Halong Bay

Feb 9-12, 2016

Halong Bay was just absolutely gorgeous and everything I ever dreamed it would be from the minute we arrived at the warf of Halong Bay! Pictures absolutely do not do it justice! (Not my pictures anyways!!)

Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the 7 wonders of the Natural World.

We booked a 3 day boat tour of Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island via Vega Travel... it was a great experience with them and Cat Ba Island was an awesome addition. Our trip to Halong Bay started with a lengthy, bumpy, nausea inducing wild bus ride from Hanoi through the Red River Delta to the warf. The upside… wifi on the bus! The downside to wifi on the bus… finding out all our friends from our Mai Chau trip had food poisoning!!! It was a tense bus ride as we wondered whether the nausea we were experiencing was the onset of food poisoning for us or just the wild ride!  (Turns out… we lucked out and never got it!!!)

We spent the next 2 days on a junk boat traveling through Halong Bay. Junk boats are traditionally a Chinese sailing ship with unique sails that were quite aerodynamic and made the boat easy to control. Below: junk boats in Lan Ha Bay.

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When we first got out the boat and headed out, it was absolutely gorgeous and sunny!! The view was so clear and you could see the layers of limestone mountains and islands in the turquoise sea. Many of the limestone islands are little more than a pillar, or appear to be perched on smaller limestone pillars as they have been eroded by thousands of years of water that have also formed many caves, coves and arches…   It was incredibly picturesque! We travelled through all the little islands and inlets of a less busy bay called Bai Tu Long Bay.

Mid afternoon, we anchored in a peaceful lagoon where Bai Tu Long Bay, Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay meet. It was too cool at this time of year for swimming in the gorgeous turquoise waters but it was beautifully sunny for kayaking around the bay. Amelia and I shared a kayak and paddled through a limestone tunnel grotto called Hang Luon into a gorgeous lagoon completed surrounded by tall limestone mountains with the only opening the small tunnel we passed through to access lagoon.

Along the shore wild monkeys played and did the nasty in the trees. Giggles. But I got a selfie with a monkey. He wasn’t a particularly willing participant though. And apparently they’re a bit naughty so we we advised not to get too close to shore.

After paddling peacefully around, we went back to boat and transferred to in a small motor boat for a little climb up to the top of Titop mountain on Titop Island for 360 degree sunset views of Halong Bay, Lan Ha Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay. It was absolutely stunning!!!

After watching the sunset, we headed back in the afterglow to spend the night on our junk boat. The little boat we were in died though… so we were stuck on the boat out on the water for a while before it was sorted and we actually got back to the junk boat for dinner.

We awoke the next morning to gorgeous views of calm, placid Halong Bay from our stateroom window!

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After breakfast, we transferred to a little island to visit a cave called Han Sung Sot (Surprising Cave) to check out the beautiful limestone formations inside.

We did a small walk about the island near the docks and found a beautiful viewpoint of the bay we were in… back on the dock, a Vietnamese woman paddled along in a little boat, small fish frying on a little stove on the boat, selling sodas and water and snacks…

Back on our junkboat, we headed out through the various bays to Cat Ba Island where we would spend the next night and day. It was a bit cloudy and moody out, not as bright and sunny, but it was still absolutely gorgeous travelling through all the limestone islands and seeing the beautiful limestone formations they formed…

One of my absolute favourite sights from the whole trip through Halong Bay was going through a large fishing village. Cua Van is one of the largest and wealthiest of 4 major fishing villages in Halong Bay. It is home to hundreds of people who relay largely on fishing for income. It was unbelievable to see a whole town in a placid emerald bay nestled among the limestone mountains with water “roads”, brilliantly colored floating homes and boats… a grocery store and a gas station even… and a Vietnamese fisherman rowing a traditional boat down one of the water roads…

Cat Ba Island. One of the largest islands in the bay, a large portion of it is a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a rugged, rocky, jungle island with a large variety of habitats… limestone karsts, tropical limestone forests, coral reefs, mangrove and sea grass beds, lagoons, beaches, caves, and willow swamp forests. We docked here and picked up bicycles to cycle around a portion of the island. We cycled along the seawall and into some small villages. There was a pretty good sized hill we had to cycle up which our bikes were definitely not designed for (or at least not designed to make it easier going up anyways!)

At one point we ditched the bikes and treked through a portion of the rainforest along narrow trails, attempting to cross streams on logs and not fall in and get soaked, and up some pretty sketchy rocks into a bat cave and out through it to an opening overlooking a farmland valley in the center of the island.

After a night in a hotel on Cat Ba Island, we headed back through Halong Bay on our junk boat to return back to the Hanoi. It was a thoroughly relaxing day spent on the boat just watching the most gorgeous scenery I’ve ever seen in the world go by… before saying goodbye to our fabulous tour guide and the lovely people we met on our Halong Bay tour!

And then… we were back in Hanoi, for one last night at a terribly sketchy hotel near the airport for our last night before we’d head back to Ho Chi Minh and onwards back to Saudi.

Flying back to Ho Chi Minh, we had a good bit of time between our arrival in Saigon and departure back to Riyadh, so we ended up heading into the city again to go check out the War Remnants Museum as we’d not really seen many museums or historical things like that and this museum was supposed to be really good. And it was! So much interesting and devastating history on display… it’s terrible the things we humans have done to each other actually… 😦

Back at the airport… one last Vietnamese coffee…

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One last drink in freedom… bought with probably 200,000 Vietnamese dong… (like 5 Canadian dollars or so)… an airport backpack picture or two… because my very first ever backpacking trip needed to be documented… and then we were off to Saudi again… to our temporary reality.

I remember friends telling me before we left for Vietnam that of all the many places they’d been in the world, Vietnam was their favourite or at the top of their list of favourites… and now after visiting just a fraction of the country, I can totally understand why. Aside from its stunning natural beauty, the people were so warm and welcoming and friendly and the culture and history is fascinating especially given the dynamics of it being a Communist country and it’s history with America and the Vietnamese war.

So… of all the places I’ve been in the world, Vietnam comes the most highly recommended! So get out there and go check it out! It’s gorgeous!!!!!

Finally… Hanoi

Feb 4-5, 2017

After our 2 luxurious days in Da Nang at the gorgeous Naman Retreat, we once again took a terrible little Vietnamese airline flight after many many delays to Hanoi this time… our most Northern stop in Vietnam… the capital city of Vietnam and the city most commonly affiliated with one of the most beautiful places in the world… Halong Bay.

This was probably the stop we were looking forward to the most. We had planned to spend a few days in Hanoi for Vietnamese New Year and then carry on to Halong Bay for a few days cruise before leaving Vietnam.

Our hostel in Vietnam was fantastic. Great location in the Old Quarter. Great vibes here too… met some wonderful people on our first night… hit up a pub crawl through more tiny little completely not safety standard approved hole in the wall bars… and had so much fun that the next day was not very much fun at all!

On our first day in Hanoi, we learned that the city would pretty much shut down over the next few days for Vietnamese New Year… there would be a lot of celebrations and festivities but no restaurants or sight seeing locations would be open. So basically we could party in the streets and not much else…

My friend and I weren’t particularly keen to stay in noisy, smelly, dirty, chaotic Hanoi. The traffic was absolutely insane!!! And the smells were atrocious! And we yearned for somewhere quieter and calmer, somewhere lush and green, somewhere surrounded by nature.

Turns out our hostel had a homestay out in Mai Chau… a small town out in the country further up North a couple hours drive from our hostel. We wouldn’t be able to make it out to Sapa on this trip so we welcomed the opportunity to get out of the noisy, congested city to the lush, green land of rice paddies and emerald green terraces…

We spent our one day in Hanoi walking around the city near our hostel.

We visited the “Lake of the Restored Swords,” or Hoàn Kiem Lake … the center of Hanoi life. We weren’t awake early enough to see it but in the mornings there are many people here doing their morning exercises… There is a beautiful red bridge, Huc Bridge, leading to a pagoda in the lake which we wandered through as well. And in the center of the lake is Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa).

Every country has a story to tell… and unfortunately Vietnam’s story isn’t only about beaches and rice paddies and beautiful limestone mountains or pretty lanterns… It also has a sad and complex history that involves a lot of unnecessary war and hatred and violence. We visited the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi… it felt so heavy and dark inside the prison… I could feel the centuries of suffering and pain and torment weighing down on me!

It was definitely not easy to see but a good reality check and pause to stop for a moment to be thankful for our freedom and the relative ease with which we’ve lived our lives so far!

Finally… after spending a few hours wandering the city… we found some proper Western breakfast food… at a super cute cafe that we could have found in any Western/European city… where they served up THE BEST french toast I’ve ever had!!!! (I know… shame on me for not experiencing local delicacies… but hungover girls just gotta have some normal homey comfort food every now n then!)

Now… The joys of backpacking and travel… Laundry in the sink at our hostel cuz all the laundry shops are closed for New Years! Hung out at the hostel for the evening and then Mai Chau in the morning!

I can’t wait to get out to countryside!!!

Vegetable Village

Hoi An is beautiful for its contrasts. The Old Town sophistication of Hoi An with its textiles and art and beautiful European influenced South East Asian port city architecture… in start comparison to the lush, green verdant farmland and simplicity of nature and a farming lifestyle in the surrounding countryside…

We loved our walks through the bustling but still quaint and quiet Old Town… but I loved to trade it in for cycling along narrow paths that divided lush green rice paddies… down quiet country lanes through small suburbs of Hoi An where homes often had vegetable gardens for “lawns”… encountering farmers walking their water buffalo down the paths… or cows munching grass along the roadside…

I had heard about a “vegetable village” just outside the town, so on our last day, we cycled through the farmland to Tra Que Vegetable Village. The village is rare in the sense that few, if any villages in Vietnam earn their income based primarily on vegetables… although it has become a tourism highlight now due to the quiet and peaceful setting where one can wander through fields of vegetables grown without any chemicals and only natural fertilizer from an algae found in the Tra Que village lagoon. The vegetables are beautifully fresh and there are many places one can take a cooking lesson and learn to make delicious, fresh Vietnamese dishes.

We wandered through rows of vegetables… bright green lettuce, herbs of all varieties, fluffy stemmed carrots… and eventually found a restaurant where we were served the simplest but most delicious food I’ve had in a very long time. We started with a lovely juice cocktail with cucumber and basil… Followed by fresh vegetable rolls that were so beautiful and bursting with herbs and slivers of tasty veggies… delicious deep fried spring rolls, and fresh shrimps wrapped with a few fresh herbs and dipped in a sweet chili sauce… It was a gorgeous way to showcase the village vegetables!

It was such a gorgeous way to spend our morning/afternoon… and a perfect last day in Hoi An!

Next up: A couple Spa/Beach days!!!

Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam

During one day in our stay in Hoi An, we travelled to Mỹ Sơn, to check out the abandoned ruins of ancient Hindu temples up in the mountains. From the 4th- 14th century AD, the site was used for religious ceremonies for the ruling dynasties of that time. As the religious and political capital of the Champa kingdom, it is one of the most important Champa historical sites in Vietnam. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is comparative to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, although on a much smaller scale. As we didn’t have time to include Cambodia on our trip, it was great to see this heritage site!

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I don’t remember any of the history at all… so you’ll have to hit up some of the links I included above for more info… cuz I’ve just got pictures 🙂

And finally… after our tour of the site and a boat ride down the river back to town (which was a total ripoff actually…) I finally found a Banh Bao stand and got to try it for the first time. Basically its a soft steamed bun stuffed with pork and egg and other such delectable goodies. YUM!

 

Exploring Hoi An

February 2016

Old Town Hoi An is beautiful. You’re about to be exposed to many pictures of cute little buildings. But I just couldn’t help myself. It’s such a pretty town with great vintage vibes. A hipster would go crazy in this place!

And on top of that, the various temples and pagodas were beautiful too. My favourite had the most stunning Bonsai tree arrangements! I can’t even imagine how many years it took to shape it into this beautiful piece of art!

We started the morning at the tailor, Tailor Phuong Nam, going through books of outfits, trying to figure out what we wanted made. Given my height and above average leg length, its extremely hard to find jumpsuits/rompers that fit… so I chose to have two jumpsuits made, one casual, one dressy. Thao of Tailor Phuong Nam was amazing. She measured us all up, and keeps our measurements for 5 years so that we can just email her pics of what we want made and she’ll make it and mail it to us! Super cool! And the service was so quick! We were only in Hoi An for 3 days but she easily made the short deadline! We found the place just walking past, but she gets brilliant reviews on TripAdvisor as well! So if you’re in Hoi An, check her out for sure (just follow the link above!).

After wandering around the Old Town for most of the morning and early afternoon, we decided to go cycling through the countryside in the afternoon and rented bicycles back at our hostel and went exploring along all the paths winding through the rice fields in the farmland surrounding the city. We encountered a farmer leading his water buffalo along the path… and some cows…

We ended up at An Bang Beach. A storm was blowing in so it was super windy… but I danced along the beach anyways! It feels amazing to be by the ocean again after being so landlocked for ages it seems in dusty, dry Riyadh! (I know, I was just in Dubai a week ago… but the beach there is pretty tailored and calm compared to this!)

Freedom is: dancing on the beach in Vietnam, being chased by waves… running and laughing and being filled completely with joy and happiness!

 

 

Next: Hoi An nights

February 2016

Stepping back in time… to a graceful, elegant, curious blend of Vietnamese and foreign cultures and architecture…

The 2nd destination on our Vietnam backpacking trip… Hoi An. Hoi An is located roughly on central coast of Vietnam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Old Town Hoi An, the heritage site, is a well preserved South East Asian trading port that dates back to the 15-19th Century. The city is well known for its textiles and crafts (one of the best places in Vietnam to get anything tailor made!).

We left Saigon around noon, after the most terrifying cab ride in the OLDEST car I’ve ever ridden in (thanks for nothing hostel :S) img_0513-1 to the airport to fly to Da Nang (the closest airport to Hoi Ain, about a 20-30min cab ride away) because with only 2 weeks to see the country, we weren’t about to waste time on a bus.  Although local Vietnamese flights weren’t the timeliest either, and as we boarded the plane, I spotted our backpacks just hanging out underneath the fuselage of the plane… was really hoping they were planning on actually stowing them somewhere inside the bowels of the plane! (They did. We got the bags when we landed 🙂 )

As we arrived later in the day, by the time we checked into the Sunflower Hotel, an excellent hostel in Hoi An, we would get dusky/night views of the Old Town to start. Tourists are required to buy a pass to enter the town for 120,000 dong (peanuts in USD).

We walked from our hostel to the Old Town (about a 15-20min walk… an easy leg stretcher… plus plenty of shops to poke into along the way).

The Old Town at dusk is moody and reminds me briefly of a Victorian horror movie or something like that… but once fully dark,  as the lights come on, it’s colorful and brilliant and vibrantly cheerful.

From this…

To this…

We visited the Morning Glory restaurant for dinner where I wisely ordered a 5spice pork belly that was DELICIOUS. My friend not so wisely chose a crispy red snapper… which happened to be the full fish… dipped in batter… and deep fried. We westerners are definitely not so familiar getting food with eyes in it still! She didn’t even know how to get at the meat and was vaguely repulsed by it :S I think it was tasty though once she had the waitress dissect it. (as a note… safe food here… pretty touristy though… if you’re someone who likes to eat with the locals).

The street view from the balcony of the Morning Glory was pretty though. I LOVED all the lanterns and lights strung across the streets everywhere!

We finished the evening with a walk around town, across the river with this super cool fish on it, to the Night market where we admired all the gorgeous colorful and printed Vietnamese lanterns.

And of course, the trademark site of the Old Town, the covered bridge was beautiful when lit up at night!

img_0588A much quieter town than Saigon for sure. I really loved the vibes here! Tomorrow we explore the town more… and the surrounding countryside!

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!