Clarkson, Hammond and May have another reason to feel proud: top gear isn’t just for petrol heads; it inspires travellers too! So much so, that if 24-year old Sophie Renouf hadn’t watched the special feature on vietnam back in December 2008, she probably wouldn’t be living in Ho Chi Minh city right now.
As it was, Sophie was riveted by footage of the TV trio on their madcap eight-day foray through Vietnam, a feat – the BBC website quips – the US military failed to achieve in ten years.
Moreover, the TV presenters were completely awestruck by the breathtaking scenery along the way, particularly up in the mountains where they stood mesmerised by the vista that swept far below them toward the coastline.With a geography that varies enormously, Vietnam dangles from China like a length of crumpled ribbon, with Laos and Cambodia on the west, and the South China Sea lapping the eastern coastline and southern tip.Although the Top Gear team used motorbikes for their trip from Ho Chi Minh in the south right up to near Hanoi, the 2,000km journey is one that Sophie plans to do herself in April, but from north to south. On a bicycle! This determined young woman is selfless when it comes to charity work. This time she is raising funds for Saigon’s Children’s Charity benefitting the 37% of Vietnamese children living in poverty.*
BUT FIRST, HOW HAS THE JERSEY GIRL FROM ST BRELADE ADJUSTED TO LIVING IN HO CHI MINH?
“It’s such a crazy city! “ Sophie declares of the former Saigon, “It’s noisy, hectic, crowded, polluted, and it’s easy to dismiss because of those reasons. It’s also hot here – not in a nice way like summer in Jersey – but in a muggy, cloudy-but-hot way. Trying to get anywhere in rush hour is a pain because bikes and motorbikes are everywhere. When I first got here, I felt like I was cheating death every time I crossed the road!”
Obviously, there are advantages to living there, not least the low cost of living. Sophie tells me, “I live in a lovely, modern apartment for just £170 a month. You can also get clothes tailor-made here very cheaply – which was very useful when I first arrived and needed smart clothes for work. There are amazing restaurants, markets and street food. And beer is only thirty pence.”
With Sophie’s degree in History and Law from Exeter University, and her TESOL qualification (teaching English to foreigners) from St. Brelade’s College, I wondered how easily Sophie found work in Vietnam…
“There’s a high demand for English teachers here and a large expat community, which makes it a lively and vibrant place to teach”, she says. “It’s fairly easy to get a job and relatively well paid. I arrived and sent off my C.V. to a few places and within a week I had two interviews and was offered both jobs. I’ve met people here who run their own businesses and I have a friend who works in advertising, so there are lots of opportunities for expats over here.”
DOES SHE GET ANY TIME OFF TO EXPLORE THE COUNTRY?
“I work weekends teaching young children at a private school outside of the regular school hours, so my weekdays give me plenty of time to explore”, she says. “Weekends are crazy though because I work 14-hour days. I’m the opposite to all my friends at home; Monday morning is the best time of the week and I dread Saturday mornings!”
So far, however, she has managed to explore much of the city and is always keen to follow up recommendations to new restaurants and bars. In a sprawling metropolis with over 7 million inhabitants, it’s hardly surprising that Sophie gets lost on a regular basis. Communication is a stumbling block as not everyone speaks English. And Vietnamese is a notoriously difficult language to learn, as Sophie soon discovered.
Slightly further afield, Sophie recently chilled out on Cambodia’s Ko Rong island with its beautiful beaches. “I can travel to Cambodia for around $20,” she explains, “You can also go to Thailand, Laos, the Philippines and Indonesia for reasonable prices, which is amazing compared to Jersey where it’s fairly expensive just to get to London!”
Sophie misses her friends and family in Jersey but definitely not the cold weather – with the exception perhaps of Christmas by the fireside. She has successfully avoided three consecutive winters in Jersey by working as an intern at a law firm in Beijing, teaching English in northern Sumatra as well as qualifying as a diving instructor and teaching on the Honduran island of Utila.
SO WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR THE INTREPID GIRL FROM JERSEY, CHANNEL ISLANDS?
“Everywhere I go I meet people who make me want to go to different places”, she admits. “I want to keep on travelling …” And with her “can do” attitude, there’s no doubt Sophie will go far in this world.
*Should you wish to donate to this really worthwhile cause, please visit: www.justgiving.com/Sophie-Renouf