in Cuba and New Orleans, but due to restrictions (Cuba and the USA still do not play nice) and flight limits on where we could stop without spending even more, LA was chosen as LAX is a hub and gateway to Asia. Leaving Mexico City, we flew to Dallas and changed planes there, we had the option to stay in Dallas but neither of us really saw that as a backpacking choice and were happy to connect through.

Although I love the country, I god damn hate the TSA. Connecting though Dallas Fort Worth was never going to be easy, but this was an utter piss take, queues and queues with the slowest staff running the lines. Add to the mix a massive airport, our two hour connection ended in a sprint across the airport to find out our flight was running late, rage!

Runyon CanyonWe chose to stay in West Hollywood, a handy hub for local pubs, the Farmers Market shopping area and a half an hour walk to Hollywood Boulevard. This being my third visit to the city, I was happy to see the sights again and spend the week shopping, eating and relaxing. After a slightly chilly winter in Mexico, winter in LA means clear blue skies, sun and 25c weather, utterly perfect city weather. Making the most of our location, I tried to get a good run in each morning, heading up along Hollywood to the Runyon Canyon behind. A large set of hills filled with buff runners, walkers and handbag dogs, its a tough run but with the sights and sounds around, it would be crazy not to make the most of it.

Central PerkingLooking at the tours, we took a trip to Warner Brothers to do the studio tour. I’ve been on the Universal Studios tour, which is fun but setup rather differently. Universal is in the theme park and you are on a trolleys going though sets and theme park style rides like Jaws and King Kong. With WB, you are on a smaller trolley and taken around a live working studio, which is less flashy but oh so interesting.

I had already checked for tickets to watch a filming of Big Bang Theory which was on that day, but it was full (no surprise) which also meant we couldn’t go in and see the set. The tourguide pointed out Johnny Galecki’s (Leonard) red Ford GT parked outside, lovely car. Ashton Kutcher’s (twat) Telsa was also outside the Two & A Half Men set, some well paid actors here. Lots of props, sets and TV magic was shown, a few stars were out and about making it a great tour ending on the set of Friends, which they have kept as a museum piece, everyone knows Central Perk which made for some fun photos, Annie was in her element.

CelebrateCatching a live sporting event was top on the list of our things to do, we scouted out the listings and decided to catch both Ice Hockey and Basketball both at the Staples center downtown. First up was the LA Kings vs Vancouver Canucks, I’ve been to a few NHL games over here and was looking forward to this one, unfortunately the Kings just were not playing that well and it was a bit of a disappointing game. Atmosphere was as usual great along with dinner and beers before at the Yard House, which claims to have the worlds largest selection of beer on draft, staring at , it was hard to disagree.

Our second visit was for the NBA and the LA Clippers vs Dallas Mavericks, it was night and day compared to the hockey, the final quarter looked to be the Mavericks game but the Clippers brought it back as it went to the wire, superb stuff.

Beverly Hills SignA visit to Hollywood normally involves a tour of the stars homes, it’s really a bit of a stupid attraction as you can’t see much apart from fences and hedges, plus most of them are rumours or previous occupants. To put a different spin on it we took a cycle tour around Beverly Hills, may as well get some exercise and escape the usual tourists sitting on buses. The streets were fun to go around and cycling down Rodeo Drive was interesting, usual movie sets were pointed out (Pretty Woman Hotel). Stopping at one of the BH signs, we saw members from Cirque de Sole hanging sideways from it, fancy pants!

I’ve not moaned about beer in a while as the range and availability in Brazil and Mexico was awesome. A look at the beer isle in Wholefoods nearly brought me to tears, the bottle after bottle of great beers, Goose Island, Stone, Mikkeler all in fridges and so so cheap. I must have stood for about 20 minutes debating what to buy, six Stone IPA’s for $9 was an essential purchase. Every bar we went to had at least a decent beer, even the Staples center had many a good beer for sale, though we got turned down for not having passports with us; I took it as a sign that my liver needed a rest.