Think also of a city once chided for its bad food that today sits at the centre of some of the best modern-day cuisine on the planet. And think of the only city in the world to have hosted the Olympics not once or twice, but thrice.
This is London. It may not be the economic capital of the world of yesteryear — the era of empire is both socially and psychologically a thing of the past. Instead, it remains a commercial and cultural centre both aided and abetted by its cosmopolitan facade.
These days less than 50 percent of its population has white, Anglo-Saxon roots, but that only helps to add to the cultural melting pot that makes this place tick. And it is this diversity, added to by the mix of present and past, that makes it a great place to visit. In London you can do anything or be anyone.
Cold and Bold
If you are going to visit, bear two things in mind. First is the expense. Unless you’re going to couchsurf, are visiting friends or are going to share a hostel dormitory, accommodation here is expensive. Be prepared. And most importantly, avoid the cold. This writer last visited in March and got caught in winter snows during spring. Not pleasant when you’re out on the street, trying to take in the sights.
Yet cold or no cold, as sights and sounds go London has a wealth of them. All requiring that you pick and choose. The highlights are abundant. Take, for example the trio of museums behind the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. Sat side by side, the National Science Museum excels when it comes to creativity — here science is given a twist that makes it exciting and appealing to young and old alike. Then there is the Natural History Museum, home to a life-size, animatronic model of the tyrannosaurus rex. And if design is your thing, few places can match the eye-opening wonders of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Football lovers can visit the stadiums. The likes of Stamford Bridge and The Emirates are open to fans or non-fans alike, with Arsenal’s recently built monolith a great sight for ogling eyes. Art lovers will also find a slice of heaven here, in particular on the South Bank at the Tate Modern, a former power station transformed into a multi-level, world-class gallery. The institution is presently showing a paid-entrance Lichtenstein exhibition, but also has a number of galleries open for free viewing. And of course, if you want to catch London from above, then hop on the London Eye, opposite the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. You can even stand astride the meridian line at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the fictitious, equator-like mark from which Greenwich Mean Time and indeed all time on this planet is measured. Or if you so wish, you can book a tour of the spooky yet highly fascinating and architecturally bewildering Highgate Cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Marx and many other luminaries.
However, for me, London is best seen on foot or by bicycle — tourists can now hire bikes from outdoor, pay-as-you-go stands. The square mile that makes up the City of London is an unbeatable place for a wander, as is Soho in the West End and Camden Town on the weekend. The East End should also not be ignored, and in particular the modern, yet artistically rundown area around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Brick Lane. The street art here is phenomenal as is the obsession with vintage clothing, an eye opener into all that is trendy and cutting edge. And while you’re in the East End, you can even visit England’s longest running bagel bakery, a landmark in its own right, hit an Indian Subcontinental meal in Bangla Town or even head north to Hoxton to take advantage of all the Vietnamese cuisine on offer. The pho bo at the highly rated Song Que may cost VND200,000, but it’s well worth the expense, especially after you become fed up with all that terrible English cuisine you have to make do with.
Information and Accomodation
It calls itself ‘The Ultimate Guide to London’ and in truth, it still is. To find out what’s going on in all arenas, go to timeout.com/London. If you want to go a bit more official, then click on visitlondon.com. This website also helps you with places to stay, although sites like agoda.com are also good on this front.
For cheap(er) travel around the city, you’re going to need an Oyster Card. This cuts down the almost astronomic fares on London’s transport system by as much as 50 percent. For more information go to oystercard.com.
Vietnam Airlines flies direct from both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to Gatwick. However, to take in other parts of Europe, the direct flight to Paris with Air France and then the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel is a good option. It’s only two hours and fifteen minutes between both cities. Book the train in advance and the cost of the fare is as little as GBP50 one way (VND1.5 million).
Other airlines such as Emirates, Qatar and more do flights to London with short stopovers in the Middle East. This is a great way of breaking up a 12-hour flight into two, more manageable six-hour portions.