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Southeast Asia: It’s a Wrap

Monday, April 27, 2015 by Chris

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This may be as close as I ever get to Hong Kong but by golly it felt cool to be sitting in the departure lounge Thursday afternoon knowing I was in HONG freaking KONG. Until recently, the script of my life didn’t contain any scenes set in the Far East, let alone shots of me screaming through Hanoi and Saigon on the back of a motorbike, or sweeping dew from a deck chair at 5:30 AM as the sun snuck up on Halong Bay.

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Thanks to Vietnam’s ludicrously low airfares I can now say I’ve been a jet setter. I took five flights in three weeks, not including the trans-Pacific trips to and from Toronto. It was pretty great to be on the move jumping from country to country, from city to island, from south to north and back again. I barely scratched the surface of Vietnam but I feel like I’ve seen it, seen a lot of it.

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And now here I am at 3:44 in the morning, trying without success to get back on schedule after living on the opposite side of the clock for the better part of a month. Not even my best friend had a tear to spare: “Poor baby,” she texted. “I feel no sympathy given the amazing trip you had.”

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And it was an amazing trip. These are a few of the shots I wasn’t able to squeeze into other posts; memories come flooding back when I see them again. There are lots of reasons people opt not to travel alone and I think one of them is because they want someone to share it all with. Fortunately, I have you, dear readers, and it’s been a joy to share my travels with you even though my globetrotting has nothing whatsoever to do with real Canadians decorating.

In Saigon I was touring “antique street” in search of a post but what really charmed me was the shopkeepers out front playing a board game, killing time on a slow afternoon. From inside the shops I could hear the clink, clink, clink of dice spinning in a bowl and the cheers and guffaws of a game in progress.

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I bought nothing because I had no way of knowing whether things were legitimate antiques or replicas that were made yesterday. Certainly haggling over price is a given but I had no frame of reference for what the smalls were really worth. And smalls were all I could possibly take home with me. If you travel to Saigon and want a Buddha head or a celadon vase, Duong Le Cong Kieu is the street you want to find.

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My souvenirs were clothes. Everyone buys a t-shirt when they’re abroad and I could not resist the cheeky humour of the iPho shirt below. The trouble was finding one that fit me. The Vietnamese are small people and their sizings reflect this. At the first shop where I tried to buy the shirt the sizes only went to XXL and even that wasn’t big enough. Eventually I found an XXXL but can you imagine? I wear a 42 jacket and have a size 16 neck and this constitutes triple X?

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I also bought an amazing bike helmet for a fraction of what it would cost here at home and some smart summer sandals for a little more than $10 USD each. And then there was my custom clothes odyssey. In the pic below I’m being fitted for a light wool blazer, which sadly went off the rails. When I went to pick it up, the jacket was a mess, the sleeves were puckered and the sides did not hang flat. The tailor worked and worked to make it right but in the end I was disappointed. I agreed to take the flawed jacket for half price, $90 USD, and will see if my Toronto tailor can do anything with it. Next time I’ll buy in Hoi An.

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I did strike gold, however, with my custom linen pants. I’m a big fan of summer linen and I badly needed some new trousers for work this season. At a linen specialty shop I had three pairs made from their finest quality fabric. The pants are gorgeous, they fit like a glove and cost a little less than $50 USD each, a fraction of what I would pay at home and I’d never find the same quality. What’s more, the tailor assured me they would keep my measurements on hand and I could order subsequent pairs by email if I ever felt the need.

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The Vietnamese are uncommonly fond of Chihuahua dogs and I saw one get his ass kicked by the rooster above who felt it necessary to remind the pooch who was boss. My camera, like the Chihuahua, was too slow, but the rooster was ready for his close up.

In Hanoi I stayed at the very good Art Trendy Hotel in the old quarter, an urban setting to be sure, yet still I was awakened each morning at 5 am by the crowing of cocks followed by the sounds of motorbikes and the pho shop across the street setting up for the morning rush. I’m not complaining, I found the experience to be part of the charm of the place, so old world and yet so new all at once.

In Vietnam I was constantly amazed by the jumble of tangled cables and wires adorning virtually every street pole (see below). There’s a popular t-shirt with a silhouette of a similar image and the slogan, “Vietnam Telecom.” I pity the cable guys in Hanoi and Saigon, honestly, can you imagine trying to make sense of it?

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I was also struck by how deeply the Vietnamese are attached to their iconic, conical hats, which keep the hot sun off their faces and necks. It’s not some quaint tradition, you see them in the fields and in the streets no matter where you go in Vietnam.

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On a sadder note, I have to acknowledge the desecration that has befallen most of the ancient temples in Angkor. The sculpture below greets you at the gate of the amazing Angkor Thom, also known as The Bayon. The sculpture depicts a Hindu myth, the churning of the sea of milk, but most of the demons and gods working together have lost their heads to treasure hunters.

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Inside the temples, it’s the same story, over and over and over again. My guide assured us that the robbers would receive the worst of black marks on their karmic records but the damage is done and it’s very sad to see.

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At least the 200 towering heads of the Buddhas of Bayon are mostly intact, an advantage of their being too enormous to steal. The elements are taking a toll on some of them but I’m certain they’ll survive for many, many generations to come.

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And I’m going to leave you with this shot of an alter in front of a shop in Hoi An. Virtually every retailer in this city of retailers ends the work day by burning incense alongside offerings of fruits and flowers. It’s a charming custom and the night air is pungent with sandalwood, frankincense and myrrh.

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I give thanks of my own for the sensory memories I accumulated in Vietnam and Cambodia. It was the trip of a lifetime and it inspired me to adjust my personal priorities, to travel more, to seek out adventure, to suck as much juice out of this life as I possibly can. Toronto is a wonderful city but it’s just one tiny corner of a very big planet. I’ve got some catching up to do.

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Magical Hoi An Has It All

Monday, April 20, 2015 by Chris

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The small city of Hoi An (population 120,000), on the central coast of Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site stuffed with architecturally significant buildings, the vast majority dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. Clay-tiled roofs, temples and snug alleyways dominate the old town, which has more recently been taken over by shops and restaurants, virtually all of them strung with silk lanterns.

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But if lanterns are the defining motif, shopping is the dominant activity. Hoi An is known for its tailors with shop after shop after shop competing to custom fit you with a new ensemble.

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Custom suits and frocks are turned around in as little as 24 hours although two or three days is more typical. And the custom trade is by no means limited to clothing; stunning shoes and bags also compete to empty your wallet. Which is not to suggest that the prices are high, on the contrary, they are shockingly low by North American standards.

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I did succumb to the lure of the custom fit although I had my blazer and pants made in Saigon in order to give the tailor lots of time to turn the job around (more on this later).

The eating in Hoi An is also superb with some nationally recognized chefs and what world-beating foodie Anthony Bourdain swears is Vietnam’s best banh mi sandwich at Bahn Mi Phuong. In Halong Bay my fellow traveler, Luke, recommended the No. 9 with pork, pate, veggies and pickled slaw, so that’s what I had. Twice! The best part? It cost just under $1 USD.

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And if great shopping and eating aren’t enough, Hoi An also boasts spectacular beaches just a few kilometers out of town, an easy bike ride along a road less-traveled. I got sunburned to a crisp at gorgeous An Bang Beach, below, even though I barely strayed from the shade of my beach umbrella. I stayed at the beach as long as I did because the town was roasting, 37 Celsius and humid as stink: An Bang was breezy and about 10 degrees cooler, in short, it was heaven.

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The floating baskets above harken back to a time when boats were taxed to the hilt so the Vietnamese built baskets big enough to let them harvest the sea and beat the taxman.

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Hoi An is at its best in the evening when the streets throng, especially on weekends when a lively night market takes over the riverside. Tourists buy candles to float upon the water, a nod to the town’s monthly Full Moon Lantern Festival when only lanterns and candles are permitted to augment the moonlight (2015 festival dates).

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Vietnam was governed by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years and Hoi An’s architecture reflects that legacy. Chinese lattice and embellishments give the town an incredibly exotic flavour; the place is steeped in it.

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I’d never heard of Hoi An before coming to Vietnam but nearly everyone I spoke to here raved about it. Now I know why. If you’re planning a trip to the region, don’t miss it!

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Natural Wonder of Halong Bay

Saturday, April 18, 2015 by Chris

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Vietnam’s Halong Bay is one of the seven natural wonders of the world and it did not disappoint. Located off the northeast coast, the bay boasts more than 2,000 limestone pillars and islands rising sharply out of the Gulf of Tonkin.

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I cruised Halong Bay for two and a half days — I shot it at dawn, I shot it at dusk, I shot it at the height of the day, and still I could not take a photo that captured the majesty and scale of the place.

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Halong means “descending dragon” in Vietnamese and the rocks and islets do look vaguely like dragon’s backs emerging from the water. The bay was one of the reasons I decided to come to Vietnam; I wanted to see the grandeur for myself and it was a bit surreal to actually be there after seeing so many photos of the place, to be gazing across the emerald waters from the rooftop deck of a chartered boat.

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Hanoi is the main jumping off point for Halong Bay, which is a three-hour bus trip from the city. After some online research I booked a two-night cruise with the well-reviewed Kangaroo Cafe Tours. We were six in total: a German couple in their late 50s, two young, female friends from Dubai (Kristen from Miami, and Natalie from the UK), and a young English chap named Luke. The Germans were polite but mostly kept to themselves while the rest of us became fast friends.

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A cycling trip on Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the gulf, was just one of the activities we enjoyed as part of our Halong tour. There was also daily swimming, a sunset kayaking paddle and a trip through Vietnam’s second largest cave, Hang Sung Sot.

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The cave was enormous although its authenticity was dulled somewhat by flagstone paths, stone steps and artificial lighting. Better than a broken neck, I suppose.

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And the kayaking was fun, too, although there were no water level grottos or rock arches to paddle through in that particular part of the bay.

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The best activity by far was our bike ride through the forest on Cat Ba Island to a tiny, lowland village in the interior. It was so great to be off the boat and moving through the air on a hot summer day. The “jungle” was lush and dense all around us with a staccato whine of insects that Kristen compared to a horror movie soundtrack.

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After 15 or 20 minutes the bush opened into a fertile valley carpeted with lush rice paddies and vegetable gardens. The village is home to maybe 200 souls and our guide, Frank, noted that the people are largely self sufficient, raising enough animals, fruits and vegetables to sustain themselves. The small homes mostly consisted of a single, sparsely furnished room but in many cases we saw TVs blaring and noted several satellite dishes.

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Back on the boat we headed for Cat Ba Town and one last night before setting sail for the mainland. This is the wind down portion of my trip with one more stop in the seaside town of Hoi An before a last hurrah in Saigon. Halong Bay was a breathtaking climax to a trip that’s been loaded with highlights.

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Adventures aside, we found time to sun ourselves and relax as the islands swept slowly past our prow. Special thanks to my trip mates who made Halong Bay such an enjoyable part of my journey. Together we climbed to the lookout atop the island below where we discovered camaraderie as good as the view. Thanks Natalie, Kristen and Luke, I hope the rest of your travels were safe and fulfilling.

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I Love Hanoi In the Springtime

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 by Chris

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Choosing a photo to sum up my few days in Hanoi was impossible. It needed to be green to reflect the fresh, leafy ambiance of the place, but it also needed water, a nod to the beautiful lakes that distinguish and elevate Vietnam’s capital city. Just as important, the photo needed colonial French or Chinese architecture and of course, there must, must be a motorbike. In the end, I settled for the image above because it feels like spring and after the enervating heat of Cambodia, I was overjoyed by the temperate weather, 22 to 28 Celsius and brilliantly sunny, with no humidity!

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I was tempted to lead with the image above, of the pagoda in front of the 18th century Temple of the Jade Mountain, which sits on an island in Sword Lake. The small lake on the edge of the Old Quarter is enchanting; ringed by a lush promenade, it feels somewhat like New York’s Central Park. Traffic rushes and honks around the perimeter but the temple is a bastion of tranquility.

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The photo above was another contender thanks to the Chinese architectural flourishes and the contrast between the calm of those seated and the motion of the bike in the foreground. In Hanoi, as in Vietnam generally, life is lived in the street; pho stands and beer parlours spill over sidewalks, food is bought, sold, cooked and eaten, hair is cut, shoes are cobbled, shirts are mended, keys are cut.

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Pho, usually a beef and rice noodle soup, is the national dish of Vietnam, typically eaten for breakfast, but just as often for lunch. I’d actually never eaten pho until my first day in Hanoi when I took a city tour with Paloma Motorbike Tours. My charming driver/guide Linh gave me a fast course in how to season and eat my first delicious bowl. I could taste the MSG for sure but it was an experience I would not have missed.

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Paloma was brilliant! My group tour turned into a VIP solo run when no one else signed up that day. We whizzed through the Old Quarter and French Quarter, we stopped for Vietnamese coffee before the Sword Lake temple, and then did a walkabout at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and toured the splendid park surrounding the former home of Vietnam’s greatest revolutionary; Uncle Ho’s face appears on every denomination of the local currency.

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To cap off the tour Linh and her supervisor took me for a massive lunch at an indoor/outdoor restaurant overlooking the Red River. The 4.5-hour tour, including snacks and meals, cost $60 USD, not a bargain but good value and loads of fun.

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After Paloma I was ready to tackle Hanoi on my own, that is, on my own with GPS and Trip Advisor in my breast pocket. The internet has transformed international travel and thank goodness for that. Hanoi’s crazy quilt streets and labyrinthine alleys would have been impossible to navigate without Google maps showing me the way. I even had a Vietnamese translation app on my phone although I never needed it: “Thank you” was the only phrase I learned.

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I loved Hanoi and wish I’d had a couple of more days there. I’m told by someone who knows that it’s viciously humid in the summer and dreary wet all winter but au printemps it was pure delight.

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Coming Around To Cambodia

Sunday, April 12, 2015 by Chris

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jungleJones2Cambodia and I got off to a bad start. At the airport, the lineup for customs snaked past an ATM and since I didn’t have any local currency, I attempted to make a quick withdrawal. The machine spit out a transaction slip but no cash. WTF!! I was stymied; I pushed every button, checked every slot. Nothing. There was a number to call but no Wi-Fi in the airport and my Vietnam SIM card didn’t work; I wrote down the number while reminding myself it was only money.

Customs wasn’t much better. No English, just stern, bossy agents pointing me from counter to counter, lineup to lineup. Eventually, I made it through to find one lone bag standing by the luggage carousel, mine. At least it hadn’t been pinched. And lucky for me my driver was still there waiting to fetch me.

April and May are the hottest months in Cambodia. Flying in, the countryside looked parched and brown beneath us. On the ground it was blistering hot and mercilessly humid (36 degrees Celsisus, just shy of 100 Fahrenheit). Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, near the temples of Angkor, was dusty, dirty, hot and stinky.

If Saigon traffic is chaotic, Siem Reap’s is out of control. There are almost no traffic lights and motorbikes, cars and tuk tuks (three-wheeled passenger taxis) veer here, there and anywhere.

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Cambodia has its own currency, of course, but most commerce is conducted in US dollars. Compared to Canada it’s not “expensive” but after the terrific affordability of Saigon it felt pricey. And no matter where I went I was inundated by hard-selling touts hawking souvenirs, restaurants, massages, tuk tuk rides. I’ve never uttered the words “no, thank you” more often in my life.

Siem Reap essentially exists because of Angkor and the entire economy revolves around the tourist dollar. The temples of Angkor predominate to such a degree that Angkor Wat is featured on the national flag.

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A couple of days in I began to relax, to feel safer in the streets of what is sometimes called the “wild west of Asia.” And lo and behold, I started to reconnect with my compassion. On our trips into the temples each day we passed musical bands of amputees, victims of Cambodia’s indiscriminate landmines. And if the touts are high-pressure I recognized it’s because they’re so damn poor, competing for every dollar and every scrap of food on their meager plates.

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Walking through the tight alleys it’s easy to see how Siem Reap lives: naked children fighting over a dirty tire, their only toy; wooden cots for beds, no mattresses; smoking fire pits for stoves; a gruesome history of genocidal, civil war, acts as unspeakable as any committed in human history. Yet still there are smiles.

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Initially, I felt like everything about Siem Reap was designed to pick my pocket; by the end of my visit I was loosening the purse strings and brushing off my generosity. It took me awhile but I came around to Cambodia. It may be damn hot but it’s beautiful and iconic and shy and lovely and strong. I’m glad I came.

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