Friday, August 18, 2017

August 17 – Panglao Island

Our initial impressions of the Philippines yesterday were…not good. Cebu City was simply grey, congested, awful, and it didn’t feel safe. Today we wanted to have a fresh start, so the plan was to get down to the ferry terminal and get the hell out of here. After breakfast we went to reception to get a taxi and the girl there insisted the best place to catch a ferry to Bohol Island was at Pier 4 – not Pier 2 like they told us yesterday, and she claimed it was only a five minute drive away. I said you must be kidding – it took us 20 minutes yesterday just to get down the block. She looked surprised, maybe we just had bad luck? So we got a taxi and asked him to take us to Pier 4. The traffic was surprisingly light and we actually made it there in ten minutes, but when we arrived the people there told us there were no ferries leaving from here, and to go to Pier 1. I said Pier 1, are you sure? We were waved away and sure enough, we were able to get tickets at Pier 1 for the next ferry.

This is exactly how things work in most of the Latin American countries we’ve traveled in – nobody ever seems to know what the hell is going on, and when things do work out, it feels like a fluke. I love Latinos because they are crazy, love to have fun, are unpredictable, have the greatest music, and they are loyal friends. But Latino countries can be real hard work to travel through. They say “Yes” when they really mean “I don’t know” and they only ever say “No” when they’ve said yes and been challenged three times! So I’m thinking it’s got something to do with Spain, as Spain was at the reins of the Philippines for 300 years so they definitely left their mark. This is why traveling in the other countries of SE Asia is so wonderful and unbelievably easy - everybody seems to know what they are talking about and everything works, all the time. I don’t get it.

The ferry was clean, modern, and extremely fast. I had my face in the laptop, doing some writing and when I finally looked out the window I could not believe how fast we were moving and how smooth it was. After two hours we arrived at the port of Tagbilaran City on the island of Bohol, and were met by a young fellow holding up a sign that read “Veraneante Resort - Ana Olson”. We jumped in his van and were off to our hotel. Although we landed on Bohol Island our hotel was actually located on a smaller island south of Bohol called Panglao, which is connected by two bridges.

Veraneante Resort was located a mile off the main road, down a dirt path, right in the middle of nowhere, and we loved it immediately. It was quiet, had lovely bungalows, a fancy pool, many shade trees, and a young black pug named Woo Woo, whom the kids latched on to the moment we arrived. We had only booked it for two nights, but decided right there to extend it by four days which would take us right to the end of our trip, and allow us to fly directly to Manila from Bohol to catch our flight to Canada and avoid having to return to Cebu City.

After lunch at the hotel restaurant we walked down to explore the beach, which was practically deserted and oh so quiet. Along the shoreline were many local houses, most of which had mangy dogs walking free and fighting roosters chained up in the yards. I went snorkeling but the tide was out, making the bay much too shallow to get out very far, but I did see a lot of fish and crabs. We decided to head back to the hotel for a swim and come back for snorkeling when the tide was back in.

We got settled into the room and made the sad discovery that there was no hot water. I spoke with the girl at reception and she told me their solar hot water system had died the previous week and they were waiting for warranty parts, and would not have any hot water until the following week. A day or two without hot water would be okay, but not six days so we let them know we would no longer be needing those extra nights. At 5pm we took their shuttle to a place called Alona Beach which is the main tourist area on the island and where the majority of the hotels are located. Along the way we told the kids that we were going to change hotels, and they were not happy as they had fallen in love with the Veraneante, and hadn’t yet experienced their first cold morning shower. It looked like we had an imminent mutiny on our hands. Fortunately, things worked out rather well in the end.

Here is the thing about guide books such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the hundreds of others out there. They are simply the opinion of the writer. Throughout this trip there has been many times when our experience with a place has been the complete opposite of what we read in the guide books, and even in many comments in online travel review sites. When we researched Alona Beach, it sounded like a tacky, ugly, horrible place. What did we find when we arrived there? A long stretch of fully accessible, powdery, white sand with at least a hundred of the small, trimaran style Filipino boats moored offshore, making for a stunning view. A dozen hotels, ranging from a five star luxury resort, to midrange boutique hotels, to low end bunkhouses, to hostels, all beachfront. A string of restaurants, many of which had fresh fish spread out over a huge display rack of ice where you could select the fish you want and they grilled it for you. Live music at many of the restaurants, including a jazz trio at the restaurant we chose, playing groovy beats as we dined and looked out over the ocean and at the many locals and tourists passing by. Many dive shops, mini-marts, stores, and tour operators. In short, it looked to be a perfect little place to spend a few days. But like we’ve discovered so many times before, it’s not usually the place itself that makes it unforgettable; it’s who you meet, where you stay, what you eat and the things that you do. That’s why everybody’s experience in the same place can be so different.

We found a hotel called the Bohol Divers Resort that had beach front and pool front rooms available for just slightly more than what we were currently paying so we booked it for our remaining four days. The kids loved the room, the beachfront pool, and the amazing beach, so all talk of mutiny came to a halt.

The shuttle returned at 9pm and brought us back to the hotel after a very successful visit to Alona Beach. We looked forward to spending our remaining days here.

August 16 – Cebu City, Philippines

Our day began at 1am as we boarded the flight destined to Cebu City in the Philippines. When we were mapping out our final weeks it looked like we’d have about a week left over after we’d seen everything we wanted to in Vietnam. So we had some options. We considered visiting Luang Prabang in Laos, we thought about going to Ko Kut in Thailand, and we also considered just going to Bangkok and spending some time there, as this is where we were catching our flight back to Canada. But we decided instead to go to the Philippines and spent our final week there. When we were originally planning this trip we wanted to spend half the time in the Philippines and the other half in Vietnam. But with all the political changes and violence in Philippines we decided to pass it up, but our return ticket did stop in Manila for a night and half a day, so we’d at least see a small bit of that city. Well, we decided that since we were in the region, and may not be back here for a long time, this was the right time to at least have a short look around this country of islands, and get a taste for what it has to offer.

We first flew to Manila and cleared customs and immigration and then transferred to a domestic flight to Cebu City. We arrived around 9:30, tired, but ready to take on a new country and to see if we could avoid getting completely screwed on that first taxi ride. We got into the white, metered taxi, gave the driver our hotel name, and he took off. He almost immediately turned off the meter and said it would be 300 pesos to the hotel, but we told him to forget it and turn the meter back on, which be begrudgingly did, but not before offering a fixed price of 250, which we politely declined.

What was our first impression of the Philippines? Well, it looked and felt as if we had been dropped into the dirtiest part of Latin America. It was completely different than all the countries we have travelled to in this region. First, the traffic was punishing. In place of nimble scooters, bicycles, and small cars, there were huge transport trucks belching diesel fumes everywhere, SUVs, flatbed trucks, and passenger jeepneys, all locked into an impossible, motionless jam on every street. There were few people walking around and hardly any street side shops or food vendors. There were shanty towns on the roadsides, with their rusty aluminum sheeting roofs, held up by crumbling walls and poles, and their occupants, barely clothed, walking around barefoot, flanked by feral dogs. There were traffic lights at most intersections instead of roundabouts or uncontrolled intersections, creating massive jams and long waits. As we got into Cebu City we started seeing more shops, and noticed that nearly all the signs were in English. After nearly an hour in the taxi, he pulled into a grubby secondary road with dirty stone and brick walls on both sides, no houses, no restaurants, and no vendors. He drove up a few blocks until he reached the Cebu R Hotel – our home for the night. The metered fare was 90 pesos, which the driver begrudgingly accepted, but looked very disappointed that he had not been able to swindle three times that from us. What I say next is going to make you think I am a monster – 90 pesos converts to just over 2 dollars Canadian. Yes, you read that correctly. 2 dollars for a nearly hour taxi ride. So yes, 300 pesos would have still been very cheap, but that all-important first taxi ride is psychological warfare.

The staff at reception told us a room would not be ready until 2pm so we asked them if there was somewhere we could walk to nearby for breakfast. They said there wasn’t much around here to walk to and it would be better to go to their restaurant, which we did, as we could feel the “hanger” starting to come on and we need some time to sit down, regroup, and figure out our plan.

Throughout the last week we had been doing research on the Philippines, trying to figure out what to do with the time we had. We used the Lonely Planet guidebook, websites and travel forums and were really having a hard time sorting through all the conflicting information, hundreds of island options, incomplete bus and ferry information, and were honestly getting overwhelmed by information. Also, when Ana started looking for accommodation for the places of interest we found, she was either getting no availability, or else crappy, budget guesthouses that looked way overpriced. So I will admit that our mood had already begun to sour, as it was looking more and more like this was not the type of place where you could just show up and jump on the backpacker path.

We spent two hours in the restaurant trying to figure out where to do and where to stay. We finally found a decent looking place in the Panglao area of Bohol island – a two hour ferry ride south east of Cebu City. We asked the receptionist how to book ferry tickets, and what options were available, but she said to just go to Pier 2 tomorrow and buy a ticket in the morning. I also asked her for a map of the local area, but she didn’t have one, but she did offer to book a taxi that could drive us around to a few sites.

They had a room ready for us shortly after 1 so we got unpacked, cleaned up, and then headed down to reception. The girl that was looking into taxis for us was gone and hadn’t left any information for the others, so we asked one of the boys there if he could get a taxi for us. I think he must have called a buddy, because ten minutes later a private car shows up and offers to take us to two spots we wanted to visit in the city for 2500 pesos. I politely told him to piss off and we flagged a metered taxi, jumped in and asked him to take us to Magellan’s Cross. It took us 20 minutes to move two blocks in the thick, disgusting traffic, and then another 20 minutes to go the remaining mile or two. We could have easily walked it faster, except that hardly any of the streets had sidewalks and there was literally no place to walk. Grrrrrr…

Once we arrived at the Magellan’s Cross monument, we asked the driver (who was a very lovely chap) to wait a few minutes while we had a look, which he happily did. The monument was a small, covered, round building that held a large wooden cross which encased the actual cross that Ferdinand Magellan planted on this very spot in 1521 when he claimed Philippines for Spain and the Catholic Church. I have read several books on Magellan and his incredible voyages, so I was very happy to see this monument. The place were Magellan was killed by one of the local chieftains, Lapu Lapu, during an ill-advised show of Spanish military superiority, was just across the bay on Mactan Island, where the airport is, but I had no desire to fight traffic all the way back there to see the bronze statue of Lapu Lapu.

Our next stop was a place that Magnus had found online where they sell Magic cards. Yes, he has been searching all over Asia to find somewhere that sells these damn cards, and was sure that this time he had found a place. And he was right! We were dropped off at a small mall and sure enough the store was there, so he went in and spent a good while browsing through cards while the rest of us browsed through the stores in the rest of the mall. I found one interesting place that had a series of private rooms with comfy chairs, couches and a large video projection screen, and an extensive collection of DVDs. You basically rented the room with a bunch of friends to watch a movie. We were considering doing it, but then found out there was a three hour wait to get a room. I guess I’d have to watch Wonder Woman some other time.

We discovered that this mall had a free shuttle that carried customers to a larger, newer mall called Robinson Galleria so we got in line and waited, watching the frenzy of traffic before us , wondering how long we’d be stuck in that jam. The shuttle soon arrived, and we were indeed stuck in that jam for quite some time, but I think all of us dozed off on the bus, feeling the effects of the 1am start this morning. But by the time we arrived, we had all bounced back to life and started walking the mall. Actually, I found a place that was selling these ultra-modern massage chairs and the girl there offered us a chance to try them out so the kids and I buckled ourselves in and got a very long treatment. These chairs were amazing – in addition to the standard back massagers it also had devices that kneaded your arms, legs, head, feet and once in a while it even gave your butt a good squeeze.

Food courts are the worst evil in the world, but I will admit that we ate at the one here – mainly because we didn’t see any restaurants anywhere near the hotel, and had no idea where to find one. It was surprisingly good, and so cheap we had to recheck the bill twice to make sure it was right. So far, the Philippines looked to offer great value for money.

We flagged a taxi (who played Tom Jones greatest hits throughout the whole ride) and returned to the hotel, watched tv for a bit, and crashed hard, after an exceedingly long day.

August 15 – Final Thoughts on Vietnam

For our final day in Hanoi, and Vietnam, we had no plans. Since our onward flight was going to be just after midnight tonight we had booked the room for two nights, allowing us to stay here until we had to leave for the airport. After a bit of a sleep in, and a slow breakfast at the hotel we walked to the Ho Chi Minh Museum complex which, we had read, contained a mausoleum with Uncle Ho’s preserved body, a large museum, a presidential palace and the traditional stilt house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in.

To put it bluntly, the mausoleum was closed, the grounds were confusing to navigate, and the museum was disorganized and it was very hard to understand whatever story they were trying to tell. So we didn’t get much out of it. I was quite looking forward to learning more about Uncle Ho, so I was disappointed. It was sort of like finding a large box labeled “Ho Cho Minh”, dumping its contents of letters, mementos, photos, and items of interest onto a flat table and picking through it.

During the walk back Magnus spotted an Apple store (they should maybe call them “Rotten Apple” stores because I have a feeling they are not exactly bonafide) so we went over to see if they could change the battery on his phone, which had been acting up. When we walked in there were two older Vietnamese gents sitting at a table near the entrance, eating and drinking, and one of them gave me a nod on the way in. Magnus didn’t have any luck with the battery, so we left, but on the way out the man held up a bottle of…something, and called me over. With eyebrows raised and a mischievous grin, he motioned to the bottle and empty glass, and I indicated my interest. He poured me a glassful, passed it over, and motioned that this was a “one shot” drink so I tipped it back and was hit with the unmistakable heat of a homegrown hooch, rapidly warming my interior temperature to match that of the exterior. It must have been a fortified rice wine, because it had the same flavor, but was much stronger than the ones I’ve tasted in the past. I could feel it burning out every germ in my body and massaging my internal organs. The old man was smiling from ear to ear, so I gave him a huge smile back, said thanks with my words, eyes and hands, and left, probably never to meet again, but happy that on our final day here, I was yet again overwhelmed with the generosity, kindness and spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Which brings me to some final thoughts on Vietnam.

If somebody who had never been to the region asked me which was the best country to visit in SE Asia, I would recommend Vietnam. Before this trip, I probably would have answered that question with Thailand, but after spending three weeks here I would have to say that Vietnam has nearly everything Thailand has to offer, and then some. Now if that same person asked me which countries in SE Asia they should skip, I would say none of them, because they are all amazing in their own ways. But for an introduction to the incredible sights, sounds and smells of the region, and a rich overall experience, Vietnam is the place to choose. Now, saying this, we have yet to visit Indonesia and the Borneo island of Brunei and eastern Malaysia and Papua, New Guinea, but that is the only real remaining gap for us in this part of the world.

I also loved Cambodia. A lot. The people were just as kind, humble and friendly as those in Vietnam, and their country too has been through terrible times. But as far as tourist infrastructure goes, it is well behind where Vietnam is at, making it a little more difficult to digest and comprehend. One of my favourite spots along the way was Baddambang, because here we saw a place that could be on the cusp of a great tourist influx, but is still relatively unaffected by tourism. We experienced everyday people out enjoying their city and loving life and it really made me think about what elements of that vibrancy and spirit could be adapted to our community at home. But Cambodia had its issues – it was very dirty, pollution was bad, there were stray dogs and cats everywhere, and it was a little rough around the edges; but I hadn’t realized any of these things until we visited Vietnam.

One of the most rewarding aspects of travel for me is when I get home and meet people from the countries we have visited. When you can say you have visited somebody’s country, and even city, their eyes light up and you can just see the pride and memories swelling. It gives you an instant and personal connection you would otherwise not have. This is one of the joys of travel that benefit you long after the trip is over; in fact, for your whole life.

Over dinner we discussed our favourite places in Vietnam. The kids surprised us when they both said Dalat was their favourite, simply because we found it to be such a strange place. But they really liked being able to walk around outside, during the day, without feeling like you were being grilled like a chunk of tenderloin. And that weasel poo coffee really made an impact! But as a group, we decided that Nha Trang was the Olson family’s favourite town because it has all the things we love – especially that huge, luscious beach. But also the 50 cent beers, the great food, the Vinpearl Land theme park, the night market, and the great diving and watersports.

Tomorrow, we fly to the Philippines.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

August 14 – Goodbye Halong Bay

As I was slowly regaining consciousness after a dreamless sleep, the first thing I recognized was the sound of the air conditioner turning off – the best alarm clock available in these parts. Yes, I slept right through the 6am sunrise experience and tai chi lessons, but it was a late night and there was a lot of beer for the system to process, so the sleep was definitely required.

The day was cloudy and completely overcast and there was a slight drizzle, with thick, dark clouds threatening nearby. We went up to the restaurant for breakfast, which was noodles, rice and fruit and then met down at the dingy for some morning kayaking. Only about half of the guests decided to take in the kayaking, so we motored over to a nearby bay where there was a “kayaking centre” - huge, floating dock, dozens of kayaks, paddles and lifejackets, and a fully staffed operation. It did not take long for us to get our kayaks – Stella and I went together in a double kayak and Ana and Magnus joined up in another.

The site itself was a hong – very similar to some of the ones we explored in Thailand. This one had a large cave-like entrance that we paddled through, which then opened up into a huge, secluded bay, perfect for the hundred or so kayaks gliding through the water. It was fun, but not quite the same as paddling off your own catamaran. How spoiled are we?? Besides the kayaks there were also these large rowboats that fit about 12 people and were being rowed by the Vietnamese guides. It looked like this was primarily for the older clients – likely those traveling in the five level luxury steamers with thick wallets and thin biceps.

We paddled for about 45 minutes and then returned to the boat, and as we were leaving we nearly got smoked by another boat. The other driver had taken off at full speed, swerving wildly, and didn’t check to see if there was anybody else around him. This technique the Vietnamese use so efficiently for driving scooters in the city works fine because the overall speed of traffic is so low, but on the water it is treacherous because they are able to drive much faster. I am sure there are crashes out here all the time.

Back on the boat we were directed to gather up all of our things and vacate the cabins by 9:30, to give the staff time to prepare them for the next group. We did so and returned to the restaurant where we chatted with the other guests, played cards, and watched the weather outside get progressively more and more rainy, until it was a total downpour. Some of the guests on our boat had actually paid for a 3 day, 2 night cruise, but David gave them the bad news that the second part of their trip was going to get cancelled because of the weather. When the weather gets bad the coast guard does not allow the tourist boats to go out into the bay, so those affected were trying to figure out what do to instead.

Before long it was time for lunch, so this time we sat with all the kids while Kiran and Aisha sat with the French girls and a couple of Aussies. The kids were all having so much fun together and the English boys were so polite and well spoken. Magnus had been teaching them the Magic card game throughout the trip so I could tell he was so happy to finally have somebody that actually wanted to play the game.

Our waiter brought out some vegetables and a tasty looking meat dish and I asked him what it was, to which he replied, “Pork.” Amar, the older bay, looked over to his dad and Kiran gave him the thumbs down, as I assumed they didn’t eat pork. Amar told his younger brother Kamil and Kamil said, “What? We can’t eat it? But I love pork, it’s my favourite food!”

So the boys started eating the vegetables and rice, but then the waiter brought over another very tasty looking meat dish – pork ribs. We gave the kids the bad news. Amar looked to his dad and said, “Pork again Daddy, can we eat it?”

Kiran said, “OK, go ahead, since there’s nothing else available.”

The boys dug into the pork and started munching away. Kamil had a few bites and then announced, “I hate pork.” We started laughing.

The waiter then brought out a third unexpected third meat dish, and this one was chicken! There was great happiness around the table and the two lads dug in. I must say, I was so impressed with this short episode. Their family did not eat pork, but when they were faced with no other options, dad let the kids have some, so that they could enjoy the meal with the rest of their new friends. This to me is the essence of being a great traveler – being flexible in the face of limited options, or options that you would not normally choose. This is why I can’t imagine how a person with strict food requirements, such as being a vegan, or having food allergies, would be able to handle a place like this, where your food choices are simply not as flexible as you would have at home, and the preparation standards are completely out of your control. This could make a trip truly miserable, but I suppose in the face of such challenges, one would either have to bend one’s rules, or else suffer through it. Or else stay home, and that would be a bloody shame.

As we ate our lunch the boat was working its way through the clear, blue waters, passing by these unlikely limestone structures, sometimes so close that it seemed you could reach out the window and drag your knuckles across the grey surface. It was too bad that the rain would not let up, as it would have been a remarkable view from the top of the boat.

Before long we were back at the harbor and waiting for our bus to arrive. The kids were busy catching crabs on the shoreline while we waited, inhaling air that was thick with humidity and diesel vapors, talking with our English buddies. We had learned that Kiran’s family was from India and Aisha’s was from Nigeria so they were telling us all about their customs, family links, travels and so on. We were discovering that we had a lot in common, and therefore had plenty to talk about.

The bus ride back to Hanoi went quickly, as we chatted with our buds the whole way, and the kids played cards in the back seat of the bus, which they had commandeered as it gave them the greatest possible playing space. We stopped for a break at yet another giant tourist centre, and this one was selling living room sets that looked as if they were heisted from a royal palace somewhere – carved from a single tree, elaborate, regal, and layered with a hundred coats of varnish. As much as I loved the chairs, they probably weighed four hundred pounds each, so they were just not a backpacker-friendly souvenir.

After saying goodbye to the rest of the passengers, and making plans to meet up with our friends for dinner, we were dropped off at the hotel Indochina Queen 2, deep in the heart of the Old Quarter. Our room was massive – it was actually two rooms separated by a door, and each room had two queen beds and its own tv and air conditioner. We exploded our stuff all over the room and had a nice long chill out session. We weren’t meeting our friends until 9pm for dinner, but we were getting pretty hungry so I went out and secured some snacks. – four noodle bowls, one hot dog on a stick decorated with a line of chili sauce and a line of ketchup, and finally one of those fancy white buns with a salty duck egg inside, all purchased at the local mini mart for about five bucks.

We went back out into the heat and it hit us like a nuclear blast wave, instantly drawing the sweat from our bodies and soaking our previously AC-dried shirts and shorts. This is one hot city, man.

When I had described the rendezvous point to our friends as being at the north end of the lake, in a huge, tranquil area gated off for pedestrian use only, I didn’t expect that the pedestrian-only arrangement was done only on the weekends, so we arrived to a chaotic mess of traffic, making it look quite unlike anything I had described. Nevertheless, we found each other, and sat down to a lovely and leisurely meal, fueled by cold beer, rum and apple juice, and excellent conversation.  After our meal we walked over to a coffee shop for a nightcap and squeezed in one more drink before the midnight close-up. As we were finishing, we were suddenly hit by a cold wind and then the heavens opened and gave Hanoi a well needed dousing. But like I have said, since you’re soaked with perspiration already, the rain doesn’t make much of a difference, and is always welcome since it brings down the temperature and gives your clothes a fresh water rinse.

We said goodbye to our friends, as we weren’t going to see them again, but we exchanged information with mutual promises of a visit sometime in the future. Since we are so overdue for a trip to London, I think it may happen sooner than we think, but time will tell.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

August 13 - Halong Bay

After enjoying a very good breakfast at the hotel, the tour bus picked us promptly at 8am and we were off for our adventure to Halong Bay. This region is known as Vietnam’s greatest showpiece, so we were very excited to be finishing up our unforgettable Vietnam explorations here. We chose a company called Apricot Tours and would be going on a two day, one night trip.

The bus trip took nearly four hours, which included a 30 minute rest stop at this giant, overpriced tourist gift shop, which had surprisingly clean bathrooms. Similar to the caves, this trip is one that nearly every visitor to Vietnam will take, so we had no preconceptions that it would be quaint or otherwise non-touristy, so I think we were ready for it. During the ride the tour guide David had each of us introduce ourselves to the group, which was a pretty good idea as we would be spending the next 24 hours with each other. There was one large group of Australians, two separate groups of Spaniards, an English couple with two young kids and a Dutch family with two teenage kids. They seemed like a very interesting lot.

The bus pulled into the port area and rather than the dozens of huge ships I was expecting, there were hundreds. In fact, the tour guide would later tell me that there are about 600 tourist and support boats in Halong Bay. So why is this bay so special? Well, it is because of the nearly 2,000 limestone islands that decorate the bay and provide for such stunning scenery that is so otherworldly it barely looks real. Most of the islands are covered in thick jungle, and many have hongs and huge caves. The bay has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1994.

We were loaded into a small boat, given lifejackets, and told we would be ferrying out to our ship. The variety of boats in the harbor was remarkable, from five story luxury cruise ships to worm-eaten wooden beasts that looked in imminent  danger of sinking. Ours was somewhere in the middle of the quality scale with one level containing cabins, a second level which held the restaurant and crew quarters, and the open top floor of the boat which had a lovely bar, loungers, and a dance floor (of sorts).

We were shown to our cabin and, besides being beautifully furnished and decorated, it was much larger than we expected, with two queen sized beds and a huge bathroom. And instead of a musky, mouldy boat smell there was an exotic hint of cinnamon in the air and a sweet air conditioning unit in one corner that we were told would kick in at 7pm and run until the morning.

The crew pulled anchor and we were away. All of the guests were seated in the restaurant, having welcome drinks as the bar staff started serving lunch. We were so consumed with meeting the other passengers and enjoying our lunch that we hardly noticed the scenery around us until we were well into the bay and nearly surrounded by the jagged shards of limestone reaching up to the sky. I finished up lunch and went up to the top deck to have a better look. What I saw was a real life armada of ships headed for the same narrow entrance to a bay, and the captains of the dozens of vessels that surrounded us were driving their boats just like they drive their scooters in Hanoi – cutting others off, driving too fast, and following no particular rules of the road/water.

The crew got us anchored in a giant, sheltered bay, in the company of many other  boats. Our tour guide David told us to get our swimsuits ready as we were going to be first visiting the largest cave on Halong Bay and then the beach for a swim. So we gathered our things and piled into the “dingy” which was a wooden vessel that carried at least 25 people and was towed behind the ship. The helmsmen piloted us a short ways over to a large dock and let us off. Here we found a small ticket booth where our guide purchased tickets for everybody and then we started ascending the stairs, but we couldn’t go too fast because it was jammed with people. As expected, this was a very, very busy place with hundreds of tourists everywhere you looked, and that mid-afternoon sun was baking them all like gingerbread cookies.

The cave was enormous, and after we walked through it we were actually feeling a twinge of regret at doing the big cave tour at Son Trach, as this cave was just as impressive. Towards the end of the cave there was a series of steep staircases that led outside, and it seemed that the temperature went up by half a degree with every step I took. There was one older Dutch man who was sweating buckets, swaying from side to side, and eventually collapsed on the stairs, completely overwhelmed by the heat and strain. I ran back down and helped him climb up the stairs safely. He thanked me profusely for saving his life, and immediately wrote me into his will as a token of his gratitude. He was, of course, a billionaire so my retirement may come earlier than expected.

The boat picked us up and shuttled us over to the one and only beach in the area, but it was a little hard to see the sand for all of the touristos on it. The four of us found a small patch of beach to leave our bag and towels and we jumped in for a cool, invigorating swim, which was actually a hot, mildly refreshing swim as the water temperature was that of an autumn hot tub. But it still felt great.

After our allotted 60 minutes we returned to the rendezvous point and awaited our dingy chauffeur. By now we had gotten to know a few of our fellow passengers, specifically the English family – Kieran, Aisha and their 7 and 9 year old boys Kamil and Amar. It looked like Magnus may have finally found somebody to play Magic the Gathering with him so we were all thrilled.

Back at the boat, it was happy hour so I grabbed a cigar, fired it up, scored a cold Bia Hanoi and got comfortable on the top deck. I spent some time talking to the group of Aussies and then met two other boys who turned out to be Canadian – one from Calgary and the other from Quebec City. They were there for a quick holiday before continuing onto Taiwan for a badminton tournament, as they were pretty hot with the birdies.

More and more passengers started to gather and soon the top deck was full of people drinking, laughing, and taking photos of the sun setting over the mountain tops. The view from the deck was extraordinary, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees, making it much more comfortable. Ana was feeling so good she took advantage of happy hour and ordered three cocktails for the price of two. Always a value shopper, she is.

When the dinner call came, I was surprised because I thought we had already eaten – those Hanoi beers were clearly playing tricks on my mind. So we pulled ourselves away from the bar and got settled in the restaurant. Ana and I sat with the Dutch family while our new English friends took one for the team and sat with the four children, amidst all the Magic cards spread out on the table. The food was excellent, company was amiable, and conversation was stimulating. The happy hour wobbly-pops had lubricated the social situation, so we were all getting to know each other a little better. After dinner we hung out with our new English buds and then the Spanish contingent, practicing our Spanish and hearing a lot about Barcelona. While we were speaking the Espanol, the kids were fishing for squid off the back of the boat, and one of the young English lads actually caught one!

The night finished up how it should on 24 hour power trips such as this – dancing with Spaniards on top of the boat to latino music!

Monday, August 14, 2017

August 12 – Hurray for Hanoi

Our sleep was shattered at 4:45am by a shrill, earsplitting air raid siren that screamed forth from the loudspeakers on the train. We leaped out of bed, expecting something horrible was underway, and then realized that this was just their way of broadcasting a friendly wake-up call as we were nearing the Hanoi stop. The siren was silenced, which was a relief, but then it was immediately replaced by a high-treble Vietnamese folk song whose only lyric I could make out was the word “Hanoi”, and it was repeated endlessly. Again, it felt like this was a throwback to the days of torturing American POWs, and I sure felt sorry for those poor bastards.

As we exited the train we were accosted by an army of taxi drivers, all vying for our attention and our business for that all-important first cab ride in a new city, where you are virtually guaranteed to get ripped off, no matter how much research you have done. We had a few of them offer us fixed rates, and then decided on one guy that had a metered taxi so seemed like a good bet. As we drove through the city he was particularly chatting, asking us about our kids, where we were from, telling us all about this family, and as he chattered on I noticed that, at some point during the trip, his taxi id card had been strategically positioned to obscure the price on the meter. I slid it over and saw that we were already up to 150,000 dong, which is twice as much as we’d paid anywhere else for any length of cab ride. The final meter settled on over 250,000 so he obviously had some sort of acceleration device on the meter. I fought with him for a while then finally gave him 200,000, throwing in the towel. It was still not much money, but it just never feels good getting ripped off. But like I always say, we just consider it a “tourist tax”, forget about it and move on.

We stepped into the hotel and the lobby was choc-a-block with parked scooters, so many that we could barely walk through. The receptionist was sleeping soundly on the couch so we had to wake him up so that he could help us get sorted with a room, which he did, and then immediately went back to sleep.

After getting settled in our room and cleaned up we went out and found a breakfast place and had a decent feed and then went out to explore the area. We were staying in the Old Quarter part of the city, where virtually all of the hotels and tourist infrastructure is located. Streets are narrow, densely packed with buildings, and hidden alleyways seemed to be everywhere you looked, if you looked closely enough. There were not a lot of what I’d call western style restaurants and bars - most of them were local places, with the tiniest plastic tables and chairs, built for slim backsides and best for those shorter in stature.

We began walking, blindly. I was thinking we’d head towards the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but we ended up going in the completely opposite direction, but at this early stage of the game that was okay, as the goal was simply to get oriented with the city. I spotted an art gallery across one street, so I walked over there while Ana and the kids were in a shop. It was a stark, open concept building with concrete floors and walls and had a dozen or so large paintings on easels. As I was looking at one painting, I heard the noise of an engine, and a man with a smoke hanging defiantly out of his mouth burst out of a backroom riding a scooter, headed for the door. He whizzed by me, leaving an odourous trail of gasoline fumes and tobacco exhaust and blasted out the front door, turned left, and disappeared down the street. That has never before happened to me in an art gallery.

We continued walking and came across a lake and, surprisingly, the entire area around the lake was blocked off for pedestrian traffic only, which was a very strange and wonderful feeling, being able to walk down the middle of the street without scooters bearing down on you from behind, from in front and edging in at your sides. We browsed at a couple of bookstores that had reasonably good English sections, and the kids found a place where they were renting hoverboaards, so they got one to try out for twenty minutes. Standing here watching the kids, with a lovely lake in the backgrounds, and no motor vehicles lent a luxurious sort of urban tranquility that we didn’t feel in Saigon. Hanoi had won us over.

The street led us to the Opera House, where there was a troupe of uniformed beauty girls taking photos of each other on the grand steps. Continuing past here we found a large History Museum, and I was tempted to enter but the rest of the gang was not too keen so we decided to give it a pass. Just down the street was one of those street barbers I was searching for a few days ago, and I asked Magnus if he wanted to stop for a haircut.

“Dad, look at the guy. He is bald and has a bandage wrapped around his head. I don’t trust him,” he said.

“Good point my man!” I replied, “And I think he also has a few shaving cuts.”

Shortly after that we passed a short Vietnamese lady who gave us a gigantic, happy smile. She was obviously a fan of the betel nut as her teeth and lips were stained red, giving her a slightly ferocious look. This spawned a new song, “Betel Nut Smile” and Magnus immediately started humming a tune and spitting out some fantastic, burgundy lyrics.

Our walk took us in a large loop and we soon found ourselves back at the lake, where we claimed a bench and sat down for a little break. There was a row of artists seated near us, and a man and his daughter approached one of them, and the girl sat down on a chair while the artist got his drawing materials out and went to work. I stood there, watching this skilled young man first draw her eyes, and then her nose, and then shaded in her face and hair, and in less than 15 minutes had done and incredible portrait of her. I was sold, so I asked the kids if they were okay sitting for a portrait, and they agreed so I paid the man and he got to work. By this time quite a crowd had gathered, so the kids had a lot of onlookers. The portraits turned out fantastic and I think will be the most valuable souvenirs we bring back to Canada.

Up until this point of the trip we hadn’t touched any fast food, but today it was time to test out the local fast food franchise called Lotteria that we’d seen in many other places in Vietnam. We ordered burgers and fries and it was…okay. Yes, we could have gone for a delicious local pho, but visiting the Lotteria was a cultural experience in itself - seeing what the locals were eating, watching the teenagers goofing around, and observing the raunchy music videos playing on the giant screen.

Despite the overcast day, which was a glorious break from the sun, we were still getting overheated so we went back to the hotel for an afternoon cool down session and that blast of AC really hit the spot.

Around 5 we went back out for the evening and the streets were wild with activity. We walked north this time into the commercial area of the Old Quarter and found streets densely packed with vendors selling everything from toys, to ceramics, to fabric, to spices, to musical instruments. Here, the traffic was insane. Besides scooters, there were women with wide Vietnamese hats, local men with their shirts pulled up, exposing their bellies, and plenty of blindly wandering tourists filling the available space between vehicles. The sidewalks were so jammed with parked scooters that it was difficult to find a place to walk, so you had to alternate between the available sidewalk space and the crazy street. But, like elsewhere in Vietnam, you just move slowly, don’t make any sudden moves, and the traffic will (just barely) flow around you.

The chaos eventually became too much, so we went back towards the northern end of the lake where there was a huge pedestrian area and – guess what – more hoverboard rentals, except these ones had been rigged up with a seat and side handles to drive them around like go-carts. It looked like a lot more fun than standing on them. The kids each rented one and went racing around the area, threading their way between the tourist targets. Actually, Magnus was doing that – Stella was just moving at low speeds, trying to get the hang of the controls, but she is no speed demon and was probably too scared she would smash into somebody.

By this time we were getting pretty hungry and thirsty, but we hadn’t seen much for restaurants in our wanderings so far. There were a number of local places, where the food looked great, but it was just so stinking hot outside that we wanted to find somewhere with AC, or at least some fans, so we wandered around for a while and finally found a street with several venues that fit the bill. We chose one, went upstairs, and soon I had a frosty Bia Hanoi in front of me, a fan blowing behind me, and I was in my happy place. But it got better when they dropped a steaming hot “bun cha” in front of me, which I spiced up with the leftover chilies from Magnus’s pho. My dish was similar to a pho, but instead had five little mini, spicy hamburgers floating around in the slightly fishy broth, and of course, a load of basil and lettuce packed in, soaking up the delicious juice.

Although it was only about 9, the big dinner and oppressive heat had really done us in, so our imagined night of partying late into the early hours and making the most of the Hanoi nightlife was abandoned in favour of an easy evening relaxing in a nice, cool hotel room.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

August 11 – Exploring the Caves of Son Trach

Today was cave day. The day tour would take us 50 kilometres north-west to the town of Son Track and the Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park where several caves are open to the public. The largest cave in the world was discovered in this park just a few years ago and was recently opened to a very small number of people per year (I think about 300) and is extremely expensive. The ones we would be visiting have been open for at least a decade and draw a huge number of tourists every year.

The bus picked us up at the hotel, and then picked up several others and we were off. One of the other passengers was a girl named Anna from South Korea. In fact she lived in the Gangnam area of Seoul, and if that neighborhood name has a funny ring to it, it should. Oppa is Gangnam Style! We asked her to demonstrate the dance, but she said we were probably better at it than she was. We had an excellent chat with her and she told us all about South Korea, its relationship with the north, the various dialects in the country, insane housing prices and so on. She had quit her job as an engineer for a semi-conductor manufacturing company as her workaholic tendencies were causing her health issues. So she was taking six months to travel the world, as a solo female backpacker. I was so impressed by this girl, having the courage to quit a job that paid a lot, but was slowly killing her, and heading out in the world for a life reset.

We arrived at the first stop for the day which was called Paradise Cave. I had a bad feeling when I saw dozens of tourist busses in front of the entrance, and my bad feeling was confirmed when we went in and were stuck behind a huge pack of tourists. This is the problem with going to the “can’t miss” sites of a country – everybody else is there too. We waited our turn and then were driven a mile or so in a golf cart, and then dropped off and told to start walking up a series of pathways. It was actually a fairly beefy walk and my calves were shrieking by the end of it. On top we hit a huge wall of tourists so had to wait patiently to get into the cave. It wasn’t too bad standing in line though, as there was a strong, cool breeze wafting out from the cave entrance.

The cave was massive. We walked for one kilometer into the cave, but the entire thing ran for about 35 kilometres in total. The thousands of tourists spread out nicely on the wooden pathways, giving us some room to walk and take photos. It’s pretty pointless to describe a cave, so let’s just say there were plenty of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, bizarre shapes and dripping walls, and it was all supersized, in fact much, much larger than all of the caves we have been to in the past. I must say, they did a remarkable job building the stairs and pathways into the cave as it was able to handle a huge quantity of people, but kept them away from the actual structures so they weren’t poking and stroking every surface.

After this tour we were driven to a restaurant for lunch with many other tourists. We had some decent food and a bit of a break from the heat, but were soon back into the second half of the day. We were led down to a river and put on a boat, which started motoring its way slowly up the river, passing by water buffalo grazing on the banks, naked children swimming in the water and fishermen tending to their nets. We reached the entrance to the Phong Nha cave and were surprised to see that a major branch of the river flowed directly into it, or perhaps from it. The boat motored up and into the cave and then the driver cut the engine and we floated in. The driver began paddling from the back and his assistant took the bow paddle and slowly moved us deeper into the cave. Although the caverns were not as enormous as the first cave, being able to paddle into it on a boat made it much more interesting. There were plenty of other tourist boats there, but they deftly maneuvered around each other and it was surprisingly quiet in the cave.

We paddled in for one kilometer, at which point the cave ceiling was too low to continue, but we were told that you can take another tour where you strap on head lights and paddle kayaks from this point forward, many more kilometres into the cave. Our pilots turned our boat around and paddled halfway back and then pulled up to shore and let us out to explore the cave. There was fine sand on the floor and we were able get close up to many of the cave structures and take a few pictures, before continuing by land out of the cave and up a hill where we passed by a dozen vendors selling cold drinks, coconut water, ice cream and knick knacks – sort of like the gift shop that every museum exit seems to lead you to.

We hung around for a while and then got back in the boat and did the return journey all the way back to the hotel, arriving around 5:30, with a bit of time to spare before our 6:45 train departure. We retrieved our bags from the left luggage room at the hotel, had a not-so-thorough sponge bath in the bathroom, and then took a taxi to the train station. We sat down at a local shop just outside of the train station and ordered up a round of noodle bowls, drinks, and a nice cold Huda beer for myself. This was one moment of the trip that I think will stick with me. Sitting in miniature plastic chairs, at a miniature plastic table, with our bags piled up on the street, train station in the background, surrounded by mostly locals, feeling grubby, sweaty and tired, slurping back a spicy noodle bowl, getting ready for an overnight train to our next new destination, where who knows what adventure awaited us. To me, such a perfect image of a typical, unspectacular backpacking moment, and one that I will always remember.

We had booked a first class private sleeper cabin with four beds. From the pictures online it looked quite luxurious. In real life, it wasn’t. The sheets were dirty and had hair on them, somebody’s shoes and bag were beneath one of the bunks, there was a full garbage can overflowing, the floor looked like it had never been cleaned, and the pillows smelled suspicious. At first we thought we had the wrong cabin, so I ran out, checked the coach number, and sure enough it was the correct one. Oh well, in cases like this all you can do is make the best of it and call it a travel story. We pulled all the sheets off, shook them out in the hallway, flipped them over and put them back on the beds, and then wiped off all the visibly dirty surfaces, except the floor, which was beyond help. It wouldn’t exactly pass the Portuguese cleanliness test (ie. You feel safe running your tongue across the entire floor) but it would have to do. It made me think back to our conversation with the Henriques about germophobes and what a perfect torture chamber this could be.

We had a couple of games of Uno with the kids, then read for a bit and announced lights out at 10:30. For me, the rumbling of the train was like a tonic, and I immediately lost consciousness.