A Travellerspoint blog

My Life in the New Year

The Ups and Downs (bad pun) to my latest rotation

Hey Everyone,

It’s been awhile since I’ve added new content on here. While this is partly due to my excessive laziness, that’s not the only reason. Since my three weeks in Morocco (photos have now been finished so expect some writings on that soon) and Christmas holidays I have been back to work, and keeping busy. My average work rotation will see me reach a base and spend approximately 8 weeks there before returning home. This rotation is far from normal. Thus far I have traveled through or stayed in 11 countries, operated three different aircraft (with two more at least to go) and have earned more air miles than I usually do in half a year. As you can see from the map below, a child drawing loops across Europe/Africa could pretty accurately draw my recent travels. During the past six weeks my schedule constantly changed, often times on short notice (the midnight phone call to advise me I was needed on a 4am flight to Iceland from Africa probably takes the cake on that one) turning my rotation into quite the adventure. As with any real adventure, there have been some good days, less than ideal days, and some funny situations. For my return to these writings I thought I would regale all with some highlights from the past month, and give some details to my upcoming deployment to Greenland.

I left Canada on Jan 8th or so, with the expectations of spending approximately three weeks in Juba and then eight weeks in Bamako, there was an indication I may leave Bamako early for a short term contract in Greenland, but nothing was confirmed. Even before setting out from Canada this was supposed to be a bit more hectic than normal, but not excessive.

First there was Juba. I ferried an aircraft into Juba from Entebbe to start a new contract, while exciting to get some new contracts, starting them is not always fun. For starters we had 5,000lbs of company equipment to offload in Juba. After the manual labor is completed the inspections start. As the Captain I get to spend hours showing inspectors manuals and certificates, as well I get to explain why our paperwork is much different than many other contractors (Canadian Regulations are very different from many African / former Soviet Bloc countries) which is a slow and at times painful process. Once through all of this we moved into our new hotel, the Oasis Hotel. While its name may convey many positive thoughts of luxury, the reality unfortunately was much lower. Even by Juba standards, the food was so sub-par we were forced to eat out / order in most days. Also it took me three weeks before I had a hot shower…the place had some kinks to be ironed out. The time went by fast though as we were flying flat out five days a week keeping busy.

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Morning shot from the ramp in Juba.

Before I knew it, I was back in Entebbe getting ready for a Kenya Airways flight to Bamako via Nairobi for essentially a three week vacation. Bamako is a unique base for us, and the flying is either non-stop, or non-existent, rarely anything in between. I was expecting to have three weeks by the pool relaxing with a book and drink in hand. The first real wrench in my schedule came here. Just before departing for Bamako I had an email from work, the aircraft I was heading out to crew was now needed in Juba the previous day. I ended up spending a full 48 hours in Bamako, helping our maintenance to load the 5,500lbs of equipment into the aircraft while closing down our accommodations for a three week crew absence. I don’t recall us really stopping in the two days, finally being able to relax as we departed for the ferry east, enroute to our first stop in Accra, Ghana. Normally for these ferry flights, we will have a local fixer meet us at every airport and take care of all our needs. Things happened a bit different for us on this trip, so I found myself in Civil Aviation Authority office to pay some landing fees before departing for Bangui. I showed up just as a Nigerian soap opera titled “Silent Cry” had begun, and it turns out the staff don’t process payments while Silent Cry is on the telly. Imagine my companies surprise when I explained away a 1 hour delay because I was required to watch an episode of Silent Cry before making payment! This was just the start of our day, due to a lack of catering, we operated the rest of the day on coffee, skittles and nibs (thank god Andrew packed a 50lb suitcase stuffed with such necessities!) encountering a few more headaches before finishing the day in Entebbe (delays in Bangui caused us to take-off 4min before the airport closed stranding us in the Central Africa Republic for an evening).

Before taking the aircraft into Juba, WFP decals needed to be installed onto the aircraft. As nothing else had gone according to plan, neither could this and we ended up with a spelling error on one side of the aircraft:

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It takes a few tries to pronounce it correctly, but once you learn how to combine banana with humanitarian you’ve got it figured out!

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This is the after shot. You almost don't notice the space...

So now I’m back in Juba for another 3 week stint, complete with the standard offloading and inspections (slightly less painful round 2, but not by a long shot) and back to the not so aptly named Oasis Hotel. Now this time around I had hot water by day 2, so there had been some improvements in my absence. I say improvements, but that’s a bit optimistic, the fella who got me hot water uninstalled my cold water pipe in the process, this gave me a 45 second window to shower before the hot water heated to its full potential, and became too painful to use. This issue never was fully resolved before I left, so really in my two stints staying at the Oasis Hotel I don’t really have anything positive to say. Oh it was located on the Nile, so in the mornings the view was nice, and if they had coffee it would have been a pleasant place to watch the sun rise.

After another few weeks of Juba flying (similar schedule to the first aircraft I brought up) I found myself back in Entebbe two days early, with nothing to do but sit back and relax. The Greenland contract had been confirmed and I was to return home for some winter clothing and a day of training before taking an aircraft over to Sondrestrom for a few weeks.

My first day in Entebbe was beautiful, I never left my hotel room until supper, the tunes were rocking, I had the patio door open to my balcony, and I just sat there, working on Morocco photos from time to time, but mainly just sitting there… it was great! On my way to bed just before midnight I noticed an email from my boss needing me to call. This is where things started to go sideways, and it didn’t really stop going sideways until the past day or two.

Talking with my boss, I learned the Bamako replacement aircraft was needed there in a hurry, so I was needed in Iceland to pick up the replacement like a relay race and take it to Morocco where I would pass it on to a third crew. While on the phone my boss was informed the only flight they could get me on would leave in 4 hours, and take a full 24 to get to Iceland with two enroute stops. It’s not really the information you are hoping to receive on a midnight call, but I’ve never seen Iceland so I figured whatever. It may seem obvious to most, but Iceland is pretty cold in the winter, I wasn’t really considering that as I packed at 1am, because if I had, I’m sure my sweater and jacket would have made it into the carry-on bag, and not my checked luggage. Of course by now we all know with everything I’ve highlighted thus far, there is just no way can my bags arrive in Iceland…and they didn’t. So there I am at 1am in Iceland in a T-shirt with no bags, welcome to winter! Add to this, my plane didn’t arrive either, so nothing was going according to plan.

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I did get some fish and chips with a few fresh pints between flights in Heathrow. About the only highlight to the day.

Iceland is an expensive place, I think my per diem was gone by lunch, and I still only had a T-shirt. I stopped into a sports apparel store and found some suitable jackets (similar to many I already own) for 150-200 USD. At that price I said screw it, went next door to a local place and bought an authentic Icelandic handmade wool sweater. While very warm, it may not have been the most stylish piece of clothing, as evidenced by every comment I’ve received since! I believe the best one was noting I must be every grandmothers ideal man for their granddaughter to take home (thanks Julia!). As for all the comments on my hair that I received at the same time, I’ve had the same haircut since I was 12 and decided to grow it out some, it’s still a work in progress :).

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The plane I need to ferry shows up eventually, and all I need to do is get it to Morocco, fly home commercially and get a change of clothes. Close, but it ended up getting a bit more complicated still. Arriving in Morocco I learned I was to sit in the back of the aircraft for its flight to Mali. Arriving in Bamako I was able to offload my 3rd aircraft of the rotation (another 5,000+ lbs) and as a bonus I got to operate the following day with two runs to Timbuktu. I’m now 5? days in without a change of clothes and not at my finest, but my wool sweater is handling it all well! Well things improve from here on out, I get the runs finished and fly out that same evening on Air France. The next day I make it to Toronto an hour before dad, and had a chance to catch up in the terminal. Then it was oft to London, where as it was my lost bags were delivered a day before my arrival, so everything worked out well in the end!!

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This gets us to mid last week. Since then I had a full day off (I spent it buying winter clothes because as it turns out, I didn’t have any) followed by some training in Toronto. I’m now in North Bay getting ready to ferry an aircraft to Greenland. I’m still waiting on some final details, but it sounds like I will be in Sondrestrom for two weeks, and not flying much. I have two great crews going with, and we have already done some research, so I’m hoping for an action packed two weeks that includes glacier hiking, dog sledding and some Northern Lights viewings!

Stay tuned and I will try and give some updates on the upcoming winter adventure!

Posted by acanuckabroad 15:25 Tagged travel mali iceland entebbe sweater fish_chips juba south_sudan Comments (1)

Food and Drink: Portugal

From the Pastéis de Belém to the Cafe com Cheirinho, the local cuisine can not be overstated!

For me, the best of Portugal was served on a plate or in a glass. Here I will discuss some of the great meals, and where I had them, as well as the local alcohol which was great!

To start, especially in group settings at a restaurant, I found everything would come out as a communal serving. Rarely did I order a dish or plate for myself. Most meals came out on platters that the table would all take from. For those planning trips to Lisbon in the future, I’ll talk of some restaurants I visited that are well worth the stop. The included pictures are not mine, I’m not usually great at taking photos of my dining experiences :)

Lisbon

Cervejaria Trindade

An old Monastary turned brewery turned full service brewery/restaurant, Cervejaria Trindade is a big tourist destination with decent food. While not as good as the other meals I had in Lisbon (which still means it was a good meal) the atmosphere was definitely worth the stop. I had a cod and potato dish that looked small on delivery, but filled me quite well. Their beer was good as well, I remember having a darker pint or two with supper and a lighter ½ pint as dessert at the bar (waiting on Nuno to finish in the bathroom).

Maria Cantita

Recommended to us for lunch by the GOCAR staff, it was a huge hit. The staff was friendly, and the food was amazing! I had a pork dish that was absolutely delicious, Nuno had some good looking seafood too! Located in the heart of downtown near the main square on the water, it is conveniently located to pop in for lunch or supper if in the area.

Tasca da Esquina

Nuno’s cousin, who lives in Lisbon, took us here for supper. Tasca da Esquina is known for providing a modern twist to traditional meals. We went for the five course special (you could choose from 3-7 I believe), across the five courses we sampled most of the standard ‘Portuguese staples’ each dish being plated beautifully! Compared to most places I ate in Portugal, I wouldn’t come here as a budget traveler, but for me it was well worth the price!

Pastéis de Belém

The egg pastries found here are the primary reason I felt we needed a separate conversation on food. Simply put, it is, by far, the best pastry or custard I have ever ate! The recipe is considered Portugal's best kept secret, and I have read they will not write it down, it is passed verbally from master chef to master chef like the passing of a torch. Click here to read a great article on the tarts history and the secret surrounding the recipe. It is well worth the read to understand the passion surrounding these little delicacies. Also you can note they serve upwards of 50,000 tarts on a good Sunday!!!

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Central Coast

Restaurante Quebra Mar "O Manel"

A little rustic spot on the Praia do Pedrogão beach, Quebra Mar or just O Manel (the owners name) as the locals tend to call it, was a great location for supper on the edge of the ocean. The front door is beside the large outdoor grills, which were covered in freshly caught fish as we entered. Our group of ten were split down the middle for grouper and bass, so the chef eyed out roughly five servings worth of fillets and grilled them up. We received one large fillet of grouper and one of bass to divvy up around the table, it was served with side platters of potatoes and vegetables.

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Aki D'el-Mar Marisqueira

The next evening I was in Nazare for supper sampling on oysters, shrimp, and crab. This place was half restaurant, half seafood store. It was a much brighter atmosphere, the walls in bright blues and adorned with fishing nets and other accessories. The table beside us bought the mixed seafood bowl (says it feeds 3-4), it was served not in a bowl, but an industrial sized pot! I would guess it could feed six easy, almost felt bad for the family of three who stared at it in shock for the first thirty seconds!

The final evening we had supper with Nuno’s parents and grandmother at a local restaurant in Leiria. What I remember most of this meal was being beside Nuno’s grandmother; every time a plate was near its end she would decide to place the remnants on my plate as I was the visitor. We must have had 8-10 plates on the table for us to all share from, I was stuffed by the end!

Alcohol wise, I should probably start with the Port. Deriving its name from the town of Porto, the fortified wine was very commonplace and a great way to finish a meal, or get the stomach ready for supper! For hot days and seafood, the Vinho Verde was a great choice, a light white wine (though I guess technically its a green wine as per its name) that wasn't too sweet.

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One tradition I loved (I know you will find similar ones in Spain, France and Italy among other countries) was the Cafe com Cheirinho (Cafe with a 'wiff' of moonshine). A post meal espresso served with local moonshine, I found it more prevalent here than some of the other countries I just mentioned. The idea is to pour some moonshine in with your espresso to give it that little bit of extra kick. Once the espresso is finished, you pour some more moonshine into the cup to wash it out (swirl the moonshine to grab all of the residual espresso on the sides of the cup). Rather than serving a proper one or two ounce shot, most places would just bring a small carafe of moonshine and you just take what you want.

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The last alcoholic beverage I need to mention came from Nuno's grandmother. After our final supper, I ended up back in her apartment sampling her special homemade drink. As I understand it, she starts with local moonshine, red wine, sour cherries and sugar. Place them all together and let the fermentation happen. After six weeks I think it was, there is now a sweet and strong drink, with some sweet cherries to snack on. I had to be careful standing up afterwards as two drinks and ten cherries really hit me! This homemade drink was the perfect way to end my trip in Portugal!

Posted by acanuckabroad 09:41 Archived in Portugal Tagged europe portugal 2015 Comments (0)

Beaches and Castles

Lounging and Sightseeing in Central Portugal

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The few days spent in Central Portugal were stressful times, most days involved visiting at least two beaches, while spending probably an equal amount of time at seaside terraces and patios in between beach stops. If that doesn’t sound stressful enough yet, remember food and alcohol are cheap, and great!

Our base camp for the central region was a nice beach condo, west of Leiria along the coast. From here we had easy access to the beaches and towns along the shoreline, and saw a good number of them at a very leisurely pace. While most of our time was spent lazing on or near a beach, we did take the time to check out a few places as well along the way. I think the first one I would have to mention is the walled town of Óbidos.

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Óbidos is a picturesque medieval town fully walled upon a hill. Having seen some pictures of it prior to arrival, it was quickly added to my ‘to do’ list. Arriving at the front gate entrance, we entered and quickly climbed the steps to arrive on top of the wall. It is possible to walk the entire perimeter of the town on top of the stone walls, giving a great view of the surrounding valley, and the town within. The town’s houses were usually white, with bright trim colours, offering a great contrast to the clay tiled roofs atop every building. The opposite end from the front entrance contains the old castle, towering above all else. We walked up and around the castle, but skipped the interior, I found it was one of the few choke points with tourists, another being the street of shops near the entrance. Apart from these few spots, the town was easy to get across and not overly crowded.

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One day in between beaches found us in the town of Batalha enjoying a pint or two in front of their famous church. We also found a statue of what might have been Nuno's namesake?

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(My attempt at an artistic shot)

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Most evenings found us out for supper (except for one night when Nuno’s parents prepared quite the feast for us and their friends), usually eating fresh seafood at a shoreline restaurant. These were all nice affairs, washing down good food with the light Vino Verde that I acquired a taste for. The evenings also provided some great sunsets, especially in the town of Nazare one evening.

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My last full day found me in Leiria and having to keep myself occupied for most of the day. Nuno’s family traces their history to Leiria and his Grandmother and extended family still live there. It has a pleasant downtown core, and a castle that is up on the hill overlooking it all. I arranged to have myself dropped off downtown, and walked the core before heading up the hill to the castle. Not a famous castle like some of the others in the country, it is nonetheless a nice castle and well maintained. This all worked to my advantage as I had the whole grounds to myself and maybe 5-10 other tourists. I was able to walk where I wanted and enjoy the view uninterrupted by other folks like myself.

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Finishing up at the castle I decided to head to the square with the bright white umbrellas seen above for lunch. As luck would have it I ran into Nuno’s parents and secured a ride back up town after a nice meal!

That brought to a close my Portuguese adventure, Nuno was flying out the next morning and I decided at the last minute to jump on his ride to the airport. Planning this last night I came up with a plan in my head (by plan I mean a vague notion of renting a car and driving across France, no idea where I would stay or what I would see along the way yet) and so became my few days in France which you can read about on here!

Posted by acanuckabroad 09:40 Archived in Portugal Tagged europe portugal 2015 Comments (1)

Lisboa: The Capital City

Go-Karting the Downtown Core in Style!

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My first few days were spent in Lisbon (or Lisboa), the capital city of Portugal. Lisbon lies in the hills along the shore of the River Tagus, a few miles before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. As far as Western European capitals go, it’s on the small side with a population of around 5-600,000 people. It’s a great size to walk around for a couple of days, though expect to be walking up or down hills at almost all times!

I arrived in Lisbon midday on my flight from London. Nuno was able to meet me at the airport with a ride from his Uncle and Aunt. They were kind enough to drive us into town and drop us off at our hotel. From there we had no real plan, but spent the late afternoon and evening walking up and down the hills in the downtown core, stopping at multiple squares for a cold beverage. Outside of walking by the impressive architecture in the city, we did not stop or go in anywhere to look around. Supper found us up on top of a hill in a centuries old Monastery converted restaurant, Cervejaria Trindade. A monastery was first built there in 1294, and stayed more or less in continuous use until the early 1800’s. After all religious orders were banned from the country, the Monastery fell into disuse, before part of the structure was used as the nucleus for a new brewery. Since then it has expanded to become the modern day brewery and restaurant we arrived at. These days it’s a tourist joint, no doubt about it, but you can still walk through the different rooms of the Monastery, and the main dining hall is covered in a two century old tile mosaic. I had a nice cod dish with grated potatoes, my first experience of the Portuguese cuisine, and I wasn’t disappointed!

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The next day was our full day in downtown Lisbon. First stop for us was the imposing São Jorge Castle, situated on a hill overlooking the city. It was a beautiful day for walking the castle grounds, and most sides gave a new vista overlooking the city and river. There is evidence of people living in these hills for a couple thousand years, and a fortification has been on the São Jorge Castle hill since the Romans erected one around 48 BC. We spent most the morning covering all of the grounds, and as luck would have it, we even found a little patio overlooking the city to have our first beer of the day!

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Walking back down the hill, we went in search of GOCAR Tours, an operator that provides electric three wheeled go-karts to tour the city with. It comes with a GPS narrator giving directions and pointing out significant landmarks along the way. We found the place without issue, but it was close to lunch time, so after checking in and ensuring we could secure a kart after lunch we decided to eat. The staff at GOCAR suggested the restaurant Maria Cantita’s. What a great choice, the food, the wine, and the service were all excellent!

After that it was back to the go karts. Turns out Nuno doesn’t follow directions all that well, I think it took us all of five minutes before making our first wrong turn and going the wrong way down a one-way road. Shortly thereafter we got tired of listening to the narrator telling us to turn around, and shut down the GPS. Then we were operating on street signs and road maps, and passed the hour rental driving the downtown core. It was a really neat experience, certainly worth the money. If you check out their website they also have branches in Barcelona, Madrid, and San Francisco!

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Our next day was only a half day, we departed shortly after lunch for Leiria in Central Portugal. We started the day with breakfast at Pastéis de Belém. My life changed that morning, the egg pastries there are world famous, and for good reason! I could eat those things every morning for the rest of my life without complaint! I will go into more detail on this delicacy on my food discussion, have no fear!

Heading there for breakfast also put us on the path to see Belém Tower, and Padrão dos Descobrimentos down the road. Some neat architecture to walk around and see. It was all part of our slow progression to Cascais, a suburb like community of Lisbon that is along the coast. It is the last community along the north bank of the River Tagus before it empties into the Atlantic. Cascais is a wealthy area with nice beaches and restaurants. We walked along the boardwalk before heading inland a bit for lunch. I had a traditional pan fried pork chop that was great, like most the dishes I found in Portugal, they use few ingredients, but use them well!

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And that was Lisbon, overall it was a neat city to walk with a cool vibe. I’d go back anytime for the food alone!

Posted by acanuckabroad 09:40 Archived in Portugal Tagged europe lisbon portugal 2015 Comments (0)

Portugal: The Overview

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After two great weeks in England and Scotland, I packed my bags and left for Lisbon. As anyone who watched me plan this eight week span of time off can attest to, Portugal was a last minute add on, negating three weeks of planning for a solo trip through Scotland. Scotland is still high on my list for further travels, but I found my time there would not be cheap, and think I would rather do it with friends someday. Let’s face it, Portugal is not such a terrible consolation destination, especially when Nuno is hanging out there for the week and has places to stay across the country (family does have its benefits!).

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For those of you who don’t know, Nuno was my roommate in Montreal, and is of Portuguese descent, spending time there every summer. Finding out he would be in country across the same dates as my Scotland trip, that was threatening to become overly expensive, allowed me to rapidly change destinations, and made all my planning easier as I let Nuno plan everything!

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I spent the better part of a week in Portugal, splitting my time pretty equally between Lisbon and Central Portugal. In Lisbon we did the touristy bit, walking around seeing monuments and castles, and trying out some of their great restaurants! The second half of the week we were based out of Nuno’s parents beach house (west of the town Leiria just off the coast), spending our days visiting the different beaches in the area – and there are a lot of those!

The week passed by quickly, and we managed to get a great mix of sightseeing and relaxing in. Even better, every day we gorged ourselves on great food, washing it down with various local wines and ports.

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Unlike vacations with tour groups, where you tend to go from one sight to the next for a week or more at a time, we carried ourselves in a much more relaxed manner, and while we saw many sights, there was always an espresso, a meal, or a nice cold alcoholic beverage between every activity….with no exceptions!

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So this was my week, you’ll see a few more posts highlighting the different sites seen, and one on the edibles and beverages as this deserves its own discussion!

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Posted by acanuckabroad 09:27 Archived in Portugal Tagged europe portugal 2015 Comments (0)

A Road Trip from Toulouse to Paris via Normandy

Four Days in France with a Rental Car

After vacationing in Portugal I had a four day gap before my flight out of Paris. What to do, and how to get to Paris? Turns out flights to Paris from Lisbon were expensive, but flights to Toulouse were really cheap. Based on that I decided why not fly to Toulouse and rent a car.

Driving across France sounded like a great idea, especially since I had ordered a little six speed manual diesel to drive it with! Arriving at the rental agency I was told I had been upgraded, even better, or so I thought. My upgraded vehicle had German plates, so if I drove it to Paris it would be much closer to Germany, hence the free upgrade. Well I crossed the airport and arrived at the parking lot to find the Enterprise kiosk, and they brought me out to my big black hearse. Now it wasn’t actually a hearse, but it sure looked it. Not quite my little 6-speed compact. One look at me and the kiosk attendant realized this was not my idea of a good ride across France. He was helpful enough, and found me a little 5-speed unleaded compact I could take instead (no refund though on the extra I paid for the car I initially ordered).

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(What I ordered)
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(What I was upgraded to)
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(What I ended up with)

There I was, the keys to my little Peugeot and the open road ahead of me. This is when I ran into the first of a couple little bumps in the road (insert groan if you’d like). When I booked the car, it was around 20 euros a day, the GPS unit was an additional 20. Now I was ready to go ahead and buy it. I’ve never driven France and don’t really know my way around. Lucky for me I had my good friend Nuno beside me to help with the ordering, and in typical Portuguese frugalness, the GPS was mocked as wasted money, and so dropped. This is what smart phones are for he said (this may have been one of my many windows of time this year without an operating phone). I did have an iPad with a data sim card, so problem solved…except once I was going on the road, I realized the sim card didn’t work. Damn. No problem, I needed to go North, I would make it work and I did, with lots of missed/wrong turns (adding to the expense for highway toll fees), and a good dose of swearing/smiling depending on how smart I thought I was at the moment in time. In the end, I made all of my destinations, and enjoyed driving the French countryside, even when I saw more of it than initially planned :)

Speaking of bumps in the road, there was a second one…the car itself. Instead of this fuel efficient diesel, I had a gas guzzling, gutless Peugeot. Doing the speed limit of 130km/h was not an issue when on level terrain, but much of central France that I traversed was not so level. Every time I climbed one of the numerous tall hills I was required to move over to the slow caution transport lane as I watched my speed bleed off by 30-40km/h. Dropping gears did nothing to help the situation, even transport trucks were slowing on the uphill’s do to me. Adding to the gutlessness was the gas guzzling, between gas and highway tolls I must have paid triple what the car cost to rent! My money saving drive quickly surpassed the cost of a plane ticket.

Outside of navigation and car issues, I had a pleasant few days. Starting in Toulouse I headed to Orleans for the first night, getting a chance to meet up with Flavia (long time friend from Dubai who I seem to meet up with on every European vacation these days!) and her friend for the evening. While there I saw a postcard of Mont Saint-Michel and decided I had to go there next. The next morning I left Orleans for Mont Saint-Michel via Saint-Malo, before ending up in Caen for the night. Before leaving I knew I wanted one night at least up in Normandy, and I used it well visiting the Caen War Memorial and Juno Beach. This ended my 3+ weeks in Europe as I drove from Juno Beach to Paris, dropped off the rental car, and headed to my hotel for a nice 16 hours of not moving prior to the flight out.

Toulouse

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I flew in the morning prior to starting my drive. I took the rail into town and walked around for the day. It was a beautiful day, and a great place to walk around. Here are a few photos I snapped along the way.

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Orléans

What a beautiful and quaint place, I easily could have spent days walking around. I met up with Flavia and Daniel in the town centre just before sunset, sure wish I brought my camera as around every corner there was another great street or building to take a picture of. We spent a few hours walking around, stopping off for supper at a nice restaurant (where I had a great duck burger) and an outdoor bar patio later on for a couple of drinks. Joan of Arc helped lift a siege on Orléans during the latter part of the hundred years war, and their main square has a large statue of her astride a horse. Flavia and Daniel were living just off this square in a great old building, had a lot of cool character to it. Sorry I didn’t take photos at all during my stay there, I will have to go back another time to take some.

Saint-Malo

The second most touristy site in France after the Eifel Tower, I spent a few hours here, and just found it packed with tourists. It was a neat place, but just so overwhelmed with people that I didn’t really care for it. I did have a delicious Pork Knuckle for lunch, with made the stop not a full waste :)

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Mont Saint-Michel

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Wow! What a stunning place. I wish I had skipped Saint-Malo and headed straight here. Arriving in the late afternoon, I had time to walk the causeway to the front entrance, but not enough time to walk the island itself. This place looks like it’s out of the Lord of the Rings or something. Having the highest tides in Europe, the causeway spends part of most days submerged. I arrived at low tide, so not only could I walk the causeway, but I could walk along the mud around the walled base of the island. My next trip to France will definitely include a longer visit to this incredible place!!

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Caen

I spent the morning touring the Mémorial de Caen. The museum was very well done. I wish I had more time in Caen to visit some of the castles and relics from the time of William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard depending on how much you liked the guy), but that can be saved for a future trip.

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Juno Beach

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From the start, I wanted to make sure I made it here. I write this just a few days after Remembrance Day has passed, and am reminded of the sacrifices our forefathers’ generation made. Juno Beach is actually a stretch of beaches 8 miles wide that the Canadians were tasked with invading. Near the middle of this stretch, in the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, is the Centre Juno Beach, a Canadian funded and staffed Memorial to the contributions Canada made during World War II. My tour guide was a history student (I’m guessing at least at the Masters level to be here) from out west. She was very knowledgeable and friendly. The most interesting part was after the tour had finished, we ended on the beach itself (after touring a command and observation bunker) and one of the tourists asked a question concerning the week that followed the invasion. To accurately describe what occurred, she ended up drawing troop movements in the sands of Juno to give an accurate idea of what happened, probably not dissimilar to what occurred 71 years ago when a commander was explaining his orders.

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During the invasions on D-Day, the Juno beach invaders (men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade) took the second highest number of casualties (after Omaha Beach by the Americans) and also proceeded the furthest inland. The fighting that followed was very fierce, and cost a lot of lives. It took the Allied forces another month to capture the city of Caen, just 10 miles from Juno Beach.

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The Memorial is very well done, and does a great job of showing not only Canada’s involvement overseas, but what was happening back on the home front, both the prewar years, and the years of active fighting. Please take the time to stop there on your next vacation in the region, it is a worthwhile stop.

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Paris

I arrived back into Paris at rush hour, ran into a few issues finding a gas station before running empty (would not have been good without my phone working!), and found my hotel accidently on the way to dropping off the rental. I eventually had the car returned without issue, and took the shuttle back to the hotel for supper and a long sleep. I randomly ran into an older gentleman originally from Sydney, Cape Breton, and chatted with him for a while before his extended family arrived for supper.

And so ended my four days in France, was off to Canada to rest up. The starting of my Vietnam adventure was six days later!

Posted by acanuckabroad 03:55 Archived in France Tagged france europe juno_beach 2015 Comments (1)

Vietnam: The Overview

My Intro to Vietnam

The best way to plan a vacation? Sit around one evening with your buddy drinking a few beers watching a Top Gear special that takes place in some far away location, if the two of you are there less than two months later, success.

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This isn’t an exaggeration, I was watching the Top Gear Vietnam special with Corey one day at work in Mali, and we said let’s do it, and we did. The initial plan included the riding of motorcycles across the country, but some concessions had to be made for time. Between both our work / vacation schedules, we found a gap of 10 days in country in which to plan a vacation. While planning we came across the tour operator Custom Vietnam, and within 12 hours of our first email to them with some of the top places we wished to visit we had a full draft itinerary sent to us. We ended up signing on with them, and we were not disappointed!

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Ten days is way too short to explore a country like Vietnam. I feel we ended up experiencing the taster pack (really, each region had their own beer that we stuck to while in it!) of what was available to see and do. This isn’t a bad thing, after all it was my first trip to Southeast Asia, and aside from popular movies etc. I was not sure what to expect. Well the trip was a blast, the people, food, and landscape was just amazing. I left the country wanting to start making plans for the next excursion.

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My travel companion for this adventure was my coworker Corey. Corey is a good friend I made since starting this overseas racket, and I couldn't have asked for a more easy going fella to have this experience with. Thanks Buddy!

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Of course after every trip, you think about what you would do differently next time, and next time would be much different for me. In an effort to see as much as possible, we did spend a lot of time travelling, while not usually ideal, it was good for us. I saw large portions of the country and now know which places I would like to focus more of my time and energies on next time. The one big location I wanted to get to, and didn’t, were the caves along the coast of Central Vietnam. An impressive array of caves that require hiking to get to, they just look so beautiful and still relatively untouched by humans. But that’s for next time, so if anyone is interested in doing a hiking trip in Vietnam (with some more hiking up in Sa Pa or elsewhere) let me know!

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Our 10 days were broken down into five major spots; Saigon, Hanoi, Sa Pa, Halong Bay, and Hoi An. This allowed us to see a bit of the south, the north, and the central regions. This provided us some variety in geography, but also setting, mixing the largest cities with the rural areas of Sa Pa and bay complex of Halong Bay.

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I don’t think I mentioned the food enough across the posts on Vietnam. It was just so good, every meal, no misses in 10 days, I mean how often can you say that! Most mornings started with Pho soup (a traditional Vietnamese soup with rice noodles and a beef/chicken stock as base) for breakfast, also from the French influence they had good baguettes. Lunch is their largest meal of the day, and we would typically stop for a five plate meal or so. Usually it would include a soup, a fresh salad (they don’t use lettuce or leafy greens really, lots of vegetables and fruits like mango), and then the main course which contains a few plates. The main course normally had a rice dish and one meat and one fish dish (sometimes we had two meat dishes). Typically the dishes were heavy on fresh ingredients (especially the salads!) and they loved cooking with nuts, often having peanuts with the salad and say cashews cooked with a chicken or pork plate. I think our best supper was in Hanoi, we were taken on a walking tour through the Old Quarter and given a chance to sample a bunch of the famous street food that’s available (the sticky rice dish is world famous I’m told – and I understand why). Growing up I was never a big fan of Mango, but that had to be my favorite surprise ingredient in dishes, it just added a fresh and sharp tang to meals.

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If you ever get the chance to visit Vietnam, I can’t recommend it enough, and if you need someone to go with, call!

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Posted by acanuckabroad 01:25 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam asia 2015 Comments (1)

A Tale of Two Cities

Saigon and Hanoi

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.." - Not really true, I stole all of that from Dickens, but I kinda had to with my title. If you would like to read more from him though please click on his name for assistance. Now on to what I have to say :)

Our first two days in Vietnam were spent in its two most iconic cities, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi; South and North. The two cities bring many images to mind, thoughts of most Vietnam War movies, democracy versus communism and all that. This was a highly urban and almost political environment to start our vacation before proceeding to the more rural and picturesque locations we saw afterwards.

Both cities and surrounding regions had their own strong views on government and believed their city to be the better (in a positive way really, think Toronto vs Montreal). The south is not pro communism, they have no problem airing their thoughts on the poor state of the government and corruption that exists. I found the North to be much more circumspect and cautious in their talk of the government, but not necessarily different. One thing both regions had in common though was their fierce devotion to Ho Chi Minh. I never heard one poor thing said of the man from anyone within the country, only about those who followed him as leaders of Vietnam.

Of all my posts so far, this one will be the most political, but it is a tough issue to avoid when visiting these two cities. Ho Chi Minh grew up in a time when Vietnam was called Indochina and it was a colony of France. As a young man, Ho Chi Minh ended up travelling to France and became an ardent communist. He returned home and eventually lead resistance fighters during World War II. After the war he strived for an independent and unified Vietnam. This was not to be, as the French returned in 1946 to reclaim the land as a colony. It took until 1954, but the Vietnamese eventually drove the French out. The country was supposed to be temporarily separated, with Communists moving North, and Democrats moving south. Following some coups in the South, the separation became permanent. Wide spread corruption allowed Ho Chi Minh to gather lots of support in the South. The Unites States, fuelled by a fear of spreading communism, began to support the south with aid, material and personnel. This slowly escalated into what we know today as the Vietnam War. It ended in 1975 with the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. Ho Chi Minh died before he could see his dream come true, passing away in 1971, but his ideals (or maybe a skewed version of them) have continued to present.

Most of the sites I saw in both cities revolved strongly around the war and its aftermath, from the War Remnants Museum in Saigon to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Presidential Palace to the North. The War Remnants Museum is strongly one sided in condemning American and French atrocities committed during the wars, but even with a grain of salt, it cannot be denied that horrible things did occur (Agent Orange would be a great example). Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a perfect example of what communism meant during his life and afterwards. Ho Chi Minh was a strong proponent of an equal distribution, and did not believe in displays of wealth (his last house is a small two room building on stilts behind the Presidential Palace) believing the government should spend the money on improving society and the people in it. The mausoleum was built two years after his death, and is a massive structure made of granite and marble, costing a war torn country (built in 1973 at a time when the US had bombed out almost all of the country’s infrastructure and utilities) precious money that could have been better spent elsewhere. It is the difference between what Ho Chi Minh the man believed, and what is still done, in his name today, that seems to have many people I met there at odds.

Anyway, that’s enough of the politics, it was a tough time in the Country’s history and in many ways is still present. That being said, both cities were great places to visit, we didn’t have near enough time in either. There was no time to see the nightlife in Saigon, though I hear it is fun, but we did get a few evenings in Hanoi, and really enjoyed it! Such a lively and friendly atmosphere, I cannot remember the last vacation where everyone was always so happy and kind to us. The people (oh and the food, can’t forget the food!!) truly made the whole trip an amazing experience and has placed Vietnam at the top of my list for repeat destinations.

Unlike a lot of other posts I won’t bother with a play by play of our days spent in these two cities, but below are some photos with a word or three on where they were taken.

Saigon

The Reunification Palace was the former residence of the President of South Vietnam. It was here that the President lived and ran the country. The rooftop has a Huey replica and two red circles indicating the entry points of bombs dropped by a South Vietnamese pilot dissatisfied with his leaders.

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I mentioned the War Remnants Museum above in some detail. It initially had a name along the lines of the American War Crimes Museum. While the name of the museum has been toned down, the display's have not been substantially changed.

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In front of the Notre-Dame Basilica built from 1863-1880.

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Hanoi

Within a short walking distance, it is easy to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh's stilt house and the One Pillar Pagoda. Below is a shot of the Presidential Palace, followed by three of Ho Chi Minh's house.

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The Temple of Literature is the oldest University in Vietnam, founded in 1010. If a student could graduate from the highest level their name was carved onto a stone tablet (they look like large tombstones sitting on top of a turtle). This was considered quite the achievement and very few could succeed.

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I decided to add a bit more information on the Hanoi nightlife. It was a cool place. Our first full day there ended outdoors in the Old Quarter. Our guide took us on a tour, sampling many of the famous street food dishes to be had, before we settled in at an outdoor bar. There we sat on little stools on the roads edge and watched the hustle and bustle of the city. This was a really cool evening, and allowed us to really see the local culture as it hurried past us. It also provided me and Corey with a starting point for our few other evenings in town as it was a 10 minute walk from our hotel.

One of our evenings we met an American named Raymund at one of these little road side intersection bars. He was a nice fella who is spending a full year traveling Asia. I have been following him on Facebook and Instagram, seeing his amazing photos of his travels. He also has a blog detailing his trips, clicking on his name should bring you there if you care to read more (I would suggest it if you are thinking of a backpacking adventure through the area, as odds are he’s been there).

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And here ends my Tale of Two Cities :)

Posted by acanuckabroad 07:21 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam asia saigon hanoi 2015 Comments (0)

Walking a Sea of Green

Hiking the Hills of Sa Pa

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Sa Pa, a hilly region in the Northwest of Vietnam, that is littered with scattered towns and rice fields carved out of the hills in layered terraces of rice that sway in the wind like seas of grass. Arriving just at the start of the harvest season, the region is just beautiful, and while we only spent two days here, this post has taken forever to create due to the time spent going through photos. Every time I turned around I was greeted with a new greater sight than previous, which added to the large photo count. Most do not come close to portraying the stunning environment and people that live within the area; it is a culturally diverse area, containing large portions of the minority groups within the country.

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Corey and I started the first day in Hanoi, making the drive to the town of Sa Pa by lunch time. It is a recurring theme through these posts on Vietnam, but like all other days the food was great. Today we washed down lunch with a local rice wine, which was tasty but potent, being closer to a liquor than a standard red or white wine. From there we hiked down the hill that the town of Sa Pa sits on (I should point out that Sa Pa or Sapa is both a town and one of the districts of the Lao Cai province, and going forward I may use the name for either town or district and expect you to figure out which I refer to). The hike down took us through a village or two, giving an opportunity to see how some of the different ethnic tribes prefer to construct their homes.

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Quick side note: While most of Vietnam is from the Viet tribe, there are many different ethnic minorities scattered throughout the country, and most have a unique method for constructing buildings. While in Hanoi I was at the Ethnology Museum which has reconstructed around 20 structures indicative of what the associated group would construct. I will go into more details while discussing Hanoi, but to be brief, the scope of size, shape and method of construction across the groups is astounding.

Along the walk down we came across one man with his rice crop, as we passed he appeared to be more standing guard versus working the field. From the photo below it almost looks as if he were standing on a cliffs edge, and he may have been, I’m not really sure now that I think about it.

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The bottom of the hill took us past a nice waterfall and into a small theatre housing a production of local plays. We only had 10 minutes to spend here, mainly we watched a man and woman dance and move to choreographed movements with music, telling a story. It seemed most sets were 5-10 minutes in length and if you stayed for an hour you would be able to see all of the plays. We however were on a timeline, so before long we were back out the door to start the real hike.

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After a quick motorcycle ride back up the hill, and a five minute drive out of town, we were dropped off on the side of the road to begin our walk. Our afternoon was spent hiking down the hills into the valley and along the paths that connect the towns that dot the area. Once outside of the rural area of Sa Pa, it is quickly apparent that life has continued on, relative unchanged, over the past generations. While electricity does have its use, and the odd motorcycle can be seen racing from village to village, most people still seem to be working the land manually, living in the same style houses their ancestors did.

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We were told in advance that once we start walking through the valley ladies from the Hmong tribe would likely walk the trail and chat with us. This day was no different, as Corey and I had three ladies (one with a young baby on her back) spend the afternoon walking with us. They were all very friendly, curious to know where we were from and how long we would be in the area etc.

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We walked 15km or so this day and the ladies stayed with us the whole way, taking some of the steep down sloping trails that had been washed away from rain, with much more ease than us! At the end of our hike they tried to sell us some local handmade souvenirs, but were not trying to hard to make the sale. I don’t think they were too pushy anyways, Corey was more interested in getting some things than me, and so I ditched him for the sales portion to go take a picture of a bridge :)

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So I add the photos in after writing, and I realize now I never mentioned the random Wifi cafe in the middle of some rice fields....so here it is!

As I said earlier, we arrived in the region just as the harvest was beginning. In most of the pictures you see lots of lush green rice fields, however some you will see the brown patches were harvest has begun. Everything from the rice plant is used. Once all of the rice grains have been harvested, much of the grass is stored for future use. They seem to have multiple uses for the grass stalk - such as roofing material. Whatever grass stalk is not needed for future use, is burned in the harvested fields to create fertilizer for next season’s crop. Walking by a couple of fields with smoldering stalks gave the feeling of walking through a movie set with blowing smoke rolling over rice fields.

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Late afternoon we arrived at our destination for the night. Our lodging that night was in a home belonging to one of the local families. The house has been turned into a hostel of sorts for visiting hikers. We had a great evening, all of the family we met were extremely friendly, and the food was great! The patriarch of the house was in his early 70's (at 22 he was drafted into the North Vietnamese Army and had to leave his pregnant wife of 19 to head to Laos; it was almost 4 years before was able to return home and see his family again). He ran the place with his wife and eldest son, and it seemed other members would pop in from time to time to visit and assist. With supper we were given a bottle of homemade rice wine to drink, like the drink in the restaurant the local moonshine had some kick. After all the hiking that day we had thought to take it easy on the drink, but we couldn’t go 5 minutes without a family member or our guide coming in to toast us and have a shot. While each member may have had 2-3 shots, our total quickly skyrocketed until the bottle was gone! It may have all been a calculated move as we passed out in bed around 8pm and didn’t stir until morning!

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We continued our hike the next morning, passing further along the valley, taking a trail maybe a quarter of the way up the hill from the valley floor. As we started to depart for the day, the patriarch announced he would walk with us, as our ending point was at a village one of his daughters lived in. Certainly was an eye opening experience, as multiple times Corey and I would have to resort to almost sliding down parts of washed out trail using our hands to help keep us from falling head over heels down the slope, while this elderly fellow would practically hop down without missing a step. I think in one particular stretch, a cautious 5 minute decent by us was accomplished in about 15 seconds by him.

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Sorry for the massive bunch of photos at the end, the second day was better for photos, but not much new to share. Going through you will see we past some rocks and water (really a little waterfall area) and saw some more rice fields. I think if you click on these little thumbnails a larger image will pop up, other wise just skip it all to read my kick ass finale (not overselling at all).

Having him along provided another benefit, as we reached our final town we stopped by his daughters house (her family has set up their house in much the same way as he has to allow for tourists to spend the night) and had a nice cup of tea as we unwound from the walk.

Unfortunately this was the end of my Sa Pa experience (aside from a last lunch in town). It was short but great fun, and given the chance I would love to spend more time in the region, walking between the valleys. I know my photos don’t do the area justice, it wasn’t just the stunning colours and views, but the gentle movement of everything from a light breeze, a sea of green just swaying to and fro.

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On the road back to Hanoi, we took one quick detour to see the border with China, the bridge is the dividing line (well I guess the river is the divider, the bridge the connector) between the two nations. You can see the large China Duty Free building across the way, apparently the Vietnamese are allowed to cross over for the day without issue, and take advantage of the shopping!

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Posted by acanuckabroad 08:35 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam sapa asia 2015 Comments (0)

A Night Out on Halong Bay

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Halong Bay is situated in the North of Vietnam, to the east of their capital city Hanoi. It’s a large bay filled with over 2,000 little islands. Think Ontario’s 1,000 islands, but more islands and located in Vietnam. These islands are mainly limestone and all seem to rise vertically out of the water, making one feel like they are sailing through towers instead of islands.

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This is a very picturesque area, and we spent a full 24 hours on a high end boat visiting the area. We booked through Greyline, one of multiple companies with similar boats doing a similar run. The boat was very nice, Corey and I had a nice room with our own balcony over the water (downside to this perk will be explained later).

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The entire experience was fun overall, on the first day we boarded just before lunch. We quickly checked in and spent the first hour relaxing up on top with a nice view of the entrance to the islands before being called down one level for lunch. All of our meals onboard were good, the sort of safe higher end meals that feel local, but are still safe enough to serve to a boat of North American type tourists without complaint.

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After lunch we had our first activity on shore (I believe it was Bo Hun Island). We climbed a couple of stone steps to the entrance of a cave. We walked through the cave seeing some neat limestone formations before exiting a bit higher up on the island. Up there through the trees we had a nice view of our boat, and by turning around we got a great view of a little lagoon within the island.

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After leaving Bo Hun we sailed a bit further to a floating kayak depot (not sure what else to call a bunch of rafts tethered together in the middle of a bay with tons of kayaks). Here we collected a 2 man kayak to go around a few islands for an hour or two. 2 man kayaks are definitely the vehicle of choice for two guys like me and Corey, never any communication issues about who is in control and steering etc…..

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Back on board our boat we sailed to the final spot of the day. We had the opportunity to make some little appetizers on deck. They were enjoyed with a cold beverage or three before supper. After supper we went back on deck to socialize with the rest of the tourists on board and consumed a few more beverages. The upper deck was almost clear of cover, and offered a great view 360 degrees.

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The second day kicked off trying to get a great photo of the sunrise, and while I was up top early enough, the clouds did not fully cooperate. We had an early breakfast before heading to a local floating fishing complex. This was a small one, with room for 1-2 families. Apparently these floating complexes covered most of the islands, with their owners rarely coming to shore. They are fully self-sufficient, and the occupants eke out a living by catching local fish and other seafood, placing them in manmade underwater nets to fatten them up before selling. According to our guide, all of these complexes were removed a few years back, and new ones can only be created if they follow strict guidelines for the handling of their refuse. One complaint of the area is the unclean water, it is not clear at all, and you will see garbage floating at all times. The local government is working to reverse the damage, and I am told it looks much cleaner than it did a decade ago.

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Following this trip we returned to the main boat, checked out of our rooms and spent the last hour or two up top as we sailed back out of the islands. A quick brunch was had and then we departed the boat.

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Halong Bay was a great place to see, however I felt we only touched the tip of the iceberg. It was a very commercial set up, and we spent more time anchored than moving. Looking at the map I realize we did not see much, I think I would prefer in future to take a smaller boat and try a multiple day trip (this same boat offers a multiple day trip, but the only difference is when the main boat is heading back to the shore to drop off and pick up new folks, you will be on a little day trip I think hiking on one of the islands – probably fun, but no new sailing through islands involved).

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I mentioned near the beginning of more details concerning the balcony. I should warn they are there to keep you from falling overboard, but they may not provide the same level of security for your property. While admiring the view I was putting my phone back into my pocket (brand new iPhone 6) when it managed to slip out, hit the floor, bounce through the railing, and fall two stories into the bay. The last I saw of my phone was a bright light under water that became dimmer with every second until it was gone. Now I’m phone-less (again) and no plan to really spend money on a replacement anytime soon!

  • Note: I had no intention of spending money on a replacement, but I cracked while walking past a store in the mall, now I'm back under contract with an iPhone 6S which will probably meet an untimely end in a future post. Not sure how I could top dropping a phone in Halong Bay, but I’m sure with my luck I will figure it out!

Posted by acanuckabroad 07:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged vietnam asia halong_bay 2015 Comments (0)

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