I Love Hanoi In the Springtime

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 by Chris



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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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Welcome to Vietnam

Monday, April 6, 2015 by Chris


restaurant workers take a moment to work out the kinks for each other

Some quick impressions from my five days in Saigon before I take off for the island paradise of Phu Quoc today. I’m in Ho Chi Min City (its official name, although nearly everyone still calls it Saigon) as the guest of my Canadian friend Mark, who’s working here on a two-year contract related to education. Mark lives on the outskirts, which has been its own kind of blessing: Saigon is dirty, noisy and intensely frenetic, so to have a respite from the chaos is most welcome.

boat and barge on a Saigon River tributary

This is my view every morning as I sip tea on Mark’s balcony, steeling myself for the marvelous melee of District 1 (downtown). Because the river feeds into the ocean — HCMC is a major shipping port — the water level rises and falls twice daily with the tides, exposing muddy flats that fishermen scour for clams or snails or God knows what else since the Vietnamese appear to eat just about anything.


A trip through Mark’s local market, which was far too gritty for my taste, revealed cages, flats and bowls of live fish, eels, frogs, chickens, all of which the seller kills and/or skins in front of her customer. If it’s not fresh, the Vietnamese don’t want it, which probably explains why the food here is so delicious. The country boasts more than 2,000 km of coastline and seafood is the staple, in addition to liberal use of fresh herbs and vegetables. Delicious, if also a bit confusing for an English-speaker trying to decipher a Vietnamese menu. But I have managed just fine.


On my first night in town we connected with Mark’s friend Phong and we ate street side at a BBQ stand, one of the thousands of street stalls that keep Saigoners sated. I’m dubious of eating street food, having been warned against it so vehemently in India, but Mark has been here for nearly a year and says he hasn’t been sick yet. So we dove into skewers of vegetables, chicken, beef, pork short ribs and massive king prawns, all of it scrumptious beyond words.

saigon street food, bbq king prawns

The street scene was just as enjoyable as what was on our plates. Tourists and locals mingled in the tight alleys laughing, carousing and dodging motorbikes.


Saigon is a city of motorbikes, it’s the way nearly everyone gets around. My taxi driver from the airport said HCMC has a population of 9 million people and 7 million motorbikes. Apparently, there’s a very high tax on cars so the motorbike is the only affordable mode of mass transport.

motorbikes in Saigon

Unfortunately, this torrent of bikes runs on leaded fuel, so riding and even walking in streets is sometimes enough to choke you. Consequently many, if not most people wear face masks.

face masks required in Ho Chi Min City

You can’t imagine the chaos of all those bikes navigating intersections and roundabouts, it is MADNESS! Drivers frequently ignore traffic signals and just as frequently drive directly into oncoming traffic if that’s the quickest route from A to B. It’s hair-raising and thrilling and I loved every minute of my time on the back of Phong’s bike or on one of the many xe om (say ome) drivers who seem to be everywhere, ready to make a quick buck by chauffeuring you here or there. If Saigon is defined by any singular feature, the motorbike is it.

motorbikes whiz past the historic first post office in Saigon

I have been diligently collecting images to accompany a design-related post (stay tuned) but Saigon has not made it easy. This is not a beautiful city. There are some gorgeous buildings and parks, many reflecting the country’s colonial past, but more often the streetscape is weathered and grey as you might expect in a communist country that has struggled against multifarious foes over centuries of turmoil.


And yet there are moments of beauty and charm sprinkled like diamonds in the dirt.


The Vietnamese love birds and you often see caged songbirds enjoying the shade outside a shop. In Tao Dan Park there’s a “bird cafe” where bird lovers bring their feathered friends and sit and admire and talk birds, usually during the morning hours before the heat of the day becomes too oppressive.

birds outside shops in Saigon

My time in Saigon has been unlike any other city vacation. I haven’t toured a single museum or gallery, although I did make my way to the Jade Pagoda, below, built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god, the Jade Emperor.

jade pagoda, saigon

For me, Saigon has mostly been about shopping and eating and getting around, all of which have been far too entertaining to bother with touring musty buildings or pondering the grim remnants of the American War. Saigon is a young, vibrant city where 40 per cent of the population is under the age of 24 and the median age is 29! All that youth and vigor translates into a city that thrums like no other place I’ve ever been.


After a too-brief sojourn on Phu Quoc I’ll be off to Cambodia to tour the world-famous temples around Siem Reap and then on to Hanoi, Halong Bay and the ancient coastal city of Hoi An; please join me on my journey.

I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to Mark, below, for hosting me and kicking off this wonderful adventure; thank you, thank you, thank you, Mark!


If you’re traveling to Saigon and require a guide I highly recommend Tran Thanh Phong: +84 (0) 908 50 88 11 or

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