Friday, 17 March 2023

Cocaine, no gain

There’s so much more to Colombia than drugs and violent gang warfare, despite what concerned relatives might think. It boasts an abundance of natural beauty, vibrant cities and some of the warmest people you’ll ever meet. And I really wish I could say good coffee, but most of that is exported.

Cocora Valley, Colombia © Ryan Chapman
As for the drugs, Colombia maybe synonymous with cocaine, but the majority of Colombians are desperate to shake free from the narco state connotations.

And as for the violence, Colombia currently enjoys a fragile peace. A fragility that was emphasised by a divisive referendum in 2016 in which Colombians voted marginally against a peace agreement between the government and the armed revolutionary group, FARC.

It wasn’t rejected because people would rather live in a war zone, but because the terms of the deal compromised too heavily with the rebels, letting many of them off the hook. And the prevailing attitude was ‘hell no, farc them’.

As the New York Times put it, “the peace deal was always a tug of war between peace and justice. And the demand for justice won.”

Hummingbird © Ryan Chapman
Justice may have won the battle but it was at the cost of compromise, without which peace will seldom win a war. And no where is that more evident than in the city of Medellin and its once notorious district Commune 13. 

Until recently Commune 13 was a no-go zone. Not just considered one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Colombia, but the world. Ruled by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, it was trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of gang wars, military interventions and corruption.

Commune 13, Colombia © Ryan Chapman

Today, thanks in large part to art, music and dance, it’s a vibrant forward-looking community hellbent on social transformation. It’s the sound of hip-hop beats not gunfire echoing around the labyrinth of streets, and the once bullet hole-ridden walls are awash with colourful street art.

According to our guide for the afternoon however, despite its new look, Commune 13 never completely ridded itself of gang influence. “If we have a problem we don’t call the police, we call the gang” she admitted, before hinting this service doesn’t come cheap. 

That’s the compromise that residents of Commune 13 have settled on in exchange for peace. I asked her if the aim was to one day rid the community of gang culture altogether and her response wasn’t exactly filled with optimism.

Commune 13, Colombia © Ryan Chapman

In Medellin this yearning for peace and regeneration - at any cost - is tangible, and a trip to Commune 13 sets it in stone. In urban areas like this memories of a brutal past do still lurk in the shadows, but exploring the rest of Colombia the violence seems like it’s from another era. 

After all, what can be more peaceful than trotting through the verdant Andean foot-hills on horseback and stopping for a red wine picnic; or relaxing in thermal spas under naturally heated waterfalls; or sipping cocktails while the waves of the Caribbean splash onto surrounding palm trees. 

Palomino, Colombia © Ryan Chapman

Most peaceful of all, though, is the warmth and hospitality of the people. Perhaps in a conscious effort to counter the country’s negative stereotypes, but I suspect simply because they’re just really nice. Always welcoming, always polite, always going out of their way to help.

Any attempt to glorify Pablo Escobar is likely to be met with a frosty reception, but avoid the narco tourism and Colombians will warm to you like you've already warmed to them.

Friday, 24 February 2023

[Film] Vitae Shelter: From the Ashes

In a past life Vitae Shelter was a notoriously wild party hostel — now it’s on the frontline of humanitarian aid.

I first met Ian as a fresh-faced backpacker in the summer of 2009, when he checked me in to his hostel Carpe Noctem. He made me a cup of tea and spent 15 minutes telling me about Budapest, including all the ways we were going to ‘seize the night’.

Carpe Noctem was well on its way to winning Hostel World’s ‘Most Fun Hostel in the World’ award, so I knew to expect a party. But it wasn’t until I arrived that I realised what the name actually meant. I hadn’t learnt any Hungarian before visiting Budapest, and I sure as hell hadn’t learnt any Latin.

Over the next decade I checked in to that hostel about 20 times, seizing in excess of a hundred nights. It wasn’t long before I felt part of the furniture and I’d often book my next trip before I’d even finished the last. As the sign warns above the door: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Carpe Noctem soon gained siblings and Budapest Party Hostels was born, growing to an empire of six hostels, comprising of over 500 beds. And although Ian is far too humble to admit it, there’s no doubt the hostels he co-owned helped propel the city of Budapest to one of Europe’s top backpacking destinations.

But then along came Covid to ruin just about everything. And a couple of years later along came Putin to ruin it some more.

In February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and refugees began pouring over the Hungarian border, Ian wanted to do something to help. “People wanted to go and fight Russians” he told me, with the hint that by ‘people’ he really meant himself, “but I think everyone realised they’d just get shot in the first week”.

Ultimately, Ian decided that his talents lay elsewhere. “Making beds and filling them with people - that’s probably the only thing I’m actually qualified to do which is any use at all.” So he decided to use one of the empty hostels that had been a casualty of Covid and turn it into a refugee shelter.

My film Vitae Shelter: From the Ashes not only tells the story of the shelter itself and some of the people who found refuge there, but also of its previous life as a hostel, and draws an unlikely parallel between the two.

Vitae Shelter: From the Ashes is online here:

If you'd like to donate the shelter’s GoFundMe page is still live. Alternatively, there’s the Red Cross Ukraine Crisis Appeal

Friday, 30 September 2022

The Liechtenstein Trail

Liechtenstein has that small town feel: everyone in their twenties has left and it’s completely dead after 6pm. Those remaining all want a chat at the bus stop and the bus driver isn’t content with a mere hello and goodbye - they want to know how your day is going and what you’re up to at the weekend (which really stretched my German).

As a result of being surrounded by all that geniality I caught myself assuming all 38,000 Liechtensteiners must know each other. Which is a wild assumption to make considering I live in a village of 5,000 people myself and know significantly more dogs by name than humans.

© Ryan Chapman

Anyway, I had little time for small talk. I was there to hike the 50-mile Liechtenstein Trail that snakes its way through the tiny Alpine nation from the Swiss border in the south to the Austrian border in the north. 

You could walk the entire length of Liechtenstein in less than a few hours - the furthest points are only 15 miles apart, after all - but it’s fair to say the trail takes a more scenic route. In fact it barely leaves any stone unturned as it twists and turns through farms, forests and villages, annoyingly skipping anything else I can think of beginning with f.

© Ryan Chapman

The official guide recommends you take five days. I did it in four. But even three would be doable at a stretch. If you have some unexplained desire, as I did, to visit Liechtenstein and see it literally all in one go, then I would recommend it. Here are five things to consider:

1. Liechtenstein is expensive.

Even more so than the most London-y places in London. One evening I paid £16 for a chicken doner from a kebab van because the only restaurant I could see nearby wanted over thirty quid for some Bolognese. And I have a limit.

To save those precious Swiss francs each morning I smuggled a picnic out of my hotel's breakfast buffet to have later. Fortunately, cheese and tomato rolls washed down with fresh ice-cold Alpine water direct from the source is exactly what I fancied for lunch each day anyway.

2. Stay in one place

Every section of the trail is well connected by bus, so you can easily stay in the same hotel for the whole trip and just bus your way back to where you finished the previous day.

I stayed in Trisenburg, which turned out to be ideal.

© Ryan Chapman

3. Don't be tempted to cut corners

Due to the meandering nature of the trail you will be tempted to cut some corners. And, to be honest, some of the more suburban parts are fairly dull. But the scenery often changes quite abruptly, so you never know what you might miss around the next corner. So don’t!

Plus, if you haven't slogged around every single inch of the trail yourself, how would you ever look at yourself in the mirror ever again?

4. The Liechtenstein Trail is a gateway drug to Alpine hiking

By Alpine standards, the trail sticks to relatively low ground, and below the level of any lingering springtime snow. So it might leave you wanting more. Luckily, Liechtenstein can provide it.

On my last day, with several hours until my flight, I took the bus up the mountain to Malbon and Steg which were absolutely jaw-droppingly stunning, and I had them entirely to myself.

I find it odd that more people don’t come to these places out of skiing season. For one, you don’t have to pretend to enjoy hurtling down a mountainside to your almost certain death. It was just me and a family of marmots frolicking in the spring sunshine.

© Ryan Chapman

5. The end is an anti-climax

On the final day of the trail itself, as a glorious afternoon turned thundery, I entered the final mile with a hint of a skip in my step.

When I approached the Austrian border I looked around for something that marked the end of the trail. I wasn’t expecting a welcome party but at least a fucking plaque. There was nothing. Just a couple of border guards glaring at me suspiciously and a few flags blowing enthusiastically in the increasingly stormy breeze.

I had 6 minutes until the next bus back into Liechtenstein. Just enough time for the anti-climatical feeling to wash away before going to find somewhere to get a celebratory beer or five. Well, actually just the three when I saw the price of them.

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

[Film] Priced out of existence

Here’s a short film I made for Kidney Care UK’s 'Priced out of existence' campaign:

I visited Phoenix at his home in Coventry and shot this film in his living room, which doubles up as his dialysis treatment room. 

Phoenix has kidney disease and is required to perform home dialysis five times a week to stay alive. For each session the dialysis machine runs for nine hours, which has a significant impact on his electricity bills. 

The cost of living crisis is taking its toll on families up and down the country and many people are being forced to choose between heating and eating. But for some, the situation is even worse. With the cost of energy soaring, and having already turned off his heating, Phoenix is left wondering where the extra money is going to come from to keep running his dialysis machine.

He feels like he, and others like him, are being priced out of existence.

On the day of the shoot his wife was at work and his daughter was at school. I arrived to find him in the company of his two small dogs and the apparent leader of the pack, a cat. (All three of them colluded to remain quiet and restful until the very second I'd finished setting up for the interview and pressed record, just for a laugh.)

My visit was during the first warm spell of the year - that week in early March when everybody including the daffodils were fooled into thinking spring had arrived. But during dialysis Phoenix is never warm. As blood leaves his body to be cleaned it is cooled by the pipes of the machine, which means he is always on the edge of being cold. No matter how many layers he piles on and how many blankets he huddles under. 

Kidney Care UK's 'Priced out of existence' campaign aims to raise money to help plug the financial gap for those performing dialysis at home.

Read more here:

Wednesday, 17 November 2021

Being a cheese tourist in Cyprus

I had a week free to disappear somewhere. And while Cyprus was a contender for its shit-hot November weather and lax Covid entry requirements, I chose it primarily for the halloumi.

A sign from the halloumi Gods affirmed my choice just prior to the trip as a Tesco order at home arrived with 21 packs of the stuff - 19 more than we thought we’d ordered. It turned out we’d changed our minds on quantity mid-order, but hadn’t deleted the ‘1’ before adding the ‘2’. Hence unintentionally ordering 21 (it was a boozy Sunday afternoon, what can I say).

2021 had just happened to be a big year for halloumi with the EU awarding Cyprus and its famous cheese a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin). This basically means halloumi must be made on the island otherwise it can’t be called halloumi. Just like roquefort must come from Roquefort, gouda must come from Gouda, and Diarylea triangles must come from the Dairylea Triangle (like the Bermuda Triangle but cheesier).

Cape Greco National Park

So, Cyprus.

I wanted to experience Cyprus like I imagined Cypriots do: eating so much halloumi it starts oozing out of their ears. (Note to self: that’s a pretty disgusting image, although interestingly it hasn’t put me off in the slightest).

I began in Larnaca which can appear tired and tacky if you stick to the sea-front, but literally only one block in-land there’s some really nice places to eat and drink. One day I managed to squeeze in seven different halloumi dishes, washed down with about twice as many Keos. That was quite a day, I can tell you. The seven dishes included classic grilled halloumi, halloumi bread, halloumi and fig salad, chicken breast stuffed with halloumi, halloumi and smoked pork calzone… I could go on.


Seven in one day turned out to be a record for the trip, but to be honest I didn’t attempt to break it. Let’s face it, three would have been enough to make my point.

After a few days in Larnaca I then headed in-land to the divided capital city of Nicosia. Street maps on the Greek side don’t even name the streets on the Turkish side and roads are barricaded off with oil barrels, barbed wire and armed soldiers.

If you stick to the coast and don’t come to Nicosia you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Cyprus is a proper country with such things as traffic jams, an Ikea, and deep-rooted political division.

I’d had a confused image of Nicosia in my mind since seeing Arsenal play Omonoia Nicosia at Highbury in 1994 (3-0 with two goals from Ian Wright if you're wondering). I remember thinking ‘right, so it’s not in Greece, but they’re kind of Greek, but also half Turkish?’. It was way too convoluted for my eight year-old brain to process and I hadn’t thought about Nicosia much since.

After a halloumi pie for breakfast - which was delicious but left unfinished because it was huge and saltier than a Himalayan salt lamp - I passed border control into the Turkish zone and had an afternoon off halloumi - instead filling my face with baklava. I decided there and then that baklava tourism was my next thing.


After Nicosia I spent a couple of nights in Paphos which I didn’t particularly like but at least I could rack up a few more halloumi dishes. Although you’re more likely to find Cathedral City grated over ham, egg and chips than anything authentic (fucking hell, cheese snob alert - I actually like Cathedral City!).

In a week I ate a total of 19 halloumi-based snacks and dishes, 13 of which were unique. I think that's pretty good going. And am I sick of halloumi now? Well, yes actually, a little bit. But do I regret eating all that halloumi? Well, now I mention it, it probably was a bit excessive.

‘So what was the best halloumi then?!' I hear you cry through watering mouths.

The best snackable halloumi was probably fried halloumi covered in sesame seeds and dipped in honey, served as a starter from a restaurant called Stoano Kato in Larcana.

The most interesting was probably the bacon and egg pancakes dripping in a halloumi sauce from a hipster brunch cafe called Onar, also in Larnana.

And the best overall halloumi experience probably has to be the wrapped gyros stuffed with grilled halloumi and chips with an extra serving of grilled halloumi on the side, from a ‘quick eats’ kind of place called Souflavki. Which was again, in Larnaca (a Larnaca hat-trick).

I’m saying ‘probably’ a lot above because it was all great. It turns out halloumi is just brilliant in all its forms (with a special shout out to halloumi bread).

Anyway, I hope you’ve found this halloumi-nating. A nice little pun there to reward you for getting to the end.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Happy New Year!

I rebranded as an octopus at the end of last year. Happy New Year from Videoctopus! 🐙🎥

Like an octopus, Videoctopus has three hearts: producing, shooting and editing. 

Also like an octopus, Videoctopus has eight arms. From documentary to branded content. You can read more at

Until we can meet again, stay safe, sane and healthy 😘

Friday, 18 September 2020

Norfolk seals - in pictures

Think of Norfolk and you might think of Sunny Hunny, Cromer crab, or windmills on the Broads. Personally, my mind jumps immediately to seals (although a delicious dressed crab comes a close second).

Thousands of grey and common seals call the Norfolk coast their home, and they make excellent subjects for some low effort wildlife photography. They can't fly away, they're too lazy to be fussed by your presence and they tend to strike a variety of poses.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

When they're not fishing for cod they're either sunbathing or settling territorial disputes, but whatever they're doing, they're usually pretty happy to be photographed from a distance.

If you stay low and move slowly you'll probably be able to get within six or seven meters before any seal will relieve themselves of your company. So you don't need a massive telephoto lens. All of these photos are shot on my 70-200mm.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

There are two key locations to see Norfolk's seals:

Blakeney Point

There's plenty of information online that suggests you can only see the seal colony at Blakeney Point if you go on a boat trip, but I beg to differ. If you park up at Cley Beach you can walk the few miles west along the shingle beach. 

Just keep walking. And just when you're about to give up - after the third or forth time you mistake a distant piece of driftwood for a seal - you'll reach them.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

Horsey Gap

The colonies at Horsey Gap are much easier to access on foot. The seals here are far more considerate to their human admirers and tend to hang out within ten minutes walk of the car park. 

I came in July when the whole area is free to roam, but the beach is closed for birthing season in the winter and you're asked to stick to the viewing platforms.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

Happy sealing.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Vietnam Part 2: Here today, Saigon tomorrow

Continued from Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads.

Call it Western bias but when I first came across the Vietnam War being referred to as the American War it took me a moment to recalibrate. But, I know, obviously they wouldn't call it the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It was a bit like when I first discovered they don't call it the English Channel in France. (I mean, how dare they! It's the English Channel for English fish!)

Here though, I'll just call it 'the war'. And the memories of it became ever more tangible as we continued south from Phong Nha through Quang Tri province. Today, this area is mostly typified by lazy water buffalo bathing in muddy rivers, but scratch the surface - even just a little - and you may wish you hadn't.

The US dropped more explosives during the war than were used by all sides in World War II. Quang Tri province bore the brunt of it and a huge proportion - some estimates say up to 30% - didn't detonate.

As a consequence, since the war 'ended' - in inverted commas for good reason - over 100,000 Vietnamese people have been killed or maimed by explosives that didn't get the memo. Efforts to clear the country of unexploded ordinance is still very much a work in progress: a mission around 300 years away from completion, at the current rate. Ah, the legacy of war.

To avoid US airstrikes entire communities took their lives underground in hastily built tunnel complexes, with hollowed out maternity wards, classrooms and everything else a village needs to function. We crouched our way through one of these subterranean ghost towns, blown away by the sheer desire of the Vietnamese people not to be murdered by imperialist invaders.

Hue © Ryan Chapman
Leaving Quang Tri behind we crossed the bridge from what was North Vietnam to what was South Vietnam, stopped for a night in Hue, before hopping back on the Reunification Express for the coast-hugging train to Hoi An. The first part of the trip had been pretty hectic, but in Hoi An our hotel had a pool and we had the best part of a week with very little planned. A cooking class here, a cocktail there. A quick dip in the pool there, a cocktail here.

It is said that Vietnamese people can be straight-talking and abrupt. Not in a shock-jock, rabble-rousing, Nigel Farage way, but in a sweet, endearing way. I experienced this first hand when I went to do what every male tourist does in Hoi An: have a suit tailored.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
On the first measuring appointment a friendly, well-presented lady took me to one side and unravelled her tape. I clocked the cheeky glint in her eye. "Ah, I see you have no arse" she said, looking me up and down, before wrapping her tape around my waist and commenting on my "little flabby side bits". If it's a sales technique, it worked. And the suit fits like a glove. Even around my little flabby side bits.

This encounter with the seamstress reminded me that I'd promised myself I'd do some exercise while away. Which was hilarious to me. I'd even gone as far as to pack some running shorts. It's honestly as if pre-holiday me and on-holiday me inhabit entirely different universes. I pondered the absurdity of running in the tropical heat, before ordering another drink.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
Hoi An seemed a lot more on the beaten path than we'd expected. Mostly on account of the hoards of cruise shippers coming into town to sit in Western style bars with other cruise shippers. In contrast, the path to our next location - another several hours down the train line - was so un-beaten there literally wasn't one. A short traipse across a sandy beach being the only way to access the only accommodation in the village.

Nhon Hai is real Vietnam. Unfortunately, in real Vietnam there aren't hotels employing people to clean the beach. So, in reality - although the people are super friendly and the papaya salads are out of this world - real Vietnam is somewhat tainted by rubbish washed up by the South China Sea. To counterbalance this though, the papaya salads really were that good. So good that every time I got a bit depressed about ocean plastic (because, you see, I'm a massive snowflake who cares about things like that), I just ordered another papaya salad and let the spicy, peanutty goodness wash my woes away.

Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
After a couple of days tip-toeing around a fucking exhibition of plastic packaging it was back on the Reunification Express for the final sixteen hours to Ho Chi Minh City. Or, as I - and most locals, apparently - prefer to call it: Saigon. (I mean no disrespect to Uncle Ho, but naming cities after revolutionaries is just a bit too Commie. Even for me. Besides, the name Saigon evokes exotic images of rickshaws and fiery sunsets. All the name Ho Chi Minh City evokes are images of some old geezer with a beard.)

Saigon is a surprisingly contemporary and cosmopolitan city. Surprising to me, at least, because I was expecting it to be like Hanoi on steroids. But, although they have an identical soundtrack of horns and mopeds, they're very different.  For a start, I've never seen so many roof top bars in one place. And I can assure you, I'm not complaining. 

Saigon © Ryan Chapman
We had four days in Saigon, which were mostly taken up by eating. However, we also found the time to spend an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum (a must do); explore the city's club scene (thus significantly increasing the average age); and even partake in a spot of karaoke, Vietnam's national sport (Yes, there are videos. No, you can't see them).

No wonder Saigon is home to so many expats, with its plethora of hipster hang-outs and its incredible and diverse food scene. It's a city I would certainly spend a lot more time in, if only RyanAir would find a way to make it a couple of hours away from Stansted.

And so, with a global pandemic just getting into the swing of things it was almost time to come home. But not before five more days in full-on holiday mode on the island of Pho Quoc: Vietnam's answer to Ko Samui. Pho Quoc is exploding in popularity, for good reason. And, judging by the sheer number of construction sites, is trying its damnedest to keep up.

Pho Quoc © Ryan Chapman
By the end of the trip coronavirus anxiety had hit fever pitch. We were sat in the back of a taxi and, I swear, I didn't even cough. I merely cleared my throat. But the driver - eye-balling me in the rear view mirror - simultaneously opened all four windows, gave his steering wheel a rub with a wet-wipe, and insisted on driving us to a pharmacy to buy some face masks. I managed to convince him we were leaving Vietnam later that day, but I don't think he believed me.

And then, on our internal flight back to Hanoi, a woman took her seat next to me on the plane wearing a full-body hazmat suit. She had the lot: gloves, goggles, mask. PPE quite literally from head to toe. She took a small bottle of disinfectant from her handbag and sprayed herself like it was perfume. Then she sprayed her tray table, and then proceeded to spray me. It was time to come home.


Hoi An tips: climb aboard Uncle Dai's boat bar for pre-dinner drinks, dinner and/or post-dinner drinks with friendly cats, dogs and humans (it's not entirely clear who owns who). The Hoianian for something a little less rustic. Kimmy for tailoring. 

Saigon tips: pay-as-you-go karaoke at iCOOL. Incredible tapas at Octo. Saigon Cocktails or The Gin House for afters.

Pho Quoc tips: we stayed in Ong Lang which seemed the best of all worlds. Eat and be merry at the Bittersweet Bistro. Mango Bay for something special.

Friday, 12 June 2020

[Film] Evicted: The Story of Favela do Metro

Ten years ago Brazilian authorities began evicting favela residents from their homes in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. At best, they prioritised the whims of a one-off sporting mega-event over the lives of poor people. At worst, it was social cleansing.

Entire communities were flattened, often with very little warning, and sometimes even without a clear plan. In one case a row of favela dwellings were torn down so a hedge could be planted alongside a main road, to shield the rest of the favela from the view of passing cars. Just in case visitors mentioned poverty in their postcards home.

One favela community - a little too close to the party for comfort - was particularly hard hit by this wave of destruction. Almost 700 families living a stone's throw from Rio's iconic Maracanã Stadium felt the full impact of Brazil's shameful forced evictions.

I shot this footage in 2014 in a very noisy (!) corner of Rio de Janeiro, as part of a series of vlogs about the World Cup. Six years after the World Cup kicked off, this is the full story of Favela do Metro:

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Vietnam Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads

"Hanoi's like fucking Beirut" warned the classic Brit Abroad we met towards the end of our trip, whose worldly references seemed to be limited to a Middle Eastern civil war that ended 30 years ago. That's assuming he was comparing Hanoi to the once war-torn streets of the Lebanese capital and not emphasising an abundance of hummus. "Oh, we quite liked it actually" we admitted, before conceding that it's exhaustingly chaotic. And, come to think of it, a bit of baba ghanoush wouldn't go amiss.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi owes its chaos to the sheer volume of motorbikes, mopeds and scooters. And the alarming enthusiasm with which they're ridden. On the morning of Day 1, simply crossing the road is a dauntingly treacherous prospect. By the afternoon of Day 2 you've nailed the technique: stick to a straight line, maintain a consistent pace, and hope for the best. By Day 3 you're playing Spot the New Arrivals as panic-stricken Western faces stare wide-eyed at the constant stream of traffic wondering how on earth they're going to make it to dinner on time. Or indeed, alive.

Even down the narrowest of side streets, lined with market stalls and their bouquets of fresh herbs, mountains of fruit and all the parts of a pig you can think of. Even here, Hanoians on mopeds will come speeding down the alleyway behind you, assuming you'll step aside just in time. The two-wheeler is king and you just have to be okay with that.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

There are, of course, plenty of places to escape the relentless buzz of the city. Such as incense-infused temples with their alters bearing offerings to Buddist deities from bottled water to multi-packs of custard cupcakes; restful gardens alive with birdsong; and cafes where you can sample the Hanoian specialty of egg coffee. Now, cracking an egg into your coffee may not sound appealing, and the idea was born out of desperation during a wartime milk shortage, but it's nicer than it sounds. I promise.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Hanoi's centre-piece is Hoan Kiem: a tranquil lake in a sea of mayhem. People of all ages gather on its shores to practice Thi Chi or play friendly games of badminton that quickly turn competitive. Another local past-time, enjoyed mostly by pairs of middle-aged men, is đá cầu (also known as jianzi). Essentially it's football with a shuttlecock. I watched for a while, willing a miss-kick to fall my way but they were all too good to lose control (which is probably for the best, to be honest).

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

It had been over a decade since I'd done any significant traveling in this corner of the world, so I was more than ready for the unique assault of the senses that only South East Asia can provide. And Hanoi, with its myriad of frantic sights and pungent smells, satisfied the craving. But after a long weekend in the capital it was time to hit the tracks and explore more of Vietnam.

The Reunification Express railway links Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City a thousand miles to the south. The railway was mostly destroyed during the American War but rebuilt following Vietnam's reunification in 1975. Hence the name. The full journey takes around thirty-four hours, but broken up into five or six legs is perfectly manageable. Especially if you book sleeper cabins for the overnight sections. And stock up on the requisite snacks, obviously.

Our first leg from Hanoi to Ninh Binh was the shortest of all with barely enough time for a quick nap and a packet of crisps. The city of Ninh Binh is nothing special, but the surrounding countryside is spectacularly dotted with dramatic karst rock formations towering over lush rice fields and winding waterways. A stunning landscape to explore by boat, bike and boot.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

It's here in the rural backwaters that we first experienced the general friendliness of the Vietnamese people. That's not to say they were particularly rude in Hanoi, but it's hard to be polite when you're constantly chasing people down on motorbikes. Children in the countryside around Ninh Binh would hurry out of their houses to shout 'hello' as we passed. And the braver kids with slightly more English would ask for our names, before giggling at the response and hiding behind a tree.

In fact, there seemed to be kids everywhere. Even our homestay was run by children. When we couldn't get the shower to work the only person around to ask was a girl of about thirteen. And then her younger sister served us fresh mango for breakfast that she'd grown in the garden. It was then I realised that this abundance of youth was no doubt linked to the coronavirus-related school closures. All the kids in the village were probably bored out of their minds and just saying hello to Westerners for something to do. But at least they did it with a smile.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

A further eight or so hours south on the Reunification Express - the perfect amount of time for a good sleep, we had naively calculated - is Phong Nha National Park. The area is best known for caves (including the biggest in the world, no less) but as impressive as they are, let's be honest, when you've seen one cave that's kind of enough. Luckily, there's plenty more to do that doesn't involve trying to recall your Year 8 geography class that covered stalagmites and stalactites during which you were distracted by scrawling flirtatious graffiti in the exercise books of mostly disinterested girls sat next to you.

Phong Nha © Ryan Chapman

Locals have got creative with their offerings to tourists in these parts. Whether you want to eat Chicken Bombs in a bomb-themed bar beside a crater formed during an American airstrike, have a flock of ducks peck seeds from in-between your toes, or ride a massive water buffalo named Donald Trump: Phong Nha has you covered.

And from there, we headed to the ancient capital of Hue. But for that you'll have to wait for Part 2...


Hanoi tips: drink egg coffee at Dinh Cafe before and/or after a walk around the lake. Eat bánh mì at Bánh Mì 25 (bánh mì is essentially a savoury filled baguette, but Vietnamese bread is lighter with a  satisfyingly crackly crust). Drink excellent cocktails at The Alchemist.

Hanoi © Ryan Chapman

Ninh Binh tips: stay at Hang Mua Nature Homestay (run by a very welcoming family with two rooms overlooking a tropical fruit garden). Do a boat trip from Trang An and explore the Tam Coc area by bike (we hired bikes from Tam Coc Happy Home). Download the Grab app for taxis to cover the longer distances.

Ninh Binh © Ryan Chapman

Phong Nha tips: cycle out to The Pub with Cold Beer and reward your efforts with their flagship product (beware of the copycat establishment The Knockoff Pub With Cold Beer just around the corner. According to reviews their beer isn't even cold). On the way back swing by the aforementioned Bomb Crater Bar for further refreshment.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Making Ice Cream [music video]

Towards the end of last summer I was part of a small camera crew to squeeze into an even smaller wooden cabin for a shoot on a slice of Hertfordshire farmland. We were there to make the music video for Ice Cream, a single from Irish singer-songwriter Tod Doyle (arguably the best thing to come out of Ireland since Father Ted).

Tod on set.
Me on set.
We shot the video over two days, fuelled by copious amounts of pastries and flapjacks like all good shoots are. However, considering the name of the song there was a disappointing lack of ice cream due to the freezer's close proximity to the cabin's log burner. Melted Cornetto anyone?

Camera porn.
Tod and I had first met in Budapest more moons ago than either of us could reliably remember and we had similarly hazy memories of loose backpacker shenanigans and raucous guitar-led singalongs. He had emerged from the chaos with his Irish folk songs which became anthems of a good few Hungarian summers.

Tod back in the day (Budapest, 2012)

I've since edited the video and it's now live for all to see:

Tod has more new music coming soon so look out for it on your favourite music streaming service (and by that I mean Spotify, obviously). I've been privy to a couple of tracks in the pipeline and I can assure you they're worth the wait.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Noodle in a Haystack

I’ve been asked for Japanese restaurant tips a few times recently. There's so much variety in Japan you could say finding the right restaurant is like trying to find a noodle in a... never mind, here's the list.


Nakiryu - 創作麺工房 鳴龍 (for Michelin Star Ramen)

There are three times as many Ramen houses in Tokyo as there are pubs in London, so picking one is basically impossible. Luckily, the Michelin Man devised a restaurant rating system and has awarded his coveted star to only a select couple. One of them is Nakiryu. 

Nakiryu only holds a handful of people and doesn’t take reservations, so queuing is inevitable. We arrived well before opening and still queued for over an hour on the street. It’s about 25% more expensive than the average Ramen house but the slurp-tastic noodles and broth are well worth the price (and the wait).

Tsukiji Market - 築地市場 (for sea food)

There’s a bit of confusion because the fish market famous for its wholesale auctions has moved somewhere else. But you’re probably not hungry enough for 100 kilos of tuna anyway. 

The open-air market is still there and is a great place to wander around, eat sushi and get freaked out by weird-looking things on sticks (this is a common occurrence in Japan actually - they love weird things on sticks).

Omoide Yokocho - 思い出横丁 (for more weird things on sticks) 

This narrow aroma-filled alleyway is the epicentre of eating weird things on sticks. If you’ve ever wanted to try pig testicals, chicken innards or pickled wasp then this is the spot.


Nikomiya Rokken - にこみ屋六軒 (for Japanese tapas)

All of our absolute favourite restaurants in Japan were izakayas. These are basically Japanese pubs that serve tapas. Some just offer drinks and snacks, but others concentrate more on the food, and some of those ones are incredible.

Nikomiya Rokken was our favourite in Kyoto. It’s slightly off the beaten track, but well worth the detour. Look out for the white lantern and good luck trying to pick a sensible amount of things to order.

Kaiseki (for tradition, innit)

Kyoto is the place to experience kaiseki: a multi-course set menu (up to 15 courses!) served by impeccably presented kimono-clad waitresses in traditional Japanese surroundings. There are several kaiseki places and they’re all eye-wateringly expensive, but some offer cheaper afternoon sittings. I can’t whole-heartedly recommend the one we went to (Gion-Nanba) but that might be because I’m still scarred by the sixth course (turns out I’m not a massive fan of leaves dripping in cod semen).


Onegiya Fukuromachi - おねぎや 袋町店 (for Japanese tapas)

You have to duck through a tiny doorway and then find a cubbyhole for your shoes, but once you’re over the excruciating cultural awkwardness you’re in for a real treat. Especially if you like leeks, because this izakaya specialises in them.

Akamaru - 大手町酒場赤まる (for drinks)

This izakaya is more raucous dive bar than tapas restaurant, but they do serve food if you want a snack. Go for a few pre-dinner drinks, soak up the atmosphere and then go back again later for a night cap or three.

In this and all izakayas across Japan make sure you tuck into the bowls of salty edamame beans. They're great for chopstick practice too.


High Spirits, Fujikawaguchiko-machi (for Japanese tapas)

If you happen to be in this part of Japan then this izakaya is well worth a visit. It's the definition of a fusion restaurant.  Try and reserve a table though because it gets busy. 

And I’ve saved the best until last… Kobe beef!

Holy cow. A medium-rare Kobe beef steak washed down with a glass of red is utterly life-changing. You don’t have to go to Kobe for legit Kobe beef, but why not? If you have a rail pass it’s pretty easy to get to.

There’s a strict Kobe beef grading system from C1 to A5. Make sure you choose a place that does A5 (if budget allows). 

After a lot of research we went to a steak house called Sai-Dining, which was excellent (although they’re probably all excellent in Kobe). We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to drop over £100 each on an A5 fillet, but were more than delighted with our A5 sirloin at almost half the price.