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!

A labour of love

When I started this blog, it was a place to express my strong desire to escape and get away.  And when I finally did get away, it became the perfect platform to share stories and photos from my trips abroad.  Now, more settled back at home, my blog has become a way for me to express myself and still share aspects of my life with anyone who happens to be reading.

Throughout all the phases of this blog over the last 4+ years, it has always been a creative outlet. Writing has always been my creative outlet.  I’ve dabbled in different types of writing over the years: fictional with short stories and scripts, blog posts, academic writing, editorial writing and freelance article writing.

I’ve always said that I love writing.  In fact, one of the reasons this blog came into existence is because it combines my two greatest loves: writing and travel.  I have never had a problem admitting my love for writing.

But admitting that I want it to be more than just a hobby? Now, that’s scary.

Over the last year (or probably longer), I’ve really struggled with a career path. I bounced around – non-profit, counselling, HR – but nothing really stuck.  I used to think I was so much smarter than those kids who decide they’re going to be doctors at the age of 7 and hold onto that for the rest of their lives. I thought by being open to all my interests and not committing to one thing, I was setting myself up for a more realistic career path.  And hey, maybe I will return to those other interests in the future and I don’t regret any of the career turns I’ve taken.  But I’ve also realized by not committing, I’m not putting myself out there. I’m not saying what I want. I’m not going after my dream. And honestly, it’s because I’m scared.  I am terrified that if I say my dream out loud, it means I could fail.  But if I don’t say it out loud, I’ll never know if I could succeed.

So, I’m saying it: I want to be a writer.

In fact, I am a writer! Not only on this blog, but I’ve been freelance writing for almost five years.  In the last few months, I’ve picked up a couple of new projects.  And I’m looking to add even more.  So I’m a writer and I’m looking for work! I really want to make writing my career. I want to be a writer. That’s my heart work. It’s terrifying to admit that. But it’s also really empowering. I’m not sure when I decided it was okay to bury my dream of writing but I’m done with that. I am slowly learning how to acknowledge my passion and give it the attention it deserves.

And with that acknowledgement comes all of the terrifying possibilities of rejection, writer’s block, networking, etc. I’m slowly coming around to those ideas. But it also comes with a lot of pride, creativity and great opportunities. I’m nervously excited.

So with that, if you or anyone you know is looking to hire a writer, I would love to be considered.  You can check out my work in my Writer’s Portfolio and contact me with any projects.  Please feel free to spread the word: this writer is going after her dream!

On love and loss

On Friday May 8th 2015, I took a nervous skytrain ride out to Surrey after work.  My boyfriend of about three weeks picked me up from the station and drove me to his house where I met his parents for the first time.

I remember a few details from that dinner.  I can vividly recall kicking myself for not bringing anything, even though Colin told me not to.  I remember meeting his pets for the first time and deciding that two cute dogs and a sunbathing cat were a pretty good perk of this relationship.  I remember stepping out onto the back porch and thinking I had stepped into one of those House & Garden magazines.

We all sat out at the back table; me, Colin, his mom and his dad.  Of course, the dogs joined us too hoping for table scraps.  Before dinner, Colin’s dad, Randy, gave me a bit of a family history explaining that the Marriott clan had started as wealthy land-owners in England. I don’t remember all the details but I think he was eluding to some royal lineage.

But I do remember feeling very welcomed. I was even invited to join them for a Mother’s Day lunch that weekend, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend.  And that feeling of being welcomed and very quickly loved by the Marriotts is one that has stuck for the last year and a half. I walk into their house and I feel like I’m coming home.  I’m always being invited to grab a plate of food or attend another family event.  I don’t hesitate to unload the dishwasher, put my own clothing into the washing machine or bake with ingredients I’ve decided they have in excess.  Heck, even the cat is comfortable sleeping on my stomach all night long.  In short, the Marriotts are my family.

And I don’t have the words to explain what it is to lose a member of my family.

Colin’s dad, Randy, passed away this Thursday.  It doesn’t even feel real to type that.  He arrived at the hospital on August 28th with severe back pain which turned out to be a very aggressive and advanced cancer. 11 days later, he was gone.

It felt – still feels – like we’re living in some kind of a movie. Who has cancer for 11 days? Who arrives at Emergency hoping for some pain killers and never leaves? It was like they made a mistake. We didn’t get enough time. No one was prepared. No one got to process any of it.

There wasn’t even time to step back and try to comprehend what was happening.  There were tests to do, family and friends to inform, pain to monitor and prognoses to hear.  Everyday brought slightly different news with depleting levels of hope.  Goals changed from managing the pain and bringing him home to making him as comfortable as possible.  Timelines varied from two years to a couple of days.

Time seemed to blur while we sat by his bedside at the hospital.  No one could ever recall what day it was or what time something happened.  When did he say that?  What day was that test?  Stories of his alert moments and words of wisdom from the doctor were told and retold to the point where I couldn’t remember if I had heard it firsthand or not.  Everything was present.  We couldn’t think back to the past when the past was only a short 10 days behind us.

To their credit, the staff, and in particular the nurses, at Surrey Memorial Hospital were the most kind and concerned people.  They held our hand through every blood test, pain killer administration and call button we would press when something just didn’t seem right.  They kept us informed, kept us calm and kept us cared for.  And, above all, they kept Randy comfortable, which was all we had left to wish for at that point.

Wishing someone comfort and nothing more is one of the most selfless things I can think of.  To hope for someone to simply be pain-free with no expectation of recovery, a final goodbye or prolonged life is, what I have witnessed to be, the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s putting aside your own needs, accepting the hole in your life and treading into waters you never thought you would have to learn how to swim – without a life jacket.

I was amazed by how Colin and his mom, Margie, jumped headfirst into those waters. They were the biggest proponents for lessening Randy’s suffering as soon as possible, even if it meant elongating their own.  Colin was his dad’s greatest advocate; he defended him and pushed for his rights and wishes when Randy no longer could.  I believe that these convictions and how powerfully they were followed through are the true definition of strength.

I don’t believe that tears make you weak – tears are a sign of compassion. And I don’t believe that fear makes you weak – fear means you have something to lose.  You can be strong when you are trembling with fear and tears are rushing down your face.  The strength was in saying goodbye and knowing you wouldn’t get one back.  The strength was in saying, “We’ll be okay,” and understanding you would have to work everyday for that to be true.  The strength was in saying, “Let go,” and truly meaning it.

I only knew Randy for 1 year and 4 months – 489 days.  Google tells me there were 140 weekend days during this time and I would reckon that I spent most of those under Randy’s roof.  It wasn’t a long time of knowing him, but it was a rich time.  I spent more time with Randy in the last year and a half than I have with my own parents in the last five years.  Arriving Friday after work to Randy, lying on the couch watching Pawn Stars or a baseball game with a glass of red wine in one hand and a furry animal under the other, was a common sight. I knew I was home.  When the TV blared from the other room or the smell of a “good breakfast” seeped under our door, I knew it was time to wake up.  Every weekend brought new DIY projects from spray painting the back fence to moving couches, including bringing one all the way to my place in Kitsilano.

I’m sure people who knew Randy a lot longer than 489 days have countless memories and stories.  But even in my short time I have many to treasure.  Like the time Randy decided to join the 20-something year old rugby players at his niece’s wedding in taking off his shirt and hitting the dance floor topless.  Or our big night out with Randy, his brother and his two sons where we hit the Cactus Club and the first Canucks game of 2016 – a night with Randy’s favourite guys. Opening Christmas gifts together on my first ever Christmas away from home, introducing my mom to Randy and Margie, enjoying the evening campfire at Pender Harbour and playing boardgames after a few rounds of drinks are just a few happy memories that come to mind.

Being a lover of words (as evidenced by the 1200+ words I have typed for this post thus far), it’s the words Randy said to me that most stick with me.  I remember giving him and Margie a card for Christmas and Randy going on about how sweet it was and that it brought a tear to his eye. He also spent the next few hours of Christmas day eagerly reading the book I had just gifted him.  After meeting my mom, Randy and I were chatting and he said that I must get my sweetness from her.  In fact, he often complimented my mom, despite only meeting her once.  And when he found out my dad was running for councillor in Toronto, Randy would tell me that he was going to call up one of the local radio stations and endorse my dad, even though they had never met.  The Marriotts even had a Canning for Councillor magnet on their fridge.

At the hospital, I got some special words as well.  On one of our first days visiting, one of Randy’s sisters told me that Randy had called her after Father’s Day and mentioned how touched he was that I had given him a card as well.  She told me that he really loved me.  On another day (I couldn’t say which), I came back into the room where Margie and Colin were holding Randy’s hands.  Margie told Randy that I was there and he asked me to come over to him.  I was kind of shocked that he was asking for me personally.  He pulled me in close in a big hug and whispered, “God bless you, thank you for taking care of my son.”  All I could do was nod through the tears.  But I think he knew that my nod meant, “Your son takes such good care of me, his mom and everyone else in this family. The least I can do is try my best to take care of him.”

Eventually, I did get in some of my own words at the hospital. They say that hearing is the last of the senses to go and the nurses encouraged us to talk to Randy, even when he was in a sleepy state.  So I got to speak with him and say everything that was left in my heart.  While 11 days isn’t a long time, it was enough for everyone to say their goodbyes and know that Randy heard them.

I don’t really know where to go from here.  There is a numbness that clouds our daily life.  Colin and I decided it’s kind of like a wall that is blocking us from feeling everything because it was all too much and too fast.  Cracks of reality and grief have already started to chip away at the wall.  I noticed the mantle in Colin’s house the other day that still has sympathy cards from his aunt’s passing in June. How cruel is it that their mantle is about to be covered in sympathy again only 2 months later?

I’m not sure when it will all hit. It still doesn’t feel real.  My brain knows what happened but my heart hasn’t fully felt it yet.  I’m worried about how it will hit.  And I’m worried for Colin and his mom, who I think still have their walls up pretty strong.  I keep saying there is no right or wrong way to feel but at the moment it’s as if there isn’t even a feeling.

I titled this post, “On love and loss.” Fairly self explanatory: we lost a loved one.  But now I’m realizing that there is more to that title.  Love also speaks to the emotion du jour over the last two weeks.  Every person who visited Randy, who held his hand and sat by his bedside, told stories of how much he meant to them.  Every person gave his hand a squeeze or kissed his head and told him how much they loved him.  I honestly don’t believe that room had ever known more love than the ever-present family and friends of Randy Marriott.  And it reminds us how important love is.  I’m pretty sure Colin and I have said, “I love you” to each other more in the last two weeks than we have all year.  With meaning and intention, it’s something that can’t be said enough.  It’s a comfort, a promise, a support and a bond.

Loss is also taking on a secondary meaning.  We lost someone and now I feel lost. I feel like I am just going through the motions.  I feel like I’m stuck in certain parts of my life and want to make a change. I still feel helpless and heartbroken – feelings I have kept since those first few days in the hospital. I feel at a loss for the right emotion; I’m clouded over and can’t find an emotion to cling to.  I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling this way.

So literally, this post has been on love and loss.  I’m sure in time, there will be other feelings. I don’t know when and I don’t know which ones.  I don’t know if I will write about them.  But writing has always been my love and how I find my way out when I am lost. So for now, thank you for allowing me to share.  To share the experience, my struggles and a small glimpse of the extremely loved and too-soon lost, Randy Marriott.

 

When your best friend gets married

When my best friend first told me she was going to be getting married, I didn’t quite believe it. Sure, weddings were always something we talked about – we fantasized about our dream engagement rings and criticized the crazy people on Say Yes To The Dress.  But marriage? Our conversations never got quite that adult.

But we are adults. I tend to have a hard time believing that. I often feel like I’m just playing pretend; that eventually someone will come by and force me to start meal planning or learn how to fold a fitted sheet. And when I’m unsatisfied at work, it’s easy to get swept up in the very non-traditional options of quitting my job, travelling the world, writing a novel, etc.  Getting married, buying a house, contributing to an RRSP? Not really on my radar.

But for my best friend, marriage was absolutely on her radar. And suddenly, it didn’t seem so foreign.  Suddenly, my life became a little bit more real.  People my age were – are – getting married, buying houses, having children, progressing in their careers, etc. But people my age are also going to school, living at home or making plans to travel the world.  I’m realizing that your mid-20s is almost an undefinable age for my generation.  I don’t think there is a typically 24 year old, at least not among the 24 year olds that I know.

My best friend flew out to visit me shortly before she became officially engaged. For all intents and purposes, she was engaged; she just didn’t have the hardware yet.  It was exciting to be next to this girl I used to skip class with in order to follow boys to basketball games who was now a woman armed with wedding magazines and an impressively detailed spreadsheet.  But it was also a little scary.

I left Toronto after graduating high school and have been living in Vancouver fairly consistently (minus my international stints) ever since.  When I left Toronto, the biggest things in my best friend’s life were her new short haircut (which she rocked, by the way) and fitting all of her stuff into her university dorm room.  Every time I visit Toronto we hang out with the same group of ladies, sleepover at the same house and even visit the same restaurants.  Sure, our talk has changed from English quizzes and spare periods to university finals and vacations, but the people and the places are still the same.  While I know my best friend has graduated, gotten a job, has a professional degree and now a husband, it’s separate from the life I have led with her.

When your best friend gets married, you realize she is so much more than just your best friend.  She is a business woman who meets with vendors, negotiates prices and signs contracts.  She is the epitome of grace and patience as she deals with a last minute dress disaster.  She is a role model to her younger cousin who sometimes drove her a little crazy as the only teenager in the bridal party.  She is an only daughter who makes her mother cry at every turn on the wedding day.  She is an accountant, making small talk with people from her office, and an alumna, catching up with university friends on the dance floor.  She is a bride tossing a bouquet over her shoulders and taking to the dance floor for her first dance.  She is a daughter in-law, hugging family members unfamiliar to me and listening patiently to a language she doesn’t speak.  And of course, she is a wife.  My best friend found the person she wants to spend the rest of her life with and the rest of her life is starting right now.

Seeing my best friend in all of these roles, I thought I might miss her.  I thought I might lose who she is to me.  But I didn’t.  When your best friend gets married, you get to witness all that she is to all of the people who love her.  I got to see her shine all day through the smiles, stresses, shakes and sore feet.  I got to spend the entire day marveling not only at what a beautiful bride she was but at her composure in dealing with the little hiccups, her ability to stay standing till the last song despite a sore back and bad cough, and the way her hand always found her husband’s whenever she needed a little extra support.

When your best friend gets married, she is still your best friend.  Despite all of her roles and obligations on her wedding day, she still took time to make sure I was okay.  As the last person to walk down the aisle before her, she was sure to whisper back “I love you too” right before we parted.  During my section of the speech, when I turned to address her, we both instantly began crying – something we’re known to do in emotional situations.

The night was littered with emotional tear-inducing hugs between my best friend and I.  For some reason, hugging goodbye this time felt more final.  Yes, I will be seeing her when I’m home for Christmas in 4 months, which is not the longest we’ve been apart.  But this time the hugs lasted longer, the tears flowed faster, almost as if we were saying goodbye to something else.  Or maybe it was just all of the emotion of the day creeping up on us.  But I think a little part of us was saying goodbye to a piece of our past.  Of course, we will still be best friends.  We’ll still text and Skype, send each other snail mail, and catch up over brunch or late night dessert when I’m home. But things will be a little different.  And they should be.  My best friend is a wife now; that is pretty life changing.

When your best friend gets married, things change.  And they change for the better.

Lucky Me!

I never used to consider myself a lucky person – I wasn’t someone who always caught the bus right on time or never had a bad hair day.  But, in looking back, I suppose I am a lot luckier than I thought.  Here are a few of my big wins…

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$100
Now, $100 might not seem like a ton of money but this prize started off a year of pretty sweet contest wins for me.  My friend Andrea and I entered a Halloween contest through Canada’s Luckiest Student. To win this Halloween contest, you had to submit a photo of yourself in costume and then the photo with the most likes would win. So Andrea and I both decided to go for it; she dressed up as a minion and I dressed up as Minnie Mouse. The funny thing about this contest was that the creators had sent out a message saying they had only received six entries and the contest was closing that night.  So Andrea and I figured we might as well enter, since our chances of winning were pretty high. But because we only had the night, our costumes were pretty much scraped together from whatever we could make or find by running up and down the halls of our dorm. Anyway, Andrea went full tilt on Facebook, got a ton of likes and ended up winning the $500 grand prize.  But guess who won the $100 random draw? This mouse!

Twilight tickets
Shortly after winning as Minnie Mouse, I won tickets to the Twilight premiere in Vancouver. Now, this was 2012 and the final movie of the series so excuse me for being pretty pumped about it.  There was a red carpet and I think we might have gotten some swag to take home as well.

Round-trip flight to Australia
Easily my biggest win and also in the same year as the two contests above, I won a round-trip flight to Australia through an Air Canada Facebook contest.  It still sort of blows my mind that I won this one.   No one ever wins those free trip contests! But I did.  I had to fill out a form on Facebook describing my dream trip and out of all the entries, they picked mine! I used the flight a year later to spend a month in Australia visiting the Gold Coast, Sydney and Melbourne.

After that crazy year of contest winning, things sort of cooled off. I must have lost my four-leaf clover.  But then last fall, I started entering contests more actively. Instead of just clicking on the occasional contest that would pop up on social media, I sought out contests (my favourite contest curating website is contestgirl.com).  Now I know daily contest entering isn’t for everyone.  For me, it’s actually kind of fun to see all the different things I could win.  I have auto-fill on Google Chrome so I don’t actually spend forever typing out my details over and over again. And I am very diligent about clicking “unsubscribe” as soon as I receive the first contest-affiliated newsletter.  So since starting my contest entering last fall (and not actually entering everyday but as often as I remember), I have won:

Free movies
I’m not sure exactly which contest this was but I got on some list where almost bi-weekly I am sent free tickets for advanced screenings of not-yet-released movies. Half the time it’s a movie I don’t care about or the invite is sent too last minute and I already have plans but it has worked out a few times.  Colin and I have probably gone to 4 or 5 free movies since.

Dyson vacuum
This was a pretty sweet win. I entered a BestBuy contest by commenting on a Facebook photo and I won a free vacuum worth $600. My apartment is all carpet so this baby was actually pretty life-changing. It makes vacuuming so much easier and works way better than the used Dirt Devil Sophie and I picked up from Goodwill last year.

Vancouver staycation package
So for this I won a little Vancouver tourism package. I actually won this back in April, right before Colin and my first anniversary, and was hoping to utilize it for our celebration.  Unfortunately, there was some fine print and blackout dates but we will be using it later in the fall.  The package includes 3 nights at the Granville Island Hotel, $200 to Dockside restaurant, ferry tickets and theatre tickets. Our plan is to do a whole weekend using the giftcards and playing tourists on Granville Island.

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So I think that about sums up my contest winnings.  It’s become part of my routine now to enter contests at the start of every work day – hopefully that translates into a few more wins!  But even if it doesn’t, I still have fun entering and I still know I am incredibly lucky in so many other ways.  Lucky to have a job that supports living in the priciest city in Canada; lucky to wake up to trees, mountains and the Pacific Ocean; lucky to have friends and family who love me from near and far; lucky to have a sweet and silly partner in Colin; and just really lucky on a basic level to have the privilege of being healthy and happy in a free country.  I know this post is a little silly – I’m talking about a bunch of contests I’ve won and the many more I’ve missed out on.  But I also know in comparison to so many people around the world, I am a winner – despite not getting that all expense paid trip to Cuba – and it’s important that I remember and am grateful of that fact everyday.