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!!!

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!

Stopover: Minneapolis with my Bestie

After 3 months at home… the most intense family time I’ve ever had… spending nearly every day with my mom/sister/nieces… I knew that the only way I would be able to get on a plane and leave them for an extended period of time again to return to Saudi, would be to book a stopover somewhere… like in Minneapolis so that I could visit my best friend and pretend like I was just flying away for the weekend, instead of for potentially years…

I landed in Minneapolis in the evening and my bestie picked me up… it was a very very long year and a half probably since we’d seen each other last… and I love how whenever I see her, it’s really like no time has passed at all and we’re right where we left off last time!

We went downtown to the Guthrie Theatre to watch a live production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” My first play ever! It was really beautiful and well performed!

Obvious cocktails and dessert were necessary after the play!!! It’s not a girls night without chocolate and a good martini!

The next day…we explored Minneapolis. Well.. downtown anyways! For the record… it’s a gorgeous city, especially in the fall!! I could make it my home for a while I think!!! Maybe one day…

We found a super cute little breakfast nook for delicious waffles with strawberries and cream…

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and then spent the remainder of the day just wandering around the city… checking out all the adorable little blobby people sculptures in the downtown area…

admiring the gorgeous fall colors everywhere…

and walked through Mill Park along the Mississippi River…

It was such a gorgeously sunny day… the sky was so blue and the fall leaves looked incredible everywhere.

But most of all… it was so wonderful to have a whole 24 hours to hang out with my best friend and catch up on life… it made it so much easier for me to leave home knowing that she’d be there to meet me in Minneapolis!

I’m going to miss this wonderful friend… like always… but looking forward to the next time I see her…

Eid Mubarak

My sincerest apologies that this is a little late… I have a really bad habit of starting a post and leaving it in my draft box…

So I actually began this on the first day of Eid… And Eid is over now… But…

Eid Mubarak to all my Muslim friends around the world! I hope you had a blessed Ramadan and had a blessed Eid al-Fitr!  

It’s 3am in Riyadh right now and I’m wide awake, sitting in the blissful warmth outdoors, letting it bake into my bones… Listening to gentle water movements from the pool… And all I feel is gratefulness.

Earlier today I was so upset with Saudi Arabia… I felt like nothing was going right all day and all the little frustrations built up to a point where I was just raging!

But a couple hours later… A beautiful dinner with friends at a gorgeous gem of a hidden Riyadh restaurant… Several very intense games of mafia… A lot of laughter… And my mood completely reversed!

How much you enjoy life in Riyadh is absolutely all about the company you place yourself in and the people you surround yourself with. I am so blessed to have a multinational and multicultural group of friends who I’ve shared some incredible experiences with!!  Dinner conversations are stimulating and thought provoking… And filled with laughter and fun and completely trivial discussions as well! They open my mind to new ways of thinking… To new opinions and beliefs… They’ve helped me to grow as an individual in so many ways!

And as far as religion goes… Ramadan has officially come to an end. The last month has been filled with many discussions about Islam and the purpose of Ramadan… I’ve learned so much!!! For those of you who don’t know, I’ll include a couple links to sites with more information about Ramadan… but briefly: Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calender and a month of fasting for Muslims around the world. Ramadan begins on the first sighting of the new moon, and ends 30 days later with the next sighting of the crescent moon. So as you can imagine the crescent moon is hugely symbolic of Ramadan and Eid.

However, Ramadan is not just fasting, it is abstaining from smoking, sex, drinking and from anything excessive or inappropriate. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, about 17 hours depending on the time of year and the location one lives in. Pregnant women, the elderly and the very young and the sick are excused from fasting. As a nurse, especially an oncology nurse, we have to check with our patients to ensure they are not fasting. It is a difficult thing to tell them not to fast as we know how important it is for them. However, for patients going through chemotherapy, they’re very sick and need to eat to keep up their energy, and especially they need to drink a lot of water as chemotherapy is very toxic and needs to be flushed from the body!

The purpose of Ramadan and of fasting in general is to cleanse the soul and the mind, focus on God. Fasting (sawm) teaches spirituality, humility and patience. Spiritual rewards for fasting, especially during Ramadan are multiplied. Fasting and restraint from everyday enjoyment and curbing wicked intentions and cravings are considered to show obedience to God, and amend for past sins, and mistakes.

During Ramadan, Muslims request forgiveness from sins and pray for direction and guidance for the future, and try to cleanse themselves through self control, prayer, fasting and acts of faith and charity.

Fasting begins at sunrise and the last meal before fasting begins is called suhoor. The first meal that breaks the fast at sunset is called iftar. Prayers are called salet, and Muslims pray at least the 5 prayers a day if not more. Towards the end of Ramadan in Riyadh, the prayer call goes out much more frequently than usual and prayers last for much longer than usual also.

The mood here during Ramadan is special. Everyone is in vacation/holiday mode.  From friends who have fasted in other places in the world and are now here in Saudi fasting during Ramadan, they say it is actually much easier here than elsewhere. Muslim staff work reduced hours during Ramadan, making life easier for them! Working a 12 hour shift while fasting would not be easy! Especially as many people tend to spend a lot more time sleeping during the day, and are awake a lot more at night, so having to be awake all day to work would be additionally challenging. It is an entire month of the year when families spend a lot of additional time together visiting, sharing meals, etc.

While I did not fast during Ramadan, I had many friends who did, and I had the pleasure of breaking fast with them on more than one occasion… many hotels and restaurants here have large buffets for iftar… like the Ritz-Carlton and the Narcissus Hotel… I enjoyed a few of these meals with my Arabic/Muslim friends or with my Western friends…

Now it is the end of Ramadan, and the Eid celebrations had begun. The mood is so upbeat and happy in Riyadh and around the world. Seeing the Eid al-fitr live feed on snapchat was amazing… But even more than that… Being surrounded by people celebrating Eid… It’s wonderful!

Eid is basically a celebration, and Eid al-Fitr is a feast/festival to celebrate breaking of the fast. It is the first Eid of the year and occurs after Ramadan. The religious Eid is a single day that occurs on the conclusion of 29/30 days of fasting. Special Eid prayers are performed on the day of Eid. But the celebration continues for 3 days in most Arabic countries. Many charitable gifts and donations are given at this time. People celebrate with many dinners and special events with family and friends. It is a happy time of year… and I don’t mean this offensively at all but the it reminds me a lot of Christmas at home!

The city is decorated with hundreds of flags for Eid on all the overpasses on onramps… there are beautiful purple and green and white trees everywhere… lanterns and beautiful cresent moons everywhere for decoration…

And people everywhere wishing you “Eid Mubarak” which is the traditional greeting. Mubarak means blessed and Eid is celebration. So: blessed celebration!

People appreciate it so much when we say Eid Mubarak to them! My friend and I were going to the DQ on Friday afternoon and when we said Eid Mubarak to the guards at the entrance they were so happy and excited, saying Eid Mubarak sisters back to us!

So… I wish peace and happiness, grace and forgiveness to all my Muslim friends around the world, and all my friends actually!! This is a special time of year for Muslims… But it really is a time for peace and respect all around the world. It’s a time for us all to open our eyes and appreciate the different cultures and religions around us…

So Thankyou Saudi for giving me the experience to really experience Ramadan and Eid… For opening my eyes to this beautiful culture…  

Egypt: The End

December 2, 2014

The last day in Luxor… last day in Egypt…

We woke up to no wifi in the hotel. Ahhhh. :S And… almost no water pressure in the sink either. Not panicking yet though. Thought maybe it was just a bad morning and a bit of bad luck or something… should be working in the afternoon though. So we headed out for a day of touristy stuff.

Stopped at a random little coffee shop the guide took us to, because us nurses really can’t do without coffee in the morning!!! It was honestly absolutely the best coffee I’d had the whole trip so far!!!

The weather was gorgeous. Hot and sunny but not too hot. Just beautiful.

On the agenda for today… Valley of the Kings and Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. We started with Valley of the Kings. A relatively brief drive up into the Theban hills… to the most desolate and dry place I’ve seen… outside of Saudi of course 😛

Then… We took a train up the hills into the center of the Valley of the Kings. Thankfully because it would have been such a long, hot walk up!!

The Valley of the Kings was a region where for a period of about 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th century BC, tombs were built for notable pharaoh’s and nobles. It sits on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes (the ancient name for the modern city of Luxor) in a large wadi (or valley).

image There are 63 known tombs in the valley, some belonging to famous kings and others belongs to nobles and some of the elite or highest members of the royal family. 15 of these tombs are open to the public. They begin as long shafts that head deep underground and terminate in elaborate burial chambers. The walls and ceilings of the shafts and burial chambers are covered with paintings and drawings or engravings of religious scenes and texts to guide the kings into the afterlife. At one point there were many treasures and riches buried in the tombs but those have long since disappeared.

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We visited several tombs… honestly can’t remember which. Probably a Ramses and King Tut I. Some of the tombs have large and noticeable entrances, but others are barely more than a little hole down in to the ground. Creeepy! (In the background of the picture above you can see a small dark square hole… that’s the entrance to one of the tombs we visited.)

Most of the ones we entered were quite large, with plenty of room to move about as you went down the shaft into the burial chamber. But I’d say they’re probably not good for a claustrophobe. The air is dense and heavy and warm… and it smells like ancient secrets and stories. Makes my imagination run wild.

The paintings and engraving are still brilliant with colour as very little light reaches down here so the colours haven’t been spoiled with time.

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Sarcophagus selfie anyone??

imageNext up, Queen Hetshepsut’s temple, technically known as the Mortuary Temple of Hetshepsut. Another very dry and dusty and hot and lifeless place.

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However, the difference here is that you could see life in the distance. The beautiful lush, green farmland surrounding the Nile River.

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Side note: check out google earth sometime when it is night in Egypt and all you will see is lights tracing the path of the Nile River from Southern Egypt to the North and Nile River Delta where the water empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a brilliant illustration of how innhospitable the majority of Egypt is… and how hospitable the land surrounding the Nile River is… as it’s about the only place in Egypt where people actually live.

Anyways…

Queen Hetshepsut’s temple. A beautiful temple… with a backdrop of stunningly steep cliffs… a yellow/brown color against a brilliant blue sky. It is located on the west bank of the Nile River and dedicated to the sun god Amon-Ra. It honors both Queen Hetsheptsut and the gods relevant to her afterlife.

In more recent history, it was the site of a massacre of 62 people, mostly tourists, in 1997 by terrorists.

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We walked up the many steps into the temple… saw more beautiful murals and paintings… some also still quite colorful despite the hundreds of years that have passed since some ancient Egyptian splashed colors in a stunning pattern on the walls of the temple…

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It didn’t take long though before we were so hot and dry and dusty that we were about to crumble and join the dusty ground here… so we left. Through this gate i think?

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Our guide convinced us to stop at an Alabaster shop… where we learned how they make alabaster pots in a traditional way… and then were encouraged to purchase something… which we didn’t do cuz what a waste of space in a suitcase! :S

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Anyways… we got back to the hotel, hot and tired and really just wanting a shower and wifi… only to find out that the water was still off and the wifi was still not working either!! ahhhh. It was a bit traumatizing… First world problems… I know. But I had flights to change as I was trying to go straight from Egypt to Bahrain instead of back to Riyadh.

So anyways… that was the last of our crammed tourism session in Egypt… early morning flight back in to Cairo and then on to our next destination… Sandyland for Amelia and hopefully Beachland for me!!!  😛

Moment of reflection:

Egypt. Momtaz!!! Seriously. It’s an amazing country to visit. Pretty sure that there is no where in the world with quite as rich of a history as Egypts.

If the pyramids are on your bucket list, definitely go one day soon and check them out. You will absolutely NOT regret it! Mind blowing. Really. It is worth every Egyptian pound which really is very little compared to American/Canadian dollars… or really almost any currency in the world.

And the whole trip was just incredible. All the history and the beautiful ancient buildings. The tombs where I swear you could feel the afterlife just breathing behind the walls… Definitely Cairo and Luxor are must see destinations.

Perhaps next time I’ll check out Alexandria and Sharm El-Sheik! Do the beachy Mediterranean thing… combined with a little history.

Anyways… hope you enjoyed seeing my pictures and descriptions of Egypt… there’s plenty more to come. As well as more on life in Saudi. (I’m technically at my 9month mark now… so I better seriously catch up on my blogging!! ooops…)

So. Masalaam for now!

xx