Day 7&8 – Paradise in Ha Long Bay

I was a little sad to say goodbye to Hanoi this morning. It felt like we just arrived and barely scratched the surface. There are definitely differences between the north and south: people’s physical appearance, the food, the culture, the way the two cities look, the differences in shopping, traffic… the list goes on. It was a fun but short stay in Hanoi – I could have easily stayed longer, but we needed to move on in our trip!

We boarded the bus and drove 4 hours east (I think!) to the coast where we reached Ha Long Bay. Our drive took us through the countryside which was beautiful. We saw rice fields, water buffalo and drove through many little towns and cities. I put on my iPod and listened to some tunes…. Life is a Highway came on (as it always seems to while I’m travelling) and I couldn’t help but think about how cool it was to be driving through the countryside, in Vietnam!

Once we reached the Bay, we took a little boat out to our junk boat that was anchored out at sea. We were welcomed as we came onboard and were handed a glass of yummy tea – I wish I knew what it was! Our boat was beautiful with wooden interiors and very lovely rooms – our shower on the junk boat was the best one we’ve had the whole trip!

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After getting settled, we went back on the little boat and were taken to an island in the Bay. After trekking up about 100 stairs, we were inside a rock cave, with stalagmite and stalactite rocks. Our tour guide told us this was the first level of the cave and inside in he showed us some rock formations that looked like animals (similar to finding pictures in the clouds). We walked a bit more inside and then came to the second level of the cave. It was even bigger, but of course, the third level was the biggest. It was deep, wide and incredibly tall. Having never been to a cave like this it was amazing to see such an amazing creation of mother nature.

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Following the cave, we went to the beach on a different island. We got lucky and the rain had stopped but it definitely wasn’t gloriously hot or sunny. As a result, the water was freezing – definitely colder than lakes in the Okanagan! I stood in knee deep water for a while (which is usually as far as I go) but eventually I decided to go in the whole way – this trip was about seizing the moment and doing things I otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do. Swimming in Ha Long Bay definitely was one of those things. It was probably the coldest swim I’ve ever done, and even though it felt a little warmer once I was in, it was still a pretty short swim! Before we left the junk boat, a lady rowed up in her fishing boat selling all kinds of things out of her boat… she was sort of like a mobile convenience store. A bunch of people bought 4 beer for about $6 so we had a beer on the beach.

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Our final activity for the day was optional, but one I had known I wanted to do since I found out about the trip. We had time to rent a kayak and paddle around the bay in partners.  So Shannon, another teacher on the trip (who I actually went to China and Korea with too) and I got in a kayak and paddled around at dusk, as the sun was setting! It was so calm and peaceful out on the water, in what is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been. We stopped paddling part way through and just sat and enjoyed the moment (with another beer). I tried to take it all in because I know there is no way to capture the experience in writing or pictures but it was amazing… definitely my favorite part of today!

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The evening was pretty low-key… good food and company with everyone who came on the trip. It has been such a great group of people and professionals. The staff on the boat gave us a lesson on making spring rolls (not the deep fried ones). They are SO easy – spring roll lessons for everyone when I get home! I went to sleep with the boat anchored in the middle of the bay and our little window looking out onto the darkness of the Bay. There are many other boats similar to ours, so once it was dark, it looked like we were staying in a floating city.

We were asked to be up early so we could visit a local fishing village in the Bay.  I wasn’t sure what to expect from this because that was the only information we were given. We took the little boat over the village and went in groups of 4, in a local’s fishing boat, on a tour of the area. We were shown around by a very sweet man who seemed excited to have us. He paddled us through the village which had 63 homes and a local school. He then took us to the gateway of the community which was the rock formation that had a key hole in it. We were out on the water at 7:30am so it was misty with daylight still creeping in. It was so calm, peaceful and serene… definitely a perfect moment. I could have spent hours on that boat, floating on the water, looking at the scenery of Ha Long Bay. It was easy to forget all the busy-ness, chaos and noise of our daily life…  just escape to another place. By the end of our tour, this had taken over as my favorite part of the trip. Such a rare experience, that I’ll never be able to replicate or likely even experience again. To me, this was paradise!

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Once we arrived back at our junk boat, I took some time to sit by myself and think about the trip. I have felt very overwhelmed in Ha Long with how blessed I am to have had this opportunity, to travel to a country like this and have all these different experiences. There is no way I could/would have organized/afforded a trip like this on my own, without saving for many, many years. It has felt like the trip of a lifetime and has very much reaffirmed my love of Asia.  Having been here more than most of the other people on our trip, there is a comfort, familiarity and level of safeness that I continue to feel. Common people in stores or on the street have once again been so friendly and kind…. Whether waving as we go by, helping us cross the street (literally taking our arm and guiding us through the crazy traffic), or giving us directions when we are turned around. The food, culture and weather is unique and different from what I experience in my everyday life at home. I have loved every moment of this trip and am coming home with some memories that I will remember forever. I would come back here in a heartbeat.

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In the mix of emotions, I’m missing family and friends and somewhat dreading our marathon 2 days of travel to get home. Coming home will feel good, by the time we land in YYC. I am looking forward to my own bed, seeing faces I love and telling all the different stories from my time here…. Farewell Vietnam. xo

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Days 5&6 – Time in Hanoi

It’s been a busy couple days in Hanoi. Yesterday I was too tired to write a blog. So this one will be a bit longer, for both days.

Yesterday morning we started the day by going on a walking tour of the city. This was good for helping us figure out where things were in relation to one another.  We’ve had an easier time navigating our way  through the streets here, perhaps partly because of our tour, but also because the streets here are aligned a bit more on a grid. Traffic is still very heavy and busy here but there are more cars (and less scooters) so it’s not quite as crazy. We found this t-shirt while we were shopping and it pretty sums up traffic here – hopefully the picture come through ok.

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Vietnam Traffic Light Laws – Green: I can go. Yellow: I can go. Red: I still can go.

After our walking tour, we had a visit to the Museum of Ethnology, which is considered the most modern museum in Vietnam. The museum highlights the 54 officially recognized ethnic groups throughout the country.  It was helpful to learn about the Vietnamese and the other ethnicities throughout the country, to better understand the culture here.

We made a visit to the Presidential Palace grounds where Ho Chi Minh lived and presided while he was alive. On the same park grounds is the memorial/mausoleum where he is embalmed. So we took a trip and visited the individual considered by most Vietnamese to be the most prolific and inspiring leader in their country’s history. His body lies in a glass case with dim lights. Lines of visitors, including visiting foreign dignitaries, pay their respects at the mausoleum every day.
Rules regarding dress and behavior are strictly enforced by guards. Legs must be covered, visitors must be silent, and walk in two lines. Hands must not be in pockets, nor arms crossed. Smoking, drinking, eating, photography, and video taping are also not permitted anywhere inside the mausoleum.

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Next up was a visit to the water puppet theatre, which is a very popular theatre form here (each theatre tells a different story/tale). Traditional legends and historical tales are very commonly told. Today’s Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition. The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play.

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The rest of the evening was ours to do some shopping…. and it’s very distinctly different here, than in the South. We found a great silk store and bought a couple dresses along with some other souvenirs!

Today was a business day so we made 3 different visits. First, we went to a foster home and learned about how this organization supports families and girls in Vietnam. We didn’t meet any of the girls, but instead listened to the director who told us how she and her Dad set up this organization together, 10 years ago. Next we went to an organization called KOTO (which stands for “Know One, Teach One). It’s is a 2 year cooking/hospitality program that aims to give disadvantaged youth the possibility to learn and strive for excellence in their lives. After talking with organizers/teachers there, and meeting with some students, we then ate lunch at their restaurant… SO good!  Finally, we went to a local high school who were having a business fair/fun day, which was such a cool thing to watch and take in.

We visited the Temple of Literature. This is considered to be Vietnam’s first national university, and was built in 1070, making it older than Oxford University. The various pavilions, halls, statues and stelae of doctors are places where offering ceremonies, study sessions and the strict exams of the Dai Viet took place.

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The rest of our afternoon was personalized for our interests so a group of us wandered around and did a bit more shopping. I bought 3 custom painted pictures for my kitchen for a bargain $18 (total). We went stopped for a foot spa package and were treated to a 2 hour treatment including a 45min. foot/leg massage, paraffin wax treatment and pedicure for the bargain price of $20. I love this place!

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We had a final group dinner before a couple people head home early. The rest of us are off to Ha Long Bay tomorrow, which could very well be the highlight of our trip. We are spending the night sleeping on a junk boat, like the one in the picture below, so we’ll be out internet range until we are at an airport on the way home… so I’m not sure when my final blogs will appear. It’s crazy to think this trip is almost over…. will see you soon! =)

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Day 4 – Last day in Ho Chi Minh

Today was our last day in Ho Chi Minh city…. it feels very worldly to wake up in one city and go to sleep in another!

This morning we visited a local public high school for gifted students.  They were very confident, articulate and well spoken. They all seemed very excited to have us visiting their school and they happily answered our many questions about being a student in Vietnam. One grade 10 student told us he wants to study dinosaurs in University and visit Alberta. He was very excited and surprised to learn that was the part of Canada that we were from.

Next we met with officials from the Canadian Embassy in Vietnam who told us about life and education here. He was incredibly knowledgeable and interesting to listen to. Prior to coming to Vietnam, seven months ago, he had spent 4 years in Thailand and 4 years in Korea… needless to say he understood Asia, the culture, politics and traditions very well. We then had lunch with a bunch of principals and educators from various institutions in Vietnam.

We had some free time this afternoon so we did some shopping and bartering at a local market, prior to catching our 2 hour flight to Hanoi. Coming off the airplane it instantly felt cooler and less humid. Not cold by any means, but just not the crazy hot we had in Ho Chi Minh… it just felt like a lovely summer day in Canada. However, it’s the end of “winter” here so the locals are all in jackets… puffy winter jackets, fur lined jackets, a jacket with a hoodie underneath. Definitely a contrast from where we came from. Our local tour guide has told us there are many contrasts between the north and south and it seems this was just our first example.

Time for bed and there weren’t really any pictures taken today. Will have some tomorrow though! xo

 

Day 3 – Busy Day in Ho Chi Minh!

I was awake at 5:00am so it’s been a long, busy and really hot day in Ho Chi Minh!

This morning I finally found a coffee shop with soy milk and had the best drink ever…. it even seemed better than my usual at Starbucks! Then we headed to the Ben Thang Market where we met a local Vietnamese chef who showed us around and explained many of the local ingredients to us.

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After the market, we went to the kitchen for our Vietnamese cooking class. They had all our ingredients chopped, measured and organized for us in little bowls. We worked in groups of 2 at our cooking stations.

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We prepared a 4 course meal, with guidance from our chef and many assistants who kept clearing away our dishes and bringing us new ones. To start we made our own Vietnamese spring rolls (with pork and seafood stuffing) and fish sauce.

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Next we made caramel pork in clay pots and ate it ontop of coconut rice (actually steamed in a coconut).

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Our third course was the best soup ever – sour clam soup with dill.  It was sweet and sour with a bit of spice to it! It was 40 degrees here today and I sat and ate soup – SO good!

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Lastly, we had sautéed banana with fresh coconut milk tapioca pudding… a little anticlimactic (in my palate’s modest opinion) but still good.

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It was a super fun day and by the end of our 3 hours, I had mastered the art of Vietnamese cooking enough to earn myself a certificate…. it’s getting framed with all my other hard earned University ones! The gave us a recipe book so we can make everything on our own at home… however, it will be a little less fun when I have to do all my own prep work and dishes afterwards though!

After our cooking class/lunch, we went to the former Presidential Palace and were given a guided tour. It’s a beautifully restored building.

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We then went to a military museum detailing various aspects of the Vietnam war. It is currently one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, attracting approximately half a million visitors every year. We saw a collection of aircraft, artillery and amour vehicles, as well as photographs, maps and information during the course of the war, the aftermath of Agent Orange and the rebuilding process. Definitely an eye opening experience about a war I must admit I don’t know enough about. And much like the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum when I was in Japan, it was difficult to see an exhibit like this in person, surrounded by so many locals who have this as a part of their history.

It was a hot day walking around with many other tourists so we skipped out of the last part of the tour and came back for a quick shower and to change into some fresh, clean clothes. Then we headed out to do some bartering and shopping – finding a few things so far!

It’s funny that after all our walking around and being here for a  few days, we’ve finally figured the quickest route around the area (instead of walking blocks and blocks out of the way). The streets here don’t follow a grid system and so many of the shops/stores look similar that it’s easy to get turned around. Tomorrow evening we fly to Hanoi, where the weather should be a normal and a little less tiring. After a 16 hour busy day in the sun, we are definitely tired and ready for a good sleep! =)

Day 2 – Traveling the Countryside

So after a full first day, I was able to have a good sleep last night but Michele has been suffering from some intense jet lag and was wide awake at 1:30am. I’m glad I’m avoided it and hope doesn’t continue too long. This morning, our group, we got up and drove out of the city today to spend the day in the countryside, in an area still considered part of Ho Chi Minh but definitely out in the countryside. It was beautiful and very much what I had pictured the countryside of Vietnam to be like.

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Our first stop of the morning was to an orphanage for kids with various medical issues or physical disabilities.  Many of the kids had been affected by the effects of Agent Orange which was used by the American government during the Vietnam war. It was both a heartbreaking visit and yet an incredibly memorable visit at the same time…. something I will always remember from this trip. Many of the kids were so excited to see us and had know about our visit for a while. The kids were so sweet and were enamored with our phones/iPads…. Here is a selfie snapped by one of the little girls that I played with for a bit.

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Then I found another little girl who was more sick and was not mobile or able to move around on her own – I’m not sure what exactly her condition was, but I picked her up and she just snuggled with me for a good half hour. She fell asleep at one point and had the longest eye lashes I’ve ever seen. Other people on our trip took pictures but I haven’t gotten them yet. It was very hard to leave and tears were shed by many of us.

We had lunch at a great tourist restaurant on the river with floating lotus in the river and palm trees all around us…. it was 37 degrees today, plus humidity so it felt a little like paradise (especially upon learning that it’s cold and snowy in Calgary).

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After lunch we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels tourist site which is nuzzled in the jungle. The Cu Chi tunnels are an intricate network of underground tunnels, built by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during the war. In addition to the tunnels there are communication and supply routes, a hospital  room, food and weapon caches and living quarters also build underground. As part of the tour, they had a variety of Vietnam War era weapons at a shooting range. So Michele and I paid $10 each to shoot 5 rounds of ammunition from an AK47… SO awesome!

By the time we got home for our day in the 40+ degree heat, we were both sweaty and feeling pretty gross, so we each had a quickie shower before heading out for the night. Everyone on our tour went for a dinner cruise on the Saigon River – so lovely!

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Afterwards, Michele and I went to a hotel along the water front, and went up to the 8th floor where there is a rooftop garden bar. We had a couple amazing mojitos while we enjoyed the breeze of a beautiful night and an amazing view!

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Good night from Vietnam…xo

Day 1 – Vietnam 101

A bit of a delay with getting a post up… with our 24 travel day yesterday, the time difference and some internet difficulties… but here goes!

Our flight from Korea to Ho Chi Minh felt super long but was otherwise good. The crew at Asiana airlines definitely know how to take care of their customers. There was no indoor airport lobby when we landed, like you would find in a Canadian airport – instead there is a big compound outside the airport with chairs and meeting spots for everyone. Immediately, we felt the warmth and humidity of the city and saw palm trees on the street boulevards. It was 28 degrees when we left the airport at 11:30pm – we are both happy to have found some heat!  We went to bed as soon as we got to the hotel and had a pretty good sleep in our cute little room.

This morning we had a bit of time of time before we left for our school tours so we explored the area around our hotel a bit. Traffic here is indescribable – nothing in Calgary even compares. We took a video of all the motor bikes/scooters coming down the street, which we’ll try to post later – here’s a picture in the meantime!

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Tap water isn’t drinkable here so we stopped by the corner store to buy some bottled water for 0.50 cents! The same convenience store sells individual chilled bottles of Budwiser for 1.50… for real!

The first school we visited was a private school in a newer, wealthier part of Ho Chi Minh. The school was 8 stories high and was a great new facility. The part we visited was built 5 years ago and they are finishing up another section that will be ready for next year.  The staff were incredibly welcoming and proud to show us around their tour. The students were very excited to have visitors at their school and happily showed us what they were learning. Anytime we went into a classroom, the whole class stood up and said good morning to us. It was definitely a great first school visit!

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We had a great Vietnamese lunch with members of an organization who are working to improve reading and literacy amongst children here. Then we were off to a meeting with an organization in charge of helping with teacher training and goals for the future of Vietnamese education. For instance, one of their current goals is to implement a full day, mandatory kindergarten program (which is optional for families right now).

We had a free evening so we went to a hair salon for a hair wash (or “washy washy” as I like to call it!). This was my favorite thing from China and will definitely be something we do again. The lovely ladies massaged my scalp, shoulders, arms and hands before taking me to the back to actually wash my hair. They have massage tables you lie in, with your head in a sink, and they proceed to wash your hair for more than half an hour… so relaxing! The dry and style it afterwards – such lovely pampering (and all for the bargain price of $10).

We wandered around the city a bit more searching for a place to eat and ending up opting for some Pho – I got my usual vermicelli bowl. It was SO good and another $10 bargain. Now I’m full, tired and hoping to get a good sleep tonight. We are watching the Disney channel because it’s the only TV we can find in English – so we will finish Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs (with Vietnamese subtitles) and then call it a night….xo

10 Lessons learned by Michele and Lindsay during our 11 hour flight… to Korea.

1) The Vancouver and Seoul airports are pretty amazing. We could have stayed and shopped there for an entire weekend! What other airport has an aquarium inside it!?!

2) Even when you think you have packed enough snacks, you really haven’t…. you will want something you don’t have and be stuck eating airplane pretzels.

3) A whole Imuvane works much better than half of one…. Time flies by! – Just ask Michele.

4) The first half of the flight goes by much faster than the last half.

5&6) One or two drinks to calm your nerves is just fine!  But when you’ve had so many that you need to be zipped-tied, banished to the back of the plane and require the assistance of 6 flight attendants and one very large man… you are a total douche-bag, (from Edmonton, no less)!  There were 12+ people waiting for Mr. Ziptie at the airplane door, to take him to the airport drunk tank!

7) Do not watch movies about slavery on the airplane… too sad. – Just ask Michele.

8) A dog randomly barking throughout our flight is sort of odd, and hard to get used to.

9) Listening to all announcements in 3 different languages is a bit much and very much interrupts our movie flow.

10) We think our very unintentional coordinating blankets and neck pillows is a little scary, and maybe we shouldn’t be spending the next 10 days together.

We have not left for our flight to Vietnam yet… so more lessons could perhaps, be coming!  =)