Take one of the world’s few true international cities and then add in an enigma called Brexit. The result is a metropolis that maintains its pre-Jun. 23, 2016 vibrancy and yet due to a fall in the currency is 20 percent cheaper than it once was.
It’s an interesting combination as Londoners, used to the international nature of their home, voted 60% in favour of the EU. They like to travel, like being multicultural, and revel in the mix of peoples and backgrounds that make this melting pot metropolis into what it is. And yet now they find everything just that little bit more expensive on the other side of the sea.
This bodes well for people coming in from elsewhere as this once overpriced capital that is the second largest city in Europe is now relatively affordable. Only relatively, though. The average price for a two-star hotel in London is £72 (VND2.1 million), with five-star options weighing in at £232 (VND6.7 million) a night. Vietnam this is not.
If you have the cash, and many people based in East and Southeast Asia do these days, now is the best time to visit this once-great city. Once, we say, because 100 years ago London was the most important and largest metropolis in the world. Yet despite this lost largesse, London has a little bit of everything. It’s the kind of place where you can do almost anything you want, if you’ve got the money.
Wear and Standard Fare
Any first-timer trip to London means taking in the sights and sounds. A few are standouts:
The London Eye
The Tower of London
The British Museum
The Greenwich Observatory
The Tate Modern
The Globe Theatre
The Natural History Museum
The Science Museum
Then there’s the shopping — much cheaper now than it once was. The typical sheep pen for shoppers not in the know is Oxford Street in the city’s West End. Those who are a bit more savvy head to the London Designer Outlet next to Wembley Stadium. Expect to pay 25% to 50% less for everything you buy. But for the real clothes shopping bargains they head to Bicester Village, an hour by train from the capital. Here the brand-toting shops sell last season’s stock at cut-down prices. There’s a reason why coachloads of Chinese tourists end up here — they know they’re in for a bargain.
The Real London?
These are the standard attractions, great in their own right. But if you really want to get a feel for this city, you need to look elsewhere. It’s what the AirBnB brigade have done — there is a reason why the most popular in-house room rentals are in Shoreditch, just to the east of the city centre. The place in one short word is ‘cool’.
But it’s not just an area home to some of the most eye-catching graffiti, Sunday markets and nightlife you’ll come across in the capital that is worth visiting. It’s other enclaves, too, that make this city tick.
Take the Stroud Green, Finsbury Park area of North London, home to the parliamentary constituency of the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. At night the place lights up with cheap yet excellent restaurants, bars and pubs, and a certain vibe that says modern, trendy, metrosexual and generally just ‘cool’. It’s also the location of the Emirates Stadium, the home of Arsenal FC.
The stadium offers regular tours and is an eye-opener into the money-rich, TV-friendly Premier League. Of course, if Arsenal and its long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger, are not your cup of English tea, then you could visit West Ham, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Watford and even Tottenham Hotspur. So obsessed are some tourists that I often see them waiting in groups close to the Tottenham Hotspur training ground in Enfield, cameras at the ready, as they hope to catch a glimpse of the players.
Although it doesn’t have a football club on its doorstep, and was often associated with riots, violence and deprivation, Brixton in South London has also embraced the upwardly mobile, nightlife friendly vibe. As have other areas like Dalston, Hackney, Islington and in fact anywhere that was once seen as being run down but has changed.
Then there is the need to explore. With its tiny streets and architecture often dating back hundreds of years, London is a treasure trove.
Tourists tend to use the South Bank as their starting point for getting lost. Located to the east and west of London Bridge Station, along the riverfront you will find alleyways and cobblestone roads as well as attractions like Borough Market, The Globe, The Tate Modern, The Shard, Tower Bridge and a view over the river to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Others will head to Hampstead or Highgate to the north, or closer in to Clerkenwell and Farringdon and wander around the northern edge of the City of London, or perhaps take a bicycle down the Lea Valley Canal from Tottenham Hale all the way down to Canary Wharf, the modern business district on the banks of the River Thames. Passing through Clapton, Hackney, Stratford and Limehouse, the canal offers a snapshot of the city as seen from the river, with architecture new and old, riverboats, pubs, cafés, rowing clubs, wildlife and an escape from the city’s traffic.
Then there are discoveries like the under-utilised Emirates Air Line on the far side of Docklands. A cable car operated by Transport for London (TfL), that runs five minutes walk from North Greenwich Station on the south side of the River Thames through to Emirates Royal Docks on the opposite bank, the views are spectacular. Yet both locals and tourists just don’t know about this service, and only costing £3.40 (VND98,000) for the ride, this one’s a must for anyone who wants to see the city from above.
Whatever you come to London for, whether it’s the great restaurants (food in this city has received some top accolades over the past 15 years), the pubs old and new, the nightlife, comedy, theatre, musicals, museums, history or the shopping, there’s something for everyone.
And with a favourable exchange rate for tourists between pound sterling and just about every other currency, now might be the time to bite that Brexit bullet and book a flight. You never know, you might even like what you find.
Vietnam Airlines fly direct to London Heathrow from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Alternatively, flights with good connections are operated by the likes of Air France, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Thai Airways and Cathay Pacific.
To get the really cheap flights, download the app Fareness. A return trip can cost as little as US$541 (VND12.4 million) with the likes of China Eastern.
For hotel and apartment bookings, avoid booking.com — we’ve heard a few nightmare stories. Instead try agoda.com. And of course, AirBnb is a great option. Expect to find a decent room close to the London Underground for £30 (VND870,000) to £40 (VND1.2 millon) a night.
Photos by Nick Ross / February 2017