Craig Turp-Balazs

Editor of Emerging Europe

(Or, What Estonia gets right and Romania gets wrong)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its latest PISA scores this week. PISA 2022 tested nearly 700,000 15-year-old students in 81 OECD member countries and partner economies on mathematics, reading and science.

This edition, with a focus on maths, was also the first to collect data on student performance, well-being and equity before and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were few surprises. Estonia's education system remains Europe's best performer and fourth globally, behind only Japan, South Korea and Singapore.

“We can all be proud of the Estonian education system and its results,” said Estonian Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas.

As well she might.

At the other end of the table alas we find Romania and Bulgaria, which once again scored poorly, the two countries sharing the European Union's lowest results. Not that this prevented Romania’s own Education Minister, Ligia Deca, from trying to put a positive spin on things.

Citing the fact that Romania’s scores had not fallen a great deal from the previous PISA tests taken in 2018 (most countries saw a more substantial fall in their scores, notably in maths, as a result of the prolonged periods of online learning during the pandemic), Deca called the Romanian education system ‘resilient’.

‘Our results are stable,’ she added, ignoring the fact that if a country’s score is already at rock bottom, it’s difficult to fall any further.

The results have led to the usual, predictable soul searching and blame game that follows any kind of ranking in which Romania performs poorly. Uninterested politicians have been blamed, badly-trained teachers have been blamed, indulgent parents have been blamed, ill-disciplined students themselves have been blamed.

A more defensive element has pointed to the plethora of Romanian students who regularly win international maths and science competitions as a sign that PISA must somehow be wrong and/or a globalist conspiracy to make Romania look bad.

Far more useful would be to look at what Estonia does that Romania doesn’t. Leaving aside the obvious cultural differences (Estonia is an open, innovative, digital society that values education) there are two statistics which stand out—one macro, one micro.

Firstly, Estonia spends more than six per cent of its GDP on education (2020). Romania allocates just 2.7 per cent of its GDP to education (also 2020; well below the OECD average of 5.1 per cent).

Secondly, in Estonia, 94 per cent of students attend a school where principals have the main responsibility for hiring teachers (OECD average: 60 per cent).

Many high-performing school systems tend to entrust principals with these responsibilities.

In Romania—wait for it—just 11 per cent of students attend a school where principals have the main responsibility for hiring teachers, meaning that the overwhelming majority of teachers are foist upon schools by local councils or the education ministry, with little regard for the school’s profile, culture or needs.

It is possible to get a good education in Romania. My two children have both been educated at state schools in Bucharest. The eldest is now studying maths and statistics at Glasgow University, the youngest is in her second year of high school.

However, getting that good education relies on a number of things.

At primary school level it depends almost entirely on location—kids go to their nearest local school, making it something of a postcode lottery. There are ways to get around this system if your local school is not one of the best, but you need to know people who can help. (In the interests of full disclosure, we used the Romanian equivalent of the old school tie network—pile, cunoştinţe şi relaţii—to get both of our children into one of Bucharest’s best primary schools, which was certainly not our local school).

At high school level, besides the start in life offered by a decent primary school, what matters most is the financial ability of parents to pay for private lessons to ensure good results in the dreaded ‘National Evaluation’ taken at the end of class VIII (when most students are 13 or 14).

High school entry is based entirely on the results of the National Evaluation (in just two subjects, Romanian and Maths—woe betide a student who might be brilliant with words but not numbers, or vice-versa) with only the brightest (or best-prepared) students going to the best high schools.

Both our kids had private tuition, and both made it into very good high schools.

Needless to say, it should not be so. A decent education should not be reliant on where a child lives, parental ability to beat the system or pay for private tuition, nor on one exam in two subjects at the age of 14.

Don’t expect change anytime soon, however. Romania’s current system serves too many people too well. Unfortunately, those who matter most—students—are less well served.


(Or, There's no such thing as a hidden gem)

One of those ghastly Instagrammers was last week claiming to have found ‘Romania’s secret city’. I knew it was clickbait, designed to attract visitors to his video, but I was intrigued to find out which ‘hidden gem’ he was referring to.

Was it Craiova perhaps?—a lesser-visited Romanian town whose kitsch Christmas market is causing quite the stir? Or was it one of those godforsaken Romanian cities that only intrepid travellers for whom life is one long experiment would ever visit, such as Vaslui or Galați?

None of the above. Instead, his ‘secret city’ was Sighișoara, for decades home to one of Europe’s largest medieval festivals and perhaps the most tourist-infested town in the country. It’s just about impossible to find a room in the upper, medieval city in June, July and August.

Sighișoara. I think the secret’s out

Another video then pops into my feed (Instagram really, really needs filters) with another traveller claiming to have tasted the best currywurst in Berlin and you won’t believe how good it is!

You know what mate, you almost certainly haven’t tasted the best currywurst in Berlin. You may have tasted some very good currywurst, but unless you’ve tried every currywurst in what is an enormous city that sells an awful lot of currywurst then you are in no position whatsoever to state so categorically that you have found the best.

Besides, even if you have tried them all, making such a subjective claim as I tasted the best would be slightly ridiculous.

This, however, is the current state of the travel writing sector. Or, what I guess we need to these days call the travel content sector. It’s full of charlatans and chancers looking for their 15 minutes of fame on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, or whatever distribution channel is currently in fashion.

Often young, with little to no understanding whatsoever of the places they visit, they travel the world producing superficial content for a market that seems worryingly eager to consume it. The content (to give these people their due) is usually well made and looks fabulous, but it’s all clearly staged, scripted and usually light on anything resembling detail, objectivity, or authenticity. It’s also far too often less about the destination being featured and more about what we are obliged to call the content creator him or herself.

The underlying theme of this kind of content is the rather childish notion that something new, something different, something revelatory, has been discovered. Or that the content creator is doing something nobody else could ever dream of. Every YouTube video, every TikTok, every Instagram post must claim to have either reinvented the wheel, or to have discovered a wheel nobody else can use.

The best travel writing is rather lacking in revelations. It’s not dull (not if it's well written) but it is often earthly—at least in terms of what’s being described. Bruce Chatwin wrote pages about Argentina’s endless empty plains in In Patagonia (and made them sound exhilarating) while my favourite travel article of the past five years is this piece from 2019 in the FT (which is these days home to some of the best travel writing in the business) about a hike to the Capanna Margherita (a mountain hut in Italy).

It gave me instant wanderlust (as good travel content should). Covid-19, alas, halted my plans to hike to the capanna in the summer of 2020. My schedule has not allowed for a trip since, although I still plan on taking the hike.

Travel writing is not about hidden gems (there’s no such thing), flowery language and carefully staged photoshoots in exotic locations. It’s about observing people and places and telling stories—and not being afraid to say when a place is a bit shit.

There are still good travel writers out there publishing long form stories. Besides the Weekend section of the FT, you will find them in other broadsheets (The Telegraph still has a good travel section), and journals such as Wanderlust and—despite the name—Hidden Europe, individuals such as Paliparan, as well as conventional travel guides. Indeed, I am looking forward to seeing what Lonely Planet do with their next round of guides, set to be more inspirational and narrative-based and less a directory of listings.

But the sad truth is that the audience for this kind of content is shrinking and I’m not sure if there’s anything we can do to address that. And perhaps of most concern is that this follow me/look at me/Instagram/TikTok trend is not just killing travel writing, it's killing travel itself. Everyone wants to recreate the same specific photo in the same specific places instead of just taking to the streets and enjoying the moment. The joy of discovery has gone. Whatever happened to finding your own beach, finding your own waterfall?

As such, the overall trend is deeply concerning—travel content is going the same way as just about every other form of content: it’s becoming meaningless drivel (albeit good looking drivel) for an audience that alas wants nothing more.

Should we have seen this coming? Could we have seen this coming? I have to admit that personally, I didn’t.

Some 15 years or so ago I did the rounds of the travel conference circuit giving a talk on the future of travel writing and what the internet meant for the wider travel publishing industry.

In those days, the internet was still referred to as just that—the internet; a monolithic whole that had yet to fragment into apps. The iPhone was still in its first couple of iterations (I still had a Blackberry in my pocket) and Instagram—never mind TikTok—did not yet exist. And, hands up, I completely failed to consider the emergence of those apps and others like them.

Instead, though I no longer have the slides/presentation that accompanied the talk (a brief search of my current and previous laptops, as well as a couple of external hard drives, was fruitless), the basic premise was that so much information (about destinations, sights, attractions) was now available online (almost all of it user-generated) that value would no longer be placed on merely producing content but also on curating it—filtering the good from the bad, as it were.

It was based on the (what now looks like a rather naive and utopian) idea that Booking, TripAdvisor and other vast repositories of user-generated content would be happy to hand over access to their APIs to curators for free.

Unsurprisingly, they weren’t.

Nevertheless, that minor (if mission critical) issue aside, it was—and remains—a sound idea. Guides to destinations written by everyone but put together by professionals who know how to filter good content from bad, who know how to see through bullshit and—most importantly—have experience of actually carrying out research.

At the very least, it would be authentic. Good travel content doesn’t need carefully directed, scripted, crafted and arranged photos and videos. But it does need the authenticity that the Instagram crowd has forgone.

Alas, I can’t see it coming back any time soon.


(Or, The Horniman Museum with added tunnels)

Photo by Chris King on Unsplash

When I were a lad sardines came exclusively in a tin, usually from Sainsbury’s. They were a humble fish, a regular packed lunch sandwich filling on Fridays when there was bugger all else left in the cupboard. My dad liked them on toast occasionally, but they were generally seen as a far poorer relative of red salmon (tinned of course), very much the height of fish sophistication in late-1970s working class Britain. I was well into my twenties before I tasted fresh sardines. Fiddly they may be, but they are the tastiest of fish when grilled and I was immediately smitten, and have since taken every possible opportunity to eat as many as possible.

Portugal—Lisbon in particular—is sardine paradise. Indeed, this most ordinary of fish has in recent times become part of Portugal’s national brand, as important as Cristiano Ronaldo. (You can insert your own joke about oily, slippery divers).

So much so that in the heart of modern Lisbon, opposite the Praco da Rossio is The Fantastic World of Portuguese Sardines (Mundo Fantastico Da Sardinha Portuguesa; there are several other such stores across Lisbon and, indeed, the rest of Portugal). Selling highly decorated tins of sardines for €7 a pop in a colourful if kitsch and rather bizarre setting Mundo Fantastico is more reminiscent of M&M’s World. Think of it as M&M’s World for sardines.

Each tin is adorned with a year from 1916 onwards (1916 being the year the factory which cans them first opened). You could collect the entire set if you have little else to do with €749. A little surprisingly, these tins are just about all the Mundo Fantastico sells. Chocolate sardines (available in just about every Lisbon souvenir shop, even the better ones) are conspicuously absent.

There is of course far more to Lisbon than sardines, although the city’s charm lies not in specific attractions: it is the kind of place that warrants, and merits, aimless exploration as opposed to simply going from sight to sight.

Quite the most majestic attraction in the city is the former monastery at Belem, the Jerónimos. A Gothic Manueline masterpiece it took a century to complete, and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 (along with the Belem Tower opposite, which can be visited on a joint ticket). The two-storey cloisters, complete with highly ornamental loggia, are sublime.

Photo by José Francisco García Cuenca on Unsplash

The monastery’s church — which can be visited for free — hosts the tomb of Vasco da Gama. As you may expect, the monastery is extremely popular: be prepared to queue for quite some time. Give the Museum of Architecture (which, although it is housed in part of the monastery, costs extra) a miss.

One of the monastery’s highlights is the former refectory, complete with its original ornamental tiles. Anyone who spends more than ten minutes in Lisbon will notice that such tiles are a feature of the city: many houses, shops and even small apartment blocks are entirely covered in them.

It is no wonder then that Lisbon also boasts a museum dedicated to them: the National Tile Museum (Museo Nacional do Azulejo). Close to Santo Antonio station, our entry point to the city, it was in fact the first place we visited. Despite boasting a priceless and quite unique collection it costs a bargain €8. Access to the superb palace in which it is housed is worth that alone. For an extra €1 you get entry to Portugal’s National Pantheon.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Lisbon’s castle, Castelo de Sao Jorge, is visible from much of the lower city and impressive from afar. Close up it’s a let down: crowded and something of a disappointment for most. Admire from outside and move on to the Se, Lisbon’s cathedral, which remains imposing despite having become rather hemmed in by surrounding buildings. The scant remains of a Roman Theatre are just up the road: take a look at the sections open to all and save yourself the price of an entry ticket.

The historic No. 28 tram, which climbs up and down Lisbon’s hills, passing within walking distance of all of the sights on castle hill, features on innumerable postcards and posters and is a symbol of the city. It is worth riding on. Once. Its single carriages are impossibly crowded at all times of day, and unless you climb aboard at or near one of its termini, you will be standing up the whole way, squeezed in like, well, sardines.

That’s if you can get on at all: much of the time it is so full that the driver will simply refuse to stop. (Note that the No. 28 is a regular service and requires just a standard Lisbon transport ticket. The poor people of Graça who actually rely on the tram for public transport must curse the tourists who pinch their seats). The tourist trams which run much the same route are not operated by Carris and require special tickets. They are also blatant cheating. Avoid.

Photo by Paulo Evangelista on Unsplash

Transport buffs should also look out for the three steep if short funiculars in Bairro Alto.

The Bairro Alto area itself is currently touted as Lisbon’s most happening district. We found it vastly overrated. It’s noisy and dare I say rowdy late at night. Prices of just about everything (food, drink and accommodation) are higher than across the city in Castelo, Alfama or Graça.

Graça in fact is Lisbon’s real gem. Aside from offering perhaps the defining view of the city (from the Miradouro do Castelo, next to the Graça Convent Church), it is home to some extraordinarily good—and cheap—restaurants. More on those in a moment.

About forty minutes by train from Lisbon’s Rossio station is Sintra. (Trains leave every half an hour— every hour at the weekend). The town is best known for its numerous architectural monuments: so many in fact that the entire town and surrounding area is UNESCO-listed.

Besides the overpriced shops, restaurants and cafes of the town centre, Sintra’s three main attractions are in the hills which surround it: the Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle and the Quinta da Regaleira.

The Pena Palace is the most visited of the three, and during high season queues at the ticket office can be long: get here early. The palace can be reached in about 40 minutes on foot from the town, but I do not recommend it: there is no footpath, and you will be sharing the twisting hairpins with thousands of cars. Neither, by the way, should you drive: there is very little parking, and the road so narrow in places that if you are in a hire car you might just as well say goodbye to your excess. Take the bus from the station, a taxi or an Uber (there are plenty around throughout the summer).

The 19th century palace itself—part of which was once a monastery—is an outrageously over-the-top treasure of colour and joie de vivre that somehow never descends into kitsch. Its grounds are equally fun to explore, although the map handed out at the ticket office is an endeavour of which only the Ministry of Crap Design would be proud.

You will not get lost as such, but getting to where you want to be is no easy feat. Luckily, the grounds are spectacular and few will mind temporary confusion.

The castle opposite was built by the Moors in the eighth century. It was taken Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, during the Reconquista in 1147 and its military importance diminished shortly afterwards. It was badly damaged in Lisbon’s huge earthquake of 1755, and it was not until a century later that the then king, Ferdinand II, allocated funds for its preservation. While it is today mildy interesting to explore, if your time in Sintra is limited then this is the one of the big three to miss.

For many people, and I include myself here, the real jewel in Sintra’s crown is the Quinta da Regaleira, which can be easily reached on foot from the town (it takes no more than 15 minutes).

The polite term for the man who built it, Carvalho Monteiro, would be eccentric. In less polite language he was stark raving mad. But how mad!

Besides the rather mock-Gothic mansion he had built to live in, Monteiro had the grounds landscaped in the prototype of a style that would later become known as Bond villain chic. The Knights Templar and dark alchemy are all referenced, while secret tunnels (most open to the public) were built linking different parts of the grounds. The so-called unfinished and initiation wells (which you can descend) carry a certain playful menace, and you half expect man-eating alligators to emerge from the lakes and fountains at any moment. It’s all utterly bonkers and quite brilliant.

Imagine south London’s Horniman Museum with hidden tunnels and masonic motifs and you get the picture.

Even if you can’t stand sardines, Lisbon is paradise for anyone who loves fish and seafood. Those who don’t may struggle, for even many of the meat dishes served in these parts come complete with shellfish.

Sardines, mackerel, sea bass, sea bream, snapper and salted cod (bacalhau) are the staples, alongside prawns, clams, mussels, oysters, octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Look out too for prawn risoes (crispy pancakes filled with prawn paste): these are often brought to your table as a matter of course as an appetiser. You are under no obligation to eat them (and are not usually charged if you do not) but given that they cost peanuts and taste amazing, you would be mad not to.

What’s more, if you are prepared to get away from the city centre, Lisbon prices are cheap, as in really cheap. Cheaper than Greece cheap. Up in Graça, in a quintessentially local restaurant we frequented more than once (Satelite da Graca) a plate of sardines with salad and homemade fries cost €10. Swap the sardines for sea bass and you still get change from €15. A bottle of highly drinkable Vinho Verde cost €7. Poncey types more interested in how a restaurant looks than the quality of the food should go elsewhere, however. It is less than inviting.

We also ate decent meals next door at the equally down-to-earth Churrasco.

Photo by Felix Kolthoff on Unsplash

When visiting the Jerónimos Monastery you will no doubt see the long queues of people outside the Pasteis de Belem, all waiting patiently to buy Pasteis de Nata, a kind of custard tart which comes in a number of variations. The Pasteis de Belem (which is said to have invented the tart) churns out more than 20,000 of them each day during high season.

Are they any better than those on sale elsewhere? No. Any Lisbon bakery will happily sell you an equally (if not more) delicious pasteis without the need to queue up for half an hour.

Drink wise, none of the Portuguese beers I tried impressed me all that much (Sagres being the best of a bad bunch) but Mrs. Turp and I did like most of the slightly sparkling Vinho Verde we tasted. And we tasted a fair bit.


To get around Lisbon you will need a Viva Viagem card, which can be bought from all metro stations (including at the airport) for €0.50. It then needs to be loaded with credit (minimum €3) and franked each time you board a bus, tram or enter the metro (each journey costs you €1.65 in credit). You can buy single tickets on board trams and buses but these are more expensive (€2 on buses, €3 on the tram). The Viva card can be used for the train out to Sintra (if you have enough credit, of course).

The ubiquitous buzzing Tuk Tuks are to be avoided and left to those with more money than sense who are prepared to pay the extortionate fees their drivers demand.

Lisbon’s airport is all but in the city centre. It is served by the metro but an Uber or taxi will cost no more than €15 to most parts of the city. Terminal 1 is modern, spacious and a model of efficiency. Alas most low cost airlines use Terminal 2 which has seen better days.


(Or, In search of Ho Chi Minh)

Hànội Airport is a wrongfooting introduction to Vietnam’s capital. It’s magnificently efficient, from the immaculately attired border guards and passport control officers to the pretty young girls at the Viettel desk who set us up with a local SIM card in record time. Finding a Grab to take us into town was equally stress-free.

It became clear just how wrongfooting the airport is the moment the Grab left the sanitised atmosphere of the airport compound, however. No stranger to the chaos of Southeast Asia, Hànội’s traffic is in a league of its own, rivalled perhaps only by Phnom Penh. Drivers approach other cars (and pedestrians) as if blind: they don’t really look where they’re going, they seem to feel their way through.

Fortunately, it’s all done at (relatively) slow speed: accidents are therefore few and far between. Besides, what damage can a car (or one of zillions of mopeds) travelling at a snail’s pace actually do?

Despite its recent and rapid modernisation, Hànội, its old quarter at least, retains almost all of its chaotic charm. Laid out in a (highly vague) grid pattern around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, with streets named after the crafts and goods once traded there, narrow storefronts spill out onto sidewalks, selling everything from silks and Ho Chi Minh t-shirts to moody electronics and conical hats. Old French colonial houses vie for space with traditional Vietnamese homes. Every now and then a contemporary building towers over both.

Walking through the old quarter of Hànội shortly before sunset, as its bright lights begin to flicker and its streets begin to teem with nightlife, only the odd Vietnamese flag hints at the country’s politics (it is one of very few countries in the world that still declares itself communist). Its distinctive yellow star and red background scream Socialist Republic, even if the ads for Victoria’s Secret knickers and H&M swimming costumes do not.

Occasionally, one of the (many) electronic billboards will briefly halt proclaiming the virtues of Chanel or Dior to display a party slogan, no doubt imploring locals to uphold the spirit of the revolution or to resolutely unify the nation, only to quickly give way to the United Colors of Benetton. It’s striking that a country which in the 1960s so completely mastered the art of propaganda these days feels secure enough to do without it. (Although there are, as we would discover, exceptions).

An evening meal in Hànội can be anything, from a sophisticated French-inspired fusion of flavours to simple grilled treats prepared by a street vendor (who might be resting her feet on a bucket used for washing dishes). For a mix of the two there is nowhere better than Chả Cá Thăng Long, where everything great and good about Hanoi comes together: aromas, chaos, charm, flavour, mayhem.

Initially, you’ll have little idea as to what needs to be done to create a meal using the bunsen burner, fish, salad and noodles that will be placed in front of you. Just follow the lead of the locals at your table (this is not the kind of place where you will have your own) and dig in. It’ll be one of the best fish suppers you’ve eaten in years.

Not that fish is Hànội’s signature dish. That would be pho, the beef variety in particular. A clear soup with noodles, salad, and beef sliced so thinly it all but dissolves in the broth, within a day or two in Hànội you will be able to recognise a good pho from a bad. For the best we tasted, head to Pho 10 Lý Quốc Sư. You’ll need to wait for a seat, but it’s worth doing so. The only downside is that every other pho you subsequently eat in Vietnam (or elsewhere) will seem dull in comparison.

On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France in Hànội’s Ba Đình Square. His proclamation paraphrased the US Declaration of Independence: ‘All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, life, liberty, and happiness.’

Ho—who had lived and worked in New York—admired the US. The US admired Ho, who had fought against Japan during World War II, and initially promised him support in his pursuit of independence. When France objected, the US withdrew its backing. Ho sought support elsewhere, in Moscow and (later) Beijing. The rest is one of history’s greatest what might have beens.

Today, Ba Đình Square is a vast open space dominated by Ho’s mausoleum, built on the very spot where he made his independence declaration. Expect airport style security if you want to get anywhere near it. It’s also one of very few places in all of Vietnam where you will see a portrait of the modern country’s founder—others include Sàigòn’s French colonial-era post office, while there's also an enormous statue of Ho in central Sàigòn. It’s clear, however, that whatever cult of personality may have developed around Ho in previous decades, it’s long gone. Were his face not on Vietnam’s banknotes, it would be highly feasible to visit the country and not once see his pointed white beard.

It was on an agreeably leafy terrace close by, with Ho’s mausoleum still in shot, that we first tried a classic Vietnamese coffee, celebrated across the world and as much a symbol of Vietnam as, well, Ho Chi Minh. Thick, syrupy, sweet and (in this writer’s opinion) revolting it’s as unpalatable as the old communist himself. Vietnam does make good coffee, but it would be a few days until we found it.

Before that, a detour to Hạlong Bay, the poster boy of Vietnamese tourism. It’s easy to see why: it’s one of the most spectacular spots on earth, and we were lucky with the weather (not something that could be said about much of the trip—we travelled in February).

Hundreds of tours (some including overnight stays) depart from Hànội each day for Hạlong Bay, and any of the many travel agencies in the centre of the city will sell you one. Almost all include a hotel pick up. There’s a motorway almost all the way to Hạlong Bay, and the journey takes no more than two and a half hours, including a stop. Averse as I am to organised tours, trying to do the trip independently would be a pain.

February is not peak season and the port from where boats depart for the bay’s outer islands was almost empty when we arrived. There are tens of gawdy hotels surrounding the port, which made us glad we had not booked a trip with an overnight stay. There appeared to be very little to do, and very few places to eat.

Hạlong Bay

On the boat to the outer islands, however, there was a feast. Most trips include a sumptuous buffet lunch, dominated by fish and seafood. Hang Sung Sot cave meanwhile is impressive, and we had it almost to ourselves—once again justifying our decision to visit Vietnam out of season. There are many other caves hidden away on the thousands of islands in the bay, but Sung Sot is the pick.

Before returning to port, the more adventurous can engage in a spot of kayaking around the bay—keeping your belongings dry is an issue however, as there is nowhere to store them. We took the over-50s option of a leisurely boat trip. We even had time to drink coconut milk on a beach before heading back to Hànội.

It was the prospect of visiting an even more magnificent cave that took us to Phong Nha, our next destination. The tourist village of the same name that has developed to serve the cave and service the adrenaline needs of Gen Z is the backpacker and adventure capital of Vietnam, full of hostels and homestays and short on decent hotels. It does, however, boast a truly outstanding curry house, Ganesh.

We chose our particular bed and breakfast not least because they arranged transfers for us to and from Đồng Hới (the closest airport and railway station). It was basic but we at least had our own bathroom. It was also, importantly, quiet, although not devoid of idiots.

One evening, a ‘family’ meal arranged by the owner for his guests was an awful reminder of why staying in hostels is such an atrocious experience for anyone aged over 21 and/or with half a brain. Everyone at the table spent the evening attempting to outdo everyone else with tales of derring-do and border runs, visa delays and missed connections. It was a pissing contest for the over-privileged. We made our excuses and went to bed early.

Fortunately, Phong Nha Cave, approached by boat, proved to be worth an evening in the company of backpacking bores. So is Paradise Cave, approached by a lovely (uphill) walk through what was once thick jungle. Torrential rain ended our plans for a much longer hike in what is unquestionably one of Vietnam’s most enchanting regions.

Despite being a railway buff and an advocate of train travel whenever and wherever possible, first sight of the Reunification Express, which runs from Hànội to Sàigòn, made me glad that Amelia had vetoed the idea of taking it all the way from north to south.

A three-decade veteran of CFR (Romanian railways) I know a grim train when I see one, and the Reunification Express is grim. A three hour journey from Đồng Hới to Huế (and then, a few days later, a similar length journey from Huế to Đà Nẵng) was more than enough.

It was punctual—despite the vast distances it travels—and cheap; there’s little else that can be said in its favour, however. It’s crowded, insalubrious, and the catering is far from tempting. (A well-known travel scribe who has written extensively about train travel across the globe later told me she had been taken rather ill after eating on board).

Certainly, the route from Huế to Đà Nẵng in particular is spectacular, but viewing it through curtains that haven’t been washed in years and similarly dirty windows somewhat negates the impact.

Huế was our next stop, the seat of Nguyen dynasty emperors and Vietnam’s capital from 1802 to 1945. Alas, it was almost entirely destroyed during the war, specifically during the fierce battle for the city that followed the Tet Offensive of January 1968. The imperial fortress, most of which was constructed in the 19th century, is the main attraction. It’s well worth a day’s exploration, although few of its buildings remain fully intact. Bullet holes adorn many.

Outside the city, in the surrounding hills, are several imperial tombs which survived the war. The Đồng Khánh and Tự Đức tombs are the most impressive (and best preserved). They’re accessible by bike although the wet weather meant that we hired a car and driver.

Back in the city, which is sliced in half by the wonderfully named Perfume river, we ate two of the best meals of the entire trip. The first was at Madame Thu, a tiny place where—unless you get lucky, as we did—you usually need to wait for a table. The second was across the street at La Carambole, a bistro run by a gregarious Frenchman and perfect for a guilty portion of steak and frites after what had by now been a week of rich Vietnamese food.

As an aside, we ran out of clean clothes while in Huế. A local laundry washed, dried and pressed the lot in a couple of hours for around $5. Huế was also the only place in Vietnam I was offered (by men on mopeds) tarts and marijuana. I turned down the offer of both.

Hội An, like almost nowhere else on earth, manages to pull off that rare trick of being at once the very definition of overcooked tourist hotspot and one of the most charming places you’ll ever visit.

The nightly lighting of thousands of paper lanterns on the Thu Bồn river is the kind of set piece spectacle that usually has me running for the hills. At Hội An, even the presence of half of Japan couldn’t spoil its appeal.

Spared (relatively) by the war, the town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port active from the 15th century. It peaked in the early 1800s before quickly declining as it became unsuitable for increasingly larger ships which began docking at Đà Nẵng instead.

The city will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen the excellent The Quiet American. Its older quarter continues to boast thousands of timber frame houses, shops and pagodas. Cafes and restaurants line the riverfront, all serving the city’s delicious coconut coffee—it tastes as good as it sounds and is proof that Vietnam can make decent coffee when it puts its mind to it.

Mỹ Sơn

An hour’s drive from Hội An is the Mỹ Sơn temple complex, which dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries. It was the centre of a unique culture which owed its spiritual origins to Indian Hinduism—hence most of the temples are dedicated to Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities. Some were damaged during both the French and American wars, but most have been maintained and are well-preserved. Helpful signs make it clear who was responsible for the large bomb craters that litter the site (spoiler alert: It was the US). According to UNESCO, the possible presence of unidentified, unexploded ordnance continues to hamper the archaeological research of parts of the site.

A wide beach, some 30 kilometres in length, stretches north from Hội An to Đà Nẵng. Much of it is littered with high rise hotels and apartment buildings, some completed, others abandoned, none remotely tempting.

One rare sunny morning we nevertheless decided to spend a day at the beach, at the relatively skyscraper-free Hội An end, with the notion of at least dipping our toes in the South China Sea. Needless to say, it began raining shortly after our arrival.

We braved it out for a while, drinking coconut coffee under an umbrella. By the time we decided that the rain was not about to halt anytime soon, the only other people on the beach were a British couple (at least he was British—she, I think, was Russian). They bemoaned the weather, before dropping the extraordinary revelation (when asked where they’d travelled from, and where they were going next) that they’d been right here for two weeks and were soon going home. That, it appears, was their Vietnam holiday. They’d not even been out to Mỹ Sơn.

We left before I had a chance to quiz them about flying halfway across the world to sit on a beach for a fortnight. It seems a miserable thing to do.

Seafood markets such as this one, in Hội An, will cook your purchases for you so that you can eat them right away

Done with Vietnamese trains, we travelled on to Sàigòn by plane. Sàigòn (and it is Sàigòn, at least in the vernacular—hardly anybody refers to it as Ho Chi Minh City) would (trains aside) turn out to be the biggest disappointment of the trip. If you’re looking for skyscrapers, sky bars, overpriced restaurants, luxury brand shopping malls and some of the world’s worst traffic, you’re in luck. If you’re looking for the Sàigòn of every Vietnam War documentary, forget it—it doesn’t exist anymore.

Not that it totally lacks appeal. It’s charming to see how many young people throng to its many pagodas early in the morning before heading to work. The communists did not erode the buddhist faith entirely; indeed it appears stronger than ever.

On central Nguyễn Huệ Square, which leads from the attractive French colonial city hall to the Sàigòn river, just past the enormous statue of Ho Chi Minh you’ll find an otherwise nondescript apartment block (much the same as any you’d find in any capital of any country in Central and Eastern Europe, although it was built before the communists took the city) in which just about every apartment has been converted into a gorgeous little cafe. And they are—believe me—all gorgeous. We didn’t visit every one (there are only so many coconut coffees I can drink), but we visited enough to convince ourselves that they all wanted to outdo each other. Some were dedicated to contemporary art, others books, others cats. One sold expensive perfumes. Seats on the tiny balconies looking over the city are at a premium, but we found a couple eventually. Start on the top floor and work your way down.

If there is one place in Vietnam where propaganda reaches off-the-charts levels, it is—somewhat unnecessarily—at the main war museum in Sàigòn. The irony of course is that any objective telling of the Vietnam War (such as the unrivalled Ken Burns documentary), complete with a detailed account of every atrocity committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, would still leave the United States on shaky moral ground.

At what is officially the War Remnants Museum, the curators do not leave anything to chance. There’s no room for ambiguity or nuance. Just about every mention of South Vietnam refers to ‘American puppets’, and an entire floor is given over to the (unquestionably devastating) effects of Agent Orange. Credit where it’s due, there is a small section devoted to reconciliation, but there is no real narrative, no retelling of the war. It could be (and perhaps one day will be) a great museum—it certainly has the potential to become so. Today it is merely a hodgepodge of propaganda and exhibits displayed with little or no context.

Far more satisfactory for history buffs is a visit to Monkey Island at Cần Giờ, south of the city. Besides thousands of monkeys who like nothing more than to steal the spectacles of visitors (we were warned to take our glasses off before arrival. One stubborn woman didn’t, and had them grabbed off her face within seconds) the island (in fact a mangrove forest) is home to a well-preserved Viet Cong base, accessed by a thrilling speedboat ride. The guerillas launched more than one thousand attacks on Sàigòn from here over a ten year period from 1965 to 1975.

Today a protected area, Cần Giờ was sprayed (by the US) with some 2.4 million litres of Agent Orange between 1965 and 1970. That it has recovered so well—it is once again dense forest—is testament to how nature has broadly recovered from the war.

Indeed, by and large, so has the country itself. According to the World Bank Vietnam—which ditched central planning in 1986—has gone from being one of the world’s poorest nations to a middle-income economy in one generation. Between 2002 and 2021, GDP per capita increased 3.6 times, reaching almost $3,700. Poverty rates declined from 14 per cent in 2010 to 3.8 per cent in 2020. The absent Ho Chi Minh would no doubt approve, but he’d surely be appalled by the state of the trains.


We flew from Bucharest (via Doha) with Qatar Airways into Hànội and out of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s slightly more expensive than returning from the same airport, but worth the extra: Vietnam is long, and you’ll waste a day (or more) if you have to return to your starting point.

Within Vietnam we flew with Vietnam Airlines from Hànội to Đồng Hới, from where we took a train to Huế. We then got back on the train at Hue to travel to Đà Nẵng, the closest station to Hội An. A flight (again with Vietnam Airlines) from Đà Nẵng brought us to Ho Chi Minh City.

For the trip to Hạlong Bay we joined a tour in Hànội, while to get to Phong Nha from Đồng Hới our host arranged a private car transfer.

Hotels throughout Vietnam are good and reasonably priced, with the exception of Saigon which is significantly more expensive than the rest of the country.

We stayed at


Hotel Emerald Waters Classy

Yes, that’s the name, classy. And it is, kind of. Rooms are small but lovely, the location is perfect (in the centre of the old quarter) and the breakfast fabulous.

Phong Nha

Phong Nha Tuan Garden House

A basic hostel/homestay with wonderful owners and a good cooked breakfast. Beware backpackers.


Amy Hotel & Apartment

Lovely room and good location but the breakfast was the weakest (as in, almost non-existent) of anywhere we stayed.

Hội An

Silkian Hoian Hotel & Spa

Wonderful hotel a short walk from Hội An’s historic centre. Lovely pool, although the weather meant it didn’t see much use.


Hoang Lan Hotel

Central, but tucked away behind a couple of larger buildings this was a quiet place—rare in Saigon. Good breakfast.

We ate at (not a definitive list)


Chả Cá Thăng Long

Pho 10 Lý Quốc Sư

Hong Hoai

Phong Nha



Madam Thu

Bistro La Carambole

Hội An

Hồ Lô Quán

Morning Glory Original

Chips 'N' Fish 'N' Stuff



Phương Nam Cần Giờ Resort

We visited (again, not a definitive list)


Hoàn Kiếm Lake/Ngoc Son Temple

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts

Train Street

Phong Nha

Phong Nha & Paradise Caves


Imperial Fortress

Đồng Khánh Mausoleum

Tự Đức Mausoleum

Minh Mang Mausoleum

Hội An

Hội An Night Market

An Bang Beach

Mỹ Sơn Temple Complex


War Remnants Museum

Binh Tay Market

Central Post Office

Café Apartment Building

Monkey Island/Cần Giờ

Hang Duong Market


(Or, Is Gara de Nord really a dump?)

If you follow me on Twitter/X (and if you don’t, why not?) then you will already know that in June I was lucky enough to ride on the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express, all the way from Paris to Istanbul.

I wrote about the trip (at considerable length) over at the day job, and I am not planning on repeating myself here. Instead, a word about the local reaction to that Emerging Europe article, which it’s fair to say caused something of a stir in my adopted home, specifically my reference to Gara de Nord in Bucharest resembling a ‘dump’.

I wrote:

Having arrived by train at Gara de Nord hundreds of times over the past three decades, to do so aboard the Orient Express was very special, although the station itself remains a dump. Its ‘Royal’ reception room had been opened especially for us, but to be perfectly honest none of the passengers noticed.

Now, what’s interesting is that half of the population of Romania agreed with me, while the other half also agreed with me but nevertheless felt aggrieved that a foreigner had dared to say something not entirely complimentary about their country. (A film I have seen many, many times before).

There was also a little confusion over the translation. The outlet which first picked up the article translated dump as groapa de gunoi (a literal rubbish dump); not entirely innacurate but the intended informal English reading (an unpleasant or dreary place) is more subtle, and less offensive.

(Years ago I was sued by a now defunct restaurant in Brașov for similar reasons. I had written that the food being served there was rubbish—meaning sub-standard or poor quality. The restaurant’s lawyers attempted to convince the court that I had written actual rubbish, taken from a bin, was being served. It took a while but I unsurprisingly won the case).

Anyway, when it comes to the gara, I stand by my words. A month or so after arriving on the Express I visited the station late at night to pick up my daughter. The platform at which her train arrived had no working lighting. It was pitch black and all but impossible to recognise anyone clambering off the carriages. I found my daughter eventually, but confirmed my belief that it is a dump in need of a thorough makeover.

Now, word is it might be getting one, at a cost of around €84 million. That kind of money could buy a lot of nice station, but given that this is Romania, and that the contract has been awarded to a company with no experience of renovating railway stations, a way will no doubt be found to make it even worse than it is currently.

One more thing about Romania and the Express. Passing through Sighișoara in 2012 it was hit by stones, thrown presumably by scallywag kids who likely meant no real harm. Nevertheless, three windows were damaged, which required replacing. Ever since, the train has been escorted by a discreet police presence both on and off the train from the moment it enters Romania to the moment it leaves.


(Or, Around Austria by train)

Europeans wishing to ski in high summer have two options: an Alpine glacier or a bank-busting trip to the Southern Hemisphere (Portillo in Chile comes highly recommended. One day, one day…) Lacking a Southern Hemisphere budget, it was the glacier option that I last August decided to take in order to celebrate my 50th birthday on snow.

Or ice, as it turned out.

There were once a dozen or so high altitude European ski areas which offered year-round skiing. Most, as a direct consequence of climate change, have in recent years been forced to close in mid-June, before reopening again in October. Just a handful of resorts continue to offer skiing throughout July and August, including Les Deux Alpes in France, Zermatt and Saas Fee in Switzerland, and Hintertux in Austria. In Italy, Passo Stelvio ski resort opens only during summer.

Snow conditions at Europe’s glacier resorts in July and August depend on two factors: the amount of snow that fell the previous winter, and the temperature. On both counts, I couldn’t have picked a worse August to try summer skiing. The 2021-22 winter season had been poor across much of the Alps, which, when combined with record high temperatures throughout June and July, meant that the glaciers lost their snow cover much earlier than usual. Indeed, by the time I left for Austria at the back end of August, every European summer ski area had closed to the public except for Hintertux. (Saas Fee remained open in extremely difficult conditions for national ski team training).

That Hintertux stayed open at all had by the time I arrived become something of a national scandal in Austria, with environmentalists calling for its closure. They were right. The one piste that had been kept open (in order to allow the resort to continue with its claim that it offers ‘365 days per year’ skiing) was covered at the top in the thinnest layer of snow. Halfway down the snow disappeared, leaving just the thinning, black glacial ice. Though I did take the three cable cars required to reach the glacier, I didn’t ski it.

My lifelong ambition to ski on my birthday will have to wait for another year; my 60th perhaps. By that stage, I have serious doubts if there will be any skiing at all between June and October in Europe.

Chile it is. I should start saving now.

Fortunately, skiing was not the be all and end all of the trip. There were trains to ride, lots of them.

Hintertux sits at the top of the Ziller Valley but is strictly a ski station rather than a resort. Beyond the ski lifts, one (very expensive) hotel and a couple of restaurants there is little there. As such, we decided to base ourselves in Mayrhofen, a gorgeous little town which I first visited in 1984 on a school skiing trip.

From Vienna, to where we had flown the previous evening from Bucharest, we reached Mayrhofen on three trains: Vienna to Worgl, Worgl to Jenbach, and then Jenbach to Mayrhofen on the Zillertalbahn, a narrow guage railway that rattles and winds its way along the Ziller Valley. Mayrhofen is the end of the line. (Buses run to villages beyond, as well as to the Hintertux base station).

We left Vienna Hbf shortly before seven in the morning and arrived at Mayrhofen in time for a late lunch. Our accommodation was a simple yet perfectly located central apartment, the Gästehaus Valentina, a short walk from the railway station. Breakfast was included. (When we left a couple of days later we did so early in the morning and the wonderful owner insisted on providing us with a packed breakfast for our trip).

We spent our first afternoon in Mayrhofen stretching our legs with an agreeable amble up to the Alpengasthof Wiesenhof at 1,056 metres. (Mayrhofen itself sits at 633 metres). The views from its terrace are fabulous, although by the time we arrived the cook had gone home, meaning that it was drinks only. On arrival back in the town, famished, we ate on the terrace of the Gasthof Perauer. Not for the first or last time in Mayrhofen, I ate the Gröstl—fried bacon, onion and potatoes topped with a couple of fried eggs.

The next day had been pencilled in for skiing. Despite already knowing full well that snow conditions were, to say the very least, poor, the weather when we woke up was sunny and warm, so we decided to make the trip to the top of the glacier anyway, in order to see just how awful the situation was.

To reach the Hintertux glacier, at 3250 metres, from the base station at 1400 metres, the full trip takes about 35 minutes. There was no snow to be seen until we reached the top of the second cable car, at 2700m. Even at this height there were just a few patches, certainly nowhere near enough for skiing.

Onwards and upwards, it was only at the very top of the third lift that the landscape took on a vaguely wintry look. During a ‘good’ summer, there are 20km or so of pistes on which to ski up here, served by several lifts. At the end of August 2022, there was just that one open piste (half of which, as I say, was sheet ice) and one working lift.

Determined to make a day of it, we decided to walk down the mountain. A mistake, as it turned out. It took hours, and was tough on the knees.

The next morning, we were up before dawn to take the first train back to Jenbach. From there, we jumped on another service to Salzburg. This particular train would be the only delayed service of the trip. Why? Because it travels through Germany, where it sat, motionless, for 45 minutes. ‘A police emergency,’ we were told.

Salzburg’s lovely, but then you likely know as much. The hills are alive, particularly on summer Saturdays, with more tourists than the city can cope with. Venice is about to start charging day trippers. Other cities are watching and waiting. If it works we will likely see similar schemes deployed elsewhere. I can’t help thinking that dynamic pricing would work well: when a city is near capacity a visit becomes so expensive would-be tourists decide against it.

(This idea is perfect for Venice, or Dubrovnik, with neat and tidy entrances and exits. For more expansive places, the logistics, I’ll admit, need work. But the idea is sound).

From Salzburg we travelled to Graz, one of Austria’s lesser lights but great for a day or two. Its main attraction is its castle (accessed by a terrific funicular, rail fans), as well as the bold (or hideous, depending on your view) Museum of Modern Art. Personally, I like it.

Home in Graz was the InterCity Hotel next to the station (I did warn you that this was a train-themed trip). The walls are decorated with transit maps.

From Graz we headed back to Vienna, via the Semmering railway, built over 41km of high mountains between 1848 and 1854. It’s as wonderful as advertised. A tunnel, currently under construction, will reduce journey times considerably, but the sensational views of one of the loveliest parts of Austria will be lost. You have until 2030 (when the tunnel is due to open) to ride Semmering, if you haven’t already.

Little I could possibly tell you about Vienna will be new and interesting, so I shan’t bother, although I will point you towards the House of Music, not usually first on any visitor’s list but really the most innovative, fun, informative and brilliant museum I’ve been to in a while. (Or it was, until I visited the new and even more impressive Hungarian House of Music this summer).

Forget sausage and schnitzel by the way in the Austrian capital (although if you can’t resist, Figlmueller is my pick, better—and slightly cheaper—than the more famous Zum Schwarzen Kameel). It’s the zillions of little places serving food from around the world, cooked and served by a legion of migrants, you need to head for. (In spite of its awful current government, Austria—Vienna especially—is heartwarmingly multicultural). Mama’s Ramen (Ballgasse 5) is cheap and tasty. There’s a Romanian restaurant opposite, Bukowina.


Few railway operators make booking tickets and reserving seats as easy as Austria’s ÖBB. Its online platform is a joy to use, with all route, time, type of train and price options clearly shown on one page, ensuring that you will not be fooled into booking a more expensive ticket than you need. Much like ÖBB’s trains themselves the site is a model of how things could, and indeed should be.

There are no booking fees, and tickets (in the form of a barcode or QR code) can be stored in ÖBB’s app. You do not need to print them. Look out for non-refundable sparschiene (saver) tickets. These are the cheapest, offer amazing value and while limited in number they are almost always available on all but the busiest trains (even just a day or two in advance: we purchased sparschiene tickets from Graz to Vienna just three days before departure).

Had time allowed, we would have travelled all the way from Bucharest by train, using the Dacia Express which leaves Bucharest Nord at 14:50, arriving at Vienna Hbf at 08:21. (The withdrawal of the Dacia’s dining car, however—replaced with a bar selling snacks and drinks only—has made this train a less attractive option).

We stayed at


Rainer’s Hotel

Not the best location but a very good hotel for the money.

Jimmy’s Apartments

Not exactly central but close to the S-bahn that serves the airport (which we needed to catch early in the morning).


Gästehaus Valentina

Fairly basic B&B but the owner’s great and the location is perfect.


InterCity Hotel

It’s next to the station and has transport maps on the walls of the rooms. What more do you want?

We ate at (not an exhaustive list)


Mama’s Ramen

All Reis


Gasthof Perauer

Brück'n Stadl




Santa Catharina

Brot & Spiele

We visited (again, not an exhaustive list)


House of Music


Kunsthistorisches Museum


Hintertux Glacier

Alpengasthof Wiesenhof


Mirabell Palace

Mozart’s Birthplace

Hohensalzburg Castle


Kunsthaus Graz


Schlossberg Funicular



Traffic police in Bucharest

My regular reader (Mrs Trellis from North Wales) will no doubt recall that for many years I ran a modestly successful blog, the now long defunct Bucharest Life. On its pages I would comment about life in Bucharest (or Romania in general), discuss the country’s politics, culture, sport and post incriminating photos of badly parked cars.

I closed the blog at the end of 2016 because I thought I had reached the stage where I had nothing left to say about the Romanian capital, my home by then for almost two decades. It had begun to feel as though I was writing the same post over and over again, albeit with the words in a different order.

What’s more, while it was popular enough to cost a fair chunk of money to keep going in hosting fees and such like, it wasn’t popular enough to monetise. I was having to put my hand in my pocket each month to keep it online.

Seven years on, I’ve got the itch, and platforms such as this one make it easier and cheaper to publish than ever before. What’s more, Bucharest has changed, Romania has changed, I’ve changed; maybe I do have something new to say about the place. I certainly intend to be more constructive this time around.

Not that this is anything resembling a formal reboot of Bucharest Life. I no longer even own the domain (I let it expire earlier this year). The archives are also gone (both the words—not really bothered—and—annoyingly—the pictures).

Indeed, although I probably will write the odd Bucharest Life-style article (because I can’t help myself), that’s not the content I am (primarily) here to publish.

Instead, it’s the urge to write about travel again (at least occasionally, as time allows) that brings me back. Just consider the fact that I may from time to time be tempted to comment on life in Bucharest and/or Romania (or anything else that takes my fancy) a bonus.


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