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!!).
Ho Chi Minh City
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!!
It’s difficult to get it on camera, but at this intersection there were probably 50 motorcycles and maybe 2 or 3 cars
The roundabout in front of the market (near our hotel) is absolute mayhem
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!
Our hotel was down an alley off of this street
We did enjoy a few beers down this street, but we had a lot more planned than just Saigon Red and Iced Coffees!!
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.
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 whole city was beautiful decorated for the holiday!
Those balloons are all attached to the back of a bike
BBQ dinner with the gang!!
Delicious, delicious Vietnamese food!!
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.
The eggs were my favourite thing there. It’s now the year of the chicken so everything was sort of Easter themed haha!
This was Dave’s favourite one. He loves desert plants
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!!!
It’s literally just one shop after another. There’s hardly any room to move around
Dave and I have a rule that if anyone tries charging us more than 2x what the price should be, we walk away and don’t even give them a chance to earn our money. We always try and stick with people who are being reasonable.
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!
The cathedral from behind
The inside of the post office
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.
Overall it was pretty cool. The bunker was interesting enough and I found the kitchen pretty neat to see.
Now THAT’s a mixer!!
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.
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.
We had to take a ferry to get there!
Dave and I 🙂
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….
When we left, he was sitting at the reception desk
He didn’t seem keen on our departure lol!!
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!!
Unlike at the end of many holidays, where I’ve been a little depressed to return to ‘real life’, I am totally thrilled to be back in Suzhou. I’m only one week into the new semester and I’m already finding work challenging, rewarding and fun. The number of students who greeted me by jumping out of their seat and cheering blew me away. How did I end up working for a school with students this cool? I don’t remember ever loving teachers enough to cheer for them!? These kids are just so great…and it helps that I love teaching Drama and writing…and even Food and Nutrition (when I’m in the classroom!!!).
My 7th grade all-girls class. They have improved so much in the kitchen, learning how to clean properly and how to make safe food
One of the girls was looking for extra point on their final exam at the end of last term. It says ‘Love Marie’ in Honey Dill sauce!!
Anyway…after 30 days away from home, Poe and Hugo are very pleased to have us back! Poor Poe was very anxious from us being away, I think, and our first few nights back were sleepless. She needs constant reassurance and is always worried that we’ve left. She wakes us up in the middle of the night…seemingly just to see if we’re there. I wonder what she went through at that shelter to have so much to worry about! Hugo, on the other hand, could not be more relaxed. Although he’s the one missing a leg, you’d never guess that he’s seen a moment of trauma in his life. Nothing phases him…I guess cats are like people in that way…some handle stress better than others.
Hugo, cuddled up and purring like a mad-man
You better not be thinking about leaving me!!!!
I have such a derpy cat!!! lol!!! If this isn’t total relaxation…what is!?!?!?
Hey Guys…where are we going!?!?!?
The following few posts I’ll be putting up will be about some of the most incredible parts of our trip. It felt as though writing about these things from my tablet wouldn’t do them justice…not only because the internet was constantly a struggle and my photo editing tools are all on my laptop (which we didn’t bring along), but I wanted to be able to write about these things with some distance from India. Our trip had a lot of ups and even more downs, but I know that with some distance, things won’t seem as though they were so bad. The following two posts will be about our time in Agra and our time in the Thar desert…and they are both stories that deserve to be to told without residual frustrations tainting otherwise beautiful experiences.
Suzhou’s most iconic building: The Pants
Goodness, I missed Chinese food!!!
I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.
Well, I’m back! I had no intention of taking this long a hiatus from my blog, but life is sometimes best spent living. Although I went to bed every night wishing I’d had the time to write, I knew that I had good reason not to. For most of our 2015 vacation, Dave and I were up at the crack of dawn and on the move until the early hours of the morning on a daily basis. Our adventures spanned a wide range of interests, from speedboats to spas and from palaces to pachyderms, and the result was probably the most interesting 3 weeks of my life! There’s far too much for me to describe in one day or even in one week, but I need to start somewhere, so here it is: an overview of our 3 week holiday. For now, I’m going to stick with a summary of each city where we spent time; a bit of a pros and cons list for each. From there, I’ll start writing about specific experiences we had during our Spring Festival vacation.
1st Stop: Kunming, Yunnan Province
As some of you may already know, we had a bonus week added to our holiday at the last minute. The winter classes that my school had planned to offer ended up not panning out, so we were given the option to take a week of unpaid holiday (in addition to the 2 weeks we WERE being paid for). The alternative was to spend that week at the school, doing next to nothing, so Dave and I jumped on the opportunity and decided to visit Kunming during our bonus holiday. Our flight to Thailand was departing from Kunming so it made sense for us logistically, and we’ve both always been very interested in living in Kunming, so there was really no reason to go anywhere else!
The Best of Kunming
Kunming is not only beautiful, but also clean and sunny. The temperature doesn’t dip as low as it does in Guiyang, which was a welcomed change after our last weeks before the holiday (we’d both begun to feel like we would never feel warm again). We spent as much time outdoors as possible, taking in the vitamin D and enjoying Kunming’s beautiful parks and clean streets.
One of the other perks of being in Yunnan, is that there are more Lao Wai than in Guizhou, and where there are foreigners, there are foreign comforts! We managed to find several wonderful things from back home, including western-style bread (bread in China is sweet) and avocado. I even saw root beer on a menu at Salvador’s Restaurant (but they were sold out :(). More than just the food though, the people are more western. There is so much less spitting, honking and smoking in Kunming and we were both grateful for the break.
Of course, that’s not to say that Kunming was all sunshine and roses…After all, we are still in China!!!
The Worst of Kunming
The reduced honking, spitting and pollution was a wonderful change, but not all of the things that annoy me where I live are solely ‘Guiyangian’. I was nearly peed on by a little boy who had decided that the middle of the sidewalk was a good place to take a pee, and Dave actually pointed out the washrooms to a couple who had decided that the garbage can just outside the bathrooms were an appropriate place to have their 3 year old relieve herself. The funny thing about the second story, is that this happened in a mall that has a Rolex store. China can be such a mixed bag!! Kunming is so much cleaner than Guiyang in so many ways, but still, I saw the most terrifying toilets of my life while in the West Hills:
Of course, this is just what it’s like living in China. You get used to this sort of stuff surprisingly quickly. This particular bathroom was all the way up a hill, in the middle of nowhere. It’s the Chinese version of an outhouse…and I’ve seen some pretty nasty outhouses in my time too! And believe me…the woman who was using the washroom when I walked in did not look very impressed with the situation either…and she was Chinese! So please don’t get the idea that all of Kunming was this gross, because it definitely was not!!!
One other exception to the ‘I LOVE KUNMING’ statement I made above, was the hostel where we stayed while we were visiting Spring City.
The Hump looked like it had it all: good prices, great location, private rooms with double beds…I booked without much hesitation, because most of our hostel experiences in China have been good ones. Of course, our experiences at The Hump have now made me a little more nervous about booking hostels, as the experience was a far cry from what I’d seen in Xiamen and Guilin.
To anyone reading this blog for travel advice: I’d avoid this hostel. There are plenty of other options in Kunming that are much better, where you will get the room you paid for, where the staff will be willing to help you without first giving you a dirty look, and where, when the menu says ‘bacon’, you will be served bacon!!! (more on that in my Kunming post!!)
So that sums up Kunming! It was a great trip and I would highly recommend Yunnan Province to anyone who is interested in traveling China. Visiting Spring City just made both Dave and I even more determined to find a job there next year.
The Best of Patong Beach
Our first stop in Thailand was on the island of Phuket. More specifically, we stayed at Sea Pearl Villas resort in Patong Beach. The weather here was beautiful: warm and sunny our entire stay! The food in Patong was probably a highlight for both of us (other than one tour which I will be dedicating an entire post to….stay tuned). Not only was there fantastic Thai food to enjoy, but because Phuket is such a popular destination for European tourists, there are many western food options available as well! While there, we enjoyed sushi, shwarma, samosas, burgers, curries, falafels and pasta! I LOVE Chinese food, don’t get me wrong! But I didn’t realize how much I missed variety in my diet until we got to Patong beach and discovered how many options there were!
Our hotel was also a highlight for our stay on Patong Beach. I’ve mentioned in past posts that comfort isn’t really a ‘thing’ in China, but in Thailand, we experienced a comfortable bed for the first time since we were in Xiamen (and that had only been for 1 night!). Our king size pillow top was a thing of beauty and I truly felt sad when we said goodbye to it when our stay in Phuket was done.
The resort in general was very comfortable. Resorts in Thailand get a lot of flack because they aren’t all inclusive, like the ones in the Caribbean. While this is true, it also wouldn’t make much sense for resorts in Phuket to offer all inclusive packages, because people wouldn’t want to stay in the resort when there’s a chaotic little town to discover just down the hill! Still, Sea Pearl Villas was a fantastic place to relax after dealing with the mayhem in Patong Town, and we enjoyed the jacuzzi on our balcony on a daily basis, as a way to unwind and admire the city below.
Although the comforts and relaxing qualities of our resort were among one of our favorite parts of being in Phuket, it is not to say that Patong Town was a quiet, quaint place. Outside of the resort, Patong Town is the craziest place I have ever been. I won’t go into much detail now, because if I did this post would double in length, but the nights we had on Bangla Road and at the markets were anything but relaxing! I think it’s honestly the contrast between the two (the relaxation at the resort and the excitement of Patong Town) that made our stay in Phuket such a cool experience.
This was another street performer we met at the end of Bangla Road. He was pretty amusing. When he was done with the YMCA, he moved on to Gangnam Style.
The Worst of Patong Beach
There are two sides to every coin though, and although Phuket is somewhere I can’t regret visiting, it’s also somewhere I don’t know that I’ll visit again.
I worked in sales for a good chunk of my 20s, selling everything from natural cosmetics to cell phones to environmentally friendly cleaning products, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen sales like it’s done in Patong town. Everywhere you go, people are trying to sell you clothes, watches, DVDs, swimsuits, luggage and souvenirs. The worst of the worst are the Tuk Tuk drivers (who are trying to sell tours), the taylors (you want a custom suit? Very cheap!) and the massage parlors (You want a massssaaaa?????). Everywhere you go you are being sized up by hundreds of people who all want your money.
The prices were the other thing that really ground my gears in Phuket. This was our first stop in Thailand, so we didn’t know what the prices were like elsewhere, but even so…we knew they were high. Tuk Tuks charged 300 bhat ($11 Canadian) to take us on a 10 minute ride up the hill to our resort. That may not seem like a lot, but we had to pay it every night. And when you compare it to Bangkok, where we got all the way across town (about a 30-40 minute ride) for 200 bhat…
Even our resort, which was for the most part fantastic, found the need to overcharge us for services that are a norm elsewhere. We asked about getting to the airport on our last night there, and we were told that it would be an insane 1200bhat to get there (we’d only paid 380bhat to get from the airport to the resort)!!! We found out later that most taxi drivers will charge 800bhat (still high, but quite a bit lower) and that the hotels pocket the difference for bringing the taxis the business. I was pretty fed up with this behavior by this point, so Dave and I found our own way to the airport…it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped…
We did have several Thai people apologize to us for the behavior we saw in Phuket. The tuk tuk drivers are especially looked down upon by Thai people and I read several websites that were regretful that so many farang (people of European descent) leave Thailand with a bad taste in their mouth due to this gouging. Most Thais want you to feel welcomed and want you to enjoy your experience in their country and I’m very glad I experienced other areas of Thailand and that Patong Beach wasn’t my only view into Thai culture.
As usual, I have run out of time before I am done writing, so I will be posting part 2 tomorrow! Stay tuned to hear about Bangkok, Ancient Ruins and Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai!