The Edge of the World

March 2016

Back in Riyadh again…

The Edge of the World… one of the major “tourist”attractions near Riyadh… a must see for any expat in Saudi Arabia. Check out Blue Abaya’s Guide to the Edge of the World as well… http://www.blueabaya.com/2012/08/guide-to-edge-of-world.html

Not too far outside Riyadh, the Tuwaiq escarpment drops away to nothing but hazy desert for miles and miles as far as one can see. The cliffs are magnificent and terrifying… but so breathtakingly beautiful.

We rode out across the desert in strong, sturdy 4×4 vehicles… across soft sand and rocky desert… through a small flat plain with scrabbly bushes and many camels…

…Up steep hills to the top of the escarpment.

The world just seemed to drop away. It did really seem like the “Edge of the World!”

In the bright sunlight, (thank goodness for the cool breeze!),  we climbed up loose rock covered hills, and down another steep rocky hill and over to a narrow point, protruding far above the desert floor below…

Heart pounding I stepped out onto the mandatory precipice for a quick photo… hoping the unruly wind wouldn’t suddenly push against me, as I felt quite feeble and insignificant so high up there on that rocky ledge…

A friend climbed up to a small cave at the top of an even higher rock formation… and dropped his sunglasses. We watched them free fall for what seemed like hours until they disappeared from view and smashed at the bottom of the cliff…

Ummm yeah… now I’ll definitely be even more cautious around that edge!!! :/

It was absolutely worth the bit of anxiety climbing over the rocks and standing on those rock Ledges… the view was just so stunning…

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So, If you’re not living in Saudi Arabia or have never had the chance to live in Saudi Arabia… I hope you do get the chance to go and visit this beautiful country  and experience its culture and unique natural beauty for yourself someday!

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!!!!!

Spa Days in Da Nang

February 3-5, 2016

Life in Saudi Arabia, while often lovely and very enjoyable, is frequently extremely stressful and wears on you after a while. My friend and I were at a point in our Saudi Arabian journey where we desperately needed time to relax and de-stress. And while it may seem like we’re constantly vacationing and always relaxing, a trip through Vietnam is really not particularly relaxing! Which is why we checked ourselves into a fabulous spa resort, the Naman Retreat in Da Nang, for a couple nights to really relax so we’d be relatively rejuvenated on our return to Saudi Arabia!

The weather wasn’t in top form. It was a bit rainy and stormy. But the spa resort was blissfully green with water and foliage and beautiful nature every where! It was on the beach with several infinity pools that looked out over the ocean… every where were relaxing water sounds, birds chirping, gentle Asian spa music, the damp fresh smell of rain falling on lush vegetation, the peppermint scented spa, the gorgeous hibiscus tea on arrival and at the spa… It was a little piece of paradise for sure!!

On arrival at the hotel, we were seated with cups of warm hibiscus tea and warm cinnamon scented towels to freshen our hands while we checked in. It was so peaceful and relaxing right from the moment we arrived!

We didn’t do a whole lot with our time there other than eat delicious food in the several restaurants on the resort property…

Spent a lot of time looking out at the beach, several hours at the spa getting massages… Or enjoying the hot and cool spa pools and the sauna and steam room…

I spent hours walking/running the beach enjoying the storminess and the waves rushing in over my toes, the ocean spray on my face… It was absolutely gorgeous.

Also was a big fan of the hammocks they had draped between palm trees…

It was a gorgeous resort… Worth every precious penny (it wasn’t inexpensive like the rest of Vietnam!! But you pay for luxury like this, and it was a totally different experience than the typical hostel/backpacker in SE Asia experience… and it was WORTH IT!)… And I’m glad we were able to spend a couple days there relaxing!!! I felt so refreshed when we left. Which was great because we needed it for Hanoi!!

Overall, highly recommend the Naman Retreat if you’re looking for a spa stay in Da Nang!!

Running Hoi An

On early February morning: 2016

Early misty morning, feeling productive… I laced up my running shoes and took off out the door down the road to the beach. The town was still quiet… basically only the locals were awake already. As I ran past little local shops and restaurants, I could smell the delicious aromas of Pho, the preferred breakfast of the Vietnamese! The locals smiled at me from their little plastic chairs roadside where they sat sipping their breakfast… or as they diligently swept their storefronts… an elderly Vietnamese farmer wearing the traditional non la gave me a big toothless grin as he led his large water buffalo past me along the road. The people here are so friendly and cheerful! It makes my heart so joyful!!

I ran to the outskirts of the town, along a still, winding little river where a fisherman rowed his boat… and a traditional woven round basket boat sat on the side near the waters edge… to the beach where the wind blew through the palm trees and washed white water up onto the sand bags along the beach (clearly struggling to survive erosion)… and then back to the hotel past brilliantly green fields of young rice…

As I returned to the town, I passed a couple other expat runners heading out for their morning constitutional and was greeted by friendly waves. I love the support of the running community around the world!!

I couldn’t help running one more time in Hoi An, on the last day before we left.. still kinda grey and stormy… but it was another fabulous run! Some days, I feel like my life is probably just a dream because this all can’t be real! But it is. And I am so blessed!!

I ran 10 miles through Hoi An and along the beach with my Charity Miles app and raised $2.50 for the World Food Programme.  (all runners should check it out! You can raise money while you run… at no cost to you except extra motivation to run just that wee bit further to raise just a wee bit more!) Link here: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/charity-miles-running-walking/id505253234?mt=8

Oh I should mention that I was planning on potentially running the Paris Marathon early April so it was extra motivation for me to run in Vietnam and stay in shape!

**Update as of October 2016: Follow me on instagram @annemariekathleenvw if you want to keep up with my running adventures! Starting some epic marathon/ultrathon training soon!

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!

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.