Day 29 – Cam

It was my responsibility and pleasure to lead the final day of expedition, the journey home to our friends and family. After an emotional goodbye to Ben at the hotel in Hanoi, the leader handover from Lizzie to myself occurred slightly earlier than usual, whilst on the bus heading to the airport (as opposed to the usual midnight handover). I forewarned the group earlier in the day that I was going to be on top of them with regards to passports and bags etc and I’m sure they would agree with me when I say that I did just that. From the second the bus door closed I called a passport check as well as reminding people to check for phones and carrying out our consistently problematic “numbering off” system.

A somewhat restless, music filled 45 minute bus journey later and we reached the airport where we did a bag check and another passport check before heading to the check in desks. After about 40 seconds in the queue, a staff member came over and moved us to another queue designed for ‘groups’ where we then stood waiting behind a family that I’m fairly sure must account for 30% of the population of Asia. Once everyone finally checked their bags we split into two smaller groups to walk through security. 

One tedious security experience later and everybody made it into duty free without issue. We gathered at the gate 1 hour and a half before boarding was due to start so everybody split up and attempted to spend the remainder of their vietnamese dong to varying degrees of success. After some serious déjà vu concerning the same terminal in the early hours of the morning an entire month ago, everyone returned to meet at the gate armed with bags of snacks more or less on time (which is a pretty incredible feat for our group). Once aboard the plane and everybody played the traditional plane game of “how confused can we make the flight crew by swapping all our seats” we departed with only mild panic from myself and Holly.

The flight was about as tedious as it sounds; over 12 hours of attempting to sleep, watching movies and trying to bargain with flight crew for vegetarian meals. That said I think everyone was just grateful for some time to relax a bit, and it gave us all a chance to reflect on our month away and get excited for coming home. The plane landed (after we circled London a few times) and miraculously the arms of mine and Holly’s chairs remained intact. Once back in the UK all that was left to do was a lot of waiting: we waited at customs as Evans, Emily and Alfie all experienced issues with temperamental machines. We waited for our baggage whilst being repeatedly told to move by employees trying to access the carousel next to us. And we waited for the bus outside the airport for an undefined amount of time until the driver of a massive coach told me he was there for balcarras. All aboard our very final party bus (which I may add was the nicest bus we have been on so thank you to Critch for that) and we set off for a fairly emotional journey filled with snacking, blog writing, reading the anonymous messages we all wrote for each other and lots of singing. We pulled up to balcarras singing ‘the cup song’ and with a several people in tears upon the sight of their families, we disembarked to join our parents.

It’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to spend a month with such an amazing group of people on another continent.

Everyone has had ups and downs but I think we have all been pleasantly surprised with how well we have pulled together as a team and supported each other when we have needed it, both as individuals and as a whole group.

On behalf of the 13 students I want to say one last thank you to Ben, Critch and Evans for keeping us all safe, and for doing so in a manner that allowed us to see you as members of the team rather than teachers, we all really appreciated that style of group work on our expedition.

And one final thank you to all the friends and family that read the blog and kept nagging us to keep posting, it’s been a pleasure to share our amazing journey with all of you.

Let’s do it again sometime 😁

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Day 28 – Lizzie

Today would be our last day in Vietnam. Our check out time was 12pm but we knew our late flight meant that we wouldn’t leave for the airport until 9pm that evening. The rain that had started the night before had got heavier throughout the night and was still pelting down when most of the team emerged for breakfast. Lots of team complained of a dodgy tummy at breakfast, with the pineapple from last night’s meal getting the majority of the blame. However, it didn’t stop me eating a large amount of fruit and a couple of plates of fried rice.

After breakfast we gathered in all the remaining budget money from the group and realised we had a bit more than money left than we thought, so Amelia, Jess and myself went next door to change our remaining dollars to dong. Then we shared all the budget money out.

7 members of the team then booked a taxi to go to the fine art museum and the rest of the group went out in the rain to do some more shopping.

The art gallery had some interesting exhibits from a range of eras, including textiles of hill tribes from the 16th century and paintings of soldiers from the Vietnam war.

Throughout this expedition we have learnt more about the history of Laos and Cambodia. The war against the Americans that led to these communist states but also what the local people think about the current governments in both countries. An interesting book to read to find out more is “The Vietnam War” by Geoffrey c Ward and Ken Burns. This is currently a 10 part tv series on bbc 4 at 10.30pm every Saturday night.

The group met back at the hostel at 11.30 and then split up to go out for lunch with even more dong distributed by the finance team.

Most groups decided to go for the Banh Mi option which is a baguette with meat, egg or vegetables and a spicy sauce.

Following more shopping in the afternoon we met at 5pm for dinner and walked up Ta Hien Beer Street (Named sin street by the teachers) in the old quarter looking for a restaurant.

Emilia had told the group about a night market she’d spotted the night before, so after dinner she led us all around the streets to find it. After walking in circles for 20 minutes we paused on the corner of a suspiciously empty looking street where Emilia announced the night market had been the night before. We decided to go into quite a posh looking souvenir shop whilst we waiting for night market developments. The doubters were proved wrong when out of nowhere stalls started appearing on the dark street. Unfortunately, it was time to return to the hostel for our transfer to the airport.

After bidding Ben farewell we all jammed into a minibus for the last time to head for Hanoi airport.

Day 27 – Jaci

As agreed the night before, the majority of the team came down the many flights of stairs in the hostel, for our first buffet breakfast! Due to not having this luxury, the hopes of the team were high… until we were greeted by several plates of fruit and cold chips. Nevertheless these were eaten in minutes and by the time Critch, Evans and Ben came down (and the rest of the hostel guests), half an hour later, there was nothing left. Once everyone had finished eating.. the entire buffet.. we got ready to make plans for the day.

In the morning, the team headed towards the indoor market, filled with strange odours of spices unknown to us. This didn’t matter, as no one in the market would sell to us as we were ‘white’ despite having tanned (and burnt) to the extent of being darker than our non vendors. The majority of the group left the market, seeking thank you presents for the leader team, as we evidently were not going to find anything there. Several bustling streets later, we found ourselves entirely immersed in the old quarter, with vendors selling knock-off items on every corner.

After a while of shopping, browsing and taking in our surroundings, we headed back to the hostel to get into groups of whom was to go to the museum, and whom was to go shopping once again, and to go for lunch in these groups also. After deciding on a meeting time of 5:00 that evening, both groups set off to do their decided activity. The museum group found a bakery where doughnuts were cheap and appetites were high, in comparison to the shopping group, who encountered a small café where prices were good yet the stairs to the seating area were not; they were more like a ladder! After eating, some of the shopping group chose to purchase their “banana outfits” which consisted of matching shorts and shirt with a banana print on them.

After this, both teams began to head back to the hostel to sign thank you cards for the leader team, take naps and get ready for our “big meal” which we paid for with money saved from earlier on. Soon enough, this time flew by and so we walked to the restaurant of which had a wide choice of options; somewhere everyone was certain to find something they liked. After ordering, we presented the leader team with gifts bought for them earlier on in the day. To our surprise, Critch and Evans then presented us with a small gift each: a rice hat key ring along with a guessing game of Little Miss and Mister, where names such as Little Miss “Unlucky” and Mister “DJ” came up, followed by a personal message from the two teachers.

After a very tasty and fun last proper dinner altogether, we headed back to the hostel, only to find vendors walking inflatable pigs on wheels and other several strange items like so. After a long day spent walking around the Old Quarter, the team went for what seemed to be one of the last games we were to play of “Mafia”, the game our VFP tour guide showed us, whilst we were in Thai Hai Village. Later on, we finished playing and went to bed… relatively late…

Day 26 – Daniel

We awoke today after a good night’s rest. Personally today was one of the first days I’ve woken up via my own body-clock (now set to an annoyingly healthy 6:30 AM). In fact after a surprisingly English breakfast of jam and toast, half the group fell back asleep until lunch. Some of us instead went for a short walk round the island, which was still feeling the remnants of Storm Wipha. In fact due to the storm the plan had changed, and now we had to make the crossing back to Hanoi by ferry as opposed to our normal boat.

It was then we arrived at the ‘ferry’ set to take us home to the mainland. Now a Vietnamese ferry is a lot like a British ferry; just get rid of all floors besides the vehicle hold, strip off half the paintwork and cram it with as many people as you can. Like a can of sardines, we had to stand carrying all our luggage on our shoulders, which considering the sunburn on them, wasn’t a particularly pleasurable experience. A rumour spread round that the journey would take 2 hours, but fortunately before we jumped off and swam for it, we arrived at shore. It only took about 15 minutes.

There was a quick bathroom break before getting on the next bus, and coincidentally it happened to be the toilet from hell. According to Amelia and Jess, whoever had designed the toilet had given up halfway through when making the cubicles, because they were only about 2 feet tall, and with no door. It was more like a pig-pen than a cubicle, and the smell reflected it. When they got back to the bus they used a small bucketload of anti-bacterial and Jess rated the toilet 0/10, which if you know Jess, means no human being should ever set foot in it again.

We arrived in Hanoi and walked, or more accurately swam to our hostel in the pouring rain.

After one big team meeting we started down the famous Old Quarter in search of dinner. We found out the people of Hanoi have an interesting tactic when marketing their restaurants: pulling you into them by brute force. Critchley tried to explain to them that molesting your customers isn’t an effective tactic as we had menus thrust in our faces walking down the street. One of them even yelled at us that his beer was “so f***ing good!” and “so f***ing cheap!” to which we politely told him that we were too f***ing underage.

Somewhat well fed and one angry duel with a currency exchanger later, we were able to finally have our first taste of luxury the whole day: a great sleep in a hotel-standard bed.

Day 25 – Amelia

We woke up early to have breakfast at 7 to be ready for our full day ahead of us. We left the boat at 7:30 to visit the Sung Sot cave.

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After visiting the cave we went kayaking. Alfie and I were pretty certain our kayak was broken as it would not steer. It took a lot of hard work to get back to the boat. By the end our arms were absolutely knackered.

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After and hour of kayaking, everyone crashed on the top deck. Alfie could not wait to sizzle in the sun and get a tan.

The boat than stopped about 100 m away from small beach, meaning it was time to finally jump of the boat. After many jumps we all swam to the beach to attempt a pyramid again.

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After a few unsuccessful attempts we were summoned back to the boat for lunch; some of us swam back doing a breaststroke race (which Critch won) and the others saw a poisonous snake rippling along the surface of the water.

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The boat than dropped us of at monkey island. Jess, Emilia and I went on a spontaneous adventure up a mountain, barefoot in the mid heat (affirming our reputation as the “naughty ones”) not sure it was the best idea. Although it was challenging, we conquered the climb, scrambling up the rocks and watching where we had to place our feet. On our journey we came across a bay that was covered in rubbish and amongst it was a floating t-shirt ( or a body). Our feet were burning on the scorching rocks. We could have probably fried an egg on it. We were nearly at the top when we could see the rest of our team trying to do the pyramid again. We managed to catch their attention but I don’t think they were aware we had gone despite telling Critch

The rest of the group sensibly stayed by the beach and were rewarded with some very close encounters with the local mercat monkeys.

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It was time to leave monkey island and head to Cat Ba island where we were staying next. The hostel was amazing. Some people had balconies, sofas or both. We had about 3 hours to spare before dinner. This was the time to relax, walk around the island and sleep. Sleeping was the most popular option.

In the evening we went on a walk to search for rolling ice cream. Of course we bargained with them to get it cheaper. It wasn’t happening until we all moved away and they finally said okay okay.

All of a sudden, we heard screaming and saw all the locals running for their lives. So guess what we did, scream and ran for our lives. It was all because it had started to rain and a storm was coming. I don’t think we would have been as scared if the locals hadn’t been either.

Day 24 – Molly

Like every other morning, we woke up early to finish packing for the day; and we ate breakfast. At 8:30 we set off on the bus to Halong Bay. The children from the Thai Hai Village, where we had been staying, waved us goodbye which concluded the charity project. The journey was 4 hours long to the pier where we were being picked up, and we had a short snack break where the group tried to see who could spend as much of our allocated money as possible.

When we finally arrived at the pier, we tried to look out for our boat, and we were pleasantly surprised when we boarded as the boat looked amazing and we were even welcomed with pineapple drinks!

Soon after we had been shown to our rooms we travelled to a beach not too far away and rushed into the sea. The views were unbelievable and we were able to walk up the island to appreciate the sights. During our short stay on the island the group decided to see how many people we could carry in the water on top of one another’s backs. It started with piggy-backs, then a tower of 3 people and finally we tried (with a lot of persistence and effort) to make a pyramid with 10 people. Sadly we failed at this attempt as we made it to 9 people but we couldn’t work out how to get Amelia to the top as it was very difficult to climb up people!

Back on the boat, we enjoyed an amazing lunch as they kept bringing out more and more food which was so tasty. Soon after lunch, we enjoyed some kayaking and a short walk through a cave to then overlook a beautiful lagoon.

Shortly before dinner was served, we were offered a fresh spring roll cooking class which was surprisingly easy as all we had to do was fill them with fresh ingredients and roll them up. Almost immediately after, dinner was served and it turned out to be one of the best meals for a few people.

After a small break, most of the group enjoyed squid fishing on the end of our boat, whilst a few members relaxed on the rooftop. The evening ended with karaoke, which mainly consisted of Emily screaming down the semi-functional microphone. Although there wasn’t a large choice of songs, we were able to find a few that we had already practised on our long bus journeys.

Day 23 – Holly

Today started like any other…time for the vegetarians to shine. We cleared all our plates and most of the others tables as per- this is because we are elite.

Rachel found a toad in her shoe and so did Esme ( Correction : I’ve just confirmed that Es did in fact have two toads in her shoe 🐸)

The team then got to chosen whether they got to stay with the children to keep them entertained or partake in some more manual labour involving gardening with the gardener who doesn’t stop smiling. The children weren’t really up for running around and playing games today which was fine because none of us were about to, they all loved hearing stories instead including Daniels version of the Gruffalo which was accompanied with all the different voices of the woodland creatures. Me and Em were also faced with the challenge of dealing with two girls, one who was sat on my lap got slapped square in the face by the other girl sat on Emily before proceeding to get cursed and stared at so horribly that we both were quite scared.

I don’t know how the manual labour was because I wasn’t there but a direct quote from Cam is “Disgostang”.

After a hearty lunch of rice we tackled the biggest challenge of the day which was preparing for the big showcase/ performance from the village that we thought was going to be us just singing a song and them singing a song, everyone clapping and then going to bed- our guide then notified us that we were going to be performing in front of the entire village and their piece was an hour and a half long. After careful deliberation we selected a few classic songs from primary school choir (Shalom) and decided Mol was going to dance and we set out practicing.

I never thought I’d say that belting out random songs from years ago in the middle of a Vietnamese jungle on a sweaty Monday afternoon would be so surreal and funny. I honestly think that because we were screaming Shalom at the tops of our lungs for hours that they now think it’s an integral part of western culture.

Now that we had perfected our set it was time for dinner, the last dinner was amazing as we had got to choose all our favourite dishes from the past couple of days to have in one meal. After the vegetarians once again cleared all the plates it was showtime.

We all sat down for the show to start and we were stunned when all the children from the village performed a traditional song and dance for us which was amazing they all played the instruments that are incorporated in their culture and the sweetest little boys held fans.

We then had to follow that with Shalom.

We got into formation and sung our hearts out, although it was short and sweet I think we bossed it and it was a successful first performance.

We then got a flute solo from someone in the village accompanied by a little boy imitating the man next to him trying to play his own miniature flute. To top that off we then got a solo from the smiley gardener who melts all of our hearts, he belted the classic, well known song ” Ho chi min”. I want to take him home.

Jaci then sang beautifully to “My house” by Matilda followed by Mol who danced which of course blew everyone’s sandals off and caused all the little children to start dancing too.

We finished everything off with the cup song. Now. This was something else, we had been practicing all day and it had come down to this moment. The intricacies of this rendition was unfathomable, but of course, we relish at the thought of a challenge. The song went off without a hitch right up until the ending where Critch managed to slightly mess up his solo moment which left him sprawling on the table without dignity while the rest of us laughed.

The night was made even better by loads more dancing with the village (trying not to have an ankle amputated while bamboo sticks were closing in on your legs and small children were dragging you through, all while sweating profusely)and all the children, receiving bracelets which they had made all of us during our stay. Some people got special attention and Daniel got a drawing from a little girl who was convinced she would be coming with us tomorrow. We all got plenty of photos which the children loved taking cuddled up to us or climbing on us (Rach gave an impressive piggy back/ sprint to one child) followed by loads of sweets and snacks for us to eat with the kids.

After our goodbyes we all went back to the house. Molly got deet burn. It was bad. Lynn please don’t worry.

The end.