Learning a language – with Rosetta Stone

“Help!”, I cried as I ran into the only place in the small village in rural Peru with a light on. My boyfriend had had a terrible allergic reaction to something and his face, eyes & throat were swelling up incredibly quickly…what to say next though, knowing how to order a beer in Spanish wouldn’t help me now. I got my phone out and turned on data roaming…..£6/MB to find out that Allergic Reaction in Spanish is actually;

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So basically, ‘allergic reaction’ whilst sounding a bit like Manuel from Fawlty Towers. The thing is, I should have known this. If I’m going to head into rural areas in adventurous countries then the least I should have is a basic knowledge of a language, as well as some important words for medical emergencies such as these. I’ll let you know how that story ends at the bottom of this post…


Learning Spanish with Rosetta Stone

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I’m heading back to Latin America in January, and this time I intend to go with a little more Spanish under my belt, so I contacted Rosetta Stone to let them know about my trip and see what they suggested.

Rosetta Stone has nearly 30 languages to choose from and a number of different ways in which to learn, you can choose to learn online, through an app or on your desktop and they have options for personal and business use. I chose to learn with them as they have stood the test of time and continued to be the most trusted language learning software in the world.

Being able to use the app on the move is fantastic. For me…I’ve struggled in the past trying to use a language programme on my laptop, but with the app it’s very easy to just pop in and out of a lesson when you’ve got the chance. Each lesson is also not too long, which is great me for as some days I might only have ten minutes or so to learn.

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Rosetta Stone uses a strong immersion technique which means that the only language you see/hear is the language which you are intending to learn. At the beginning of the course there’s a lot of repetition, which I learnt from my TEFL days is incredibly important when learning a language, but as the app uses such a range of pictures to accompany each lesson it doesn’t actually feel repetitive.

There’s a great mix of reading & listening and the voice recognition is excellent meaning that mispronunciation is spotted and corrected.

It’s incredibly rewarding learning something new as an adult, and I think theres a reason that Rosetta Stone has always been top of it’s game; it’s very easy to see your progression with the programme, test yourself and feel like you’re actually gaining new skills.

I’m going to document my Spanish journey with the Rosetta Stone app and will be updating my blog as I can along, so keep stopping by to see how I’m getting on.


For more information or to get 50% off  your own course click here; http://www.rosettastone.co.uk/lp/h1/?cmp=aff&cid=ba-co-alex50 and enter the voucher code ALEX50 in the cart.


The end of the Peru story is….the reason the light was on in the bar is that the staff we were holding a lock-in for a particularly wealthy “business man”, whose business was apparently secret when I tried to question further.

Anyway, this “businessman” was so important that he was sitting with his bodyguards, his chef, his driver AND his medic. What are the chances?

The medic got out his kit and administered strong steroid antihistamines which luckily stopped the progression of the reaction long enough for us to seek further help! I’ll admit that whilst terrifying at the time, it makes quite a good story.

(This story was is not a sponsored post and I received no money for the story from Rosetta Stone.)

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Croatia; so much more than beaches & bars

Croatia has become a top beach destination over the past 5 years. Cheap flights within Europe, relatively low prices and a large number of world famous music festivals have meant that it’s over taken other previous party destinations in terms of visitors.

Sure, it’s easy to see why. Croatia has some incredible beaches, Zlatni Rat the famous golden horn of sand that moves with the tide is stunning, and Hideout & Garden Festival draw some huge names in music, but right now I’m not here to talk about that. Croatia has a diverse range of things to offer for many tastes.


Museum of Broken Relationships. – Zagreb
This museum dedicated to failed relationships both romantic and family received the Kenneth Hudson Award for Europe’s most innovative museum in 2011.
Starting off with just a few items, the two Zagreb based artists who founded it, have been sent items from people all over the world that represent memories too painful to relive or that remind them of a person they have lost.

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Some are incredibly sad, such as the caterpillar toy. The accompanying card explains that a couple in a long distance relationship decided to take off a leg of the toy every time they saw each other. They said that when the legs were all removed they would be together properly. Of course the toy is now in the museum and only semi disfigured as one of the parties left the other for someone else before it was completed.

In lighter news, the museum is close to some of the most popular sights for both religious and civil ceremonies in the city and many of the couples actually come to the museum with their guests after the ceremony for a drink!


Rabska Torta
I’m not going to say that all Croatian food blew me away, but they do have a few specialities that you won’t be able to try anywhere else that are truly delicious. The island of Rab has a traditional cake made from almonds and Maraschino liqueur usually baked in a spiral shape. It was originally made for Pope Alexander III but has continued to be made to this day in the same way.

You can visit the birthplace of this cake and watch it being made or even have a go yourself, beware though, it’s still made by hand and the dough is so thick that it’s surprisingly hard work to handle it!

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Plitvice Lakes National Park
This is Croatia’s largest national park and it’s  world-famous for it’s multi-tiered lakes. 16 lakes can be seen in the park and by hiking around the many trails as well as viewing from a variety of heights you can get completely different sights. The park also offers boat rides to more hidden areas.

Plitvice was one of the first natural places to be awarded UNESCO status meaning that they assist in the preservation of it’s beauty.

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5 unbelievable landscapes you’ve just got to visit!

Machu Pichu, Peru
Despite being photographed thousands of times every year, Machu Pichu’s magnificence can’t even begin to be captured in a picture. The sheer size of the settlement, combined with the clouds rolling over the mountain tops are something I’ll never forget seeing for the first time.

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Suru Valley, India
A lot of the surrounding area appears baron and wild, then out of nowhere appears Suru Valley, reminiscent of Swiss scenery the valley is picture perfect from the bright flowers to the tiny fluffy clouds dotting the sky.

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Tayrona National Park, Colombia
On the Northern coast of Colombia, Tayrona is firmly on the Gringo trail, but this natural wonder takes some hiking to get into, believe me it’s worth it.

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Dal Lake, Kashmir
The spectacular lake, over 15km in circumference in Srinagar, Kashmir has changing beauty throughout the day. Rise early to catch the floating vegetable/flower market or take a painted shikara to view the flora & flora and wooden houseboats.

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Ubud, Bali
Bali is famous for it’s ideallic landscapes and after Eat, Pray, Love then Ubud became an even more famous fixture on it’s map. However, Ubud does deserve the attention. The rolling rice paddies of Tegalalang are really quite stunning

 

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Beautiful Ollantaytambo, your must-visit place before Machu Picchu.

The main railway station that serves Cusco and therefore on to Machu Picchu is a small town called Ollantaytambo about 1 hour 45 from the city.
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As such, throughout the morning minibuses and taxis rush through the narrow streets towards the station and most tourists don’t give the town a second thought. However, Ollantaytambo is a beautiful place in itself, a site of great importance in the Inca empire and also the location of many hugely impressive ruins, it’s unique in Peru as well as it was built by the Incas over 500 years ago and has been inhabited to date.
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We took a collectivo from Puente Grau for 10 soles (3 dollars) at around 4am after getting off the night bus from Puno and headed straight there. The minibuses go straight through the main square so we hopped out and headed to our hostel. Most hostels allow early check is as so many visitors get up super early to head on to Machu Picchu.

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You can spend a few hours just wandering around the town and it’s cobbled streets. The main square itself is lovely and lined with little cafés where you can sit and take in the view.
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There are 6 or 7 alleyways leading off the square that have retained a very old timey vibe and we came across some quite picturesque scenes.

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Ollantaytambo was originally a pretty effective fortress and in 1536 the Spanish were defeated here when Manco Inca flooded the plains with previously prepared channels. The very well preserved terraces and fortress walls sit high up on hills either side of the town and combined with the clouds sitting on top of the mountains, Ollantaytambo is a magnificent place to spend a day and perhaps an evening on a rooftop as we did, watching the sun go down with a beer.
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There’s a few nice eateries in town including a tiny ice cream shop on the street leading down to the station. For 5 soles ($1.50) you can get some great flavours including local chocolate, black corn/maiz & passionfruit.
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Obviously if you do want to explore Machu Picchu, which if you’re in Peru then you probably do, then you’re perfectly located ready for an early morning train and you can avoid the rushed collectivo alongside all the other tourists and leisurely stroll from your hostel to the station whilst leaving your bags to collect later in the day.
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Delicious Peruvian food at San Camilo Market

I love eating street food. For many reasons, firstly in some countries I’ve found that the local specialities are often better bought from a friendly woman on the street are packed full of flavour more than in an expensive restaurant (bun cha, pad thai), secondly it saves a lot of money and thirdly, I want to try what the locals eat and often you’re more likely to find this while sitting on a tiny plastic stool than in an air conditioned place aimed at tourists.

Peru hasn’t presented quite as many options so far for super cheap eats but then we arrived in Arequipa. Arequipa is known for it’s food, in particular spicy peppers and for the humble potato.

We headed straight to local favourite, food market Mercado San Camilo. It’s a large market easily reachable from the main plaza and has a whole host of food from delicious snacks right up to filling meals that won’t break the bank.

There’s rows and rows of fish and meat vendors, hacking away at various parts, plus all the fruits you could name plus some you’ve probably never tried or even heard of.

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Plus there are dozens of types of potato. Don’t ask me to name them…I’d struggle in English nevermind Spanish.

After wandering for a while we came to a selection of eateries mainly serving up another Peruvian speciality, roasted salt pork, usually served with corn, possibly sweet potato, onion & tomato and optional spicy sauce! (Go for it!)

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The whole meal cost around 2/3 dollars and was absolutely delicious. The pork was some of the nicest I’ve tried and the salty corn really complimented it.

For a dessert there are plenty of options. I tried Dulce Arequipa which is a bit like a soft fudge made from condensed milk followed by a Strawberry pastry for 50 cents which was popular with the locals.

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Finally we headed to the fruit aisles where dozens of smiling ladies serve up smoothies and juices (Juga). Pick your fruits then either select condensed milk, orange juice or water as a mixer and enjoy!

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Huacachina | Amazing desert oasis in Peru

Peru is an incredible country for backpackers. It’s easy to get around and cheap, as well as having a large number of world renowned sights like Machu Picchu. An absolute backpacker favourite and newcomer onto the Instagram scene is Huacachina.

If you’re following the Peru Gringo trail then you’ve probably spent a few days dusty & dry and on a variety of buses, then suddenly, out of the desert appears a compact oasis resort, a dreamy lagoon surrounded by palm trees and 200m high dunes, welcome to Huacachina.

Possibly shortened from the Quechua word meaning ‘hidden lagoon’, Huacachina is like something from a movie. 5km from nearby Ica, it’s a small village surrounding a natural fresh water lagoon, flanked by sand dunes stretching some few hundred feet high.


How to get to Huacachina
Most of the buses from destinations around Peru including Lima, stop at Ica and not Huacachina directly. The exception to this is the more expensive Peru Hop bus favoured by younger travellers.

The cheaper inter city buses such as Cruz Del Sur and Oltursa go at more regular intervals from the main terminal in Lima and stop at the main bus station in Ica. From here you can get a short taxi ride over the dunes to Huacachina for around $2/per person for a full cab.

getting from lima to huacachina

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Where to stay in Huacachina.
Huacachina has a dozen hostels and hotels surrounding the lagoon, all with slightly elevated prices due to the limited options, we found that virtually all had sold out over New Year and those left had tripled their prices so do check ahead for busy periods and festivals. It’s also worth noting that some hostels and hotels label themselves as being located by the lagoon but are actually a long and fairly unsafe walk from nearby Ica.
We stayed at Carola del Sur, a smart hostel offering a duneside pool larger than most in the area,. It hosts BBQ evenings including all you can drink at the large bar/disco and friendly staff happy to help out. It’s one of the recommended spots on the Peru Hop bus so if you’re a solo traveller you’ll be able to make friends with others.
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Eat
Wild Olive Trattoria & Guest House is a no frills pizzeria with salad options. Large pizzas in a variety of flavours with options for vegetarians are served in a nice surrounding with options for the outdoor terrace. 
Wild Olive Trattoria & Guest House
Banana’s Hostel 
When I asked a friend for her Peru recommendations her reply was “You have to try the chocolate cake at Banana’s hostel!” What I thought was a slightly over the top recommendation of travelling to try a cake did turn out to be true; it is a cake to rival most cakes. The food & drink menu in general is pretty comprehensive and offers great quality whilst admittedly mostly western food at good prices.
They have some good breakfast options including tasty pancakes and although unimpressive to look at ‘Israeli burger’ was good value.

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What to do in Huacachina 
Relax! It’s a good place to chill and remind yourself of some true hostel life. Early beers by the pool while listening to local tunes, chat with the locals and other travellers, take advantage of the happy hour offers that most hotels offer before partying until dawn at some of the disco bars on the side streets.
Sandboarding and Dune Buggies
When you arrive in Huacachina you’ll be bombarded with offers of rides into the dunes on the Mad Max style buggies. Many of these also include the chance to try sandboarding. Shop around a bit and negotiate your price, preferably early morning or about 4pm to avoid the midday sun. It’s possible to hire your own from Ica Adventures or go on a fun group trip if you’re a little more nervous.

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Walk to the top of the dunes for sunset
At around 5pm, dozens of people set off up the dunes ready to watch the sunset. Make the journey a bit easier by zig zagging your way up. Make sure to take sunglasses as if it’s remotely windy then you’ll struggle to see with all the sand blowing. Take a couple of beers (but be sure to take your rubbish with you as the dunes are surprisingly litter covered in some areas) and watch the dune buggies shoot around like little bugs in the distance as well as the skillful sandboarders zoom past easily. When you’ve had your sunset fix, it’s the much more fun than climbing up descent which takes about 10 seconds!
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5 reasons to visit Ladakh

  1. The scenery – Ladakh is stunning and incredibly varied. Travel for only a few hours and the view changes dramatically. You’ll be treated to Glaciers, mountains, powerful rivers and flowery fields that look almost superimposed.20160609_161236
  2. The people – Despite major cultural differences and also language barriers, the people I met were massively welcoming, friendly & generous. 20160619_103843
  3. Monasteries – Ladakh is a must visit for anyone interested in history, particularly Buddhist history. The region is dotted with ancient monasteries high up in the hills, some of which take days of driving to get to.Screenshot_20161216-184950.png
  4. Animals – Ladakh is a wonderful place to spot wild animals. One of the most beautiful sights on my trip was a pack of wild horses running together alongside my vehicle. You’ll also be treated to views of marmots, yaks and for those very lucky few; the snow leopard.Screenshot_20161216-184135.png
  5. To get away from it all – In all of my travels I’ve never been somewhere that is quite so remote. Even camping in the bush in Africa I still managed to get phone signal or at least have a satellite phone in case of emergencies. For up to a week at a time while  travelling in this region we had no signal, no internet, and not even a satellite phone due to area restrictions. In some ways difficult, but also refreshing to be able to switch off for a while.20160615_095644.jpg

Afternoon Tea Around the World

Hanoi, Vietnam 
The Sofitel Legend Metropole is an award winning colonial style hotel regularly listed in top World hotel lists. The afternoon tea in the picturesque restaurant overlooking the courtyard area is always very popular and good as a stand alone event.  However the main attraction is the the chocolate buffet. For around $25 between 3:30 and 5:00 they offer all you can eat chocolate in every form you can imagine.  Truffles, chefs preparing made to order hot chocolates, eclairs, macaroons, gateaux and a whole host of heart attack inducing treats.

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Photo: Spoonfuls of Goodness

Victoria Falls, Zambia.
Whilst probably not the first place you’d think of when you hear ‘afternoon tea’, around Victoria Falls a number of places offer the full experience complete with cucumber sandwiches. With the backdrop of elephants grazing and impressive colonial lodges you’d be hard pushed to find a more impressive place to enjoy your cakes and tea.

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London
As virtually every hotel in London offers Afternoon Tea now, some have started to offer a more unusual take in order to stand out from the crowd. The Radisson Blu at Leicester Square offers a Pink Afternoon tea, complete with salmon, beetroot and ham sandwiches, rosewater jelly and pink macaroons.

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While over at 9 Conduit Street, Sketch serves up modern fayre like twisted pink marshmallows, finger sized cheese toasties and shot glasses of trifle. Expensive, but worth it for a special occasion and for the chance to see the 239 David Shrigley drawings that line the walls.

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Cultural Shows & The Hokey Cokey

For a lot of people travelling is about experiencing new cultures. We like to try local dishes, some choose to do a home stay, others adopt some form of local dress for their trip.

One of the most popular ways of experiencing traditions and past times first hand that I’ve come across, (and this seems to be common whether it’s a low budget traveller in Vietnam or at a resort in the Caribbean) seems to be the ‘Cultural Show’. In other words, a performance of usually singing and dancing, sometimes with instruments performed by local people.

Over the years I’ve seem some incredible performances. Recently in Ladakh I got to watch a show put on by 4 local women who dressed in fantastically ornate traditional wear and performed 2 dances that told a story about the region’s rich cultural history.  For these women, putting on shows is one of the only ways they can make some extra money in an area that is closed off to the rest of the world for all but 3 months a year.

One of the performances that stands out the most in mind however is when I was in Botswana midway through an African overland trip. As a group we were heading into the Okavango Delta which entails 3 hours of rowing in a wooden canoe into the depths of the Delta before pitching our tents unnervingly close to the sound of Hippos.

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When it got to nightfall the local guides built a fire and after dinner they all joined together and did an impromptu dance and song. It was powerful and energetic, a dance somewhat choreographed but with allowances for personalisation and with individuals taking it turns to lead the group in rallying cries and echoes.

When the performance was over we all cheered enthusiastically until the local guides gestured that it was our turn. Four of our group sang an enthusiastic rendition of Jerusalem but the guides looked rather unimpressed and repeatedly requested that we repay them with a dance of our own.  The problem was; what song and dance do a group of Brits & Aussies, a handful of Kiwis & Americans and two Italians know well enough to perform impromptu in public.

I’ve experienced similar dilemmas before, I once attended an anniversary party for a lovely couple I was filming with in India when I was asked to sing a song to the audience.  I’m not talking about drunken karaoke with lyrics and a loud backing tracks. I’m talking about a capella with a loud microphone and a silent and expectant audience. In a panic I stood up and did my very best version of Colours of the Wind from Pocahontas to a group of largely confused but very polite West Bengalis.

Anyway, back in Botswana we eventually came upon a song we all knew the moves to and could perform as a group.

The Hokey Cokey, or Pokey if you’re Australian.

You know…left arm in, left arm out, shake it all about.

It was terrible. We were out of tune, out of time and largely confused about what was happening and what limb was to come next. The song finished and there was silence….Then the local guides erupted into applause and there was a lot of hand shaking and grinning.

Nobody seemed to mind how bad the performance was, we’d made the effort and given them a glimpse into our culture just as they had (a lot more skillfully) given us a glimpse into theirs.

I’m always up for a good cultural show when I travel and I’m sure I’ll see plenty more in the future but I guess for now I better be rehearsing some more Disney songs and perhaps ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes.’

Affordable dates in London

1. Take a walk on Clapham Common.
Clapham Common is a huge open space in SW London on the edge of zone 2. There’s 220 acres of green space, 3 ponds and Victorian bandstand. The bandstand area is popular with dogwalkers and there’s a cute little café where you can get a coffee & cake watch the world go by.

2. Grab some dinner at Pizza Pilgrims
Pizza Pilgrims does Napoli inspired street food at locations on Dean Street and Kingly Street. Their pizzas are baked in a couple of minutes in the custom built stone bake ovens and are all under £10, including the delicious Nduja (spicy sausage) pizza. Top tip – Finish your meal with a delicious order of limoncello.

3. Walk from Kings Cross to Camden Lock.
If you head towards Granary Square from Kings Cross you’ll find some green steps leading down towards the canal.
If you walk along towards Camden Lock you’ll have some lovely sights including canal boats, a number of functioning locks & quaint cottages. When you arrive at Camden make sure to head to the food markets and in particular try the Bún Bao from the world food stands.

4. Take in the view from One New Change
Opposite St Paul’s Cathedral is a shopping centre called One New Change which has a wonderful roof terrace. It’s open from 6am-midnight daily and offers magnificent views of the London skyline and particularly of the cathedral from an angle you’ve probably never seen before.

Take the lift up to the floor of Madison’s Restaurant and Bar, but then just head left onto the terrace instead of into the bar. They also host a number of outdoor events on the roof throughout the year, ranging including free screenings of Wimbledon.

5. Check out Colombia Road Flower Market
Every Sunday morning Colombia road turns into a multicoloured flower market complete with pleasingly Cockney sounding market-sellers shouting about their offers and trying to entice you to buy. The flowers themselves are very reasonably priced but if you’re just in the mood for browsing them make sure to check out the various trinket and antique shops lining the round.

Chicken Street in Hanoi | BBQ Chicken Street Ly Van Phuc

Hanoi is an absolute gem for street food lovers. I lived there 7 years ago and on my visits back since then, while a lot of the larger food establishments have changed hands or disappeared completely my favourite street food vendors have stayed put.

Top of this list has to be Ly Van Phuc (pronounced Lee Van Fuk) or as it’s more commonly known “Chicken Street/ BBQ Chicken Street.” It’s one of the top street food destinations in Hanoi if not the whole of Vietnam and despite this it’s still much better known amongst the locals and ex-pats than the many backpackers that visit the city as it’s slightly out of the main town area.

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The vendors might all appear to be selling the same grilled chicken and potatoes but the tried and tested favourite is right down to the end of the road and on the right…trust me!

The menu is fairly simple and all the below are brushed with honey before being grilled to perfection on the open grills you can see all along the street. You’ll also be served chilli sauce and pickled cucumbers in sweet vinegar to go with it.

bánh mì – grilled bread
cánh gà – chicken wings
khoai – roasted sweet potato, cubed on skewers

For the more adventurous there’s also the option of local favourite; chicken feet. Don’t be concerned if you don’t fancy trying out your Vietnamese, staff here are used to foreigners pointing out what delicious food they want to try next, so just point and hold the appropriate number of fingers up!

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Make sure to wash down your meal with glasses of local Bia Hoi. If I’m honest I’ve never really understood the pricing system here and I’m sure it changes slightly every time I’ve been, however a meal for two including all the chicken, bread and potatoes we could eat plus 3 beers each came to less than $10 this time which I can’t complain about.

Now as you’re sat on small plastic stools which I’ve seen many a westerner break and rubbish is pushed onto the floor to be cleaned at the end of the night…admittedly you might feel that the surroundings are not 5* standard, however the scores of motorbikes arriving night after night shows that this place’ popularity is here to stay, and there isn’t a star system high enough to score how good the food here!