Vietnam quickly became one of our favourite Asian countries during our first, month-long visit in 2013. In fact, we loved Hanoi so much that we later returned to teach for a year and have re-visited on visa runs from Thailand. As well as exploring the northern rice terraces and national parks, we’ve sailed Halong Bay and stayed on Cat Ba Island. On our first trip to Vietnam we travelled the length of the country, stopping in the former capital Hue, Danang and Hoi An. We bused our way from there to the Mui Ne sand dunes, celebrated our first Christmas abroad in Dalat and spent New Year’s Eve in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hoi An is a beautiful place, full of old yellow buildings with wooden shutters, elaborate red-gold temples and decorative assembly halls filled with statues of dragons and birds. The ancient colonial port is preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site and has plenty of rustic buildings to explore. Trees line its wide streets, which feel curiously empty in the daytime due to a motor vehicle ban; all you have to worry about is dodging bicycles and rickshaws as you wander through the city centre. In the evenings the roads and riverside restaurants are lit up with colourful lanterns strung between lampposts and Vietnamese women sell candles to float down the river past the ancient Japanese bridge and creaky cargo boats which sit atop the black water.
Stepping off the overnight train at Hué station, we weaved our way through the crowds of persistent taxi drivers to find our free hotel pick-up. The sky was colourless and leaden but at least it wasn’t raining, which is apparently a common occurrence in this ancient city. Sore-eyed and groggy from the long journey we gazed half-heartedly out of the car window at the grey river running alongside us, its surface merging with the flat, dull sky above. I sighed. From the looks of things, Hué was definitely no match for the glitz and bustle of Hanoi, the city we’d loved and left behind.

The entire morning of my birthday was spent on a coach battling through choked roads to Halong Bay.  One thing’s for sure, I never expected to be living this kind of uncertain, transient, exhilarating lifestyle when I turned 30. Like most people, I thought I’d have submitted to societal norms and gotten myself weighed down in responsibility with a mortgage and a steady job by this point. Instead, Andrew and I have only each other and the possessions we carry on our backs and our once plump savings account is now starting to look pretty lean.

We caught our first glimpses of Hanoi as we sped through the evening darkness towards our hotel. Immediately I was captivated by the city and its leafy streets stuffed with people, illuminated by street lamps connected by thick ribbons of tangled electrical wires. I watched the towering skyscrapers and colonial houses go by and longed to step into the inviting orange glow of the cafes and explore the snaking laneways. By the time we reached our hotel, Hanoi had already stolen a piece of my heart. Although we spent just six days in the city altogether, Hanoi was without a doubt one of our Vietnam highlights.
One of the things we can’t quite get used to in Asia is the corruption which forms an ordinary part of everyday life here. From knock-off goods to rigged taxi meters and other tourist scams, travelling is a whole different ball game here compared to in regulation-crazy Europe. While we’re now resigned to the fact that we’ll be charged tourist prices everywhere we go, we’ve found that making overland border crossings in South-East Asia presents some of the most frustrating examples of corruption.
Causally throwing a banana chip into my mouth I leaned out of the stationary tuk-tuk and craned my neck up towards the cave above, waiting for the million-strong swarm of bats to flood out of its entrance into the gathering dusk. A boy of about eight or nine, bare-foot and messy-haired, wandered past our vehicle and I smiled as our eyes met. My banana chips captured his attention and for a moment I began to stretch my arm out to offer him some before remembering: we’re not supposed to give things to kids, especially not here in Cambodia where child-begging is such a problem.
This time last year I celebrated the holidays with my family in England knowing that there were just a few weeks left till my departure date and a new life on the road – I had no idea where I'd be in a year’s time. Now, here we are in Vietnam after our first Christmas on the road. As we prepare to see in the New Year we also reflect on how far we’ve travelled this year and how much we’ve learned in the process.