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

Cambodia: Part Two Angkor Wat

3:40 in the morning and my alarm cuts short the end of my dream; but I don’t mind because I’m about to go experience a real life dream come true!   We’re both a little groggy from lack of sleep and we have a quick deadline that doesn’t leave us much time to get ready – no time even for coffee or breakfast! – but I don’t care at all because nothing can dampen my enthusiasm for getting out to watch the sun rise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.  I’m buzzing with a giddy energy, and already envisioning all the epic photos I’ll be able to take.  
The drive from our hotel in Siem Reap to Angkor Wat was about half an hour, and some time during those thirtyish minutes  it started to rain.  The guide made a comment about how nice it was for us to be here in the rainy season, as it meant there would still be water in the ponds. “More much beautiful this way.”    Within three steps of exiting the van the rain intensified and all of us travellers made the instinctual decision to buy the plastic rain ponchos being offered us.  We finally enter the complex and try to get ourselves set up in the best spots for the sunrise photos, mostly by following the crowd of other ponchos and umbrellas.  Apparently we had about 25 minutes before the big moment.  But the rain kept pouring and it was starting to become obvious that we wouldn’t see a bright sunrise through all the rain and clouds.  I had left my umbrella in the room that morning, and the worst part was that I hadn’t forgotten it, I deliberately took it out because I didn’t want to be bothered carrying it all day; that fact added to my mood steadily souring as I tried to shelter my camera with a plastic bag.  Standing in the rain and mud I snapped a few photos but it wasn’t long before I was ready to give up.  Cliche as it is, I kept thinking “man, when it rains it pours!” because my list of little grievances was suddenly flooded.  No Sunrise. No golden photos. Ruining my camera in the rain.  Water dripping down my neck, mud coating my sandals and toes. No coffee or breakfast. Not enough sleep.    I finally bought another umbrella from a vendor because at least that could protect my camera, and didn’t even care that I paid his first price instead of barganing down to a more reasonable price.

Mood of the morning
Angkor Wat in the rain

Our tour group of seven made the unanimous decision to return to our hotel for breakfast in the hopes that the rain would stop during that time, and I’m sooo glad we did.  That was the reset I needed, and by the time we returned I was on my way back to being able to enjoy it all.  The rain did stop, sun came out again, and we were able to explore the three main temple ruins like we had originally planned – Angkor WatAngkor Thom, and Ta Prohm

Throughout the centuries in Cambodia’s history the religion practiced here changed between Hindu and Buddhism depending on who was in power.  It’s left behind an amazing mix of carvings depicting Vishnu and Rama next to statues of Buddha, both hemmed in together by the surrounding dense jungle.  

Hindu and Buddhist
Buddhist monk visiting the temple
Amazing ancient ruins
Monkeys!
Elephants!
The Tomb Raider scene
Ta Prohm temple ruins

The good looking group

Angkot Wat is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and exploring through the complex is still a complete dream come true.   If you ever get the chance to go there yourself don’t pass it up – but just be open to having a different experience than what you may have pictured.   I didn’t get the stunning sunrise photo like   seemingly the rest of the Travel Bloggers were able to but in the end I don’t even miss it.  

Better than expected Bangkok

When was the last time an experience was a pleasant surprise for you?  I’m curious about that now as I sit and process my past two days in Bangkok, pleasantly surprised at just how much I’ve enjoyed it here.  Don’t get me wrong, I expected to like it – by nature I tend to go through life with an “everything is awesome!” outlook, but I had also entered Thailand’s main city with the preconceived opinion that it was a busy smoggy city much like any other.  Everyone always says to get out of the city as fast as you can, and tour around the countryside instead.  At the moment I tend to disagree, because had I left immediately I would have missed out on being wowed by the kindness of its citizens. 

Thailand is in official mourning after their King died.  I’m not sure what it would be like here during a regular day, but what I witnessed over and over again was the unique camaraderie that comes from a united population.  All along the crowded sidewalks people would be stationed to give out free bottled water, or meals, snacks, and photos of the king. Thousands of them.  And often an extra effort would be made to let us know we were also welcome to take what was being offered.  Beyond that, there were several times both days when someone passing by would stop to point us in the right direction, translate for us, or even lead us for 10 minutes down the winding roads to our destination. 

Finding commonalities in adoration
Memorials set up all over the city
Hundreds of thousands paying their respects

Many of the usual tourist highlights in the city are closed or adjusted this week, but the ones we did see were stunning.  

We started at Wat Pho, the temple complex of the Reclining Buddha.  

Wat Pho
At Wat Pho (shared photo credit with Tricia)
Wat Pho images of the reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha’s face
Reclining Buddha’s toes
Wat Pho
Guarding the entrance at Wat Pho
 

As per usual during my travels, much of the day was spent walking.  I love seeing a city by foot and thankfully Tricia’s a good sport about that – we just need to make pit stops for food all the time and street vendors are the perfect solution!  

I tried the octopus

Between all the eating and temple touring we found time to shop.  Bangkok has everything you could possibly want, and more tourist-trap knickknacks than you can imagine so it’s easy to get lost in the markets.  Figuratively and literally.   The good thing about backpacking is how reluctant I am to buy things I don’t really need, since I know it just means I’ll have to huff it around for the next 20 days.  I was feeling quite proud of my shopping self control, until I realized it’s really only the instant reward of lighter bags with the delayed gratification of knowing I can buy it all when I’m back here before my flight home.  One for the win! 

While wandering the shops along Khao San Road, happily hypnotized by all the sensory onslaught around us, we talked ourselves into trying a fish pedicure.  Seemed like a fun way to cap off a day of new experiences.   Aaaaand, we hated it.  Yes, our feet were soft after the little fish ate away all the dead skin but I can achieve the same with a pumice stone and way less ick factor.  I was suddenly reminded of my biggest childhood fear in the summers at the lake: “What if fish come and bite my toes?”

Barely keeping it together (Photos by Tricia)

Early morning of Day Three has us meeting up with our tour group and setting off to Cambodia.    But before we go, here are a couple more shots from Bangkok.

Quiet riverside lounging
Water taxi
Temple

Suddenly

It’s funny how quickly situations in life can change sometimes.  Not long ago I was bemoaning the loneliness that can set in with solo travel, and then in the metaphorical blink of an eye I found myself so busy socializing that I could barely manage the time to keep up with my writing.  (A problem I will happily choose any time!)    My other big change has been location again…. Yes, I realize this is a travel blog and so it’s not news that I’ve travelled…  But I’ve left Europe and I think that any continent change deserves specific mention.   Friday morning I flew out of Warsaw, enjoyed a 5 hour layover in Amsterdam, and wound up clearing customs in Edmonton.  This city isn’t home for me, but close enough that I have my own people here.  People like Tricia, who will be in most of my stories this post.  I’ll give a visual to help while you continue reading; she’s the blue-eyed beauty on the left.  You’re welcome.  ğŸ˜‰


And a little foreshadowing… she’ll feature prominently in this blog when we go to another new continent, Asia, this fall.

When I set out on my travels I had people say to me  “aren’t you worried about the dangers?”,  and my answer was always along the lines of  “of course I am, but I’ll be careful. Plus who says home is safer anyway??”    So not that I’m keeping score or anything, but I have two new examples proving MY point on this issue. 

Number 1 – Crime:   It seemed like a man was following us in a store last night, and just after we started paying closer attention he set down his basket full to the brim with items and bent over it for a moment as if looking for something.  Suddenly he’s dashing straight out the door and into an SUV that screeched up to the entrance.  My theory is that he was using us as a distraction cover while he boldly shoplifted a ton of stuff.  Jerk. 

Number 2 – Wildlife:  I still can’t quite believe this happened, and it happened to me, with witnesses!  Walking along the river valley in an Edmonton park, on a paved pathway through the trees, I nearly stepped on a snake. (!!!!!!)  Good thing the snake was fast, and it disappeared away into the bushes along the path before my heart was able to resume beating.  It was BIG! And black with a bright green/yellow stripe down the length of it.  As my foot was about to come down on it, and it began to move away I gave a startled yelp and hopped back/over away. That’s how I remember it, but another version is that I ‘screamed like a girl’ and jolted over to the other side of the path.  Sounds a little dramatic to me…. I prefer to think I kept a bit of dignity in that moment, but who knows?!  One thing for sure is I was awfully jumpy for the next hour.   A Google search has me convinced this was a Prairie Garter Snake, which can grow to be about a metre long.  I had no idea there were snakes like this in Alberta.  I think I liked it better in that ignorance. 

So since I’ve established that home (home province)  does not equal an automatically safer environment, it’s easier to announce that my next trip begins in a day from now.    I’ll be on my way to another country again early Tuesday morning.   See what I mean about change happening  quickly?

Let the good times roll

Do you remember the last time you paid attention to the good things?  Maybe you do all the time, but I’ve got a leftover Euro I’d put on the table that most often it’s the little gripes that stick in our brain.  I don’t even mean that in a bad way – we tend to bond over a bit of good natured complaining, and negatives can end up being the most entertaining stories!   I also know this could teeter into eye rolling Pollyanna territory so I’ll try to keep my musings short and avoid that….

Starting out simple and not quite to my point, I have been fully indulging in good food and good wine and great sunny weather.  Thank you France for making it so easy to stay happy!! 

More along the lines of what I mean, though, and what started this train of thought for me is watching how people interact.  A memorial dedicated to victims of the recent attack in Nice grew during the past few days and over and over again I saw how complete strangers would connect and share a moment together. 

It’s in the mini random acts of kindness too.  Earlier today I was digging through my wallet trying to find the right coins that would allow me to get into the restroom (side note: really looking forward to Canada where I won’t have to pay to pee!) and a person walking by handed me their coins and said they had extra.  I don’t think it was even because they were impatient, I wasn’t blocking the line, it was just someone giving fifty cents and making my day a bit better.  So I guess I can’t be placing figurative bets with my leftover Euro, I need that now to pay it forward. 

———————————-
Musings over for now.    Back to travel writing, I’ve been on a road trip the past couple days and have been able to see A LOT of countryside go past my window.   For anyone looking to get around and wanting a cheaper alternative to the train, take a look at Flixbus.  I wish I would have discovered this earlier!  I’ll use this again next time I’m making my way across this continent for sure.

This is Lyon. I also saw a city named Nancy 😊

Long German words seem funny to me

I spent an evening in Germany, and that was just enough to convince me that I need to go back and explore more of that country.  

Tomorrow I’ll try to see some of the highlights London has to offer.  Cheerio!

Heartbreak and Hope

It’s a somber atmosphere around me today.  

I’m in Southern France, and last night while the country was celebrating a national holiday I was part of the outdoor crowds, revelling in the general joie de vivre in the air.  This morning I woke to the news that in the nearby city of Nice a deliberate attack killed 84 people, families out celebrating Bastille Day.  I cried as I read the news this morning, where I also saw the story of a missing girl in my home city ended in the tragic discovery of her body and murder charges pending. My heart hurts.

Attack in Nice
Calgary murders

A photo I took in Nice, 2007

It’s difficult to know how to transition when so much could be said on these devestating acts of violence.  But today I’ll take my cue from the people I see around me who fill the plaza on this sunny day: continue on, but be aware.  The cafes lining the plaza are crowded with people, white-shirted waiters bustling their trays back and forth and a street musician quietly strumming a guitar from time to time, but I also see soldiers unobtrusively patrolling the streets.  The sense I get isn’t one of head-in-the-sand “I won’t look so the bad can’t bother me” nor is it one of abject devestation but rather a reminder that life is precious and unpredictable, and maybe the best we can do right now is to go on with our days showing a little more love to the people around us.   Just a moment ago right in front of me, a family walked by and for no reason visible to me the father stopped to bend down and kiss the top of his young daughter’s head. It was only a split second and they were moving past again, but it brought tears to my eyes for the second time today.

A plaza in Montpellier

A few days in Tamraght 

The past few days have been really great, if I do say so myself.  I’m in a little town called Tamraght right on the coast and have spent my entire Saturday as a beach bum.  Now, just before the sun sets, I’m sitting in the common room of the hostel watching the Germany vs. Italy soccer game with 5 other people while we wait for dinner to be served.   

Here’s what caught my eye in town:


Yesterday was much more action packed than today’s low-key lounging. It started out Thursday, when another couple at this hostel mentioned they were planning on going for a hike and invited me to join them. I would have said yes regardless; as an added bonus Lexi and Cody turned out to be a ton of fun and it’s easy to be friends with them!   So anyway, Friday morning after our second cups of coffee (Lexi and I have that in common) the three of us and another 2 Italians made our way to Paradise Valley.  The name sums it up nicely.  A 45 minute drive from here through arid foothills is the start of an easy hike into a vibrant valley full of banana trees, argan, and lavender.   A few kms later brought us to the most stunning series of natural pools.   We saw a few other people early on, but we kept hiking and ended up at our own secluded oasis. 


 
Sunshine, clear warm water, and daredevil dives from way too high.  Thankfully everyone walked back out again without the need for a neck brace, but I have to admit the safety nerd side of me had a few internal panic attacks.  For the record, though, I need to let you know that even I jumped off the rocks!!!    No big deal….  ğŸ™‚

Friday evening finished off with us on the rooftop back at the hostel, swapping stories and laughing until long after dark. So good!