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.

***

dsc_0491

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.

dsc_0428

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.

dsc_0446

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!

dsc_0482

We love Halong Bay!

We love Halong Bay!

***

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! 

Advertisements

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.

***

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

Coming home?

Okay, I’m way behind on blog posts. Like 3 weeks behind. But in my defence, I’ve been really busy!

***

In the last couple of weeks I’ve flown to Toronto, celebrated Christmas, flown to the Dominican Republic for a family vacation, rang in the new year, flown back to Toronto and (finally) flown home to Vancouver.

And while I’m no stranger to flights and coast-hopping, this time felt a bit different.  To start with, it was a whirlwind visit.  I only had about 4 days in Toronto before we left for the DR.  In those few days I managed to squeeze in quite a few family and friend catch ups.  My Toronto days essential broke down to: gift wrapping, brunch with James & Zab, gift shopping, x-mas dinner with my high school girlfriends, Brantford visit with my grandma and cousins, dinner with Auntie Hayley & Kaitlyn, brunch with Shelby, more gift shopping and wrapping, dinner with Kim & Sash, lunch and shopping with Simon, hair cut, dim sum dinner and sleepover with Pamela & Andrea, brunch with mom and, finally, Christmas Eve dinner with the Angs before getting to the airport for 4am for our DR flight! So, you could say things were busy 🙂

Christmas Eve with the Angs!

Christmas Eve with the Angs!

Donated 10 inches of hair!

Donated 10 inches of hair!

Dinner at Origin with Kaity, Mom & A. Hayley

Dinner at Origin with Kaity, Mom & A. Hayley

Headed to Brantford full of Christmas cheer

Headed to Brantford full of Christmas cheer

Christmas dinner with PRALM

Christmas dinner with PRALM

Brunch with my favourite Toronto boys

Brunch with my favourite Toronto boys

But busy was beneficial; I got to see so many people who I love and haven’t seen for a little while.  My dearest (but not necessarily nearest) are still in Toronto and it’s so important to me to be able to catch up with them whenever I can.  But, something did feel a bit different this time.

Toronto will always be my home. I’ve spent most of my life there.  All of my family and childhood friends are there. But this time didn’t feel like a homecoming. It felt like a tour.  Part of that is definitely due to the crazy schedule of dinners and brunches I set up for myself.  It’s hard to feel like you’re home when “home” is a series of meals with different people all around the city.  But the other part was my new definition of “home”.

Home has always been a bit of fluid term for me.  I attach it pretty loosely to just about anywhere.  The hostels of Europe became home to me in the Spring, my tatami mat bedroom was home for a month this summer in Japan and now, Vancouver is definitely home.  I don’t know if I could rank one home as more “homey” than the others, but there is definitely a new permanency with my Vancouver home that is pushing the status of Toronto home.

Now that school is done and I’ve started a full time job and am living in my own apartment, my Vancouver life is a bit more established.  My residency here is no longer determined by a four month school term.  There isn’t a set date when I’ll be leaving Vancouver.  And there isn’t a set date when I’ll be returning to Toronto for anything more than a week-long visit.  That both terrifies and excites me.

Sitting in my apartment, lunch packed for work tomorrow and a mountainous recycling box staring at me, I do feel at home. I’ve put up some photos, and my treasured scratch-off map, and things are really starting to feel homey.  I’m excited to get into a work routine and start some non-school after work activities.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my family and friends in Toronto.  And it doesn’t mean I’m done with Toronto or closing the door on ever living there again.

***

Because no matter where in the world I’m calling home, Toronto will always have a huge part of my heart.

Adventures with the Kosekis

Besides feeding me, housing me and putting up with my inability to speak Japanese, the wonderful Koseki family has also been touring me around some of Tokyo’s hot spots.

******

Festivals & Fireworks
My first weekend with the Kosekis coincided with the annual Plum Festival.  Our local shrine in Fuchu hosted a series of stalls and a boat-load of people.  There were a few stalls dedicated to plum sales and the rest sold other Japanese foods.  There were even game stalls for the kids.  And all of the people were flocking to the shrine to get in their prayers/wishes.  There was a scary long line of people but Mrs. Koseki showed me a short cut: we just did our prayers off to the side of the shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Celebrating the festival at the Fuchu shrine!

Sword demos at the festival

Sword demos at the festival

That same weekend, Fuchu put on a huge fireworks show.  Most people headed to the Tokyo Racehorse Track for good views. Mrs. Koseki walked me around the track that afternoon and by 4:00pm the place was already packed with people and countless picnic blankets to reserve spots.  Lucky for us, we had the best seats in the house: our balcony! We decided to have a BBQ out on the balcony and then stay up there for the fireworks.  At the same time, Mother Nature decided to throw down her craziest rain, thunder and lightning storm! Fortunately, all we had to do was roll out the awning but I felt awful for all the spectators, including my friend Sean and his host family, sitting out at the uncovered racetrack.  For a while it looked like the storm was going to cancel the fireworks, but the show went on, with only a 20 minute delay.

And it was the coolest fireworks show I have ever seen! Not only were the fireworks themselves impressive (there were even ones with letters and numbers!) but they were accompanied by great music (including “Let It Go” in Japanese) and LIGHTNING! It was so cool to actually be able to see the bolts of lightning in between the fireworks; I have never seen anything like that before! The whole sky was going crazy.  My host sister Yuko was trying desperately to capture the lightning on camera but was never quite quick enough.  I guess some things are just meant to be enjoyed technology-free.

All Aboard the HATO Bus
The next weekend started early with a 7am wake-up on Saturday.  We had to rise early in order to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market before all of the action was over.  The real action begins at 5:00am with the daily tuna auction.  Members of the public can attend the auction, but that involves arriving at 4:30am (or earlier!) to queue for tickets.  So we went with a casual stroll of the stalls around 9:30am.  Tsukiji is giant! It also reeks, being a fish market, and is boiling hot since it’s covered but not air conditioned.  Despite the heat, and the smell, we trekked around the stalls and were able to take in all manner of seafood and sweaty men running around in galoshes, hacking at fish parts or riding on motorized carts.  It was quite the sight!

Just casually straddling a giant fish

Just casually straddling a giant fish

After taking in the business side of the market, we walked around the even hotter vendor stalls where we stopped for some mid-morning sushi.  We stood outside one of the restaurants on a street filled with market-goers waiting for their chance to taste the catch of the day.  Finally, we entered the ten-seat restaurant and feasted on the most delicious, fresh and filling sushi I have ever tasted!  The fish literally melted in your mouth.  It was amazing, and had a price tag to match.  Fun fact: I just found out that Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart, who are in town shooting a movie, ate at the exact same restaurant a few days ago!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

BEST SUSHI EVER!

From sushi to skylines: we headed up to Tokyo Tower to take in the views.  This would be my 2nd of 4 tower observatories I got to visit in Tokyo; that’s a lot of city views to take in.

The Tokyo Tower

The Tokyo Tower

All of the fish and towers were just to fill our morning before our actually sightseeing adventure: a HATO bus tour! Now, I am usually not a big fan of tour buses.  And when our guide began the tour by handing out (mandatory) stickers we had to wear on our person, I had to suppress my eye roll.  But, my host mom had done a lot of planning for this and had never been on a HATO bus herself.  Plus, my host parents had even signed us up for the English tour despite their difficulty with the language.

Our HATO bus (air conditioned, thank God) first dropped us off at the pier where we took a ferry up the river to Asakusa.  The views from the boat weren’t too spectacular, but it was fun to be on the water.

Tokyo by water

Tokyo by water

At Asakusa, our guide explained that the place would be packed due to the fireworks scheduled there that evening.  But we pushed through the crowds and made our way to the oldest shrine in Tokyo!  The Shinto shrine was built back in the 600s and our guide walked us through the traditional shrine procedure.  First, you wash your hands (and possibly drink? Though whether you actually drink or just fake it seems to be debated) from a fountain in front of the shrine.  Next, you approach the shrine and throw a coin (usually 5 yen) into a large basin.  This offering is followed by two bows, two claps, a moment to introduce yourself to the god(s) and make your wish, and one final bow.

Asakusa

Asakusa

After visiting the shrine, we had a bit more time to explore Asakusa.  I particularly loved the five-storey pagoda and giant lanterns.  The main shopping strip was filled with people but I weaved my way through and managed to snag some delicious Japanese pastries.

Check out that pagoda

Check out that pagoda

The next stop: the Imperial Palace!  En route our guide explained that the current emperor, who is symbolic and has no real political power, is eighty years old and had married a commoner (the first to do so).  His eldest son, in his fifties, will inherit the emperor-ship (I’ve decided that’s a word) once the current emperor passes.  However, this eldest son only has one child, a daughter.  Women are not allowed to be emperors (boo!).  So after the eldest son, the crown (do emperors wear crowns?) passes to the second eldest son’s son…who is four years old at the moment! Of course, he’ll have lots of time to grow up and get ready for his role, but it was pretty comical when the tour guide passed around photos of a buck-toothed toddler proclaiming him as the future emperor of Japan!

With my host parents outside the palace

With my host parents outside the palace

Unfortunately, all we did at the Imperial Palace was walk a number of sweaty paces around the perimeter.  I thought we’d be going inside! But after reaching the front gates, we were herded back onto the bus for our final stop: (another) observatory!  Our guide walked us around the top floor of the World Trade Center Building (way too eerie to be in that elevator) for another crazy view of Tokyo.  Finally, after 4+ hours of touring, we were dropped off at Tokyo Station.  Mr. & Mrs. Koseki hailed a cab and I slept soundly in the back the whole way home.

And All That Eating
I honestly don’t think I’ve eaten better than these last three weeks in Tokyo.  Mrs. Koseki is a wonderful chef; every night is a delicious Japanese dish and she has yet to serve the same thing twice! But sometimes we take our eating adventures outside of the house.

After hearing about my love of sushi, Mrs. Koseki found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant nearby and we all headed there for dinner.  Conveyor belt sushi, which has a much nicer name I’m forgetting in Japanese, is literally a conveyor belt that surrounds the sushi bar from which diners can pick up plates of sushi.  It was fun to watch the delicious plates slide by our table and dive in to pick up the ones we wanted.  But, being serious sushi people, we could only put up with the conveyor belt for so long before we just ordered directly from the waitress.  And, at the end of the meal, a waiter came by with a scanner gun and quickly scanned our mountain of 30+ plates.  And with that, the price was determined!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

Yuko & Mr. Koseki chowing down!

All that sushi!

All that sushi!

The Sunday after our crazy HATO bus tour, the Kosekis and I journeyed to their family friend, Keiko’s, house for dinner.  Keiko’s husband is actually Mrs. Koseki’s English teacher, and was eager to speak English with me.  It was nice to have someone to communicate with but awkward to have so much attention put on me.  He kept insisting that everyone practice their English and interrupting conversations to translate for me.  But, the entire family was so lovely.  Their daughter, Mari, and her husband, a famous Japanese chef, joined us for dinner as well.  They were both very well-traveled and spoke great English.  Later, Mrs. Koseki showed me a cookbook she had that was actually written by Mari’s husband! But that night Keiko did most of the cooking.  We ate outdoors, enjoying a BBQ of ribs, corn, fish, potatoes and a few other items I’m forgetting.  At first, everyone was trying to eat the items with chopsticks (including the ribs) but eventually most of us gave in and used our hands.  A few hours later we finished the evening with peaches, cake and coffee indoors.

Dinner party gang

Dinner party gang

During my last week here, we went out for dinner twice.  Once, with some LABO ladies and a second time for my host-sister Yuko’s birthday.

We met up with our local LABO tutor and a few LABO moms for a traditional Japanese girls’ night feasting on traditional Japanese foods.  It was really fun to hang out with these kind women and eating as well as we did.  The meal consisted of 8 courses which included sashimi, lettuce pork wraps, teriyaki fish and soba.  Everything was so yummy!

And the next night, we walked over to same area and settled into an Italian restaurant for Yuko’s birthday.  Suffice to say I didn’t think I would ever be going to an Italian restaurant during my 3 weeks in Japan.  But overall, the food was actually quite good….I just don’t know how authentically Italian it was.  Instead of ordering individual dishes, Mrs. Koseki ordered a series of dishes for the table.  We had appetizers, salad, steak, fries and, of course, pasta.  The homemade lasagne was probably my favourite.  At the end, our waitress brought out a cake for Yuko and we all sang to her before diving into the chocolate-y goodness.

Happy Birthday Yuko!

Happy Birthday Yuko!

*****

And today marks my last day with the Kosekis 😦 Last night they gave me a mini photo album to document some of our adventures together.  It was very sweet and I’m sure I will never forget the Kosekis and how kind they have been to me.

Tokyo Twenty-Two

On July 17th, I turned 22! (cue Taylor Swift’s lyrical interpretation of this new milestone)

****

I’ve gotten to celebrate my birthday in some pretty cool places: I turned 14 at a beachside resort in the Philippines, 18 on horseback in the Dominican Republic, 21 squealing over penguins in Cape Town, South Africa and now 22 in Tokyo!

On my actual birthday, I didn’t do much outside of my usual routine.  I still woke up at 8am, ate breakfast with Mrs. Koseki and headed off for school by 9am.  At school, the students wished me a happy birthday and the rest of the day continued with lessons as planned.  Of course, spending all day learning Japanese wouldn’t be my first choice for a birthday celebration, but I had been expecting it.

After class I took the subway to Tokyo’s Ginza district.  It was a lot like Toronto’s Yorkville, filled with fancy shops and things I couldn’t afford.  But it was fun to window shop and check out another part of this giant city.  I even stopped to treat myself to a few pieces of delicious sushi.  It doesn’t get much better than sushi in Japan!

Checking out Ginza's famous clock tower

Checking out Ginza’s famous clock tower

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My host family had let me know that we would celebrate my birthday on the 18th, since Mr. Koseki and Yuko were both away on the 17th.  I wasn’t sure what the celebration would entail, as I’ve heard birthdays aren’t a huge deal in Japan.  But I was so touched and blown away by what they had planned.

On the 18th I came home to a dinner of homemade sushi.  Except, this sushi looked just as good, if not better, than restaurant sushi! And, it was accompanied by a bottle of champagne.  They made me pop the cork and then the whole family tucked in to some delicious food!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

After sushi, they pulled out a cake that had my name written on it and candles bought just for me.  Everyone sang and I tried not to laugh as Mr. Koseki, who actually has a lovely singing voice, struggled to pronounce my name in time with the song.  Pictures were taken, candles were blown out and cake was stuffed into our already full stomachs.

Yuko & I

Yuko & I

"I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22!"

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22!”

The family then presented me with gifts.  I wasn’t expecting anything, but really appreciated the tokens of Japan they gifted me with.  Mrs. Koseki’s aunt gave me a beautiful handkerchief that had Mt. Fuji and two little cats on it.  Mrs. Koseki bought me a traditional fan decorated with Japanese goldfish.  And Yuko gave me the coolest card depicting a Japanese festival.

Beautiful host family gifts

Beautiful host family gifts

After all that, the family took me out to the balcony where we lit sparklers.  I’ve never been one for pyrotechnics, but I really enjoyed watching the sparklers go off, especially when Mrs. Koseki’s aunt seemed almost afraid of hers.

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Sparklers!

Sparklers!

The next day, Mrs. Koseki took me to a LABO party.  LABO is the organization hosting us here in Tokyo and teaching our Japanese lessons.  They also run English clubs for Japanese families and facilitate homestays for Japanese children in English-speaking countries.  At the LABO party I watched a few skits and speeches by the kids, participated in a game of human knot and even gave a speech myself about all of the places I’ve travelled.  I pulled out my pictures, when one kid asked what kind of animals I had seen, and was immediately swarmed by all of the children (and their parents!).  It was a really fun event!

Towards the end of the party, the LABO organizers surprised me by getting everyone to sing happy birthday.  One of the high school girls then presented me with a handmade card she had drawn and gotten her friends to sign.  And one of the moms gave me a package of chopsticks that she explained the LABO moms had handmade for me.

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

From my host family to people I had just met; I still can’t believe how sweet and kind everyone has been.  22 will definitely be a birthday to remember 🙂

Live. Love. London.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to return to one of my favourite cities: London, England! As soon as the plane (which was only in the air for 40 mins!) touched down, I got a crazy sense of coming home. I’ve often said that London is a city I could live in, and this trip only made me want to move there that much sooner!

***

My original purpose in planning this UK trip was to volunteer at Free The Children’s first We Day outside of North America. This would complete my We Day hat trick: attended the first ever We Day in Toronto (2007), worked at the first We Day in the States (2013) and volunteered at the first We Day UK (2014).

The show was amazing! I volunteered as a Crowd Pumper, so I basically got to cheer and dance while having a great view of the stage.  I was most excited to see HRH Prince Harry (!!!) speaking, but was more blown away by the inspirational and well-spoken Malala Yousafzai (who didn’t even use her teleprompter), parolympian Martine Wright (who competed in London 2 years after losing her legs) and the always-impressive Spencer West. Of course, dancing with new friends to Ellie Goulding wasn’t too bad either 🙂

017

My future husband – aka HRH Prince Harry!

028

Malala Yousafzai – pure inspiration!

After We Day wrapped up, I met up with my good friend Andrea, who is currently on exchange in Sweden. We set out for the exhilarating, yet continually disappointing, Book of Mormon lottery – you put your name in a giant spinning drum and 2 hours before showtime, they give out 21 front row seats for only 20 pounds! It’s exciting, standing in the crowd and clapping for the lucky few who hear their names called. But it’s also pretty disappointing to walk away empty handed.

Fingers crossed! Waiting (and losing) at the BOM lottery

Fingers crossed! Waiting (and losing) at the BOM lottery

After losing the lottery, we tried at a few discount theatre ticket shops but decided on a cheap dinner and early night.  Unfortunately, our cheap dinner didn’t turn out too good (I paid 8 pounds for 2 chicken wings and a waffle) and neither did our early night. At the last moment we decided to buy tickets to Once, which were upgraded when we got to the theatre!

Trying to look happy about our mediocre dinner

Trying to look happy about our mediocre dinner

The next morning, still on a theatre-rush, Andrea and I headed to the Wicked box office for student tickets to that night’s performance. Tickets in hand, we walked over a few blocks to Buckingham Palace’s famed Changing of the Guard…

…which was an overrated let down! I have never seen more tourists crammed into an area for, what boiled down to, a few marching bands. Regardless of where you stood, you could only have visibility for a portion of the ceremony. The best part was the bad-ass cop on horseback who had crowd control down to an art form.  I can’t believe that gong show goes on every other day (every day in the summer)!

117

The real star of the Changing of the Guard

145

Tourists suck

159

Yup, we were there!

Next we followed in the tourist tracks and joined a free walking tour. It was a beautiful day for it – but our attention span wasn’t quite there. We tuned out most of the stories and ended up ditching our group for birds in the park about halfway through the tour.

208

The guards at St. James Palace come right up to you on their march!

234

The guy next to us was throwing his bread in the air where the birds would fly, hover & catch it mid-air!

We continued on our own “walking tour” heading up to parliament, Big Ben & Westminster Abbey before dragging our sore feet through some stores on the way to dinner.  After enjoying some Wok to Walk, we jumped on the tube and got in line at the Apollo Vic Theatre to see WICKED!

287

Pretty sure I take this exact same photo every time I come to London

304

Andrea enjoying the legendary Wok to Walk

This was my 3rd time seeing Wicked (2nd time in London – rough life, I know), but it still gives me chills every time. I notice new details and have to restrain myself from joining in on the songs. Our Elphaba was phenomenal and in addition to her incredible voice, had plans to run a marathon in April! To be that talented!

Best show ever!

Best show ever!

Our final day in London started off with delicious brunch with a familiar face: my (second? removed? who knows?) cousin Rachel! Rachel, her husband and her adorable dog just moved back to London after spending a few years in Brazil. It was nice to see some family and really nice to enjoy yummy brunch out in the sun.

Brunching with Rachel & Lorenzo!

Brunching with Rachel & Lorenzo!

After food, we headed to the train station. On the way we walked past St. Mary’s Hospital (where Prince George was born!) and a market on houseboats (which seems like something Amsterdam should be doing!).

325

The Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital where Prince George was born!

327

Checking out the used books on the house boat book store

We took the train to Windsor Castle and spent a good part of the day exploring the grounds, checking out the state rooms and trying to guess where the Queen might be.

334

Heading into Windsor Castle

348

This flag means the Queen is home!

360

Family crests of British soldiers

The castle was pretty spectacular, and the whole town was really cute. There were lots of little shops including a discount bookstore and some overrated award-winning ice cream.  By late afternoon, we were ready to head back to London.

368

400

Before we realized what a let down the ice cream would be!

377

Windsor’s gardens

Though we didn’t actually reach London for a few hours thanks to lots of train delays.  Luckily, we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be. We stumbled across an Indian buffet (spicy, yet delicious), purchased some postcards and headed back to our hostel.

Our few days in London flew by pretty fast: Andrea was off Sunday night and I took a bus to the airport Monday morning.  We saw a lot, but there is so much of London and the UK left to discover. I found myself constantly saying how I would see that thing and go to that place when I (eventually) live in London. I will definitely be returning to London – in fact, as soon as I got home I emailed my mom with plans to start our trip there in May. So I might get a few more lovely London days in May and hopefully some lovely London months in the not-so-distant future!

****

And tomorrow morning – off to Budapest, Hungary!

Gullfoss, Geysir & Gorgeous landscapes

On my 3rd day in Iceland, I went on a tour of the Golden Circle with Reykjavik Excursions. This six hour journey took me (and a packed bus full of tourists) to Thingvellir National Park, a hot spring hot spot home to the famous Geysir and the astounding Gullfoss waterfalls.

Unfortunately, the bad weather kept up and we were met with dark clouds and rain for most of the day. At our final stop at Gullfoss, Mother Nature decided to have even more fun by throwing some snow and freezing wind our way. It must have been comical to see a huge herd of people covered in white fluff and shielding their faces on the way back to the bus.

021

Overlooking Thingvellir National Park

Image

The hot spring Strokkur goes off every 7-10 minutes, much to the delight of us tourists

Image

Little Geysir – bubbly but not active

Image

Strokkur going off again!

Image

The famous Geysir

Image

Hot spring Haeta

Image

Gullfoss

Image

Gullfoss, from another angle

102

The cold at Gullfoss was beginning to set in…

The famed Northern Lights have still been avoiding me. I’ve been scheduled to see them every night since I’ve arrived but each day my tour gets cancelled due to crap weather. Only 2 nights left for things to hopefully turn around! Besides that, my remaining Iceland itinerary includes a walk up to the viewing deck of Perlan and a tour of Iceland’s southern coast.