Let’s Go To The Beach

After parting ways with Emilie in Hanoi, I headed back down south to Phu Quoc Island. Originally, I had wanted to go over to Cambodia and see the temples of Angkor. But the flights to Cambodia were pretty expensive. It would’ve been cheap to bus but I didn’t have the time. So I settled on Phu Quoc for a chance to relax on the beach, get in some writing and enjoy time away from a busy city.

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Welcome to Phu Quoc Island!

I got to Phu Quoc and checked into an upgraded room at a really nice hotel. As soon as I put my bags down, I headed right out to the beach! My hotel was only a 2 minute walk from the beach, which was perfect. The beach itself was really beautiful. It wasn’t as crowded as the beach in Hoi An and also looked a bit more rustic. Unfortunately, all of the beach chairs/umbrellas were either owned by beachfront resorts or very expensive to rent for the day. I decided to just put my towel down on the sand and get into the water.

Once in the ocean, I really felt the peace and quiet I was looking for from Phu Quoc. I was virtually alone in the ocean and the water was so calm and cool. I stayed there for a while and then returned to my blanket to dry off and watch the sunset.

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img_20161125_153716The rest of my days in Phu Quoc involved more time at the beach and a lot of time writing in my room (and watching the new Gilmore Girls revival on Netflix). Unfortunately, being in the south, Phu Quoc was very warm so it was hard to do much else besides jump into the ocean and back to my air conditioned room. I sampled some local food, including freshly caught fish, but didn’t do too much exploring. I had given myself permission to not really be a traveler for this part of my trip. I didn’t go into town, go on any tours or rent a motorbike to see more of the island. I was really just looking for a chance to relax a bit and get ahead with as much writing as I could. I still felt guilty, especially the day when I skipped the beach entirely and holed up in my room. It’s something I want to work on when I travel, and in my daily life: dealing with expectations I have for myself and the ones that I imagine other people have for me.

One of the bonuses of going to Phu Quoc was that it wasn’t a big tourist destination or very well known. I was looking forward to the fact that no one would be able to say, “What do you mean you spent all your time in your hotel room with only a few beach breaks? How could you not go out and see XYZ?” But I know that’s a shitty way to travel and something I need to work on moving forward. I don’t want to go places just to get a passport stamp or cross it off a bucket list. I want to enjoy my travels. And I want to be okay with taking time for myself to watch Netflix in a hotel room, despite being in a cool foreign country.

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But more on that in my next post! Title TBD but I want to explore my travel style and thoughts on future travels. This trip really opened my eyes to the type of traveling I want to do going forward and how different that might be from what I used to think.

Cruising Halong Bay

The big excursion of our Vietnam trip was a two night cruise on Halong Bay, a beautiful area made up of almost 2000 limestone islands scattered around a peaceful and scenic watery bay.

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To get to Halong Bay, we joined a tour group and started out on the four hour drive to the Halong Marina. Choosing a tour to go with was half the battle. We had read lots of reviews online and heard that prices could range from dirt cheap to absolute luxury. In the end, I’m really happy with the tour we ended up going with. We paid $110 USD/person for the two night cruise, which is about middle-ground for cruising prices. That included transportation, accommodation, activities and food. 

Here are some highlights from the cruise:

The views
After getting on the boat and cruising for only a few minutes, we were already in the middle of something pretty special. It was so peaceful to be out on the blue water and taking in all of these gorgeous limestone islands jutting out at random throughout the bay. My favourite part of the cruise was just hanging out on the top deck and being in awe of the impressive scenery. And despite Halong Bay being very popular, it never felt like our area was crowded with boats.

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The food

Enjoying fresh shrimp with our Spanish Papi

Enjoying fresh shrimp with our Spanish Papi

Emilie and I were pretty nervous about the food. Emilie especially, being a vegan, was worried they wouldn’t be able to cater to her needs. But were we ever wrong! The food on the boat was AMAZING! We ate family style, seated across from an adorable old Spanish couple, and had so many delicious dishes hit the table. I was amazed with the variety of dishes and the quantity. The fresh seafood was definitely a highlight! And Emilie ended up lucking out as well: she received at least 3-4 special veggie dishes just for her at each meal. It got to the point that she was sharing them with the whole table because it was way too much food for one person. And I’m glad she did because they made her an awesome veggie curry one night that was delish!

The accommodation
I was also really nervous about where we would be staying. After our disastrous hotel on our last overnight tour in the Mekong Delta, I had very low hopes for this cruise. Luckily, I was wrong. Our cabin on the boat was small but quite clean and nice. We docked overnight so it wasn’t too rocky or anything either, which my seasick-prone self really appreciated. And our hotel on Cat Ba Island, where we stayed the second night of the cruise, was so nice! It was a pleasant surprise and made our return to Hanoi even harder.

The activities
On our first day of cruising, we stopped to visit the Surprise Caves (I don’t think that was their official name but it’s what our tour guide, Popeye, told us to call them. He probably shouldn’t be the authority on real names…). We walked up some steps and then inside a series of three caves. And yes, it was surprising! Every time we walked into the next cave room, we were blown away by how big the space was and the cool features along the walls. Our guide liked pointing out different shapes in the rocks, which Emilie and I decided to try our hand at as well.

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Inside Cave Room #3

Emilie kayaking!

Emilie kayaking!

After the cave, we found a quieter spot on the bay and were invited to go kayaking. After a traumatic kayaking experience with Emilie last summer (it wasn’t all that bad, I just panicked and tipped), I decided to pass on kayaking. But Emilie really enjoyed it and even got to see some local monkeys!

The next day we started off early to get to Ti Top Island – a lookout point for Halong Bay that is 535 treacherous steps up. I was not feeling those steps and really struggled getting up them but I did make it! And I’m really glad I did. The view was beautiful! It was cool having an overhead shot of Halong Bay and seeing all of the islands and boats. Our tour guide had arranged for us to arrive at Ti Top at 7:45am, which made the walk up the stairs even more painful, but I was grateful for his choice. We were the first tour to arrive so had the lookout to ourselves for a while. Plus, there was only one set of stairs to get up and down, so as we were walking down, things were getting very crowded with people coming up. I would not have wanted to try climbing up those stairs with tons of people coming down at the same time and stealing my railing.

The view from Ti Top Island

The foggy view from Ti Top Island

Other activities included beach time, hiking in a national park on Cat Ba Island, visiting Monkey Island and free time around Cat Ba.

More views
The views again! I could’ve spent the entire cruise just sitting on the top deck getting whiplash trying to take in all of the scenery. The best part of Halong Bay is Halong Bay! This was definitely one of my most favourite experiences from our trip and maybe from all of my travels in general. If you haven’t been to Halong Bay, I definitely recommend it!

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We love Halong Bay!

We love Halong Bay!

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After Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi, which I shared about in my previous post. From there, Emilie headed home to Vancouver and I flew to Phu Quoc Island for a writing retreat/beach vacation. More on that in my next post!

Next up: Let’s go to the beach! 

Heading to Hanoi

Hanoi was our last city together and the farthest north Emilie and I would be heading. We had heard that Hanoi would be a lot busier and dirtier than Ho Chi Minh City, so we were preparing for the worst. But I don’t think it was all that bad! We were also told that Hanoi, since it was in the north, would be a lot cooler. Unfortunately, that was also not true and we suffered through more sweltering days.

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They call this Vietnamese Spaghetti

They call this Vietnamese Spaghetti

Vibe of the city
Hanoi kind of had a cool city vibe. Emilie actually said that it was one of her favourite spots; she liked that it was less touristy and more real. I loved that there were such distinct streets and neighbourhoods. For example, our hotel was located on Toys Street where every other shop was a toy store. To get there we had to drive through Clothes Street. And to get to one of our favourite restaurants we walked down Shoe Street and Home Improvement Avenue. Basically, every few blocks had a different niche.

But people weren’t wrong about the streets being busy. Most of the shops exploded onto the sidewalk or opened restaurants onto the sidewalk so we spent most of our time walking on the road and trying to avoid cars and motorbikes.

Our favourite foods

Delicious pancake wraps!

Delicious pancake wraps!

We made a few awesome foods finds during our time in Hanoi, mainly thanks to Emilie’s awesome app, Happy Cow, that locates veg-friendly restaurants with good reviews. On our first night, we went to this fried wrap/pancake restaurant where you get to assemble the wraps yourself. We actually ended up going back there for our last dinner in Hanoi too. Another great find was a bun cha restaurant with delicious bun noodles. It was the spot where local food tours visited, so I think we made the right choice.

Our favourite smoothie place!

Our favourite smoothie place!

Right around the corner from our hotel was a bun stand that sold delicious chocolate buns. Our hotel breakfast was sort of lacking so this was a nice supplement. And then there was the great smoothie place that we stumbled upon. One night after dinner, Emilie and I were saying how much we would love to get some fresh smoothies. So we started walking, down Kitschy Home Decor Lane, and happened to find a tiny little smoothie shop on the corner with tons of cool combinations. So yum!

Hoa Lo Prison
Emilie and I aren’t huge museum people. We actually hadn’t done too many educational or historical activities throughout the trip. But we decided to pay a visit to Hoa Lo Prison while we were in Hanoi. The prison was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners and then by the Vietnamese to house American POWs. It’s the prison where John McCain was held. It was really interesting to walk through the actual prison and see the rooms and all of the old artifacts. But what was more interesting was the spin put on the museum. The treatment of the Vietnamese prisoners was depicted as very bleak and cruel while the treatment of the American prisoners was shown as pretty cheery. For example, there was an entire exhibit about the different torture devices used on Vietnamese prisoners. Meanwhile, the room talking about American prisoners showed them decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball. Emilie and I both admitted that we don’t know enough about Vietnam’s history but the visit to the prison definitely wanted to make us learn more.

The lake
There’s this lake near the Old Quarter of Hanoi that is really pretty. On our first day in the city, Emilie and I decided to just walk around it. Our first stop was this red bridge that goes across the water to a temple. Except, they wanted to charge us to go across and the temple seemed pretty mediocre. So we just stood on one side and admired it. The gate was also quite pretty, there was a pagoda we could look at and the cutest group of little daycare kids walked by. They were all in a row and had to hold onto the shirt of the kid in front of them. Too cute!

How cute are these munchkins?

The Mausoleum & One Pillar Pagoda

On our last day in Hanoi, Emilie and I walked over to some of Hanoi’s most famous sites. It was a bit of a long walk, in lots of heat and, to be honest, the monuments at the end were a bit of a letdown. The mausoleum is where Ho Chi Minh is buried. And according to a Google search, CNN ranked it the 6th ugliest building in the world. I didn’t think it was all that ugly but it was a bit of a letdown. We couldn’t even get close to it, or else guards would blow a whistle and make sure you got back to standing behind the line.

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Next was the One Pillar Pagoda, which Ho Chi Minh had demanded be built after he had a dream about it. But it was also a pretty big let down. It was tiny! Like the size of a treehouse on one very thick pillar. I guess I’m glad we saw them, since they are some of Hanoi’s more famous monuments, but I definitely don’t think we would’ve missed anything if we hadn’t gone.

Unimpressive, right?

Unimpressive, right?

Spa Day!
Ever since we first arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Emilie and I have walked past tons of spas and the promise of $6 manicures. So on our last day in Hanoi, we decided to splurge and spend the afternoon at a really nice spa near where we were having lunch. We ended up paying for the more expensive pedicure, a whopping $15, for an hour worth of bliss. We were very tempted to add on a massage or something after we were done so we could stay in the heavenly spa a bit longer.

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Hanoi was also the last city Emilie and I were hitting together. We did two days in Hanoi, two days in Halong Bay, and another day in Hanoi. So after our afternoon at the spa, we had dinner back at our pancake/wrap restaurant and then the next morning, we were saying our goodbyes over pancakes. It was so wonderful to have a full two weeks of exploring Vietnam with Emilie. She was the perfect travel companion and our travel styles (air con breaks, cheap eats and in bed by 9) meshed perfectly. And if it wasn’t for her, I probably would’ve spent all day lying in the hotel with the air conditioning blasting and eating at the closest restaurant. I hadn’t travelled with a friend for a while so this was a really nice opportunity to do so and spend more time with Emilie in a new country.

Next up: Cruising Halong Bay!

A Day In Hue

Hue is pronounced “h-way” so A Day In Hue actually rhymes! I love a good rhyming title🙂

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After Emilie and I finished up our time in Hoi An, we boarded the coolest bus in the world to Hue. This bus looked like a typical greyhound style bus from the outside but once inside there were two tiers of pods. Each pod had a reclining chair and leg room so you could crawl in, tilt you chair all the way back and sleep almost horizontally. They even gave you a blanket and the bus had WiFi. Plus, the three hour ride to Hue only cost us $3. The only downside was that the aisles were a little narrow and getting out of he pods was a lot harder than getting in.

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How cool is this bus?

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Once we got there and checked into our pretty swanky hotel, we set out for the Imperial City. The Imperial City and Citadel were actually the main reason we wanted to come to Hue. We were deciding between a stop in Hue or a national park nearby. Hue won out because it was a lot easier to get to and we only had about 24 hours.

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So we walked over to the Imperial City. Unfortunately, we ran into a very pushy guy on a bike on our way there. We had faced a lot of sales people on our trip already but this one was a bit different. He kept insisting that we take a ride on his bike and followed us into the Imperial City, despite us telling him we did not want a ride multiple times. We got very adamant and assertive until he finally left us alone. I don’t think we ever felt endangered but we did roll our eyes noting that if we had been two dudes, this probably wouldn’t have happened.

Anyway, we finally reached the Imperial City! Unfortunately, we showed up at the exit, instead of the entrance. But we were able to buy some delicious mango, which was yummy to eat on our walk over to the proper entrance. We finally got inside and it was such a treat. We showed up later in the afternoon and practically had the whole place to ourselves. There were so many beautiful buildings and cool crumbling walls to look at. We loved walking around and exploring the grounds. At one point, we just sat on the side of a wall and took it all in. It may have been the quietest and most empty spot in all of Vietnam! I’m really glad we took the time to go there. It was supposed to be our substitute for not making it over to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

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After our time in the Imperial City, we walked back to our hotel and then out for dinner. Emilie had found us this one vegetarian restaurant but unfortunately it was closed. So we headed to one next door, which turned out to be a mistake – definitely not our best meal. The next morning we had breakfast in the hotel lobby, Emilie went for a walk while I did some work in our room, and then we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Hanoi.

A few more shots of the Imperial City:

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So just a quick stop in Hue! It was a nice city though – not as crazy as Ho Chi Minh but not as peaceful as Hoi An. But I’m glad we were able to make the stop, check out the Imperial City/Citadel and ride in the coolest bus ever.

Next up: Heading to Hanoi!

The Disneyland of Vietnam: Hoi An

Hoi An was one of the highlights of our trip through Vietnam. It was the city Emilie and I were most excited about and had heard the most positive things about. And I think it’s safe to say that Hoi An lived up to it’s reputation.

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Why call it Disneyland?
So Emilie and I began calling Hoi An Disneyland after only a few hours there. Why? Because Hoi An is beautiful and picturesque. It’s much calmer and quieter than the craziness of Ho Chi Minh City. But it’s also incredibly touristy. The whole place seems to cater to tourists. Everyone is trying to sell something. It got a little draining – how many times do we have to say no to looking at your menu? At one point, Emilie and I would place bets on how many people we thought would approach us in a given stretch. And we had figured out the script that the tailors would use when they were trying to get us into their shops – to the point where we were answering their questions before they could even ask them.

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The streets of Hoi An
Our hotel in Hoi An was a little outside of the city centre and so we had to walk about 20 minutes to get to the Ancient Town. On the way, we realized that every store was either a tailor shop or a spa. And you better believe every one of those stores had someone standing outside trying to entice you with discounts. Once you get into Ancient Town, the tailors and spas disappear and get replaced by beautiful old buildings, bridges and a river. But what’s lining the river? A bunch of overpriced restaurants/bars all catered towards tourists. So the good and the bad🙂 But we loved the look of the Old Town enough to put up with all the salespeople.

Full Moon Festival

Burn baby burn!

Burn baby burn!

Hoi An hosts a Full Moon Festival once a month where the Ancient Town gets flooded with tourists. We had checked out the schedule for the festival ahead of time and worked it out so we were arriving on the day of. On the night of the festival you enter Ancient Town and people carrying trays of paper lanterns begin coming up to you asking you to buy one. As soon as you turn one seller down, another one is right back in your face with their lit paper lanterns. We were used to people selling at us but it was a bit aggressive to have lit lanterns coming into our personal space. But we escaped long enough to watch from afar. Once you purchase a lantern, you can either get on a boat or use a long stick to push your lantern into the river. As you let your lantern go, you’re supposed to make a wish. The end result was really pretty; it was cool seeing all of the lanterns floating down the river. After getting a drink, Emilie and I decided to take part. We bargained our lantern price down and set them off into the water. Unfortunately, our lanterns got caught up with a bunch of others and all caught fire. I guess our wishes didn’t come true?

Getting dresses made
One of the things Hoi An is best known for is getting clothing tailor made. It was actually really impressive to see all of the different shops and things you could get made: dresses, suits, shoes, purses, and anything else under the sun. Emilie and I agreed that it would be really cool to show up in Hoi An with a bunch of money and get a whole custom wardrobe. But since we didn’t have a bunch of money, we settled on just one dress each. The whole process was pretty overwhelming. We didn’t walk into the shop with sketches or magazine tear outs of exactly what we wanted. Emilie had a bit of an idea but I was clueless. So I flipped through the books and eventually settled on a convertible dress in a dark blue. It was a really lengthy process to select a dress style, talk about what changes to make, pick a fabric and colour, get measured, etc. And of course, they don’t tell you the exact price until the very end (we had asked for a ballpark figure at the beginning but my dress ended up being more outfield than I had hoped – is that the right baseball reference?). I ended up bargaining my dress down to about $60, which is still way more than I had wanted to spend. But by that point, we had been there so long and they had already cut the price down quite a bit, so I gave in.

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We ordered our dresses on our first night in Hoi An which allowed us to come back the next afternoon for a fitting and the day after that to pick up the final product. If you’re ever in Hoi An, I would suggest giving yourself at least two days so you do have time to do a fitting and make any changes. And I would suggest doing some homework ahead of time so you know what kind of dress you’re looking for. But even without that foresight, it was still a cool experience and I’m pretty happy with the finished product.

Let’s go to the beach!
So one of the reasons we were so excited for Hoi An was getting to hit the beach. And we definitely had reason to be excited. The beach was beautiful! The water was so bright blue and the sand was so soft and light. We got ourselves nice comfy chairs, an umbrella and an unbeatable view. It was one of the most relaxing moments of the trip. I used to scoff at people who would do beach-only vacations but after that morning in Hoi An, I could definitely see the appeal.

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Pure paradise

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Our ingredients

Cooking class
Another thing Hoi An, and Vietnam in general, is known for is really cool cooking classes. I had read about ones where they take you to the market to pick out ingredients, bring you back to the kitchen to cook some dishes and then you get to eat them. The one we ended up signing up for skipped the market part, which is probably for the best because running around a market in Vietnam heat does not sound like a fun way to spend our time.

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Emilie in action!

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The finished product

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emilie and I did our cooking class at this awesome vegetarian restaurant Emilie found. We were the only two to sign up for the 4:00pm class that day so we had a private lesson all to ourselves. Our teacher was very nice – he even gave us pen and paper so we could write down all the recipes. And then he gave us his business card and said we should message him on Facebook if we’re cooking at home and have any questions. We made three dishes: pho (because you sort of have to when you’re in Vietnam), fried wontons with salsa, and stuffed tofu wrapped in a banana leaf. The class itself took almost two hours and it was such a cool hands on experience. I’m not a vegetarian but I loved everything we made and was really amazed with the finished products.

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And those were some of the highlights of Hoi An, not including our wonderful hotel, which I wrote about in my hotel round up. I was worried that three days in Hoi An wasn’t going to be enough but I think it was just perfect. We were able to fit in everything we wanted and left before we got tired of the touristy aspects.

Next up: A Day In Hue!

The tourist route through the Mekong Delta

On our second full day in Vietnam, Emilie, Jonathan and I headed off for a one night tour of the Mekong Delta. This was the part of our time in Ho Chi Minh that I was most looking forward to. We booked a tour through our hotel for only $34 per person. And while it was a cool experience, it was obvious that we were following a very well-trodden tourist route through the Mekong Delta.

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Our tour operator picked us up nice and early, and we boarded a bus for My Tho. The bus was air conditioned and one of the tour guides gave us a bit of a history lesson, which was nice. When we arrived in My Tho, we boarded a boat to one of the smaller islands in the Delta. Our tour guide had mentioned that each of the islands were named after a magical creature but I can’t remember which island we were on. I think Unicorn Island? Let’s just go with that.

Fresh honey in tea

Fresh honey in tea

Our first stop was to try some local honey in tea. The honey, flavoured with longan fruit, was actually really delicious! But the experience didn’t feel quite as authentic sitting with a bunch of other tourists and being hassled to purchase the honey after the tasting.

Next up was a boat ride on a little rickety canoe – I was sure I was going to tip it getting in. Once I got over my fear of tipping the boat, it was cool to be floating down the river in these traditional boats with towering green leaves on either side. But again, the river ride was flooded with tourists. And as we neared the pier where we would be getting off the boat, the rower sitting behind me started patting my back and whispering, “Give money, give money.” That really put me off.

After that boat ride we moved back to our big boat and onto a different island. We watched a demonstration of how they make coconut candy. It was pretty cool to see the process and how the candies were made from hand. Unfortunately, I don’t actually like coconut so the tasting wasn’t too thrilling for me. But I could see the appeal! And Emilie snacked on the coffee coconut candies she bought all trip long.

Mini boat ride

Next up was a boat ride to our lunch spot. Jonathan and I decided to upgrade from the standard lunch to indulge in the famous elephant ear fish. And thank goodness we did! The standard meal was so bland with tough tofu or pork. And the fish was delicious! It was so fresh and melted like butter in my mouth. And I loved that we were trying something local. After lunch we walked around the little island where there were some shrines, cool gardens, an alligator pool and lots of little markets.

The delicious elephant ear fish

The delicious elephant ear fish

One more boat ride took us to another island where we enjoyed some fresh fruit and some traditional music. Actually, enjoying the music is probably a bit strong – we tolerated the music. Vietnamese music is a bit too pitchy for my taste.

And then it was back to the buses! The people who had only signed up for the one day tour boarded a bus in My Tho back to Ho Chi Minh City while Emilie, Jonathan, Jonathan’s friend Laura, a couple from Germany and I got into a smaller bus headed for Can Tho.

It was a long and bumpy drive that eventually brought us to the most terrible hotel. But before we passed right out on the bed, which believe me, was all I wanted to do, we went out for dinner and a bit of exploring. Jonathan found us a local vegetarian restaurant that was as un-touristy as it gets. No English on the menu and only one woman in the restaurant who spoke enough English to help us pay. We ended up just asking her to bring us four bowls of whatever she wanted. And it cost a whopping 17,000 dong each, which is about $1 Canadian. After dinner we walked along the night market for a little while until I decided to call it a night.

$1 for all this!

$1 for all this!

The next morning was another early one. After a sub-standard breakfast, we walked down to the pier to meet our new group and board a boat bound for the floating market.  In my head, I was imagining the floating market to be a bunch of narrow small boats with people selling local wares or fresh fruit. I was thinking we would get into little boats, three or four persons per boat, and float through in an idyllic little marketplace on the river. I had that all wrong.

We stayed in a big boat with about 30 people and floated around a huge river place with lots of huge boats. The boats were selling fresh fruits and vegetables to other sellers who would then take the products and sell them on land. So it was more of a warehouse than a little marketplace like I had pictured. But it was still really cool! We learned that the big selling boats had masts up where they would hoist their item for sale. So the boat selling pineapples would have a mast up with a pineapple on it, so buyers from far away could see what they were selling. Genius, right?

The floating market!

The floating market!

After doing a few laps of the market we took our boat over to another island. We watched a family make rice noodles by hand. From there, everyone went on a bike ride and then we enjoyed some fresh fruit before cruising back to Can Tho. From there we started our long journey back to Ho Chi Minh City. We stopped for lunch along the way and said goodbye to Laura and the German couple leaving only Jonathan, Emilie and me with a whole mini-bus to ourselves. Unfortunately, we picked up more passengers in My Tho so that it was a full car all the way back to Ho Chi Minh. We finally made it back around dinner time.

Making rice noodles

Delicious fresh fruit!

Delicious fresh fruit!

Jonathan relaxing on the boat

Jonathan relaxing on the boat

Overall, it was definitely a cool experience to do the Mekong Delta tour. We packed a lot into two days and took part in lots of cool activities. But it was also a little underwhelming. I think I had built up the floating market in my mind too much, which is silly because I’m sure if I had Google-d it ahead of time, I would’ve known what to expect. And it was very obvious that all of the tours take the exact same route. Our group was constantly trailing and being followed by other groups doing the exact same stuff. So some of the authenticity and charm were lost. But I am glad that we went on the tour and had that experience. And for only $34, I can’t really complain🙂

Next up: The Disneyland of Vietnam: Hoi An

The Hotels of Vietnam

I usually don’t spend a ton of time talking about my accommodations during a trip, but the hotels we stayed in during our Vietnam trip were almost an experience in themselves. Case in point: I am currently writing this from my upgraded hotel room on Phu Quoc Island where I can enjoy the air con and a view while I wait for the sun to tone it down a bit.

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Here was our criteria for selecting hotel rooms:

  • Close to the city center
  • Good reviews (4/5)
  • Clean
  • Good WiFi
  • Air conditioning
  • Within our budget

Bonus points:

  • Free breakfast
  • Two beds

Things we would’ve given more bonus points to, had we known at the time of booking:

  • Separate shower area with good water pressure and hot water
  • Outlets by the bed
  • An elevator
  • Nice staff

We very quickly adjusted to Vietnamese pricing and set our nightly budget at no more than $30 CAD/night split between the two of us. Most of our rooms came in around $22-27/night. I know, we were living large. It blows my mind how affordable all of these places were.

Here we go!

Hello House, Ho Chi Minh City

Our lovely hotel

Pros: The staff were the best here. They helped us carry our bags and one time when I left my shoes outside, they locked them up in a little cubby for me. Other pros here were the location (right in the main backpackers drag but off the busy street), yummy breakfast and cleanliness.

Cons: For me, the stairs were a big hassle with my suitcase. We were impressed by the room since it was our first stop, but it actually ended up being one of the smaller rooms of our stay and we had to share a double bed. It was also our first experience without a separate shower area meaning the entire bathroom would get soaked when you showered. But all of this was made up for with the superb service and delicious passion fruit juice at breaky🙂

Verdict: Would stay again! But would pack a lighter bag or request a room on a lower floor.

Can Tho hotel

Pros: There were two beds. And the shower was technically separate.

Cons: This was probably our worst hotel stay of the trip. It was arranged by our Mekong Delta tour (more on that in my next post) so it wasn’t our fault that it was so bad. There were ants everywhere, the breakfast was awful, the WiFi didn’t work on our floor and, worst of all, the air con stopped working part way through the night and I thought I was going to die. The beds were also super hard and the shower head was mounted at belly button height.

Verdict: Could not pay me enough to stay here again

Full House, Hoi An

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Pros: Oh, we loved this place! The owner, Lee, was so sweet. Our room was on the second floor (and the actual second floor this time, unlike in HCMC) and had two single beds with outlets right above them. There was an air conditioning unit and a fan. Plus, while the shower wasn’t separate from the rest of the bathroom, it was the best water pressure we had all trip. Oh and the breakfast – best banana pancakes ever! And a full plate of fresh fruit!

Cons: The only downside of this place was that it was a bit of a walk into town. We picked it because we thought it would be good to be halfway between town and the beach. Turns out we were about a 20 minute walk into town and maybe a 40 min walk to the beach.

Verdict: Would 100% stay here again! They even gave us little magnets as souvenirs when we left!

Hong Thien Ruby Hotel, Hue

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Living life large in Hue

Pros: We were upgraded at this hotel to a better room and it was well worth the wait (while we waited, they also gave us a fruit platter and fresh juice, so really no complaints). We each got our own double bed, there were outlets a-plenty and the whole room felt very luxurious.

Cons: While there was a separate tub/shower the hot water didn’t last long enough for a full shower. And the breakfast area in the morning was pretty crowded. More importantly, the staff seemed a bit insincere and sales-y, which kind of put us off. But we were only there for one night, so it wasn’t too bad.

Verdict: Would probably stay here again if I ever find myself back in Hue.

Hanoi Heart Hotel, Hanoi

Pros: We were smack dab in the middle of the Old Quarter, which was convenient.

Cons: We did not enjoy this hotel. Mainly, the staff were extremely sales-y and definitely travel agents first and hotel staff second. We had a few issues with them: wanting to charge me $1USD/minute to place a collect call to my bank and overcharging us for laundry. All of our interactions with them just felt very uncomfortable. And then there was the room. On our first two nights, we were in a pretty good room: two beds, separate shower and an elevator to our room on the 6th floor. But when we returned from Halong Bay for another two nights, we got moved to a dump. Our room was on the 7th floor directly across from the kitchen. There were ants everywhere, the bathroom was teeny and smelled like paint, and the elevator only went to the 6th floor so we had to take a narrow staircase up with our heavy bags. It was a major downgrade. The staff sort of smiled and apologized but didn’t do anything to fix the issue. Also, their breakfast was incredibly oily.

Verdict: Would not stay again

Halong Bay & Cat Ba Island hotels

Our cabin on the boat

Our cabin on the boat

Pros: So on our Halong Bay cruise we stayed one night on the boat and a second night on Cat Ba Island. After our terrible hotel experience with our Mekong Delta tour, we were pretty nervous. Turns out, we didn’t have to be! Our night on the boat was actually quite comfortable. And the room on Cat Ba was large with separate beds and tons of space. Plus, the food on the boat was delicious!

Cons: The boat didn’t have WiFi which might make it the only place in Vietnam without an internet connection.

Verdict: If I were to cruise Halong Bay again I would be happy to stay at both of these places once more!

T & T Resort, Phu Quoc Island

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King bed = my dream

Pros: Again, I was lucky enough to get an upgrade! My room has a king sized bed (I’m traveling solo now so one big bed is better than two), a balcony and a separate shower with a rain shower head and plenty of hot water. It’s a really nice room, which is great because I’m spending a lot of time in it getting ahead on my writing. But the best part of this hotel is that it is literally around the corner from the beach!

Cons: Unfortunately, this is the first hotel of the trip that doesn’t offer free breakfast. I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to just go downstairs and have a banana pancake and cup of coffee. There is a restaurant right across the street but it’s a bit overpriced.

Verdict: I love it. Can I just stay here longer?

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Technically I’ll be staying at one more hotel in HCMC but it’s one by the airport since my flight is at 5:30am (gross). I’m hoping it’s clean and air conditioned – cross your fingers for me!

Up next: The tourist route through the Mekong Delta!

Ho Chi Minh City… In About 3 Hours

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City at about 1 in the morning and immediately hopped into a cab and fell asleep as soon as we hit our hotel bed. The next morning we woke up with the plan to take on the entire city – in fact, it was the only day we had designated to exploring Ho Chi Minh City. And turns out, we were able to do it in about 3 hours.

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Our lovely hotel

Our lovely hotel

When we first arrived at our hotel, I was a little hesitant. It was at the end of an alley and we had to go up four flights of a spiral staircase to get to our room they said was on the “second” floor (spoilers: when we returned to this hotel after our Mekong Delta tour, we got moved to the “fourth” floor and I almost died getting up there with my suitcase). But turns out, it was one of our favourite stays! The rooms were a bit tiny and the lack of elevator sucked but the staff were so nice and the breakfast was great!

Emilie and I were expecting your standard free breakfast: some boxes of cereal and a loaf of bread left out on the counter. But Vietnam knows how to do free breakfast! At Hello House we enjoyed delicious Vietnamese coffee, fresh bread and jam, omelettes and a different type of fruit each morning.

So pleased with this breakfast!

So pleased with this breakfast!

After breakfast we decided to hit the town. As soon as we walked outside two things became immediately apparent: traffic is insane in HCMC and the only thing worse than the traffic is the heat. Probably the biggest themes of our entire trip were trying not to melt and trying not to get killed by motorbikes. So far, we’re succeeding!

Our first stop was the Binh Tay Market. Whenever I’m travelling, I love to go to local markets. It’s such a fun way to shop and, in Europe at least, there’s always cool finds or weirdly themed markets. The Binh Tay one wasn’t quite as pleasant. It was actually a bit of a scary experience. We began walking down one of the aisles and at each of the little shops, someone would stand up and say, “Miss, you want this one? How about this?” while holding up a random piece of clothing or knick knack. We didn’t feel comfortable browsing and just sorta put our heads down and walked through until we got to the end. Emilie did end up buying a purse, so it wasn’t all for naught.

Trying not to get accosted at the Binh Tay Market

Binh Tay Market

After the market, we needed a bit of a break. We hid out in Highlands Coffee to enjoy some air conditioning and delicious iced coffee treats. After fueling up, we walked over to the Independence Palace. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open yet so we crossed a few dangerous streets to check out the Notre Dame Cathedral. It seems like every city has their own version of this. The building was quite pretty, as was the post office next door.

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

You know what wasn’t pretty? The Independence Palace. Luckily we only paid a little over $1 to get in but it was kind of a let down. It reminded me of the buildings Mr. Brady used to design on The Brady Bunch. Apparently the original palace had suffered quite a bit in the war so was rebuilt in the 60’s. There wasn’t much to look at inside as many of the rooms were closed. And the ones that weren’t, were just meeting rooms. But I guess we can say we saw it?

Palace letdown

Palace letdown

After our palace visit, we walked back to the hotel. It was a long walk but gave us a chance to see more of the city and practice our street crossing. The trick is, since traffic lights are often MIA or, if they are there, completely ignored, to walk steadily and confidently. If you pick a pace and stick to it, the motorbikes will swerve around you. It also helps to look straight ahead once you start crossing so you can’t see the bikes and cars coming at you top speed.

One of the few times when the bikes and cars are forced to stop

One of the few times when the bikes and cars are forced to stop

We got some lunch and headed back to our hotel room to rest up and soak in some more air con (another theme of our trip: trying to find air con whenever possible). We also met up with my good friend Jonathan, which was really cool! Jonathan was my supervisor when I was an RA way back in 2013. He moved back to Ontario to continue working in Residence Life and then left on his world travels this July. He did Europe, is now working his way through Asia and will be celebrating Christmas with his family in Australia before moving there for a year on a working visa. Pretty cool, right? It sounds amazing and I remember when that used to be my dream. I’m not sure it is anymore, but more on that later!

Anyway, we met up with Jonathan and another travelling friend of his for dinner. Jonathan is a vegetarian and Emilie is vegan so Jonathan found us a delicious and really cool vegan restaurant. It was sort of a DIY noodle bar where you got to pick the veg, protein and noodles. I went a little crazy with the expensive type of noodles (and by expensive, I mean my whole meal was less than $5) but it was delicious! And we finished off the meal with vegan soft serve ice cream, which Emilie was stoked about.

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Wall of veg to pick from!

And that was our first day in Ho Chi Minh City! HCMC was the city we had to fly into/out of to get our amazing flight deal, but was never a place we had wanted to spend a lot of time. So I’m pretty happy with the amount of city we got to see in one day and the other destinations we chose to see instead.

Next up: The Hotels of Vietnam!

A Granville Island Staycation

So I finally got to use the Granville Island Vancouver Tourism package I won back in April. The timing worked out perfectly: my subletter arrived on Monday, I stayed at the hotel Monday – Thursday, and then headed up to Surrey for my final week before Vietnam.

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Welcome to Granville Island!

Arriving at the hotel Monday after work was really blissful. Even though I’ve been to Granville Island countless times, I was excited to just have a little break. I had spent the whole weekend doing an intense deep clean of my apartment in preparation for my subletter and packing up all of my stuff for the hotel, Surrey and Vietnam. It was so nice to put down the heavy bag I had lugged to work, plop onto the super comfortable king sized bed and just have a bit of indulgent relaxation.

Monday night I had the hotel to myself. It’s comical how much I enjoyed sitting crossed legged on the big bed eating fish n’ chips and watching Jeopardy. Those are the joys of hotel life that really thrill me. I ended my first night with a nice long shower and star-fishing in the middle of the bed with the lights out by 10:00pm.

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Best. Bed. Ever.

Unfortunately, going to work the next day wasn’t as fun. It’s hard to have a real staycation when work keeps getting in the way. Staying in a hotel usually means sleeping in so it was upsetting to be leaving my beautiful big bed before 7:30am.

On Tuesday night, Colin met me at the hotel and we headed to Dockside Seafood Restaurant for dinner, courtesy of the $200 Dockside gift card that came with my contest win. I had heard that Dockside was a nice place but Colin and I were both really blown away with the gorgeous decor, stunning view over the water and delicious food. We got the best seat in the house, right by the window, and thoroughly enjoyed our chili shrimp, prime rib and chocolate lava cake dessert.

We continued living our fake rich lives by heading to the hotel spa/health club and watching our TV show “Flash” from the jacuzzi. We had to blast the volume on the TV in order to hear it over the bubbles of the hot tub.

The next day, I headed off to work while Colin enjoyed a proper staycation by spending the day on Granville Island. He got to sleep in, have lunch at the Public Market and wander through all the little shops on the island – I spent the day printing posters and formatting excel sheets, so he clearly won.

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Super blurry pre-show selfie!

But we reunited that night. We went back to Dockside to finish off the rest of the gift card, enjoying a seafood carbonara and Thai bouillabaisse. We then headed over to Vancouver Theatre Sports League’s Improv Show with the ticket voucher that had come with my contest win. I had seen VTSL shows a few times before and usually found them pretty hit or miss. Luckily, the show we saw on Wednesday was definitely a hit! We laughed our heads off and, despite my nervousness when we got sat in the front row, didn’t get picked on by the actors. We ended our night watching “Survivor” while sharing a Toblerone from the vending machine.

And the next morning, I went off to my last day of work at UBC! That part hasn’t really sunk in yet. I imagine I’ll write about it once I’ve been funemployed a little longer and settled into my 12 day stay in Surrey. But I’m really glad I got to start this big time of transition in my life with a nice relaxing staycation on Granville Island with my favourite person!

A new adventure: Vietnam!

I have been chomping at the bit to reveal this on my blog. So now that all of my ducks are in a row, I can officially announce:

I am going to Vietnam for the first time ever for 3 weeks this November! 

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Yeah, I guess you could say I’m pretty excited🙂 I have never been to Vietnam, which will make this country #31 that I have visited. And it feels like it has been a while since I’ve been on a big trip. Sure, I’ve done a bit of travelling this year to LA, Montreal and home to Toronto for weddings. Last year there was San Francisco, New York and a very short stint in China. But it’s been a couple of years, since my time studying abroad in Europe and working in Japan, that I have really done a big international adventure. I have been itching to get on another long haul plane ride, take out a currency I have never seen before and try to navigate my way around a new city, new language and new cuisine.

That’s not to say my life here in Vancouver hasn’t been adventurous, because it certainly has been a ride. Since finishing up my UBC degree at the end of 2014 I’ve had a number of major life changes such as switching careers (a few times), switching rental leases (a few times) and finding a new partner and adoptive BC family (thankfully, just the one time!). But there’s a part of me that is still so desperate to get on the road. Poor Colin has had to listen to me whine and shove travel deals in his face for the last 18 months until I finally bit the bullet and did it.

So how did I settle on Vietnam? And why now?

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Well, for starters, how could I say no to this picture?

The whole Vietnam thing came about kind of serendipitously. I’ve been going through some career confusion for the better part of the last year. To be honest, I definitely don’t have it all straightened out yet but I know I want to be a writer, in some capacity, and that I don’t want to be doing admin work that hurts my soul at 24 years old. And after everything that happened with Colin’s dad, I realized that life is short and it was time for me to start loving mine again. So, for me, that meant making a change and going on a trip.

Luckily, my awesome girlfriend Emilie was also looking to do a little vacationing so I get to do Vietnam with a travel buddy. I floated the idea by Emilie when an awesome flight deal came my way (if you aren’t signed up to YVR Deals yet, do it now). About a day later, Emilie and I were booking our round trip flights from Vancouver to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for $505 per person! That’s $505 Canadian for round trip international flights – unheard of!

And with that one credit card purchase, everything kind of changed. I didn’t have enough vacation days at work and was honestly looking for an excuse to leave anyway so booking the trip meant giving my notice. Which in turn meant needing to figure a new income source. For that I’ve got someone subletting my place while I’m gone, a couple new exciting freelance writing projects, leads for opportunities to pursue once I return from Vietnam, and enough in savings to get me by for a little bit. It’s definitely not as settled as it could be but I’m confident everything is going to be okay.

So, that’s what’s new with me! I’ve been so anxious about giving my notice at work, confirming everything with my subletter and trying to stay on top of my writing that I haven’t actually taken the time to get excited about Vietnam. But now that everything is settled and we’re less than a month away from our departure date, it’s starting to feel real and I’m having a hard time keeping the smile off my face.

Here’s what we have planned so far – it’s a bit of a whirlwind trip, to be honest!

We land in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) and spend some time in the city. From there, we want to do an overnight tour of the Mekong Delta, famous for its floating markets. Then we fly up to Hoi An, the spot I am most excited about. This is the city where you can get clothing custom made for next to no money! There are also some great beaches nearby. Then we’ll bus/train to Hue, where we get our temple fix since we won’t be seeing the famous Angkor temples. I was hoping to add Cambodia to our itinerary but there’s just too much to see and do in Vietnam, so it will have to wait till my next SE Asia trip! From Hue we fly up north to Hanoi. After exploring Hanoi, we’ll head east and do a cruise on Halong Bay (pictured above) and then west to stay overnight in Sapa and see the iconic rice fields. That gets us to 16 days and the point in our adventure where Emilie heads back home because she actually has a job to get back to. Meanwhile, I’ll be heading to Phu Quoc Island where I intend to spend 4 blissful days by the beach sipping cocktails out of coconuts and frantically searching for a job online. I cannot wait!

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See you soon, Vietnam!