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! 

Amsterdam: Doei en dank u wel!

Coming back to Amsterdam after almost a full month of being away was like returning home.  My apartment felt bigger, my fridge seemed emptier and my city had never looked so beautiful.  With only 3 weeks left to call Amsterdam home, it was time to take advantage and make sure those “last times” were the best times.

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Of course, this essential meant we had to eat our way through the city 🙂

Beginning mere hours after our plane landed, we were at the Saturday night version of our Sunday favourite: The NeighbourFood Market.  The food options weren’t as good but the ice cream and music were rocking.  The next day, we did it up right for our last NeighbourFood visit.  I went for hirata buns, after falling in love with them in London, and this delicious burger:

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

A few days (or it could have been the next day) later, we were back at Westerpark but this time for the famous scones! I can honestly say these scones are the best I’ve ever had; even better than the ones served with afternoon tea in London!  They are warm and come with tasty cream & jam.  Of course, this wasn’t our last scone tasting!

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

Next on the gastronomical tour down memory lane: Pannenkoeken! Or, Dutch pancakes! Our favourites are at the Pancake Bakery by the Anne Frank house.  The only was to enjoy these is with friends: everyone orders a pancake, you eat a share and then rotate the plates.  This way, you get to try everything and don’t have to choose between savoury and sweet!

PANCAKES!

PANCAKES!

We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without taking a ride on the iconic canals. I had been tempted by overpriced tour boats before but am so glad I waited until we rented a boat for ourselves. It was so fun to be out on the water, manoeuvring the boat ourselves, while enjoying good music, good drinks and good cheese.  Despite almost hitting a few other boats and struggling to “park”, we had a blast on the boat.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Low bridges are no joke!

Low bridges are no joke! The blue pads were the seats!

How can I be leaving this city?

How can I be leaving this city?

How else could we top off a typical Dutch day than enjoying the football match with our fellow Nederlanders at an outdoor pub? While I’m not a huge soccer fan (and not scoring for the first 70 minutes didn’t help) even I loved the atmosphere when we beat Chile 2 – 0!

HUP HOLLAND!

HUP HOLLAND!

June 25th brought us to the Grumble Gig, which was actually the reunion of 6 friends over dinner and not a group of pugs playing instruments.  It was the final date the 6 of us would be in the city and we celebrated with a meal at Everything On A Stick (actual name of the restaurant).  And while the service may have, the food did not disappoint! Everything was literally on a stick and the beef was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Better than the food and novelty of eating off sticks was the unstoppable laughter erupting from our table all night long. I miss the grumble!

Some stick-licking good food!

Some stick-licking good food!

All the sticks!

All the sticks!

❤ The grumble

The next morning, Stephanie’s family arrived and we showed them Gabby’s favourite kiwi brunch spot.  Somehow she managed to find a New Zealand-owned brunch place in Amsterdam that serves some serious food.  My plate of pulled pork, poached eggs, avocado and mango salsa was SO GOOD I’m a little upset I didn’t go back a second time.  And making our breakfast date even more special: I got a quick visit from my wonderful friend Mel, who was en route to Ghana from Vancouver!

SO YUM!

SO YUM!

Sadly, after a delicious brunch it was time for me to hunker down.  Over the next 48 hours I crammed and wrote my final exam (24/30 baby!) and joined my flatmates in the most intense clean our apartment has ever seen.  After all that mental and physical work, it was time to relax and enjoy Gabby’s last day in Amsterdam! After starting our day with scones (what else?) we missioned into town to find Thai food and for another visit to the zoo.  Unfortunately, the zoo wasn’t accepting our student discount on a Saturday, so we decided on a place with fewer kids and better smells: Gabby’s favourite brewery!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Brewery time!

Brewery time!

The last chips :(

The last chips with mayo in Amsterdam 😦

Saying goodbye to Gabby on the 29th was tough.  It had been an emotional week of goodbyes with Steph and Candy already having left the city.  But Gabby was especially hard, given that “see you soon!” doesn’t really apply to someone living in New Zealand.  But we have a pact: before I turn 25 (in 3 years!) we will be living together again in the wonderful city of London! See you there Gabs!

To celebrate Carlie’s last few days she had friends in town and we had a few last minute things to check off the A-dam bucket list. #1: utilize that student discount at the zoo! We saw all the animals, even the gorillas this time! And Carlie even dragged me into the insect and reptile houses, though I squirmed the whole time.  The highlight was definitely watching Carlie get a proper Amsterdam send off from a friendly elephant 🙂

She speaks Elephant fluently

She speaks Elephant fluently

Another thing I’ve been doing a lot of in the last few weeks: watching MasterChef Australia! The show is wonderful and crazy addictive. Plus, it airs 5 nights a week, so there is always something to watch.  Gabby & Colin got me hooked on it and then we pulled in Carlie.  After being inspired by a good 30+ episodes of MasterChef, Carlie and I decided to try our hand at chocolate noodles. It was so fun (and simple!) to make and it made our chocolate treat feel way more posh!

MasterChef 2015 - we're coming for ya!

MasterChef 2015 – we’re coming for ya!

After failing on finding a cheap and near by Indonesian restaurant for Carlie’s last supper, we settled for take away Chinese and frivolity on the swings!

Their feet touched!

Their feet touched!

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Don't leave! :(

Don’t leave! 😦

And before we knew it, July 2nd was here and our place was spotless. It was so weird to see our place empty and to roll suitcases out our front door.  It was especially weird for me, since I was only moving downstairs.  I hugged Carlie goodbye, with promises to catch up over sushi in Van this fall, and entered my new apartment.

Bye apartment!

Bye old apartment!

It has been a strange week: I’m still in Amsterdam and I’m still in the Gevleweg apartments but I’m not in my apartment and I’m all by myself.  I’ve never had an issue with solo travel (see most of my trips) but after starting out in a place with people, it’s tough to lose them.  I think Amsterdam understood my feelings: the whole week has been a weird mix of humidity, wind and rain; which makes staying in my PJs till 1pm much easier.  I’ve definitely had a pretty lazy week but I’ve been able to get ahead on some Tokyo prep and get some time to myself before I’m thrown into 3 weeks of students, teachers and host families.

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Tomorrow I leave for Japan.  It’s weird to be leaving on another trip when almost everyone I know is ending theirs.  And it’s strange to be going even farther abroad after spending 5 months living in Europe.  People keep asking if I’m excited and I can see why: 3 weeks working a nice job in a new country that has as much culture and good cuisine as Japan does is definitely a dream experience.  But despite all that, there is a part of me that wants to go home.  And there’s another part of me that wants to stay in Amsterdam (bringing back all my friends, of course).  That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to Tokyo, but “excited” doesn’t seem to capture my current emotion.  But, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly excited on my way to Amsterdam.  I was nervous to be starting a new life in a new city at a new school with new friends.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to London.  And I was regretting leaving behind my family in Toronto and my job/school in Vancouver. But from all that worry, disappointment and regret came 5 amazing months and one of the best experiences of my life.  I suspect something very similar will happen with Tokyo.