Thursday, November 26, 2015

Birthday boy

The trip report is dragging out much longer than expected. Things have been busy. I have been weary. I'm trying to get in the Christmas spirit since somehow Christmas is less than one month away. Every year I try to finish shopping by December 1st so that I can enjoy the month of December. I'm pretty sure that's a myth because I don't know anyone who honestly just sits and enjoys December.  I've certainly never reached that pie in the sky but one of these years, I will. This is likely not the year since I've only bought a few small items so far. I've already adjusted my goal; if I'm finished by Dec. 18 when the kids are out of school, I'll be happy.

Either way, I need to get moving so I am dedicating tomorrow to shopping. You may recall I don't love shopping. To make it far worse, tomorrow happens to be Black Friday. I wish that day hadn't been allowed to cross the border. I am disappointed in our border guards. I'd prefer to stay far away from any cash register, but Black Friday just happens to correspond with one of my only free days in weeks. So I've been poring through flyers and online sites in order to make my day as efficient and productive as possible. The plus side is that there are some pretty good deals; the down side … well, it's grim. But I will gather my courage and try to be brave and strong. I'm also going to try to shop in smaller, local stores rather than the mall. One of the things I've been working on at work is our shop local campaign so I'm all fired up to keep my support in the community. There are some great companies involved; you can check it out here.


On a happier note, it was Dale's birthday on Monday. He is beginning his final year of being in his 40s, but he doesn't like to talk about that. He'd rather talk about his massages. We celebrated with a few family members on Sunday. I made a strawberry/cream cheese trifle at his request. I didn't have the heart to tell him strawberries are very out of season and I had to pay $14 for decent ones. That should have been birthday present enough, but I also planned a surprise evening at Thermea. I texted him at work to tell him to come straight to the spa and Bob & Janet and I were already there (it was an early birthday surprise for Bob as well). It was so awesome. I'd really like a seasons pass. I love the feeling of the extreme hot and cold, and nothing beats sitting in the hot tub in the cold air with the smell of a campfire. It reminds me of skiing in the mountains but it's closer and cheaper. We also had dinner in the restaurant, wearing our big bulky bathrobes. I don't even like eating breakfast in my bathrobe at home because my sleeves always get in the food so this was kind of awkward but when in Rome… I hadn't heard great things about the food, but we all really enjoyed it and it far exceeded our expectations.

Another fun thing I did lately was hang out with some of my favourite people who came from some of my favourite people. It's like a riddle. My cousin Teresa's kids came over on Saturday and we hung out in the Exchange for a few hours. Those are smart, funny, and good-looking kids, just like their mother (and father!). I hate that life is so busy that I don't get to spend as much time with some people as I'd like, but I don't know how to be less busy. Well, I did spend over five hours at the spa, so I really can't complain. Siobhan would tell me to live in the moment and enjoy the present, right? I'm trying.
At Bronuts. And yes, Spencer brought a book.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Central Vietnam



Vietnam is a skinny sliver of a country that runs north-south, so we took a short flight to Da Nang to explore the central part next. Our new tour guides took us on a short bus ride to a town called Hoi An which is by the ocean. We stayed at a beautiful little resort across from the ocean. The waves were huge and the undercurrent was very strong; apparently a tourist had died earlier that month when the waves smashed him against these giant sand/cement bags protecting the shore (they looked like sand bags but felt as hard as cement). So we were strongly encouraged to stick to the swimming pools, which was not a hardship.

the resort
After breakfast the next day, we went on a walking tour of Hoi An, which is a beautiful, historic little town. 



We started off at a silk factory complete with silk worms. The workers did amazing silk embroidery. Working from a photo, they can recreate it as a large embroidered picture. They also made custom clothing. A lot of people in our group had clothes made – pants, tops, and even complete suits. It was probably around 11 a.m. when they got measured for their items and by 6 p.m., the seamstresses were at our hotel with the finished product. In some cases, a few adjustments were needed so they were back for a final fitting a few hours later.  Them ladies can sew!


The measuring and deciding and paying took a long time, and then we walked around the town aimlessly for hours in the heat of the midday sun. The guide had promised me repeatedly that we would be back at the hotel by 1:00. The rest of the afternoon and evening was a very rare unscheduled block of time, which I was pretty eager to spend drinking a pina colada beside the infinity pool. When 1:00 approached and we hadn’t even gone for lunch yet, I started losing hope. “We’ll be back at 2:00,” was my guide’s revised promised. After more walking in the sweltering heat, we finally reached our restaurant. It was a beautiful spot but I could hardly enjoy it because I was pushing people to eat fast and get back on the bus. Finally we were on our way except for a brief stop to take pictures of water buffalos beside the road. It was almost 3:00 when we got back to the resort. I was near tears. In hindsight it seems silly but I was just so ready for some down time.



And it was awesome. There were several pools at the resort so Dale and I went to the furthest one so we could have a break from our responsibilities. The pool area was so beautiful and quiet and relaxing.


Backing up a little … we had a rep from the tour company travelling with us the entire time we were in Vietnam. He was from Hanoi but had flown down to Ho Chi Minh City to meet us and stayed with us right until we left for Cambodia. He wasn’t a guide and was never formally introduced, so for the first couple of days we didn’t really know who this guy was who was always lurking around in the background. But he turned out to be our new best friend. He was so sweet and awesome and made our trip way better by being there.

Anyway, the day before, he had asked Dale and I if we knew that one of the couples in our group was planning to renew their vows at the beach resort. We knew nothing about it and suspected that this was something the couple wanted to keep quiet. Tap felt otherwise and thought we should attend. We politely tried to tell him we didn’t think they wanted us there. So we were lazing around the pool that afternoon and enjoying every second of our free time when Tap came running up to us, all out of breath. “There you are!” he said.  “Hurry! The ceremony is about to begin!” So Dale and I reluctantly followed him to the beach (in our swimsuits/coverup) where the couple stood, about to renew their vows with a minister (where they found a Caucasian English-speaking female minister I’ll never know). They didn’t look pleased to see us, so Dale and I quickly presented them with a flower lei that Tap provided (again, no idea where that came from), gave them a hug, took a photo, and ran away. That was awkward.

Me and the nice lady whom I later found out I had greatly overpaid for souvenirs. She kept saying she needed to pay for her kids to go to school so I think they're set now.



The rest of the evening was so nice. We walked along the ocean and then watched from our balcony as hundreds of little lanterns floated along the lake. It was amazing. I wished we could have stayed another day or two. 

Early the next morning I got a text from my co-worker back home saying that one of our travelers needed to call home because his son had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. That’s a whole other story that I can tell you in person sometime, but it was sad and traumatic and we sent the man home a couple of days later.

That day was not my favourite. After breakfast we took a 3-hour bus ride to Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. We spent the whole long hot day touring tombs and monasteries and the Forbidden City and a few other places. Several people were feeling sick with stomach issues and there was a LOT of walking and did I mention it was insanely hot? I have never sweat so much in my life. Then we went for a boat ride and finally we had dinner. 

On the drive to Hue
One of the few pictures of me; taken at a stop on the way to Hue.


This one's for my mom with all the zinnias

Forbidden City in Hue

View from a monastery

Hotel in Hue



We saw really amazing places, but it was a bit of a blur and we were exhausted when we got to the hotel. After checking in on some of the sick people, Dale and I went for a massage at a nearby shop. Dale went for four massages in Vietnam. You can ask him about that. We finally fell into bed around midnight and checked out by 8:30 a.m., heading to the airport to fly to Hanoi. The hotel was beautiful so it really was too bad we couldn’t enjoy it more.

But such is the life of a busy traveler. On one of the first days I mentioned to someone, “Wow, this is a busy vacation!”

“Vacation?” they said. “This isn’t a vacation. It’s a learning adventure.”

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mid-November


 
I interrupt the trip report to bring you an installment of my "Trees at a River Heights intersection" series. There's not a leaf to be seen but there's green grass and no snow which is a gift this time of year. It's been a rare, balmy November so far and I'm enjoying it every day while I possibly can. Dale enjoyed putting up the Christmas lights without freezing his fingers for a change. Chloe and I threw stuffed animals at him from her second floor window, which he didn't enjoy as much.
 
 
Due to our trip, I missed Halloween this year. I love the community aspect of Halloween so I was sorry to miss it. For the first time ever, Chloe and Spencer didn't go trick-or-treating. Neve went with a friend in a different neighbourhood and she didn't get as much candy as usual, so there was a sweets shortage around here. Gone are the days when I can dig into the kids' bags and eat 10 mini chocolate bars while they're at school and no one would notice. I guess that's not a bad thing.


These are the pumpkins the kids carved with my sister. Neve's is the hashtag one and I'll let you guess the others.

Speaking of the kids, they seemed to manage quite well on their own while we were away. Dale's mom and my sister and some friends and neighbours all checked in with them regularly, but for the most part they lived in blissful Pippi Longstocking-like freedom from adult supervision. I don't even want to know everything that went on, but no one went hungry or naked (I hope) and Chloe managed to get everyone where they needed to be. There were a few issues - we came home to a broken phone, a broken fridge door handle, and reports of boys in the house. Oh, and one night when Chloe was tucking Neve in, she noticed the garage light was on and two people were in our garage. Chloe went downstairs and turned on the backyard light and they ran off. It didn't occur to anyone to mention this incident to us until several days after we were home, so obviously no one was too traumatized. Chloe said it was partly her fault because she had forgotten to close the garage door. Neve also said there were several mornings when they realized no one had locked the doors the night before. I'd like to give a big shout-out to the guardian angels watching over them.

Even though the older two wouldn't admit it, I think they were kind of happy and relieved to have us home. By the end of the trip, Dale and I were ready to come home as well. Seventeen days is a long time.
 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Ho Chi Minh City


After our 24-hour layover in Shanghai, we hopped on a short flight to Ho Chi Minh City, which as I previously mentioned used to be called Saigon. It was re-named in 1976 in honour of their beloved revolutionary leader but somehow that name change didn’t reach the western world because most people still know it as Saigon. I guess their branding company didn’t do a great job. Or more likely, they don’t really care what the rest of the world calls them. We spent three days there.

I loved Ho Chi Minh City. It was busy and crazy but it seemed less crowded and chaotic than Hanoi. Since we arrived late at night, the tour only started around noon the next day. Dale and I went for a walk and soaked in all the sights and smells and sounds. There are very few cars, trucks or buses – the streets are dominated by motor bikes everywhere we went in Vietnam. I could have watched them for hours. Often there would be families of four on a bike. The things they could transport were pretty amazing. You might not think of bringing home a fridge on a motor bike, but apparently it can be done. There aren’t lanes or any rhyme or reason or method to the madness but it somehow all works out. They just slowly merge along and beep their little horns as a warning when they’re getting close to another bike. There are very few traffic lights and crossing the street as a pedestrian is tricky. We were told not to wait for a break in traffic because there never is one. You just have to step into traffic and keep up a slow, steady pace and you won’t get hit. Don’t stop in the middle of the road because that messes everything up. Just look straight ahead and carry on. It took some nerve and some passionate prayers but it worked.


Helmets are mandatory in most of Vietnam but there aren’t strict standards so many of the helmets are basically hats that wouldn’t save your head in an accident. I rarely saw children wearing them. Apparently there aren’t many accidents in the city, but it’s worse in the country where the speed limit is higher. I only saw one close call; someone wiped out right in front of our tour bus, but we were able to stop in time. Well actually I saw lots of close calls - like bikes squeezing between the bus and the curb around corners – but they weren’t close calls to anyone except tourists.


Our guide in HCM City was exceptional. He was so passionate about his country. You could tell it wasn’t just a job for him; he sincerely wanted to educate tourists about Vietnam and its history. It was interesting hearing another side of the story, especially about the Vietnam War. They call it the American War, which makes sense when you think about it.

We toured the Reunification Palace, which was the home and workplace of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Here’s a pared down history lesson: the Vietnam war started as a civil war between North Vietnam (led by Ho Chi Minh) and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was fighting to establish a communist regime, so the US stepped in and tried – unsuccessfully - to help South Vietnam beat them. In April 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the north gate of the Reunification Palace, and the fall of South Vietnam ended the Vietnam War. Vietnam is still a communist country but it’s quite open with lots of free enterprise. We noticed many communist signs with flags and “revolutionary” messages/propaganda, especially in Hanoi. Our guides downplayed the control of the communist government (“we can still vote,” they said) but there were a few instances where I could sense their desire for change.

We also went to a factory/shop where victims of Agent Orange are employed. Agent Orange was a chemical that the US army used to defoliate the jungles and forests so that the Vietnamese soldiers wouldn’t have cover or food. The effects of Agent Orange were bad; causing everything from diabetes to birth defects to death. There is now a second generation of Agent Orange victims since the first generation passed it on to the next. People with disabilities are looked down upon in Vietnam, often even by their own families. So this workshop employed people to do laquer work and other crafts. This was definitely near and dear to our sensitive guide’s heart and he was so happy when we bought things there. At the end of our time in HCM City, we collected a tip for him and he was near tears when we gave it to him. He said, “I don’t know how much is in the envelope but I promise you that first thing tomorrow morning, I am going (to the Agent Orange victims’ workshop) to buy 100 kg of rice for them.” (I don’t know how much 100 kg of rice costs but I sure hope it was enough!)

My second favourite day of the trip was spent in the Mekong Delta, an hour or two from HCM City. We went on a boat ride down the river, past little businesses and houses and fishing boats. It was a beautiful day and they served us tropical fruit and coconut drinks as the river got narrower and the jungle got more dense. We stopped and got out in the middle of the jungle to hear music performed by some locals, and made another stop at a tiny coconut candy factory. Then it started pouring. They gave us rain ponchos but we got soaked anyway. This is the only time it rained on our entire trip but no one minded because it felt kind of right. We walked down little paths in the jungle to a spot in the middle of nowhere where we had lunch. When we were done eating, the rain had stopped and we walked back to the river where we boarded small boats called sampans. It was so cool. I can’t even describe the experience; everyone kept saying, “I can’t believe this is happening!” It felt like we were in a different dimension. While we were drifting down the Mekong River, I got a few texts from Chloe. That was bizarre – we’re in the middle of this primitive, foreign world unlike anywhere we’d ever been before and Chloe’s halfway around the globe in totally opposite surroundings and yet we’re communicating. It’s a crazy world.
House in the jungle

Old man in the jungle

Boats in the jungle

Rain in the jungle

Kids in the jungle

Lunch in the jungle

After that adventure, we drove back to the city and went to a Cirque-du-Soleil-like performance at the Opera House. It was so good. Then we went for dinner and got back to our hotel late. That’s an example of how full our days were. We usually got going at 8 a.m. (after eating breakfast at the hotel and checking out unless it was one of the rare days we stayed at the same hotel a second night). The pace of the entire tour was … how can I put this positively … hmm I can’t really … frantic. Insane. Exhausting. We had almost no down time. I can think of only two occasions when we had more than a two-hour block of unscheduled time. But as several of the people in our group put it: we didn’t fly halfway around the world to sit in our hotel and do nothing. And do nothing we didn’t (best sentence ever). We made full use of every minute. We were normally out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. or later. Then we’d all fall into our beds exhausted from the heat and the pace and the early mornings.

This entry is getting way too long but I’ll end with our last day in HCM City. We went out to the country again, into the dense forests where the Viet Cong dug their tunnels that they hid in during the war. We saw different weapons and booby traps they used to defeat the enemy: no guns, only primitive yet brilliant (if you can call it that) torture devices made with wood and metal and bamboo sticks.
Entrance to a tunnel

Those of us who wanted to could go down into the tunnels. There was a short stretch of tunnel that had been enlarged for us chubby tourists, so a bunch of us went down with our guide as the leader and me at the back. We still had to crouch down and shortly after we started, the man in front of me decided he couldn’t do it. So I had to back up to the entrance to let him get by me, then I went back in. By this time, I couldn’t see the group anymore so I started to get a little panicky. I was hurrying as much as I could – all hunched over – and then I came to a fork in the tunnels. They had told us the tunnels went on for miles but they got smaller and tighter. My heart started pounding and I was starting to get claustrophobic. I thought I heard voices coming from the right, so I took that route and was SO relieved to see my group ahead. However, one of the guys in our group was having a panic attack. He was crawling on all fours and was breathing fast and loud and freaking out. Let me tell you, I was never happier to see the light at the end of the tunnel than I was at that moment. It took a while for my heart rate to go back to normal, but it took even longer for the guy with the panic attack.
I don't know how the Vietnamese stayed underground for weeks at a time. They had schools and hospitals and kitchens down there. In some places the tunnels were so narrow that they had to pull themselves along on their stomach, and even then they could still feel the top of the tunnel on their back.

Rice fields in the country. They bury their family members on their land, so those are graves you see.

Next time: Central Vietnam

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Shanghaid in Shanghai


Yesterday morning I woke up at 7:30 a.m. to sunlight streaming through the window. For the first time in a week, I slept through the entire night. I felt as alive and refreshed as I did when my babies slept through the night for the first time.  After days of waking up too early, dragging myself around all day in a fuzzy fog, sneaking in tiny naps and forcing myself to stay awake until a respectable hour, I was so happy that all that was behind me and I was back on track.

This morning I woke up at 4:15. I tried to go back to sleep, but it didn’t work. So by 9:00 this morning, I felt like I had accomplished a whole day’s worth. The trick is not to let myself nap, although I did have a little nap the day before I slept til 7:30. Dale is on almost the exact same schedule I am; it’s the weirdest thing.

On the way to Vietnam, due to flight connections, we spent a night and day in Shanghai. This was a bonus for Dale and I, and it gave us a little taste of what to expect when we go back in April. The evening we arrived, we went on a 45-minute river cruise to see the skyline at night. Apparently most – if not all – of these skyscrapers and modern buildings were built in the last 25 years. Across the river is the Bund, a European-influenced street, and it was interesting to see the contrast.

Then we checked into our hotel, which is one of the fanciest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. It took us a while to figure out that we needed to put the key card into the slot right inside the door to turn on the electricity. Without the key card in the slot, the lights would go one for a minute and then turn off automatically. We spent a lot of time stumbling around in the dark before we figured it out.



The view from our room




The next day we went to a museum, a shopping district, an old traditional street, and walked along the Bund before having dinner and heading to the airport. We had a great guide who had lots of interesting things to say about everything from the one-child policy to how difficult it is to get a vehicle permit. The guides were probably the best part of the entire trip. Even though I’m sure there are restrictions on what they can say, it still gives you a lot of insight into the country. Despite being a communist country, on the surface it felt very free and open. As a tourist, you had to look closely to see signs that it wasn’t quite as free as it appeared. The most obvious one was that they block some news websites and social media including Facebook and Instagram.




 

Next up: Vietnam. I promise I won’t do a detailed description of every day, but Shanghai was a stand-alone kind of place. And yeah, I sang the Nazareth song in the post title approximately every five minutes.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Home




You know how there are usually not enough hours in the day? This week it’s the opposite. Since getting home from our trip, my sleep schedule is a mess and I’ve been up around 4:30 the past few mornings. I work for a couple of hours, clean up or fold laundry, do my workout and shower all before the kids get up. Dale was faring a bit better, but today he was awake for the day at 2:30 a.m. We are draggy in the evening and fall asleep instantly, but those early mornings are a bugger. I’m hoping we’ll be back on track in the next couple of days.

But --- you know what’s coming -- it’s Worth It. The trip was fantastic. Vietnam was amazing; I’d go back any day. The people were lovely, the scenery was beautiful, the history was fascinating (though often tragic), and the food was delicious. There were 46 people in our group; it’s the first time I’ve ever done a tour like that. There are definitely pros and cons to travelling with a large group, but the pros outweighed the cons. We had local guides in each area we went to and they were excellent. They were unbelievably knowledgeable about everything. They could answer every question we asked them. Their passion for their country came through clearly and you could tell they genuinely wanted to educate us and love their country. Since Vietnam is a communist country, we wondered if they were told what they could or couldn’t say, but they freely answered even the most sensitive of questions. Whether the answers were truthful or not, I guess we wouldn’t know.

The first thing that struck me when we arrived in Vietnam was how foreign everything was. I’m not very well-travelled but I’ve been to Japan, Hong Kong and Costa Rica, and those places are very modern compared to Vietnam and Cambodia. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (used to be called Saigon) late in the evening but even then I could see it was like nowhere else I’d ever been. It was such a great feeling to step out of the hotel the next morning and feel like you were in a whole new world. Thousands of motor bikes and scooters on the streets beeping their horns, crazy heat and humidity, skinny buildings, street vendors, people with face coverings (protection from vehicle exhaust and to keep their skin lighter), strange smells, tiny shop after shop along the street. It was overwhelming and amazing and I loved it.

I’ll post more in the next few days, but I'll need a couple more early mornings to go through all my photos.