Skipping Over to Seoul

After my last post, I’m sure many of you are wondering why Dave and I choose to stay in such a polluted country (we both ended up with chest colds after that sandstorm, by the way…).  Well, there are plenty of reasons.

  1. The cost of living is low and salaries are high
  2. Suzhou is a gorgeous city where there is lots to see and do
  3. Living in China provides challenges that make life a lot more interesting
  4. Working in China as a teacher, I’m able to make a huge impact.  It’s a great feeling
  5. The holidays……3.5 months per year, to be exact….
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China loves its parties!!

In addition to summer holidays, I also get 5 weeks for Spring Festival, a week for National Day and several small holidays throughout the year as well.  Tomb Sweeping is a yearly cultural holiday that takes place in March/April.  I had 3 days off, so Dave and I decided to hop on over to Seoul.

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Seoul was just of of many options we had for this short little holiday.  We also considered Japan and Taiwan, but it came down to flight costs.  Even during the  holiday, tickets were very reasonable!

It only takes about an hour and a half to fly to Seoul, but when you add in train-rides to Shanghai, plus the drive from Seoul’s airport to downtown, we really didn’t have a whole lot of time to see the sights.  Still, we made the most of the 36 hours we had!!!

 

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Much to Dave’s chagrin, we weren’t able to visit the neutral zone between North and South Korea.  Personally, I’d be happy to go my whole life without seeing North Korea…

As always, we found a hotel close to the metro line, and found our way around the city that way.  Metros are great because you can get from one end of the city to another in so much less time than it takes to drive.  Unfortunately, Metros are also terrible in Asia, because their maps sometimes look like this:

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If I’d been alone, I would have spent about 20 of my 36 hours in Seoul just trying to find my stop.  Luckily, Dave is weirdly good at this stuff!

Many people go to Seoul for the shopping or the vibrant night life, but Dave and I aren’t big into either of those things.  Instead, we head for Namsan Park and Mountain, where we were able to see Seoul Tower and a beautiful panorama of the city.

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Our view from the cable car

A ‘bonus’ sight Dave and I saw while on Namsan mountain were Seoul’s Love Locks.  The idea is simple:  if you love someone, get a padlock, engrave your names onto it, lock it to a bridge and throw away the key.  This action is suppose to signify that you are bound to a person forever.  Of course, 1 or 2 of these locks wouldn’t really be noteworthy, but all around the world, couples are creating mass displays with their ‘love locks’.

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Sweet, right?

Sure, it’s a romantic idea…but it’s also become a bit of a problem in some parts of the world!  Paris once had the world’s most famous collection of love locks, but officials had to remove the locks off of Pont de Arts bridge because the weight of them was going to cause the bridge to collapse!   The problem was so extreme that the additional weight on the bridge was the equivalent of 20 elephants!

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If you ever see a sign like this, you’ll now understand why

Love Locks have been around for ages, all over the world.  They were made most famous in Paris, but their origins trace back to China and Siberia as well.  Seoul has quite an impressive display, and officials there were prepared there.  They created places for the locks to be placed that were actually designed to hold the weight.  The displays were lovely.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at those locks….they were really quite impressive.  They seem colourful from afar, but up close, you can see that there are actually quite a few old and rusted locks among the shiny new ones.  I guess displays like this don’t happen over night!

When we were done at Namsan, we decided to visit one of Seoul’s many parks.  We chose 1 park specifically because of its many Geo Caches.  Dave and I each found a couple, and we enjoyed a lovely walk among the budding trees.

There were some interesting sculptures in the park as well.

We spent both our evenings in Seoul enjoying fantastic Korean food!  I wouldn’t say South Korea is the best place to visit for vegetarians, but if you like meat, this is the place for you!  Meat is grilled fresh right in front of you, and when it’s done, you wrap it in a piece of leaf lettuce, along with Kim Chi and whatever other little dishes they give you.  It’s some of the freshest, healthiest tasting food I’ve ever had!

I’m a little sad we didn’t have more time to see some of the rest of South Korea, but I can say without a doubt that Dave and I will be heading back that way again some time soon. Korea is absolutely lovely.  The people are friendly and helpful, the service industry is WAY more customer service based than China’s and the city, in general, is very organized!

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Unfortunately, I didn’t take this picture, but I wanted you to see Seoul at its most beautiful and my camera just can’t capture a photo like this!

In fact, I saw something on our last night there that even puts Canada to shame!  I noticed a stack of free post cards at our hostel and picked one up.  It turns out that the South Korean government provides postage-paid postcards so that visitors can alert officials of any problems they had in the city!  A program like that would be INVALUABLE in cities like Shanghai or Beijing, where your first experience is often being ripped off by a taxi driver!

Stay tuned!  I’ve got plenty more planned for my next few posts!

 

 

Smog and Sandstorms

Dave and I had plans today to explore the city.  Suzhou recently opened its 3rd metro line, and it has made all sorts of local attractions easier to get to.  We thought exploring the city and getting some more photos would be a grand way to spend the day…but then the smog came…

I realized while talking to my family this morning that many of the people back home can’t even begin to understand what pollution is all about and the many ways it impacts our lives here, so I thought it might make for an interesting article.

**Note** Very few pictures in this article will be my own…they’ve mostly been borrowed from the internet.  If I did take the picture, I’ll indicate it in the caption

Our Global Pollution Problem

Pollution is a problem all over the world.  In India, I saw unbelievable amounts of garbage on the road, and I brushed my teeth with bottled water to avoid getting sick from the tap water.

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The firework displays during Diwali this year set off the AQI scale to more than 1000 and put the country in a state of emergency.   For comparison, Toronto’s current AQI is 17

Although much better than India and China, Vietnam also has some pretty terrible pollution problems.  The number of motorcyles on the road leave your lungs pretty sore by the end of a day sight-seeing in HoChiMin City.  Phu Quoc is also a giant dumping ground for garbage.

Even in the beautiful Caribbean, you can find all sorts of pollution issues.  Water there is generally unsafe to drink, and although resorts do a good job of keeping their shores clean, the same can’t be said in other areas of the country.

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This was taken in Haina, Dominican Republic

Pollution is a problem globally, there’s no doubt.   I look forward to my time in Canada every year.  The fresh air smells so fantastic, and even in the heart of Winnipeg, I’ve never smelt the tinny scent of PM2.5.  Yet…where do you think this picture was taken?

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This is in Sarnia, Ontario, where First Nations residents in a nearby town are suffering from the effects of this pollution.

What I’m trying to say here is that pollution is an issue everywhere.  If you’re lucky enough to never have seen anything like this with your own eyes, you are a minority on this planet and this is a case where being a minority is a good thing…

The Lingo

In Guizhou (the Chinese province where we lived prior to moving to Suzhou), the pollution isn’t so bad.  That’s not to say the air was perfect there (because it’s such a poor province, many of the vehicles on the road are old and blow large amounts of black exhaust), but we never needed masks or felt like our health was at risk.

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Guiyang is in the green zone in central China (the one surrounded by beige zones).  Shanghai and Suzhou is in an orange zone.

In Suzhou, things are different.  We are only about 100km west of Shanghai, so we get a lot of our pollution from the factories out that way.  On a bad day, our AQI level will go up to 200 or occasionally 300.  During the current sandstorm, we are sitting somewhere between 450 and 600 on the AQI scale.  What exactly does that mean, you might ask?

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This was today’s reading in Suzhou.  596 is the highest I’ve ever seen it here

AQI is the global term that indicates how clean the air is in any particular place.  Air Quality Index becomes a very important part of your life when you live in a city with a pollution problem.  Most people have apps on their phones that tell them whether they should wear a mask outside.  I don’t use an app because I have an easier way to tell. Suzhou’s iconic Pants Building is within eyesight of my apartment.  I make a point of looking out the window every day, and I can usually tell how bad the pollution is by how clearly I can see the pants building.

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Dave took these pictures last year.  Today looks a lot like the picture on the right

Something else people are aware of here in Suzhou are the different KINDS of pollution. I’ll begin explaining this with a story…

Last year, one of my jobs as a teacher was to help students prepare for their IGCSE spoken exams.  To do that, I met with students individually, gave them a topic and had them tell me what they could about that topic.  The topic I chose one day was ‘The Environment’.  One girl really impressed me, as she started rattling off different types of air pollution (PM2.5, PM10 etc.).  I was FLOORED that she knew those terms.  I had only lived in Suzhou for a few months at that point.

Now, these terms are part of my regular vocabulary.   I frequently say things like ‘PM2.5 levels are brutal this week’, or ‘well this stand storm is mostly bringing in PM10 particles, which aren’t QUITE so bad’.   All this ‘PM’ talk refers to the size of the particles.  PM10 particles are slightly bigger, but equally as harmful as PM2.5.  Both get trapped in your lungs and build up over time and both are linked to lung cancer, lung disease and even brain issues.   Of course, living in China for a short-term period doesn’t mean that I’ll come home with lung cancer, but the elderly in China really do suffer.

 

The Effects

Pollution is more than just something you see on the news.  It’s something that is real and it affects a large portion of the world on a day to day basis.  Here are some of the ways it effects me:

  1. I sometimes need to wear a mask to go outside
  2. I constantly worry about the quality of air in my home and at work
  3. I spend hundreds of dollars every year on filters and machines designed to clean my air
  4. I have had a lung infection so bad that I needed to be on 4 different medications to get better.  I was using an asthma puffer for 3 months after that infection.
  5. Colds last longer and are much more severe than they are elsewhere I’ve lived
  6. If I don’t ride my e-bike for a few days, I will get dust on my pants when I sit down.
  7. I dry my clothes in my bathroom because if I dry them outside, they’ll be dirty by the time I wear them again (most people in China don’t have clothes dryers)
  8. Hanging onto a railing as I climb up or down outdoor stairs will leave me with dirty hands.
  9. I go into coughing fits when I go to a country with clean air.  My lungs literally try and eject the garbage that has built up over the months.
  10. After a particularly dusty day, I’ll wake up with build up in my eyes and a bit of a sore throat.
  11. When the PM2.5 is especially bad (usually in January or February), you can actually taste metal in the air.
  12. I often worry about the long-term health hazards of pollution.  The obvious ones don’t worry me as much (lung cancer, emphysema etc.) but after recently discovering that PM2.5 is connected to alzymers disease, I’ve been in a constant state of worrying about the health of my brain.
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You can always tell if a car in a parking lot hasn’t been driven in a while….the dust builds up over time.  Similarly, it’s important to keep your apartment well maintained, because dust collects inside too

Pollution levels are a constant presence in my life.  I need to know when they’re high so I can turn on my air purifier.  I also need to know about the air quality so that I know when it’s appropriate for me to partake in one of my favourite pastimes: walking.

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Since I was just a little girl, I’ve always loved walked.  It started with walks around the block with my Pepere, and it evolved into walking my dog in the forest trails of St. Malo Provincial Park.  When I moved to Guiyang, walking was one of the ways I dealt with the stress of living in such a difficult city.  In Suzhou…taking a walk is off the table some days.

How We Get Through It

On days like today, we mostly stay indoors.  At home, we have 2 air purifiers, so we definitely have those running while we’re in the apartment.  My classrooms also have air purifiers, but unfortunately, my school doesn’t see an advantage to making sure our offices also have clean air.  Air purifiers can be a bit pricey and they seem to become obsolete frequently, making it impossible to find a new filter for a device you purchased only 6 months before.  Our solution has been SmartAir Purifiers…they’re a small company that make purifiers that work well, for only 600rmb (most other purifiers that do a decent job cost up to 5000rmb…).  If you’re living in mainland China, check out their website.  They’re well worth the money.

How This Effects YOU

If you’re reading this from Canada, you might be thinking that I’m crazy for choosing to live here.  I know the risks, but I still take them.  There are risks living in Manitoba as well.  Hitting the ditch in a snow storm, or sliding into oncoming traffic during winter/spring is every bit as much of a risk as living somewhere where pollution is a problem.  I check the PM2.5 levels the same as you check the temperature to know how many sweaters you should wear under your parka.

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Seeing smashed up cars in Manitoba is normal.  I was involved in 2 ice-related accidents in 2012 alone.  I hate driving in Winter far more than I hate PM2.5

You may also be thinking that countries like China and India are poorly managed and that if they ‘got their acts together’, this wouldn’t be an issue.  But let me ask you this….

Where are the majority of your ‘things’ made?  The truth of the matter is that we export our pollution to China to cut costs.  One of the reasons things are cheaper coming from China is because health and safety standards aren’t as big of a deal here….it’s something to think about before you shop at places like Walmart, Superstore or other ‘low cost’ chains.  You’re paying 50 cents less, but the global environment is suffering.

Furthermore…we live in a very wasteful world.  I recently got into a heated debate about the use of paper cups in the office.  I think they should be banned, whereas other people really like their convenience.  What’s important to remember is that by using disposable items (on a regular basis), you’re contributing to our landfill problems, as well as creating a need for more factories in the world.  For more information on that, I found this nifty article written by Time Magazine called ‘Throwaway Living’.  Be sure to check it out if you’re interested in the topic.

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If hearing about this very sad state of affairs has depressed you, here is a picture of Poe to help you feel happy again. 

PS..I know it’s been a while, but I have 3 posts in the works:

  • Our weekend in Seoul
  • Catching up on Life in Suzhou
  • Beautiful Suzhou (I’ve been on a picture taking mission lately)

Sun Sets & Sea Food – Our Week in Phu Quoc

After being on the road for 3 weeks, we decided to make our final week on holidays a relaxing one.  There are plenty of beaches in the area, but we decided on Phu Quoc (pronounced “foo quack”) because of its (relatively) empty beaches and island allure.

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Try and resist this allure!

About Phu Quoc

Located just south of Cambodia, Phu Quoc is a Vietnamese island in the gulf of Thailand. Famous for its fish oil and pepper exports, Phu Quoc is an up and coming city in South East Asia.

Although the island still has a ways to go to reach Phuket-type status, it’s clear that the Phu Quoc is being developed.  One of the main activities to do on the island is to explore by motorcycle.  We spent several afternoons cruising around (which is how I got the wicked tan I’m now sporting!!) and we pulled over more than once to check out the resorts that are popping up all over the island.

We were told by one American man who now calls Phu Quoc home, that 80% of the island’s development has occurred in the last 2 years!!  The hotel we stayed at only came up about a month ago, so we were two of the first people to stay in that bungalow!

The Problem with Phu Quoc

The Vietnamese government aspires to make this tiny island as popular of a tourist spot as Thailand’s Phuket, though I can’t imagine that happening in the near future.   Because the island is developing so quickly, the city is haven’t a hard time keeping up with the changes.   Garbage is a MASSIVE problem on the island, and more than once, our experiences in Phu Quoc were made less-awesome by the stink of rotting food or the sight of fighting rats.  If Vietnam is going to succeed in making this place another Phuket, they need to get a handle on these issues, and quickly!!

To Do in Phu Quoc

I have to admit, there isn’t a tonne to actually DO in Phu Quoc.  We spent a day snorkeling, which was alright, but nothing compared to the Caribbean.  We visited a park and we did some geo-caching, but as far as activities go, there isn’t a lot set up yet.

We found some ‘ruins’ on Dave’s e-map that we decided to check out.  The ruins themselves weren’t all that interesting, but the trip there was!!

The ruins are located on a small island, so we needed to walk across a pretty rickety looking bridge to get there.  In reality, we could have probably just walked across (the water wasn’t deep), but where would the fun be in that?

We also had to walk through some jungle to get there.  We’d heard some stories about vipers, cobras and scorpions being on the island, so I’m not going to lie…I was a bit of an anxiety case going through that very un-kept trail!!!

Our Favourite Activities

So, Phu Quoc isn’t the place to go if you like having busy and adventurous holidays.  Lucky for us, I do a lot of reading when planning trips and I already knew that.  This was actually a perfect destination for us, because all we really wanted from the island were some comfortable beaches, some beautiful sun sets and some fantastic sea food.  Phu Quoc offered all 3 of these in big ways.

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Beaches

There are several beaches in Phu Quoc, but our favourite was Long Beach.  It isn’t as beautiful as the south beach, perhaps, but it was empty, close to our hotel and the prices were reasonable for renting lounge chairs.  We spent several afternoons soaking up the rays, swimming in the ocean, and meeting sweet dogs!

There was one dog in particular that I really fell in love with.  She had 4 small puppies to take care of, and all of the tourists just loved them to bits.  They always had someone to play with, which left their mum time to scrounge for food around the beach (her owners clearly didn’t feed her properly).  She was a pretty good thief too!  We saw her take off with a couple of sandwiches and at one point, I shooed her away from the massage lady’s bag because she was trying to steal some steamed buns.  The sweet massage lady thanked me, looked at the dog, and ended up giving her the buns anyway.  Definitely a good person in my books!!

Seafood (and dessert!!)

There was only 1 day the entire week that Dave and I didn’t enjoy seafood with our dinner, and that was the night we went out for Indian food (which was also VERY good!).  There is fresh fish, shrimp, crab, lobster and SO much more to eat on the island!  If you go to one of the restaurants in Duong Dong, you can get pretty fresh stuff, but the best seafood is found at the night market.

We got to try several new dishes we’d never tried before.  My favourite was the sea urchin, but the cuttlefish and eel (a different variety than we’ve had in the past) were also very good!  We also enjoyed some fantastic fire garlic snails, shrimp and crab.  The options were both endless and delicious!

If seafood isn’t your thing, there are plenty of tasty desserts to try as well!  We tried this one snack that’s super popular in Vietnam right now.  I have no idea what it’s called, but I’ll refer to it as a ‘coconut rice cake thingy’.

Here’s  a video of her working with the sugar…

My absolute favourite dessert of the vacation was a neat sort of ice cream they make on the island.  Apparently it’s a Thai dessert, though I never saw it there.  First, they put which ever flavours you want onto a big frozen piece of metal (think Marble Slab or Stone Cold Creamery).  Then, they add cream.

This is when they get to work…

When they are done you have a delicious ice cream treat to enjoy!

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Sunsets

We saw great sunsets most of our nights in Phu Quoc, but I only had my camera for 2 of them.  The first was on an empty beach near a mini-fishing village.

Pollution and buildings make it impossible for us to see the sun actually set in China, which is why we were so excited to see the sun go down properly on vacation.  We stayed out until it had disappeared below the horizon.  It made for some pretty spectacular shots with my Canon!!

Our second sunset was at Duong Dong Pier, near the Dinh Cao Rock Temple, by the night market.

Once more, we waited until the sun completely set, and I ended up with some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.  It was quite windy out so we were getting some small waves coming in, so I wound up sitting down on the pier, and waited for the right moments to get some pretty cool shots!!

My favourite shot of the week…

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I also managed to get a pretty gorgeous shot of the moon once it came up…

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That’s it for Phu Quoc!  I have 2 more posts planned about our overall experiences in Laos and Vietnam, so stay tuned!  I should be back soon!!!

 

Pondering Perspectives

I have always loved being a student.  As stressful as it was finishing my degree a few years back, I felt so incredibly motivated while I was at the University of Winnipeg.  My major was in English Writing & Literature, but I took classes in Anthropology, Classical History, Drama, Psychology, Astronomy and so much more.  These classes taught me about the world, taught me to think and dig for information and most importantly, they taught me that there is always more to learn!

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Classical History, for example, taught me that pottery is actually fascinating (if it was made by the Greeks, anyway!)

There are 2 classes that I feel really changed the way I see the world.  The first one was Physiological Psychology.  In this class, I learned about the different structures of the brain and what they are responsible for.  I also learned what happens when you damage those areas of the brain and I learned a lot about mental illness as a result.  Now, 4 years later, a month doesn’t go by when I don’t either think about or discuss things I learned in that class.   I finished Physio Psych with the worst grade of my degree, but it was one of the most eye-opening courses I ever took.

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The other class that changed my perspectives was a random elective course I chose to fill out my semester.  I literally chose it because it was available in a convenient time slot, but by the time the first lesson was finished, I was hooked and knew I wouldn’t be skipping my Tuesday night 6pm lessons.  “Needs of Refugees” was all about refugee crises around the world.

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It looks like I have a 1 hour block free Tuesday afternoons…that can’t be right…oh no wait, I have 3 hours of work to cram in that space!!!

The focus of the class was mostly on the process these people go through to get placement in other countries.  I had 2 professors for that class.  One of my profs was a woman who had spent months abroad working in refugee camps in Palestine, Kenya and a few others I can no longer remember.  The other professor was a Somali man who had fled Mogadishu with his family when he was a child.

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This is DaDaab refugee camp in Kenya.  When my prof fled Mogadishu as a child, he was actually separated from his family and captured by rebel soldiers.  He was forced to work as a child soldier for 2 years before he was finally able to escape.  He fled to DaDaab, where he found the rest of his family.  Many years later, he was given a place in Canada, where he has become a productive member of society.  His story is not one I will ever be able to forget.

Through this class, I met several refugees, all from different conflicts and different areas of the world.  I met a woman who had to flee Iraq because her husband had been arrested and the government was coming after her next so she had to flee with her two teenage sons.   I met a woman from Myranmar who had fled years ago, who began her own small weaving business in Winnipeg.

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Burmese weaving is quite the art form!

I also interviewed a man from the Congo.  He was angry.  He’d been in Canada for more than 10 years when I met him.  He’d been struggling for a decade to find a suitable job, but because he’d been living in a refugee camp for the better part of his life, he had little education and few skills.  It frustrated him that he had so little opportunities in Canada.  Still, at the end of the interview, he took a moment to clarify that although he was angry, he was also grateful.  He told me he’d rather have no opportunities in Canada than to wake up to the sound of bombs back in The Congo.  He taught me a lesson about gratitude.

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Yeah, Canadian winters don’t seem so bad…

If you have me as a friend on Facebook, you know how I feel about helping Refugees.  You also know how I feel about mental illness and trying to fight past the taboos that prevent people from getting help.  I didn’t always care about these things.  I’m sure that I’ve made thoughtless comments about mental health through the years.  I know that there was a point in my life where I never really even thought about what a refugee even was.

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Now I do my best to stop bad information from spreading, and correct that information whenever I can.  

But school isn’t the only place where my perspectives have shifted. Travelling has taught me so much about the world.  Since moving to Guiyang in 2014, I’ve learned about what it means to be an ethical tourist, I’ve seen real poverty and I’ve spent a great deal of time educating myself about the history of South East Asia and India (something never covered in my high school history courses…).

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Learning about the Khmer Rouge was the first of many eye-opening experiences I’ve had in the past few years.

Of course, being in Vietnam has also given me some new perspectives.  I knew about the Vietnam war.  I knew about the draft, the protests and I knew about the fight against communism.  I had never really considered what all this meant for people on the other side of the ocean though…

Now, I’m not here to say that the Vietnamese didn’t do awful things to American soldiers, but when you see things that that happened to the people here, you can’t help but wonder how Vietnam could have possibly deserved the war crimes they endured during that horrible war.  Napalm, agent orange and mass bombing campaigns nearly destroyed the country and even today you can see victims of Agent Orange.  The chemical created genetic defects that are still being passed onto the current generation. It’s pretty awful stuff.

It’s easy for people in North America to shrug off the Vietnam war because it was so long ago now, but in Vietnam, the war still affects people.  There are still bombs all over the country that never detonated properly during the war.  Every year, people lose limbs and lives because of these UXOs.

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We visited the War Remnents museum when we were in Saigon, and learned about the war through pictures as well as through a few displays.  Horrible stuff was done here.

We also made a short visit to the Phu Quoc prison, where thousands of enemy soldiers were kept during the war.  The first thing both Dave and I noticed was how much the prison looked like a concentration camp.

But Vietnam was not the only country affected by the Vietnam War…

Laos is often forgotten during discussions about that 20 year war.  I’ve mentioned in other posts that Laos is the most bombed country in the world.  We learned more about what that actually means at the UXO museum in Luang Prabang.

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A map showing the most heavily bombed areas of Laos

America dropped  260 million cluster bombs  on Laos over the course of 580,000 bombing missions. This is equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.   There are still 78 million bombs in Laos, that need to be detonated, and as you can imagine, this caused a lot of problems from this developing nation.

The UXO museum was quite an experience…In addition to having a wide variety of bombs on display, there were a few videos to watch and lots of information of how the UXOs still affect Laos today.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that there’s always more to know.  There’s so much happening all over the world right now…I feel like the best thing any of us can do is to educate ourselves.  After all, how can you really have an opinion about things when you only ever hear 1/2 of the story.

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The number of people injured and killed by bombs just in Luang Prabang’s province every year

I know that when I have kids, I will encourage them to travel.  You can learn about so much more than food and temples when you’re in another country.

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You can also learn a real sense of gratitude when you see these things.   Parents have so much less to worry about in North America…

So there you have it…those are my two cents.

Next, I’ll be writing about our week on the island of Phu Quoc!  Stay tuned!!!

 

Moseying Through the Mekong

We have now seen the Mekong River in 3 different countries: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  We also saw where the Mekong acts as a border between Laos and Thailand.  I’ve felt connected to this river since we saw the Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie nearly 2 years ago.  So when we realized that we could see where the Mekong connects with the South China sea, I knew that it was a ‘must see’ destination for Dave and I.

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The Mekong begins in the Himalayan mountains and flows into the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam.  

About the Delta

The Mekong Delta is considered a  “biological treasure trove” due to its fertile soil and an abundance of wildlife.  More than 1000 animal species live in this small area.  We didn’t see much wild life, unfortunately, but the plant-life in the area is absolutely gorgeous!!

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A Dragon Fruit Farm

The Mekong Delta is an area of agriculture.  Dragon fruit, sugar cane, corn, sweet potato, and coconut are all grown in the Delta, but the area’s main agricultural purpose is for rice.  More rice is grown in the Mekong Delta every year than in all of Northern and Central Vietnam combined!  That’s saying something, given that the enormous Sapa rice terraces are located in the north of the country!

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We wanted to visit Sapa while in Vietnam, but we chose to go to Laos instead.  The Long Ji Rice terraces in Guiln are similar and we really wanted to see something new.  Some day, we both hope to make the trip to see these beauties too though!

Of the 17 million people who live in the Delta area, 80% of them work in rice agriculture, so you can imagine the rice fields we got to see!

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One of many gorgeous shots I got

Our Trip to the Delta

Michael, like Dave, loves driving motorcycles, so when we were all still in China, we planned a motorcycle trip out to the delta together.  There are many places you can go in the Mekong Delta.  My Tho is the most popular because it isn’t far from Saigon.  It seemed a bit touristy for our taste though, so we opted to drive a bit further and went to Ben Tre instead.

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The drive to Ben Tre was dusty and a bit boring, because we’d mistakenly taken the most direct route, which also happens to be the busiest.  Our pollution masks came in handy on the ride there!!

We were thrilled to see the gorgeous pool waiting for us at our hotel.  We all washed off the dust from our skin and hopped in to cool down.

In Ben Tre

We only had 1 day in Ben Tre, so we spent it doing the most popular thing to do in the Mekong Delta…we rented a boat (and a captain!) and saw some of the beauty the area has to offer!

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These types of boats can be found all down the river in Ben Tre

Although we found plenty of boats, we had a bit of difficulty finding a tour office that was open during Tet!  After some riding around, we managed to find one place that jumped at the opportunity to make an easy sale.

While we waited for our captain, we strolled along the river, admiring the boats and the view.

I noticed that all of the boats had ‘planks’ going down to them, which bothered me a bit.  Dave, of course, didn’t care, but I was worried they’d make clumsy ol’ me walk across a rickety piece of wood to get to the boat!

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Dave showing me that it’s no big deal!!

I was right…I did have to “walk the plank.”  It wasn’t too bad, and I didn’t fall, but getting into the boat was only step 1 to us getting on our way down the river.  Next, we had to get the boat ‘unstuck’ from the muddy Mekong River bank!!

 

The boat trip was definitely longer than we’d wanted (3 hours…), but there were plenty of gorgeous sights to see along the way!

I wasn’t feeling the best, so Dave ended up getting a bunch of these pictures.  These 3 are my favourite though (and I no longer know who took which lol!  We’ll call it a combined effort!)

The Way Home

None of us wanted a repeat of the trip TO Ben Tre, so Dave and Michael put their heads together and planned a less direct route home.  Their efforts paid off, because WOW did we see some beauty along the way!!!

We also stopped quite a few times on the way back.  Sometimes we stopped for ferry rides…

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Sometimes it was the lure of hammocks that convinced us to pull over…

But the scenic stops were my favourites.  As I mentioned, the Delta is home to Dragon Fruit farms, where we stopped for a few pictures.

Coconut is synonymous with the region, and we definitely stopped for some coconut candies along the way back to HCMC.

My favourite stop was definitely for the rice fields.  They were golden, green and beautiful and it was so nice to stop somewhere quiet and clean.

This particular field (like many in Vietnam) was also a cemetery of sorts.  The Vietnamese often bury their dead family members in very specific places, close to the home and in a certain direction, so not to disturb balance in their afterlives.  We saw many of these coffins during our trip.

With such a beautiful backdrop, we couldn’t help but take some pictures of ourselves as well, and I got some beautiful ones of my dear friends, Michael and Miya.

That wraps up our trip down to the Mekong Delta!  It was a great experience and I’d recommend for anyone in the area to take the trip!  Here’s the route we took both on the way there and the route on the way back (the one that’s slightly to the left is the boring route…the one on the right is MUCH better!)

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Special thanks to my husband for putting together this route for me!!

Up next I’ll be writing about Phu Quoc as well as some posts about Vietnamese and the things you realize being in these parts of the world!!

Cheers!

 

 

 

The Sights of Saigon

As the 3rd leg of our adventure comes to an end, I am realizing that I have a lot of catching up to do!  I’ve been neglecting both my journal and blog, so I figure it’s best I get started now, while I wait 3 extra hours for my delayed flight to depart (at least they gave us access to the VIP lounge!!).

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An Empty VIP Lounge 🙂

Ho Chi Minh City

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Our latest stop has been in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon.  HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam (but not its capital).  Its population is around 8.5 million people, and I’m pretty sure every person here owns a motorcycle and driving them 24 hours a day!!!   The bike traffic in this city is nuts!!

We stayed in District 1, which is the Back Packer’s district.  There are lots of overpriced bars and restaurants in the area and there is a much bigger party scene here than either Dave or I had expected!  Liz was telling us that there are bars down that street that are open 24 hours a day!

We did enjoy a few beers down this street, but we had a lot more planned than just Saigon Red and Iced Coffees!!

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We also had plans for drinking lots of coconut milk…but more on that in my next post!!

Our Holiday

A few months back, when we were planning our holiday in HCMC, we discovered that our friends Liz and Jeff were going to be visiting at the same time as we were.  We made sure to be staying in the same area, and then as we were planning it, a couple more friends decided to join in on the fun!  It turned out that 6 of us were all in Saigon at the same time!  The best part is that Liz actually lived in HCMC for 4 years, and she was super excited to show us around.

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Michael and Miya were the first to arrive in the city, so we had beers and dinner with them while we waited for Liz and Jeff’s delayed plane to arrive
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When we estimated that Liz and Jeff’s plane arrived, we went to a crappy little bar and tried to get online.  Liz and I messaged back and forth for a while until we realized that she, Jeff and their friend ‘Risky’ had been sitting at the bar RIGHT across the street from us for an hour already.  We could actually SEE Jeff from where we were sitting!!!

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do a lot of the things Liz had wanted to do, because it was Tet (Chinese New Year).  Just like in China, everything closes down during the holiday.  The few places that DO stay open, charge an extra 20% too, which was unfortunate.  We still managed to have a good time though and we did lots of exploring in the city and also in the area.

The Sights

There are a few cool things to see around HCMC.  Dave and I had a day and a half to ourselves before everyone else arrived and we were able to explore the War Reminents museum (I’ll be writing about that in a separate post) and the Flower Street that is set up yearly for Tet.

There is a huge market near the backpacker street where we were staying called Ben Thahn Market.  Dave and I explored on our own a little bit and we ended up back there with Miya and Michael later in the week.  Our first visit was short and overwhelming, but the second time around we took some time to explore the place.  Bargaining is always part of the experience and I learned a new tip from Miya!  If you want them to drop the price a bit more, just tell them they’re beautiful!!  It actually worked!!!

Another stop we made with Michael and Miya was the Notre Dame Cathedral and post office, which are actually right next to one another.  Both buildings are beautiful.  I can now say I’ve seen Notre Dame cathedral in 2 different cities (I also saw it in Montreal).  Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see the one in Paris…though one day I am sure I will!

Saigon is home to several museums, including the War Reminents Museum (with information about the Vietnam War), an art museum and Reunification Palace.  We went to the palace  yesterday, mostly to escape from the heat.  The building was the center of government for many years and it now acts as a museum where you can see original furniture, decor and even an underground bunker from when the palace was still in use.

Although the palace has a tonne of potential for being a great stop for tourists, there are definitely some key issues preventing it from really shining.

For one, there is a real lack of signage in the museum.  On the main floor there are some explanations regarding which rooms functioned as what, but in terms of the smaller rooms, it would have been great to have some stories that tied people to the rooms we were looking at.  Without that kind of information, we were just looking at dated desks and chairs.

And telephones….so…many…telephones!!

Overall it was pretty cool.  The bunker was interesting enough and I found the kitchen pretty neat to see.

The bedroom was also interesting.  They had a really cool old hair dryer and for some reason, there were 2 toilets in the adjoining bathroom.

Overall it was a fine way to spend an hour, but I think the War Remnents museum was a lot more educational and it definitely left a bigger impact on me.

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Our ‘pompous’ faces in front of the ‘pompous room’

We also had a chance to find a Geo Cache while in Saigon.  Miya was pretty excited because it was her first chance at this game.  I, as always, dragged my heals until we were there, and then got into it.  The cache took us to a very pretty fountain where I got some great shots.

I saw Michael trying to take a picture of Miya for her, and I offered to help.  It’s nice having a willing model to photograph lol!!!

So that’s what we managed to see in Saigon proper.  We also ventured out to Monkey Island, about 2 hours outside of the city.  We rented motorbikes for the day and followed Risky and Liz all the way to Lam Vien Can Gio.  There, you can see monkeys and salt water water crocodiles.

Once more, Tet prevented us from the full experience.  We weren’t able to see the crocodiles, and we were given 5 minutes to take some photos of the monkeys before we were shooed of the park so that the guards could go home.   To be fair, those guides did stick around and they even called the monkeys over for us, even though it was their holiday.  That was pretty awesome of them!

Of course, as is often the case, we made a feline friend along the way….

The best part of this trip was the small detour we made on the way back.  We stopped by the ocean to see where the Mekong mixes in.  The water isn’t exactly clear, but it was a gorgeous way to see the sun start to set.

That’s about it for Ho Chi Minh City!  Next, I’ll be writing about our trip to the Mekong Delta, which is one of the most lush and beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life!!

Charming Luang Prabang

Traveling has its difficulties.  Living out  of a suitcase can get pretty old.  Arriving at a hotel to discover that it smells like sewage can be pretty depressing.  Travel days are exhausting. But the worst part of traveling is traveler’s diarrhea, or as I like to call it ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’

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For some reason, Dave and I love traveling in the most high-risk areas for this terrible affliction…

This is a special kind of ‘food poisoning’, where your gut bacteria decides that it doesn’t like a new cuisine and proceeds to evacuate everything from both your stomach and intestines at such a violent pace that you end up with sore ribs.

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For my readers who learn best through the use of visuals…

I spent the first 24 hours of our 3 days in Luange Prabang wishing for death…or that at least the smell of sewage in our hotel would subside.  Luckily, this never seems to get me sick for more than 24 hours, and by day 2, I was able to go out and explore the city.  I quickly fell in love.

Luang Prabang’s History

Luang Prabang is located in North-Central Laos.  The main city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage sight due to its many Buddhist relics and well preserved historical buildings.

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It’s a small city, but has a tonne of history.  Because it was the capital during Laos’ French Colonial period, there is a tonne of really cool architecture in the town.  The mixture of colonial and traditional Laos buildings make it a great place for taking photos!

Buddhism in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang translates to ‘The Royal Buddha Image’.  I imagine this is because this is the town to see if you want to see Laotian Buddhist Architecture.  We saw countless temples while we were there.  I actually lost count of which ones were which, so I apologize that I can’t properly label them.

Some temples were extra interesting.  Dave found one that had this really interesting rock jutting out in front of it.  Another is said to have Buddha’s footprint in it.  Buddha was apparently HUGE!!!

Luang Prabang is also known for a daily ceremony of local monks.  Each day, at around 6am, monks walk the streets, asking for alms (donations).  We never actually saw the procession, because as far as I’m concerned, 6am doesn’t exist when I’m on vacation, but it would be pretty neat to see.  We did stop at one monastery, though, where I followed a cat around and got some really neat shots of it, with the Monk’s robes drying in the background.

Handicrafts in Luang Prabang

As interesting as temples can be, they aren’t the only things Luang Prabang has to offer.  There are several craft villages around the city.  We attempted to visit 2 of them, but only one of the trips was successful.

We had better luck in the Paper and Weaving village, where we bought more than one souvenir!

On Our Way to the Waterfall

The best part of our trip to Luang Prabang though, was without a doubt, the trip to Kuang Si Falls.

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For obvious reasons

There is more than one way to get to the falls.  Most people take a tour with a group or with a Tuk Tuk driver.   We opted to rent a motorbike instead, and found our own way, which was half the fun!

The first thing you see when you enter the park, is actually a bear sanctuary.  Asiatic Black Bears (also called Moon Bears) are incredibly cute, but are also becoming incredibly endangered.  They are captured all over Asia for use in Chinese Medicine.

Bear Bile has been used in Chinese medicine for over 1000 years.    The bile is mostly used to help with gal bladder and liver conditions.  Fortunately, there are herbal options that are equally effective as the bear bile; unfortunately, people in China still think the bear bile is better.  As a result, Asiatic bears are captured and literally tortured for years for the sake extracting bile from their gal bladders.

The bear sanctuary has saved their bears from these farms.  They also rescue bears who have been injured in traps.  We saw one bear lumbering around clumsily because it was missing one of its front paws  He made me think of my sweet Hugo, and how adaptable animals can be.

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I never got this good of a picture, so I stole it from the internet.  

If you ever want to get me a Christmas or Birthday present, but aren’t sure what I’d like (and don’t want to pay outrageous shipping fees), please donate to ‘Save the Bears’ or any of the other organizations I’ve mentioned in past posts.

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I’ll be writing about the UXO foundation in another post, but this is another cause I’m very passionate about.  

The Kuang Si Falls

The falls themselves are well worth the trip, no matter how you decide to get there.  They go on for ages, and the final view of the big falls is absolutely stunning.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking for me…

As you continue up the hill, there are places you can actually swim at the falls.  Dave and I both regret not bringing our bathing suits, as this would have been a gorgeous spot to go for a dip!

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As we continued on, the falls got bigger and more beautiful.

The scenery around the falls was very nice as well.  Even the garbage cans were cute, and there was an old water wheel as well.

Finally, we arrived at the big falls, which are even more beautiful than the little ones!  I hadn’t actually looked at the pictures online, so I wasn’t expecting anything this gorgeous, so it was a rather awesome surprise when we arrived at this point.

So that’s it for Luang Prabang.  I’ve got plenty more to write, as we are now in Ho Chi Minh City!  Stay Tuned!!!