Little Trips

I’ve been feeling a little mopey about the fact that I haven’t been travelling lately, and can give about a hundred reasons why “I deserve” to feel this way… (just look at what I was doing a year ago!) but then it was pointed out to me that it’s not an entirely true fact that I haven’t travelled – more so an opinion of mine.  And so, I guess I have to admit that yes, I did spend a week the Dominican Republic, then a day in Panama, and weekends in Vegas, Jasper, and Seattle.   Fine – if we’re going to get technical I supposed I still have had a pretty great summer adventuring around.  Why is it that I always feel the need to see more, go further, lose myself somewhere new??  (I could easily spiral into all sorts of ridiculous thoughts like; ‘My identity is a traveller: therefore do I lose my identity and fade away when I’m not away?’)

Glossing right past the silly existential questions for now, I want to share some of the moments that stood out for me this summer.  My most recent jaunt was to Seattle for a quick work event, and while I won’t bore you with those details I will tell about my day exploring Seattle’s famous sights.   I may have a grownup job now but I still really enjoy my aimless explorations, and so when I travel on my own I very happily throw planning aside just to see what comes my way.  I chatted with the hotel clerk and found out that I could take the free shuttle to the airport, then hop on the train from there to the centre where I would find the city’s highlights, so that’s exactly where I started.  Stop number one for me was the famous Pike’s Place Market.  I knew it was busy, but I have to admit some shock at JUST HOW BUSY it is!  I did a bit of digging after, and discovered that it’s in the top 40 destinations by visitor number in the whole world.  Crazy! ( Tourism stats )  I liked seeing it, though, even if I was almost equally amazed by the people watching as I was by the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the US.   My wanders took me through the market, along the piers, downtown to coffee shops, past the Space Needle and back to the water.  It’s a pretty city indeed on a sunny August day!

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Moving back in time, I had a previous work event that brought me to Las Vegas.  I’ve been there several times before so this didn’t hold the same wonder and awe for me, but I still had a great time walking the famous strip after dark to marvel at the neon lights, and sitting by the pool with a novel the next morning before my flight home.

 

More exciting for me was July and exploring my own ‘backyard’ in Alberta.  Have you ever been to Jasper before?  It’s stunning.  You should plan a visit.  Even though it’s an easy and scenic 5 hour drive from my front door, I haven’t been since childhood – I generally go to Banff instead, less than 2 hours away from me.  But a long weekend camping trip in the cutest little cabins has me convinced I’ll be back again!IMG_0653

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Continuing in my July adventures at home, I took in some time at the Calgary Stampede.  If this is something else you haven’t heard of, look it up and plan to come.  It’s a huge city-wide party, a cultural homage to our heritage, a thrilling competition and vibrant midway all packed together. ( Calgary Stampede )   And I just love it!

 

Prior to all this I kicked off my summer 2017 down South with a little quality beach time. Thankfully my cousin decided to get married in the Caribbean so I had a chance to visit Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.  I wouldn’t typically chose to go to an All-Inclusive resort, but I was thrilled with the chance to go and celebrate with family and friends.  So often I’m alone when I’m away from home and this made it an extra fantastic treat to be in the middle of a huge group of friends this time.  And now if I ever go to resorts again, I know I’ll want about 40 people I adore there with me.  At least.

Going into this week in Punta Cana, I knew that this would be my last trip with the freedom to just book my own employee-pass standby flights, so I wanted to make the most of it.  I didn’t know exactly how I’d be getting home until the day prior – when I saw that I could fly directly to Panama.  OF COURSE that called my name!  Spending time in Panama would mean that I’ve been to each of the North American/Central America countries and I just couldn’t resist.  (and, I plan to celebrate that milestone again if I ever go to each Caribbean nation.  I haven’t done that yet!)   I didn’t have long, but I made the most of it in Panama by choosing a charming hostel in the Casco Viejo Old Town in central Panama City.  This is the epicentre of the tourism in the city and gave me the freedom to walk and explore.  I loved walking along the bay and taking in the contrast between the glittering new high-rises and the old Latin/Spanish legacy.

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Pretty good for only 14 hours in the country, hey?   I hope I get a chance to go back and see more of Panama.

So looking back with a little more gratitude, I can clearly see that I had a great summer and even one worthy of dusting off my travel blog.    But let me tell you, I have higher hopes for my fall!

 

 

Crabby Cabbies

This post starts off with a disclaimer: the following may not be as nice as the usual tone of my average posts.  But I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi right now, hoping I’m on my way to the airport, still trying to quell my tense unease.
It started about 10 minutes ago when I walked out of my very fancy hotel room, in a major American city and right downtown, into the misty rainy night.   I saw three taxi cabs at the curb right in front of me, and I hesitated for a moment in case there was a queue. I tried to make eye contact with the drivers of each to see if there was an order, and when none seemed to move I took another step forward. The driver of the cab directly in front of me smiled, so I started towards that car. He opened the trunk and just as he was lifting my bag there was a furious blare of a horn behind us. For a split second I instinctively thought a car crash was happening in the intersection, but as my eyes registered the angry arms and clenched fists I saw it was clearly no accident. Into our stunned immobility started walking a sight that added another layer to my disbelief of the current events. Long white hair, stringy, uneven and matted, topped a faded black denim coat layered open over a green plaid flannel jacket and dirty t-shirt. The most nightmarish Santa-in-opposite you could imagine.  This was the other driver, coming out of a branded and licensed city taxi cab, livid over an accidental slight. The first driver set down my bag and started backing away with apologies in an attempt to appease.  I stopped him and said I didn’t want to ride in a car with such a furious driver.  By this time the doorman of the hotel appeared and tried to diffuse the situation.    The angry driver was placated and I was informed he had been in line and was the next due for a passenger. I shrank back, and said again I wasn’t comfortable getting into that car now on my own and I would like take another ride. To which the doorman asked “hey, you spooked her. Are you ok to drive?” as he Placed.My.Bag.In.The.Trunk!  I still didn’t move and was protesting again when I realized that I seemed to be the only one fazed by this outburst.   I suddenly noticed a uniformed security guard standing about a metre away, eyes down, and many other people at the hotel entrance and on the sidewalk. The doorman’s voice pulled back at my attention and I heard him say softly “it’s ok now, he’ll be alright. Get in, you’ll be fine.”

So I did. 

And my stomach clenched with unease the entire time. 

In the time it took me to write the above paragraphs I arrived at my destination but the story isn’t finished yet.  At least now you know I’m safe.  The ride was anything but fine, though, with my internal monologue churning; asking myself if this guy was drunk (probably not) or homeless (so what if he is? It’s good he’s working, right!?) to wondering if I should worry about being kidnapped (doubtful) or not arriving at the airport on time (much more likely).  The first five or so minutes of the drive passed with the car giving the little chime warning of a seatbelt undone.  I watched as he spent a few minutes reaching behind him and fussing with the seatbelt he had fastened behind him, then suddenly he tells me “I’m not going anywhere” as he stops the car in the middle of a residential street. My fight-or-flight response revved high again as he opens his door and got out; and I’m not sure it was actually relief when I saw he was only getting up to stretch the still-buckled shoulder harness across him.  As we drove off again he explained to me that “this seatbelt was the trickiest one he’d ever seen.”  We lurched on in the darkness, the car constantly changing speed as he see-sawed his foot on the gas pedal with sporadic regularity.  Any time I would look up at him or our surroundings I would imagine myself peeping through my fingers, though of course I was much too polite to actually let him know I was terrified, other than a quiet frightened gasp that escaped my lips once.  He cursed to himself after veering for an exit and missing it, which prompted me to stop writing and look again at my google maps. “Did we make a wrong turn?” I asked him sweetly when I saw we were not where we should be and he grumbled he missed the North Access road in a manner suggesting someone else was at fault. I watched him as he hunched forward over the steering wheel to peer out past the windshield wipers and rain and I spent the rest of the drive simultaneously in silent prayer, writing the beginning of this post, AND watching my map to help guide him. 
An eternity later, I finally stepped out of the car and collected my suitcase, nearly 45 minutes after I walked out of the hotel. It seemed exponentially longer than the 30-35 minutes I had expected! I asked the driver his name, and made a mental note of the car number and company with the full intention of writing a complaint to the company and also the hotel…. maybe I still will, but by now I’m not so sure. As I sit safely in my cozy airplane seat, writing out the rest of this, my main emotion is sadness for this driver.  I feel bad for him, because as I spoke to him briefly he seemed to brighten, giving me a glimpse that he’s probably had a very hard life and I worry how my complaint may affect him. Then I think that even though he may need the job, should he really be driving the public?? I don’t know yet what I’ll do…. 

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The ironic part of me writing out this story (Entirely True Story!) is that I had been mulling a bit about crabby cabbies already before this happened. Last week I was on the other side of the USA in a small city with a decidedly back-woods vibe. (I’m choosing to withhold names, obviously)  Again, as it was tonight, that morning I was alone leaving a hotel and on my way to an airplane.  When the taxi finally pulled up, my first thought was to giggle and look around if I was being pranked.  The car was an ancient rust bucket painted lime green.  I could smell old cigarettes before I even got in, and as the driver opened his door to stow my suitcase he drawled “I hope you haven’t been waiting too long… I had to stop and make sure my Momma ate her lunch.”  This was going to be my most crazy cab story – until tonight!  During our short drive he proceeded to tell me all about his family squabbles; a nephew that stole his mother’s car, a good-for-nothin’ brother, and his sweet momma with her dementia.  All this and much more I learned over the blast of his old classic rock radio, while I did my best to nod and not look too shocked.  When I handed him my visa to pay he launched into a tirade against big banks, and how he gets charged for each credit purchase… At least he was sweet in his complaining.  He spoke to me as if I were a trusted co-conspirator with him, us against my the world, and the grin he gave me when I was able to find enough cash to pay with instead of my card made me glad I was able to.

I feel like I should wrap up with saying that this is not my normal transportation experience.  I haven’t run the stats, but for effect I’d say 95% of the taxi and Uber drivers I’ve had have been great, 4.9% have just been fine, and only 0.1% make me worry.     But a good driver isn’t likely to make a good blog story! 

Angkor Wat Again

It’s -26 degrees celsius where I live right now, and as if that isn’t horrific enough we have the distinct displeasure of a windchill bringing the feel of the temperature to -33.   Yes that’s actually true and not a typo.  I have a cup of tea, a big cozy blanket, and blinds over the window so I don’t have to see the wintery misery outside; I’m directing my focus solely to happier memories of warmer climates!  And my first trip down memory lane brought me back to Cambodia, which I remember being more along the lines of 30 degrees celsius above zero instead of below.   Ahhhhh, feeling warmer already….

But I don’t think I’m going to write much tonight since I’m feeling much more visual than verbal.  Instead how about a few more of my pictures from Angkor Wat out of the 250 or so I took that day?

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These women came to Angkor Wat to celebrate a Buddhist Holy day.
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Temples hidden in the Jungle
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Ta Prohm temple ruins
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Gentle Guardians
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Ancient Hindu carvings on a temple wall
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216 faces of Buddha carved at Bayon, Angkor Thom
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This sweet Buddhist monk
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Serenity
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Just past a “Beware of Monkey Attack” sign, this cutie appeared
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A tourist (me) with a shot of another tourist taking photos of other tourists
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Angkor Wat

Stunning Koh Samui

If I ever run away from home (ok, if I ever run away from home again) and you need to find me for some reason keep this spot in mind as the first place to look for me.  And pack a swimsuit because chances are when you find me, you’ll forget about why you were so keen on dragging me back.  I’ll save a spot on the sand for you. 

Koh Samui, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, is one of those places that’s probably on millions of screen savers as the perfect beach paradise bored workers daydream about.  And it’s even better in real life. 

Here’s a quick disclaimer about this post, though:  I spent a lot of time in a bikini and I’ll be including pictures.  If that’s going to be a problem you should probably skip this post, and return to my blog next week when I’ve returned to my modesty….  

I already mentioned in my last post that I spent a lot of time on the beach here; you may remember that I ruined my iPhone this way.  Tricia and I had 6 glorious days where the cumulative extent of our experience could be summed as such: brunch overlooking the water, beach, pool, beach, dinner overlooking the water, fall asleep to the sound of the air conditioner. (I wanted to say waves but I promised I’d be fully truthful in this blog!)   Oh.  If anyone is trying to plan a honeymoon, apparently this is what you should do.  Someone should get to experience this as romantic!! 

White powder sand beaches.  Crystal clear turquoise water.  Lush forest and dramatic bolders.  Teeny bikinis.   Yes. 

View of the beach
Feeling great!
Looking great!
Us in the sun
Is it more artsy (acceptable) to post without colour?

I shouldn’t say it, but sometimes I wonder why Tricia or I ever bother to wear clothes… (sorry, I did warn you that my modesty was on hiatus…)

There was one day we experienced more than just the beaches.  Good thing, because I’m sure there’s so much more to the island that one could see, if one were to drag themselves away from the perfect coastline.   For example, the Big Buddha. Living up to its apt moniker, this beautiful gold statue is a sight to see.  It’s not my religion, but I love visiting these temples and monuments.  I’m continually fascinated by other cultures; and learning about the way that religion, history, and geography has shaped the lives of the people around me never fails to amaze. 

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Big Buddha
Smaller Buddhas surrounded the base of Big Buddha
Bells surrounded the temple complex
Ringing the bells
Temple top

After spending the afternoon with Big Buddha we were ready to get back to the water, and fortunately found a great restaurant right on the water.  The views bathed in late golden sunlight were equally as delicious as the meals – my kind of place for sure! 

Tamarina Bistro & Bar

What if it falls apart?

Rushing. Panicking about being late and wishing I could rewind to NOT waste those 5 minutes on Instagram earlier because I really need that time back now. I hate this feeling.

The day started off with an early morning knock on the door, 40 minutes prior to the time we were expecting to be picked up, and the hotel clerk politely informing us our driver was outside.  The scramble and sudden adrenaline had us scooting around the room stuffing everything into any bag we could find, and when we got downstairs 3 minutes later quite pleased with our ability to dress and pack so quickly we were told that the van had left without us.  All my nervous energy evaporated along with our ride, and I could feel worry seeping in as I considered our next steps.  It’s moments like these when I realize I build my travel plans like a Jenga tower – it all looks creative and great until one piece is bumped and the whole thing topples.  Missing our shuttle from the hotel means missing our bus that takes us to the ferry, and if we can’t get on the ferry then we can’t get to the island where our next hotel is already booked and paid for.  The hotel clerk was quite unsympathetic when he assumed we stupidly slept in, but after I showed him our tickets with “7:30am pickup” written clearly on the front his demeanour changed.  I may have also subtly played up the damsel in distress side a little too…   Whatever the reason, he was our knight in shining armour as he made several phone calls before triumphantly announcing the driver was returning for us.  He then dropped his voice to let us in on a secret: the operator we booked the tickets through wasn’t as good – if he had arranged our transfer we never would have been given the wrong time.

With this in my mind, memories of other warnings I had read about tourist scams blazed behind my eyes.  I recall reading that people have been ripped off when booking a combination bus and ferry ticket to the Thai island of Koh Samui…. exactly where we’re headed to.  So even though the van returned to pick us up, all through the drive I was alert for the moment when we would be informed we needed to pay more to continue our journey.  And there were several moments appearing to be exactly that – when the van driver rushed us to get on the waiting bus but wouldn’t take the time to return our ticket which was our only proof of payment for the whole trip.  Or at the next transfer point where we were told a new bus would take us to the port, still had no ticket in my hand but was assured it wouldn’t matter.  Amazingly enough, all the way to on the ferry and including the van transfer on the next island to our hotel, everything ran just tickety-boo and we were never once asked for more money or proof that we actually paid our fare the previous day.        ————————————-

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Nervous on the road today

So.  I made it to my island paradise, but for me there was a little downside to being surrounded by tempting beaches.  I of course brought my phone with me to the beach – all the better for taking photos and jotting down my thoughts while simultaneously sunbathing – but my phone had an unfortunate encounter with salt water.  If you were wondering why there was suddenly radio silence on my end, it’s because I allowed my phone to drown.  My lifeline!  I didn’t know how reliant on (addicted to) my phone I had become until I needed to finish my travels without my phone.   Thankfully I had already written the above portion of this post, and it was saved in my drafts online, but I didn’t have access to it at all.

 

I will say, though, that it truly was a serene paradise.  If you find yourself headed to Koh Samui, I can highly recommend the resort we stayed in.  It was difficult to leave, despite hoping I could save my phone once we made it back to Bangkok.  Check out the Crystal Bay Beach Resort and see for yourself why it may be topping my mental list of favourite locals lately.

 

You know what I realized as I was finishing up this post?   As I worried about the worst happening (getting scammed, ruining my electronics) I have somehow come through it all without any real problems arising from my worries.   I feel so incredibly lucky to have gone this far, travelled so much, and really not had any major mishaps ruin my days.  …yet…   So from me to you:  safe travels, friends.   May your luck hold even better than mine!

 

Phuket Island

Finally arriving at Phuket airport, back in Thailand to explore the South part of the country and bask on beautiful beaches, I breathe in a lungful of ocean air.  This is going to be good!  Standing outside, late at night, waiting for the shared shuttle that will take us to our hotel I just keep breathing in and smiling.   It’s also partly an effort at self-distraction to keep myself from being irritated that my backpack arrived on the luggage conveyer with zippers open.  Again…  Five flights on this journey, and every single time my bag has been rifled through or little things taken from pockets that I was unable to lock.  Thankfully I never travel with anything of value in my checked luggage, but still, it’s maddening.  Tricia suggested my bag has been targeted because it looks so girly, and girls usually have good stuff with them; I think she might be right.  

But no matter.  I’m in a place famous for some of the most beautiful beaches the world has to offer so nothing can ruin my joy!   Patong Beach, where our hotel is located, is more of a party town than I’m currently in the mood for but at least I can still appreciate how fun it would be…. hopefully that means I’m not entirely old yet!  While walking around the street stalls and markets next to the beach it’s impossible to avoid the sales pitches from vendors selling day trips, and by the end of our second day here we stopped and chatted with a woman about our options.  After a bit of negotiating, lots of smiles and some friendly banter, she “remembered” that the trip we were most interested in had a promotion – tomorrow the last day! – and we could book it for 50% of the cost printed on the brochure.  She was really sweet, despite my scepticism of her prices, and we were happy to book our excursion from her.  

So bright and very early the next morning Tricia and I set off to explore some of the limestone islands around Phuket, along with a few hundred other likeminded adventurers.  (The surprising thing, really, is that I can still be surprised by what a massive machine tourism has become.  I’ve not only witnessed this over and over, I’m also a part of it – so why do I always hope I’ll be the only one out??)

Our full boat; and about 6 more just like it

Crowded, sure.  I guess the takeaway for us travellers and tourists creating this demand is to do our best to choose companies that are careful in sustainable and ethical operations.   Now with that soapbox spiel out of the way, without further ado, the best parts of a very great day!

We were offered coffee, tea and fruit on the boat during the hour it took to reach the first island we stopped at, and I think we were all happy to be out on the water.  When we stopped it was to hop into small canoes with experienced guides who would take us into caves (bat caves!) and through lagoons deeper around the islands. 

Inside the first cave
Islands of limestone cliffs
Perfect lighting for selfies – can’t pass that up!
Phang Nga Islands
We had some admirers taking photos – I’m trying to consider it sweet instead of creepy. This is one he shared

We were taken to a tiny remote beach and given free time to swim before returning to the big boat.  A delicious lunch was served while we made our way towards the “James Bond Island”  famous from a movie scene and countless photos on  Pinterest.

The guides waiting while we swim

While very toursty, the stop to view this jagged rocket of an island was a lot of fun.   I can’t tell you have many photos I have of myself in various fake-sultry Bond girl poses…  Seriously I can’t, it’s too embarrassing.   So instead I’ll post some of the shots I got of Tricia, she pulls it off much better than I.  In fact, if the right person sees this, she’ll probably be cast in the next remake! 

We had one final surprise on the way back to the harbour before finishing the tour, and it was pretty impressive.  Our guide had told us all day he could finally call the eagles to the boat, and it had taken him 24 years to learn how to do it.  As our boat passed the right spot, he had us all begin to clap and shout “up up up”.  I don’t generally consider myself a cynical person, but I was 100% sure there wouldn’t be an actual bird swooping down to join us.  My guess was a rock formation in avian shape, or maybe a plane high in the sky above us.   But I saw something entirely new to me; childlike awe and wonder erasing every trace of dubiosity.  He wasn’t joking.

Photo by Tricia

A Vietnam Voyage

I need more time in Vietnam.  I know I say things like that all the time – but I really wish I had more time here now.  I’ve had this zip of happiness bubbling in me since I arrived across the border, and each day I’ve been delighted by something new.  Maybe I was already primed to love this country between the positive stories I’ve heard from friends and the charming way I entered, by small boat and the Mekong River; or maybe there is still a joie de vivre lingering in the atmosphere from the former French influence.  Whatever the reason, Vietnam is high on my “return to” list.

I took a little break from writing to just completely enjoy myself, and now that I’m trying to sort it all out there’s so much to say I’m not sure where to start… since they say the beginning is a good place I guess that’s what I’ll do! 

The boat our tour group was led to in Phnom Penh elicited some chuckles when we first saw it – the tiniest little vessel in the harbour would be our home for the day’s journey down the river!  Cozy, I guess…  With about an hour left to go before our arrival the sky turned dark, the wind raced and sheets of rain dropped from the sky.  I never worried about the boat capsizing but I was closely watching the crew as they attempted to navigate nearly blind.  

Little river boat
Peering through the rain

Thankfully, as I’ve become accustomed to in SE Asia, the rain storm didn’t last long and by the time we arrived at the harbour we only endured a light sprinkle as we walked to the hotel through the small city of Chau Doc.

Absorbing the city on the walk to check in

Day two in Vietnam began before the sunrise when we set off to visit the floating markets.  Life along the Mekong Delta revolves around the river, and commerce is no exception.  Larger boats will arrive stuffed to the gills with produce and anchor offshore until their items have been sold.  Small boats come alongside and purchase their selections while even smaller boats putt past selling drinks and breakfast.  Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, these Vietnamese boats! 

A scene from the floating market

Breakfast to go at the floating market

As boats are for Chau Doc, scooters are to Ho Chi Minh City.  I feel like I’ve seen a lot of busy cities with chaotic roads during my travels – that contrast to home is part of the fun for me – and Ho Chi Minh doesn’t disappoint!  Getting around the city was an adventure all its own, and the perfect chance for me to use RideGuru again.  I wanted a do over since I ended up not actually finding a rideshare company to use in Vancouver, (plus I ended up with a super cute little swag bag from them, if I’m being honest).  Free wifi is really easy to find in HCM City, and with that it was a quick click to bring up cost estimates using my exact location.  I booked two different Uber trips through RideGuru and both times the fare was within a couple dollars of the estimate I was shown on RideGuru 

Moment before my rideshare car arrives

The one downside to the days in Ho Chi Minh was saying goodbye to the rest of the tour group as we all went our own separate ways from here.  So to Joe, Gemma and Eric, Maisie, Dawn, and Mia – good luck with the rest of your travels!  It was an absolute blast exploring Cambodia and Vietnam with each of you!! 

Craving some quality beach time after all the busyness of the tour and cities, Google informed me that Vung Tau is the closest beach town so we set our minds to get there asap.  I wanted to double check the best way to get there so I stopped in to ask one of the travel agents near the hotel.  She told me not to go there, that the beach was filthy, and then quite adamantly told me the departure times of a shuttle to some other beach further away.  Her forcefulness made me suspicious, and assuming that she receives a kickback from that shuttle company I chose to ignore her advice.  It was a gamble because Mia and Tricia were coming with me and I didn’t want to disappoint, but thankfully one that paid off.  Vung Tau is a town with a great feel to it, we got a room in a beautiful resort for less than the cost of a grungy motel back home, and the beach was fine.  Some litter marred it, but no more than I’ve noticed at a lot of other developing nations’ beaches. 

On our last day there (sadly after Mia already left) the hotel manager introduced himself to us, along with the head chef and some other staff memebers.  We chatted for a while and assured them we loved our stay there and assumed that was the end of the story.  Hours later, the most beautiful gift showed up for us from the manager and chef.  

Hand carved wonders

Personalized carved watermelon and pumpkin!!  These pictures do not do justice to the artistry; each detail was exquisite.  Enchanted by our gifts, and especially the sweetly proud way they were offered only to delight us, we promised to stop in if we ever find ourselves near Vietnam again in the future.  If you go to Vung Tau, stay in the DIC Star Hotel and Resort! 

This South corner of Vietnam that I was lucky enough to visit has me magnetized, already pulling at me to return.  

Delightful