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Natural Wonder of Halong Bay

Saturday, April 18, 2015 by Chris

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halongFramed

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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flowerbik

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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Note To Self: Be Here Now

Friday, April 10, 2015 by Chris

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photoVacation

Today, while touring the magnificent temples of Angkor in Cambodia, I was struck by the degree to which us tourists seem hellbent on getting a great photo rather than actually enjoying the experience of being in a place.

I was nearly finished my tour of the astonishing Ta Prohm – the Tomb Raider temple – when my guide and I found ourselves in a quiet courtyard, no other tourists around. I asked if we could just sit and take it in, which we did. The stillness and mystery of the place washed over me and I really breathed for the first time since arriving at Angkor.

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Ta Prohm (above) was our second stop following a sunrise visit to the big kahuna, Angkor Wat. I admit I felt a bit let down by the majesty. It may be the largest religious shrine in the world but after touring Rajasthan two years ago, Angkor Wat felt a bit ho hum. And the pushy crowds and petty bureaucracy of the place did nothing to enhance my enjoyment.

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Ta Prohm was different. I was really captivated by the way nature has taken back what man tried so hard to foist upon it. According to my guide, the massive trees devouring the temple are the result of simple bird droppings bearing seeds that were permitted to take root in the stone.

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A crew composed of Indian and Cambodian archeological experts is working to reconstruct some of the looted temple but it will be a long, hard job judging by the piles and piles of toppled, broken stones. There’s no way they’ll mess with Mother Nature, not now that she’s become the star attraction.

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And tomorrow as my guide and I tour a couple more temples I’ll try and remember that the edifice and the history are what I’m there for, not a great photo for my blog.

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Phu Quoc Beach Bum

Wednesday, April 8, 2015 by Chris

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bendingpalm

I haven’t had a beach holiday in years, decades, in fact. So I was really looking forward to a week or so on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island off the southern coast of Cambodia; I longed to lounge and bake in the sun after a frigid Canadian winter. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, the travel Gods had other ideas; there were few available flights to my next destination so I ended up with just two days and three nights in this languid paradise.

As a rule, I’m perfectly happy traveling solo but on Phu Quoc I felt lonely. City vacations are full of distractions and activities but beach holidays demand company, ideally close company. It was meditative and pleasant but in the end I’m glad to be moving on to the Indiana Jones leg of my adventure, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

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Phu Quoc is sunny and hot (between 30 – 35 degrees Celsius) but the ocean breeze keeps it comfortable. Being fair and winter white I had to be careful in the sun but my hotel, the laid-back, inexpensive Beach Club (about $40 USD per night), had plenty of shade in which to languish.

A friend of my host in Saigon recommended a guide/driver on Phu Quoc to show me the sights. Vo spoke little English but he certainly got the job done. I saw the main town, Duong Dong, from the back of his motorbike and he took me for lunch at a local cafeteria, which was genius because all I had to do was point to the items I wanted.

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My delicious lunch of baked fish with rice, veg and soup cost less than $2 USD and I certainly got an authentic al fresco dining experience sharing tables with the locals. The best advice I’ve received about eating in Asia is to follow the crowds; if the locals flock to a joint it must be pretty good. At this particular spot every table but one was full of hungry, happy eaters.

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My island tour culminated at Bai Sao (below), the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. The sand is white as bone dust and nearly as fine as icing sugar; standing where the water lapped the shore it felt like hard clay beneath my feet, there was hardly any give at all.

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South Beach is sparsely populated, mostly by locals enjoying a day out; it’s 30 or 40 minutes from Duong Dong and most tourists are satisfied to simply enjoy the beach in front of their hotels. As we drove south on a bumpy, red-dirt road that hugged the shore we saw at least five major new resorts under construction, one of them the Intercontinental Phu Quoc. My guess is the island’s tourism profile is about to explode so I’m glad I was here before the really big guns arrived.

I will mention that as beautiful as the beaches look in photos they’re actually littered with refuse much of it plastic and to my horror, a good deal of medical waste: this hypodermic was not an isolated encounter.

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So paradise is not perfection. But it’s damn fine, all things considered. I feel refreshed and ready to move onto stage three of this fantastic adventure. Angkor Wat, here I come.

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