Saigon & the Muddy Mekong

Day 2 in Saigon

Today we tour the famous Mekong River Delta in Vietnamese: the Đồng bằng Sông Cửu Long “Nine Dragon river delta”.

Lengthy bus ride through HCMC and over the river …

Pit stop for refreshments again… Roadside fresh coconut water!! I had so much fresh coconut water in Vietnam… but it was definitely the best in Saigon where the weather was the hottest and it was most refreshing!

Our first stop, we visited a little village where we sampled various local fruits and honey, and a Vietnamese group sang for us.

Carrying on… we wandered through some “farmland” near the river while our guide spoke a bit about the history of the area and some of the cultures and traditions… beautiful area for sure!

And then, the highlight of the day… traditional conical Vietnamese hats, called nón lá, and a traditional Mekong row boat  ride down one of the many little channels of the Mekong River… It was amazing just meandering along that muddy chanel, surrounded by tall foliage on either side… So relaxing actually. (Not for the poor woman rowing/pushing the boat around though!)

We landed at a little factory on the edge of the river where fresh coconut candies were made. They demonstrated how the treats were made… and then we got to sample the still warm and gooey and totally delectable coconut candy… made from everything coconut! Coconut milk, coconut sugar… so yum!!!!

And… there just happened to be a big ol python?? there. Some type of snake anyways. It was our lucky day. we could hold it! Initially I was kind of excited to hold it. It looked like it was sleeping anyways as it was super relaxed. A bunch of people held it. It started waking up. By the time snakey got to Amelia… it was definitely starting to wake up and squirm a little more… so I started getting pretty freaked out about my turn next. Would it be fully awake by then?!! It took me a bit to talk myself into have the snake placed around my neck, and when I finally said yes, the snakes handler just tossed the darn thing around my neck. I jumped! Pretty sure it jumped too and started winding its snakey large self up and around my neck!!!! I was freaking!! And everyone was telling me to smile for the pic. I managed a grimace before totally freaking out. Never again feel the need to ever ever ever hold a snake again. I still get the heebie jeebies thinking bout that thing snaking around my neck!! Entertaining photos tho! :S

Next up on our tour: we took a bigger boat down a main portion of the Mekong River to a little island where we had some lunch.

And finally… headed back to the bus and on to our last stop… a Vietnamese Pagoda… Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho…

And that was it for our Ho Chi Minh tour plans. One night to go out with our hostel crew and in the morning we were catching a quick flight up to Hoi An!

Saigon nightlife for us started with a few drinks at the hostel bar where I met a ton of Canadian backpackers!!! A giant game of sidewalk Jenga evolved into a very loud and exuberant and very touching edition of “Oh Canada”. JT would be proud (Justin Trudeau…).

oh and… Canadians dominated the Hideout hostel Hand Grenade Challenge (a shot of tequila followed immediately by a Jager Bomb) as we obviously completed the most challenges 🙂

Hostel life isn’t complete without a rambunctious pub crawl through Saigon (Saigon nightlife is supposed to be fantastic btw)… so we joined a whole group from the hostel and headed out to a couple different places in District 1 in Pham Ngu Lao.. definitely a seedy district, nothing classy at all. But a whole lot of fun!! Saigon is crazy by day… and at night is only a fraction quieter and less crazy but equally as bright!

And that was it for us in Saigon… potentially will hit up a museum when we return to Saigon in a couple weeks before we fly back home.

Cam on Saigon!

Vacation in Vietnam

End of January 2016

The end of January… end of probation (the mandatory 3 months in Saudi Arabia without vacation to prove you’re a responsible employee…) and my bestie and I are headed to Vietnam for 2 completely amazing weeks away from work!!!!

Riyadh -> Doha -> Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon).

Flying Qatar airways for the first time… even economy class is lovely on a Dreamliner!!!! And Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar… is definitely the nicest airport I’ve ever been too!!!

We had a couple hours wait in Doha before our flight to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) so we found a lovely steakhouse/wine bar/piano bar where we ordered dinner and settled into luscious leather seats to listen to some lovely piano music and sip glasses of wine. Such a relaxing start to the trip!

And… my bestie is AMAZING! She surprised me with a gorgeous white gold necklace with my name written in Arabic! I’d always admired hers… and, being the extremely thoughtful individual that she is, she got me one of my own!!

Eventually we flew out of Doha to Vietnam, and landed in the crazy that is Vietnam mid-day I think? I can’t remember. I think my body was pretty stunned by travelling all night after working a full day before getting on the plane! We retrieved our backpacks (oh yeah… I should mention that this is my first ever “backpacking trip!!!!!! It took a little to minimize my packing style!)

As a side note, to avoid confusion, I should briefly explain that Saigon is the original name of Ho Chi Minh City… it was renamed after revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Still most commonly called Saigon by Vietnamese and tourists alike.

Our first exposure to Vietnam was a little crazy. I don’t even know how to begin to describe the traffic… but imagine how a school of fish swim… and then picture those fish as dilapidated cars or mopeds… and the mopeds are carrying probably a mother and father and one toddler and the mother is holding a small infant and theres a box of groceries on the back and a small tree and potentially a cow… (the cow is probably pushing it a little… but the rest is legit)… and the cars and mopeds all swarm together and cross paths and beep their horns continuously… rushing forward as soon as theres a small gap that opens up before appearing to nearly crash into each other again… It was insanity! I was white knuckled every time I got in any type of vehicle and I thought for sure we were going to get in a car accident at some point on our trip through Vietnam. (we made it out unscathed though… didn’t even witness a single accident!)

Anyways. Found our hostel in District 1. Crashed for a few hours. Then went a wandering the streets around our hostel looking for some fabulous pho for dinner. I’d seen that Pho Quynh had great reviews on Foursquare (didn’t know how much I could actually count on Foursquare in Vietnam) so we wandered around a couple blocks several times, before realizing we kept walking past it! It was a packed little place on a street corner, filled with locals and expats, where we sat outside on the corner on metal chairs with traffic zipping by only feet away. Despite Saigon being hot and sticky, that hot soup tasted amazing despite the heat… probably cuz the Tiger beers we drank with it were amazing!! Fun fact: upon further research now that I’m home, apparently this place even made it into Lonely Planet it’s so great!

Seriously sleep deprived so we didn’t have the energy required for Saigon nightlife… but we did manage to wander the streets around our hotel for a bit… found a bar where we had a couple drinks sitting on flimsy wooden chairs along the sidewalk, just people watching and taking in all the crazy awesome and fascinating scenes the busy night scene had on display…

And then, early-ish lights out for us sleep deprived nanas. Mekong Delta tour tomorrow!

Dubai Weekend Getaway

January 2016

What do you get when you combine a British Couple about to get married, living in the Middle East, with their friends from various other British Commonwealth countries?? A Dubai Hen-do/Stag-do party weekend!!

A close friend of mine from Riyadh got engaged last year, and with her nuptials coming up quickly… we wanted to get out and celebrate her last few months as a single lady. Plus… I’d been in Saudi for nearly 3 months already now without leaving once… I was definitely in need of a time out! And… a few of us had plans to leave Saudi Arabia for good at some point in the coming year. So, ultimately it was a combination of masalama parties (a couple of the crew were leaving Riyadh soon…and I was starting to consider handing in my resignation also), birthday celebrations, but largely a hen do/jack n’ jill/ bachelorette party.

6 of us, including the bride and groom, headed out of Riyadh one Thursday… Dubai bound! We checked into a hotel in the JBR where we all shared a lovely suite with a full kitchen and sitting area… Not that we used the kitchen for anything more than storing champagne and OJ and making mimosas 👌🏼

The squad hit up Meat Co for dinner on our first night in Dubai, at Dubai Souq Madinat Jumeirah… a resort built to look like an authentic Arabian city with bazaars and traditional Middle Eastern shopping built between lovely waterways that allow the resort to be explored by boat also. The souq offers stunning views of the Burj Al Arab and is gorgeous during the day but also at night!

Meat Co might be one of my favourite restaurants… they always have a fabulous wine menu and the steak is always fantastic! So over a couple bottles of wine, looking out at the Burj al Arab, gloriously lit for the evening, watching boats pass in the waterway, gentle background music (a luxury we rarely have in Riyadh that always indicates freedom to me!), slightly humid and vaguely cool early February weather… we had a wonderful dinner of friendship and great conversation!

After dinner, we walked around the souq to Trader Vic’s for very large cocktails in super funky cups… and a little dancing of course. What’s a hen-do without a good dance party?!

Friday morning, I woke up super early, and I wasn’t the only one! The bride and groom to be were also up already with the sunrise, so we took in a little fresh air and morning sunshine along The Walk Dubai and even dipped our toes in the water as we walked along Jumeirah Beach also. The sun was blissful and the water perfectly refreshing… it always amuses me to see the camels on the beach… such a stark contrast between the very modern high rise hotels and apartments in the background and the camel as such a traditional Arabic symbol.

Then… champagne o’clock!!!! Standard Friday fun in Dubai is never complete without a boozy brunch!!!

On the menu… the Bubbalicious Brunch at the Westin Hotel Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina!

I don’t even know where to start, but I’ve never seen such an incredible display of food!!!! And booze!! The setup was beautiful… wine and and a huge assortment of cheeses and meats and breads set on wooden benches and wine barrels, a sushi bar, a taco stand complete with margaritas and mojitos, a full pig roast, a Pimms stand, plenty of vodka options including watermelons filled with vodka/run, and even a burger joint… and a gorgeous display for Hendricks gin!! There was even a dark room with all sorts of glow in the dark food and fun!! And our glasses were constantly being refilled with champagne… and I think we tried a few too many of the drinks options… but hey. It was fun!!! So much laughter and just relaxing in the sunshine, palms waving overhead, a view of the ocean in the distance…

And after our liquid lunch(I mean after we were sufficiently stuffed with food!) and brunch closed down, we headed to the disco at the Westin for some old school tunes and more fun. Singing and dancing with the girls… tequila shots for the girls back in Riyadh… it was so much fun!

Being the rookie bruncher that I am… I probably needed a little nap after brunch and the disco… and that nap might have turned into a full on snooze that lasted til the rest of the crew showed up back at the hotel at midnight!!! Not sure where they all went while I was sleeping but they clearly had a good time!  A couple of us headed back up to the hotel rooftop bar to finish the night with a last drink and beautiful view of Dubai!

The next morning… I didn’t have to leave Dubai on Saturday until quite a bit later in the day, so I woke up and went for a lengthy run/walk through the Dubai marina and along Jumeirah Beach. Spending so much time in Saudi, not having the freedom to get up and run out my door, only being able to run freely in compounds or in the Diplomatic Quarters, always means I’ll take advantage of any opportunity to run on vacation outside of Saudi!! And the Dubai Marina is always gorgeous… whether walking around and people watching, or actually seriously getting a sweat on and running it fast! Although I always seem to forget how much more humid Dubai is than I think it is!!!!! Doesn’t take much to work up a sweat!

We finished off the morning with a little shopping and wander through the Walk again… checking out the little market held at the end of the walk every weekend… the outdoor gym… and the seriously awesome whips parked curbside along the walk…

And… last order of business before we all headed out to the airport… a trip to Dubai is never complete without a stop at Barasti… and we all needed lunch and pre-Riyadh drinks!!!

Anyways… that was pretty much the last of my big Dubai weekend… Last thought, is that I will never fly Flynas again. (sorry friends who work for Flynas!) Here is my little review of Flynas. Not worth the cheaper flight… the lines are SUPER long and completely unorganized!! Rather than line up by destination, its just a bulk line for all Flynas flights with airline agents constantly coming along and calling out for people still waiting to check in for flights leaving too soon for them to make it though the whole line! And those of you who life/have lived in the middle East know the frustration and ridiculousness of queues(that really aren’t queues at all) here! Plus… no booze in the Flynas terminal! couldn’t even get a drink to relax after the frustration of dealing with the check-in lines. Not cool.

Fortunately… I had a flying pal so it wasn’t so bad 🙂 And made it to Riyadh just dandily in time to get home for a decent sleep before heading back to work for 5 days before 2 weeks vacation in Vietnam with my bestie!!!!!

And… super excited for my friends to get married in May! Vacation time is booked off to attend the wedding!!

xx. Vietnam adventures upcoming. Stay tuned.

Expat Holiday Season #2

 

Christmas and New Year 2015

Holiday Season #2 away from home… A year ago, I didn’t really expect that I’d be spending another Christmas and New Years in Saudi Arabia… But here I am. And it’s not so bad at all again.

This Christmas, I think what I appreciated the most, was the response from some of my patients and colleagues. Even though many of them do not celebrate Christmas, many of my patients who spoke English, wished me a Merry Christmas and happy holiday season. I had several conversations with patients who shared with me how they celebrate with their children (from a non-religious perspective), and how they really appreciate the joy and cheerfulness of the season and of their nurses who are celebrating the special day.

Despite being far from home, again I was surrounded by people I love and care deeply for… my Saudi family… the group of amazing friends I’ve been blessed to get to know over the past year…

I think being completely removed from the commercialism of the holiday season in North America actually gives us a much more natural and real holiday experience! There is absolutely no evidence that Christmas is near in Saudi Arabia… Starbucks doesn’t sell Christmas drinks… the shops aren’t filled with overwhelming rows of toys and candy canes and all sorts of goodies (not more than they usually are anyways)… there’s no tacky holiday music playing in the shops/malls… and life is generally just proceeding as is usually does. We have to look so hard to find simple decorations and ways to celebrate.

But we, being deprived of all the typical Christmas atmosphere, appreciate the little bits we do have and manage to commercialize our Christmases pretty well actually. The terribly tacky plastic Christmas trees that pop up in some remote little corner in a grocery store… the thin little string of lights someone manages to rummage up and string around their room…

And then there’s the compound Christmas markets… where everyone visiting the compound was in full holiday spirit and I LOVED walking around the booths finding saudi versions of Christmas cards… (comical camels with tinsel and lights)… fridge magnets… camel tree ornaments, etc.

And there are always plenty of events to celebrate the season…

The US Marines held an ugly Christmas sweater party…  (which I don’t have any pics of unfortuantely due to no cellphones at embassy rules…)

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And of course… Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a red and green run… so we ran in full holiday spirit… red/green clothing if we could find it… jingle bells on our shoes… even got the crew (the running lemons and associates) together for a Christmas tree red/green run photo…

Another pre-Christmas party… With more excitement over finding Christmas decorations in play…

And then finally… It was Christmas weekend and Christmas eve at work… it was Thursday afternoon… and when our shift ended, we all tucked ourselves into a back room where we set up a massive international cuisine potluck and a secret santa gift exchange… it was so amazing to be able to celebrate with all my beautiful colleagues from around the world… New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, the UK, Spain, Canada, America…

When we finally finished work for the day, and for the week, Amelia and I set off to a friends compound to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas morning together with the people we love most in Saudi. It was a super chill evening of hurried present wrapping, tucking presents under the tree, and finally getting cozy on couches to fill our bellies with cheesy pizza and watch the ultimate Christmas movie… Home Alone (can you believe I’d actually never seen it yet?!!!)

I fell asleep feeling so content… Listening to the rain patter on the roof… Making it seem so much cozier and winterier… So that it hardly even seemed like we were in Saudi Arabia.

I was bounced out of bed by my excited bestie for Merry Christmas morning hugs… Wearing the reindeer onesie I got her so we could be twinsies in our onesies on Christmas morning 🙂  I baked scones with cream and jam for breakfast… And together we all opened all the presents we’d set under the tree.  My heart was so happy. I couldn’t ask for better people to spend a Christmas away from home with. So blessed!!

Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a big Christmas lunch with the same fabulous “family” we shared Christmas with last year… We all contributed to a massive feast with all the usual Christmas fixings (aside from ham :S)… Christmas cupcakes… A whole lot more presents to open thanks to Secret Santa… And time spent just hanging out, catching up, and singing Karoke…

And finally… A Boxing Day dinner with my flat mate and a couple other dear friends… (I feel like all I did was eat Christmas weekend!!! But isn’t that just like Christmas in North America?! :S) And I must say… It sure felt cold enough to be Christmas too!!! The pool might look lovely… But really it’s frigid!! (And frigid does mean less than 10 degrees mid-winter in Saudi!!)

And then… About a week after Christmas… It was New Years Eve… I rang in the New Year with singing and joy, confetti, and a whole lot of happiness and laughter with my flat mate!!! Way different, much more peaceful vibes for my New Years celebration this year… But my heart was so content to spend it in a meaningful way!!

And to start off the New Year… I ended up waking up relatively early and going for a run with a couple friends… In the cool morning air around the Diplomatic Quarters… Finishing at Pancake House for coffee and omelets and pancakes. All in good company. And starting off our New Years resolutions right on the first of January yet too??!! (Don’t think I actually made any fitness resolutions but if I did… What a great way to start!!!!)