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…

IMG_3070

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.

img_2674

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!

img_2425

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…

img_2808

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!!!!!

Vietnamese New Year in Mai Chau

Feb 6 & 7, 2016

On New Years Eve… Vietnamese New Year that is… we headed out of our hostel pretty early in the morning and were driven a few hours up further north into the countryside to stay with a local Vietnamese family.

We stopped along the way at a little shop for coffee although we could have had some luscious wine with snake flavors… Amelia also found the cutest little kitten!

When we arrived at our home for the next 2 nights, there was a large group of other young people staying there that night from the hostel also. We all stayed on the 2nd floor of the families home on mats on the reed floor with mosquito netting… it was chilly and strange but calm and peaceful! Except for the high volume K-pop and karaoke that played all the time!

After a lunch with the rest of the hostel crew, we headed out on little mopeds and motorcycles provided by the home stay family and headed out to explore in the mountains and village a little. My moped had a little different feel from any type of motorbike I’ve driven before… And I’ve actually never driven a moped! I might have nearly crashed into the bushes beside the house when I started off, but I quickly got the hang of it! I rode one myself but Amelia jumped on the back with one of the other guys and we all headed out through the town and up to find a little waterfall and lake in the mountains surrounding the home stay.

The road initially was well paved and pretty safe… Moderately curvy but manageable. Eventually we ended up on more of a gravel/dirt road that often had large potholes we had to avoid! And it got really steep in some sections too! But we all survived and found the waterfall with minimal issues.

We walked down a steep, slippery path to the base of the waterfall. And it was GORGEOUS!!!!!!!

img_1935img_1812

From the waterfall we went a little further up the road where we found a great lookout looking over one of the lakes in the area. So blue and beautiful! And so sunny and warm up there! (It had been quite cool and grey-ish for most of our last few days so the sunshine and warmth was appreciated!)

There was a little village near the lookout that we walked through… There were so many little puppies in the village and they were ADORABLE! A bunch of them tried to follow the girls back to the lookout but eventually abandoned us to return to their mothers!

As it was getting late in the afternoon, so our group headed back to the village where we found a little bar with a rooftop patio overlooking the valley and we sat in the coolness and quiet and last bit of late afternoon sunshine drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains of Mai Chau.

Once the sun set, we drove back in the dusk to our home stay to join in a huge Vietnamese New Year spread with our hosts and all their extended family.

We were seated in the families home on mats on the floor, clustered around many delicious dishes. Our host kept coming to our group to refill our tiny rice wine cups and toast the New YEAr. The extended family of our host arrived intermittently throughout the evening to share in food and drinks and every time some one new arrived, our host would introduce them to us, followed by a celebratory round of rice wine again!

The very special (and absolutely unappealing looking) rice wine came out at some point… It had some goat unmentionables in it and also part of a snake I believe. It was supposed to be for the men to give them special powers. It would probably just make me sick… But it was interesting to see this part of the culture! One of the guys was brave enough (or crazy enough) to try it.

After dinner… Hours later… We ended up downstairs again, listening to K-pop and the family sing karaoke… We even joined in at some point until we all got too cold and tired and tucked ourselves under our mosquito netting in bed to fall asleep to the sounds of our Vietnamese host partying the night away and singing their hearts out til the early morning hours.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed back out on motorcycles to go check out a great lookout over the valley before we’d head back to Hanoi.

I loved riding those bikes around on the windy twisty hilly mountain roads. Makes me want to get my bike license at home and go motor biking more!!

The lookout was absolutely gorgeous!!! Even though the rice paddies were not filled with bright green stalks of rice, and were brown and muddy, the edges of each paddy were clearly demarcated and it was a beautiful sight regardless. The mountains were layered and faded out into the hazy blue sky… And it was stunning!

We had a great group shot at the top and then headed back down to leave for Hanoi again.

img_2256

Back in Hanoi, all of us were staying at the same hostel so after some pre-drinks at the hostel… We went out in search of authentic street food… Looking for some great hot pot.

We found a tiny little place where we sat on those silly little plastic chairs with our knees around our ears… And cooked our on dinner in little hot pots on the table. It was DELICIOUS tho!!!

All of us were pretty wiped and in bed early after a crap sleep in the cold the night before, plus, Amelia and I were headed out early the next morning to the highlight of our whole trip… A 3 day tour of Halong Bay!!!!

But our home stay in Mai Chau was a wonderful way to spend the Vietnamese New Year and it was so great to be able to see rice paddies and the mountains and have a very authentic Vietnamese experience with the locals! They were such friendly people and it was incredible that they opened their home to us like that on such a special few days of the year!

 

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!!!

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!

 

 

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!