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!!

Ha Long – How Beautiful

The first leg of our holiday is coming to an end.  At 5:20pm today we fly to Vientiane; the capital of Laos.  I must say, I’ve fallen deeply in love with Northern Vietnam.  I just finished the best bowl of soup of my life; Chicken Pho to rival grandma’s best noodle soup.  The rice noodles are light and delicious, and the fresh lime sits at the top of the soup, too light to sink, and coats every noodle in delicious fresh flavour.  Now, I’m ordering my second Vietnamese coffee for the day.  Dave pointed out just now that it tastes like Baileys, without the alcohol.  He’s right.  Motorbikes are zooming past us, and we’re eating on a balcony on some little side street of Hanoi’s old quarter.  Life is good.

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My view during today’s lunch

 

Halong Bay – History and Modern Uses

Last night we returned from 3 days in Halong Bay.  Translated, it means ‘Descending Dragon Bay’, and it’s located in Northern Vietnam, about a 3.5 hour drive from Hanoi City.  It’s famous due to its karst limestone landscape, 2000 islands  and its many fishing villages.

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Historically, Ha Long Bay is significant.  People have been living in the area for more than 20,000 years.  The bay has also saved Vietnam from Chinese and Mongolian Invasion on more than one occasion.  Now, it’s known for its beauty and tourists flock to Northern Vietnam to experience its gorgeous views.

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Views such as this one

Halong Bay Cruises

The primary way people choose to see the bay is through cruises.   There are hundreds of choices to make when taking a Halong Bay cruise, we decided to go with a mid-range, 2 night trip with a night on Cat Ba Island.  There are also day trips, 1 night trips and some people choose to spend the night on Monkey Island or other places in the area.  1 night on the boat was enough for me.  I don’t know if it was because I was reading Life of Pi, or if the boat noises kept me up, but either way, I didn’t get much sleep during our night on that Vietnamese Junk.

Our boat was comfortable enough.  We had a comfortable bed and a nice little bathroom to ourselves.  The cabin was small, but space isn’t something I expect in Asia, so that was no surprise.  We had a fan that worked and an air conditioner that didn’t, and all in all, it was a cool way to spend a night in Halong Bay!

Activities During The Cruise

I feel like we spent all 3 days getting on and off boats for different activities.  There were a variety of things to do, including kayaking, exploring a cave, visiting a Pearl farm, visiting Monkey Island and floating past a fishing village.  All were interesting in their own way.

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The little boat we took to each excursion

Kayaking was probably the most beautiful of all our stops, but the weather made it less enjoyable than it could have been, but still…being on the water was very nice.  This activity made me very happy that I still have a water-proof camera 🙂

We visited a huge cave shortly after kayaking as well.  It was beautiful and had some pretty spectacular views.

Day 2 began at a Pearl Farm, where locals have found ways to get oysters making pearls in a sustainable way.    It was an educational stop!  We learned how pearls are artificially implanted to produce real pearls.   This is much better for oyster populations, because before this process was discovered, oysters were found in the wild, opened up and killed just on the off-chance they were carrying pearls.

Monkey Island was our last stop before Cat Ba Island.  There’s no surprise regarding what we found there…Dave also went hiking up a steep mountain.  He didn’t take any pictures (because, of course he didn’t :p), but he did scrape up his leg on the jagged rocks.  Vietnam doesn’t baby its tourists the way Thailand and Cuba does.  They let you decide for yourself if you can do something.  As a result, Dave saw 60+ year old grandparents hiking up the mountain on his way down.

Cat Ba Island

As I mentioned earlier, our second night of the tour was not spent on a Junk.  Instead, we went to one of the only islands in Halong Bay where people live:  Cat Ba Island.   Cat Ba island is home to about 13,000 residents, and its main purpose is hosting Ha Long Bay tourists.

As we came into the area, we passed a floating village, home to about 1000 people.  These villages are an incredible sight, even when you’ve seen them before.  We were able to see a floating village in Cambodia during the dry season.  It was very cool seeing one completely afloat!

Once we checked into our hotel, we rented a motorbike and headed for Cat Ba’s most famous sight:  Cat Ba National Park.

The park itself is quite nice.  We didn’t see much for wild life, but I made some canine friends!  Mostly, we were just happy to be out in the wilderness, enjoying the fresh air and the peace and quiet.  The hike up was hard work, but it felt so good to get some good exercise in!  I’ve been too busy this year to get to the gym, and my body was definitely not happy with me on the way up, but it was well worth the trip!

We stopped at a little shop at the end of the hike and ordered some iced coffees.  We figured they’d probably be instant, given the location of the cafe, but this lovely Vietnamese woman made us fabulous Vietnamese iced coffee with fresh grinds and sweetened condensed milk!

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We spent the evening walking around and enjoying the town.   I think my favourite part of this whole tour was Cat Ba island.  I never really feel like I’m on a holiday with Dave until we’ve rented a motorbike!  It was also nice not to have a guide following us around.   We both enjoyed the freedom to explore the things we were interested in, at the pace we wanted.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and before long, we were on our way back to Hanoi.  We met some very nice people on the way back and it was great chatting with them and hearing their stories.  We also learned how to make spring-rolls, which was fun.

It was a lovely trip and I’m very glad we made it!  Halong bay is definitely a must-see for anyone travelling through south East Asia.

Next, I’ll be writing about our time in Vientiane, Laos!  Exciting things are yet to come!!

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Photo from vientienbackpackershostel.com

Cheers!

Initial Impressions

Day one of our 33 day holiday is coming to an end, and it’s time to recap and reflect.

Hanoi City – Organized Chaos

We have begun our trip in Hanoi: a bustling and historic Vietnamese city.  We’re staying in the Old Quarter of Vietnam’s capital, where coffee shops are on every street corner and motorbikes are the primary means of transportation.  There’s an organized chaos here, in every sense of the word.

There are thousands of shops piled atop one another, and everywhere you look, there are people eating bowls of Pho on the sides of the street, and sipping coffee at tiny tables, sitting on tiny plastic stools.  What’s interesting, though, is that all those tiny little shops are organized and neatly merchandised.  My (extremely neat) sister would be impressed by the level of organization these shop owners manage to have in their little side-of-the-road shops.

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A small and popular restaurant in the Old Quarter

A good friend of ours lived in Vietnam for 4 years and she gave us valuable advice before we left for Hanoi.  She told us that the roads here are like a river; vehicles weave in and around one another and never really stop moving.  She told us to walk boldly but slowly and that vehicles would mostly just part around us.  It was terrifying at first, but she was right.  There are no crosswalks in the North American sense, but somehow, we got around just fine.  In a lot of ways it was less scary than India.  Ok…in every way.

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French colonialism is easily identifiable all over the city.  The streets, buildings and even French language are visible everywhere you go.  Cambodia was also colonized by the French, but the impact there wasn’t as obvious as it is in Hanoi.

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So different from China’s Skyscrapers

Hoàn Kiếm Lake – Passive and Pleasant

After a long day of travel yesterday and a long semester of 60-hour weeks, I wasn’t up for much today, so we mostly spent our time down by  Hoàn Kiếm Lake, which was a lovely experience.  The lake is a beautiful spot for wedding photos, so we saw several happy couples being chased by photographers.

There was a small temple by the lake as well.  We paid 30,000 dong each to enter (less than $2 Canadian) and enjoyed the quietness of the place.

There’s plenty to see walking along the lake.  The Old Quarter is a lovely place to spend the afternoon!

Different from Delhi / A Change from China

One of my favourite parts of travel is walking around at night, when the shops are lit up and the weather has cooled.  Vietnam is so different from India.  While there are shops everywhere, just as there is in New Delhi, nobody grabs you by the arms and nobody is too terribly pushy.  South East Asia, though hectic and tourist oriented, seems to have more of a dignity about it.  People bargain, but don’t try and rip you off.  People try and sell their goods, but if you say no, they move on with their days, un-offended and un-worried.

Tonight we walked around for a little while and found a restaurant where we enjoyed the best Vietnamese food I’ve ever had.  Although I love Chinese food, the oil has started to gross me out a bit.  Vietnamese food is fresher and crispier…with more raw vegetables and coconut sauces.  Dinner was delicious…and the coffee I just finished was an excellent way to end the night!

Tomorrow we set off for HaLong Bay…another UNESCO World Heritage Site to add to our list.   We’ll be spending 2 nights and 3 days enjoying one of Vietnam’s greatest treasures.