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Island Life: a Change of Pace

sunny 25 °C

Originally, our plans for this week of the trip involved 4 days on the Vietnamese island Cat Ba, followed by a train to northern Vietnam to hike in the mountains of Sapa (2 days) and a visit to the Bac Ha market (1 day). However, in Hue, Adam confessed that he is growing a bit weary of the constant relocating. I admit that changing hotels and scheduling your activities anew every 3 days takes a lot of coordination and effort. It is also a bit frustrating to never "unpack" and to spend so much time planning out currency, laundry, and other resources (like motorbike rental) over and over again. (Though it seems easy enough when you're building an itinerary in Excel back at home).

I conceded, and we modified our plans in order to stay on the island of Cat Ba for nearly a week (April 1 to April 7, to be precise). Cool and foggy Sapa, while it would be a welcome respite from tropical humidity and water activities, will simply have to wait for a future trip. I'm already dreaming of a joint Northern Thailand-Northern Vietnam adventure.

Departing Ninh Binh, we grabbed a very early bus, and made it to Haiphong (coastal launching-off town) with enough time to buy our boat transport tickets to Cat Ba. The Lonely Planet guide had suggested we take one of the Hydrofoils, but in the end there was a speedboat available and we took that option for the same rough cost and without having to wait two hours for the next Hydrofoil. (Though yes, it would have been cool to see/ride the Hydrofoil.)
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The speedboat took us through a sight even non-travellers will recognize from postcards, calendars, and screensavers: Ha Long Bay. It was indeed beautiful, even on a slightly overcast day like ours, with immense limestone karsts slicing out of the turquoise waters of the bay.
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Cát Bà Island (with correct inflection) is the largest of the 367 islands spanning 260 km² that comprise the Cat Ba Archipelago, which makes up the southeastern edge of Lan Ha Bay in Northern Vietnam. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It is therefore not actually part of Ha Long Bay, but an adjoining system. Though if I may say, to most travellers, the distinction is minor. Lan Ha feels more like a less well-known and slightly more rugged little sister of Ha Long.

We were eventually deposited at one end of Cat Ba island in the early afternoon and after some investigation, determined that we were quite a distance from where the hotels and the "town" are found. A few enterprising tuktuk drivers offered to take us there for an astonishing sum of money, which we declined. One of the drivers, who we had repeatedly refused, was upset that we wouldn't accept his price and proceeded to tell the other drivers not to accept a lower price either, in some kind of weird, unfriendly tuktuk-cartel move. Not to be outdone, we found a school group down the road who was organizing a van, and paid them to let us come aboard. We were perhaps a little too happy to have beaten the tuktuk conspiracy, as the slighted driver talked exasperatedly with the van driver for some time, before stalking away in a huff that required no translation.

After an hour of travel in the van with what I think were high-schoolers, we were dropped at our hotel, Little Cat Ba. First impressions were very positive! The hotel was a charming guesthouse with about eight rooms, carved into the hill with views of a (very low) river and craggy green clifftops in the distance.
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It was one of only two hotels in the area, so it was relatively quiet and private. We checked into our room, which had some nice decor touches reminiscent of a small boutique hotel.
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They sorely needed the help of a handyman though, because our doorknob was installed backward and the bathroom plumbing was leaking. There was also a small window in the front of the room, which curiously lacked any kind of cover or screen to keep out moths and mosquitoes. All in all, these issues are pretty minor when you've seen as much "local craftsmanship" as we have on this trip. We rectified the mosquito hole with supplies from our packs, and Adam took the time to reinstall the doorknob and do a few other small repairs around the room. Handy travel buddy!

We spent the balance of the day relaxing on the patio, reading, planning, and we put our names down for Hot Pot two nights later (to ensure availability, you must order Hot Pot at least a day in advance).

We rented a motorbike so we could get around easily and explore the island at our own pace. Having our own transport also made it more convenient to be staying at an off-the-beaten-path guesthouse and made our evenings much more peaceful.

We made a conscious effort to relax and not over-structure the week on Cat Ba. Here are some of the highlights!
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We took the bike up some very steep hills (at one point, I got off and walked, because the bike was struggling with the constant incline) to Cannon Fort. Built in 1942, it was first used by the Japanese during World War II, then later by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. It has a strategic position 177m above the sea and you can see right out across Lan Ha Bay.
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But it’s not just the commanding view that’s interesting at Cannon Fort Cat Ba. The site is quite expansive with lots of tunnels to explore and you can get a real sense of the history.
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Luckily for us, virtually no one was there. I think we saw two other tourists the entire afternoon. We met more goats than other people!
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We hiked to the peak in the National Park, on a muggy and overcast day, and were soaked with sweat and a sense of accomplishment when we reached the top.
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On the way out, these was a heart-wrenchingly sad display: what must be the dying days of some kind of zoological exhibit, with animals trapped inside dirty, dark chain link cages. Monkeys, buffalo, and tropical birds scurried around in tiny prisons with the beauty of the open jungle calling to them from all around. I think it was one of the saddest things I'd ever seen, and I wrote the Park a detailed review hoping to add to the negative press over the decision to keep the animals locked up and in such poor conditions. A depressing addition to the Park, and confusing.
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Adam has a knack for maps, and while perusing some aerial maps of the island, found a beach quite near to us. The only problem seemed to be that there were literally no roads to access the beach. How could this be? We set out (on what was possibly Day 2 or Day 3) to find out. After a few false starts, we kind of figured out what was going on. There is a ton of development happening on Cat Ba, and a new road was being constructed which would presumably give vehicle access to the mysterious beach. Only, at the time we visited, the "road" looked like this:
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Yes, there were signs saying not to trespass on the construction site. But we were tourists, and figured we could plead ignorance or "lost in translation" about the signage. I know this may not sit well with some readers, but we didn't disturb anything, and the reward was (sorry, not sorry) ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT.

The beach was small and sat between two green rocky outcrops.
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There were trees farther back for shade, and even some wooden loungers set up in front of a hotel that was in late stages of construction. There were no active workers, and best of all, there were no other people. It was, for our purposes at least, our private beach. Unbelievable.
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We spent at least a portion of all our remaining days at "our beach", arriving each time totally dumbfounded at our luck (or rather, Adam's skill).

Driving the whole of the island was a fun way to keep cool and try out the various restaurants and viewpoints that beautiful Cat Ba had to offer.
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We had some of our best food in Cat Ba, as well.
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While the food at our hotel was surprisingly bad, it helped to encourage us to try new places every night. The only real exception being the Hot Pot (for those who do not know, Hot Pot is a sort of Asian fondue where fresh food like seafood, meat and veggies are simmered in boiling soup broth).
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We had some adorable company for the meal: a couple local cats and a dog who knew well the formula: Hot Pot = scraps tossed by adoring Westerners. large_3a41bae0-3b2f-11eb-b758-1d75ed51809a.jpg

We really got a feel for the routines of the place, learning to avoid busy times on the road like when school got out, and when the other tourists tended to set out for lunch or dinners. We visited a place called Butterfly Garden, which had surprisingly few butterflies but did have one very big buffalo that I didn't notice until I was almost standing on him (it was hot, I was tired, and I have no good excuses to offer).
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We also hiked up the peaks behind our hotel, as someone had told us there was a kind of path to the top if you went slowly and paid attention. It was challenging:
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But the view at the top was extra rewarding, since it was kind of a make-your-own hike and there were no other tourists, signs, or entry fees involved.
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It was hard to say goodbye to Cat Ba island, after getting to know it so well. I hope that one day I can find the time to visit again and maybe relive some of those great memories (and see the completed road to the beach)!

Posted by Casualodyssey 02:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coast island tropical explore motorbike Comments (0)

I Yacht to Write More Often

sunny 35 °C

March 17-21, 2018
I've fallen too far behind in my travel writings to document each day we spent on our boat, the Toum Teav.
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Suffice it to say that each day was similar in structure but different in content.

Breakfast:
At 7am or 8 am, coffee, tea, juice, and water served with eggs to order, bacon available most days, pancakes, pastries, corn flakes (no one touched them), yogurt, and a selection of tropical fruit like dragonfruit, milk fruit, mango, grapefruit, lychee, pineapple, banana, soursop, and the list goes on.

A morning jaunt:
On most days there would be a stop in the early morning at a rural village to meet local artisans, visit a school or a pagoda, or just tour the town.

Afternoons:
Then back on the boat for lunch and the heat of the day until another stop at 2pm for another quick tour.

Evenings:
Sundown drinks and dinner on the boat and free time at night on the boat if cruising or ashore if docked (both options we typically filled with more drinks). It was a pretty charmed life!
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On our day trips, we:
- Toured a brick and clay pot factory
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- Toured a tilapia and catfish fish farm. We fed the fish and created a brief but intense feeding frenzy
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- Visited numerous pagodas and temples, and received a blessing from a senior monk
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- Toured a fruit orchard and sampled all the different types of tropical fruit
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- Saw how rice paper and rice wine are made (the wine has cobras and scorpions in the bottles), which we were told had certain aphrodisiac effects (!) 90_IMG_7783.jpg
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- Saw how certain locally-derived snack foods are made
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and visited a honey farm where we sampled honey and royal jelly (again, a "cure-all" product and many health claims were made... I wish I had taken a picture of the list of benefits. From memory, this stuff cures diabetes, ulcers, increases libido, increases beauty and eliminates wrinkles, cures Hepatitis A through C, and much, much, more).
- Visited a local school and bought pencils and notebooks for the kids (creating another brief but intense feeding frenzy!)
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- Took a ride on an oxen cart (Oregon Trail or bust)
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- Saw a floating market (sort of, there weren't many vendors left as a road bridge had recently been built)
- Took a tuktuk ride around Cambodian capital Phnom Penh 90_IMG_7592.jpg
and shopped at the night market, briefly turning down the wrong street (think red light district)
- Saw a traditional Apsara dance on the boat done by kids in a Phnom Penh cultural training program for disadvantaged youth. We also had a small dance party with the boat crew
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- Took a ride on a traditional Vietnamese sampan boat
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- Visited the largest local food market in Vietnam c8752aef-2..bae2fa81f9b.jpg
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- Saw rural and urban life for Cambodian and Vietnamese people from the land and from the water
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- Saw the most incredible trees, 90_36271D20AE9ABD760AE2848E3C31757B.jpg exotic flowers, IMG_7615.jpg plants, 90_IMG_7787.jpg landscapes and scenery, at times starkly contrasted with extreme poverty, horrendous working conditions, lack of hygiene, and widespread pollution. A valuable reminder of how lucky it is to be born in a country like Canada. We make a conscious effort to set a good example, be socially aware, give our tourist dollars to good causes, and be good stewards of our planet as we travel.

All day, every day, we saw boats. Fishing boats, dugout canoe-type boats with incredibly loud, longtail motors, tugboats, huge industrial boats with cranes dredging up the canal bottom, other boats to carry the muck away, rice ferrying boats with rice drying out on huge tarps in the sun, and very very occasionally, we saw another passenger vessel like ours.
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As we leave Cambodia behind, I reflect on the interesting fact that I was able to speak English in essentially all the places we visited. Even in the rural towns, children are learning English in their schools and greet you on passing motorbikes with a loud "HELLO!" and a wave. In the markets, even the rural food markets, the prices were given in US dollars and our change was as well, with only the last fraction of a dollar given in the Cambodian currency, the Real.

Our Cambodian guides had gone to university and earned a degree in tourism before getting jobs as tour guides and specializing in either French or English tourism (and increasingly, Cantonese). These types of jobs are some of the most desirable jobs for millennials in Cambodia's biggest cities.

It was really incredible to feel so welcome, so safe, and so wanted in Cambodia. To be able to participate in an exchange where our tourist dollars are helping - and we are getting so much in return.

We covered a fair bit of waterway over these five days and crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia from the comfort of our boat. An immigration official - who was indistinguishable (to us) from an ordinary fisherman - boarded and we were processed and on our way within about an hour. We learned afterward there was a small hiccup with one of the French passports having the wrong type of visa. I believe it was resolved quickly with a small change fee. We never even left the lounge deck.

Posted by Casualodyssey 04:14 Archived in Cambodia Tagged water local boat traditional ship cambodia river vietnam canal tropical tour mekong palm delta Comments (0)

Sizzling Siem Reap

sunny 36 °C

March 11, 2018
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We landed at the Siem Reap, Cambodia airport at 930 am and were greeted with hot tropical sun and palm trees. Getting our tourist visas and clearing customs took about two hours (!) despite relatively short lines.
Outside, we asked for a tuktuk to our hotel. Technically the airport pickup was included in our booking but since I hadn't heard from the hotel I wasn't counting on it.
Tuktuks in Cambodia are a bit different than the ones we took years ago in Thailand and Indonesia: not factory produced, 3 wheel taxis. Instead the Cambodian tuktuk looks like a wooden carriage style trailer attached to any 100-125cc motorcycle. At more than 125cc, a driver license is required - so you don't really see that. IMG_7652.jpg
Tuktuks are the ideal transport for us as tourists because you can look out the open sides and see the countryside go by while the moving air cools you down. Plus, they are cheaper than cars and other transport. Win win!
The driving in Siem Reap was a lot less wild than we remembered in other countries. It actually seemed like there might be a speed limit. We arrived at the hotel and checked in. It seemed pretty dead and it took us about an hour to figure out why... the pool was thick with dark green algae and was completely unrecognizable from the pictures online. 838cffea-a..bd798fbc549.jpg
The pool was the main reason we choose this hotel but we were too tired and hot to Transfer right away, so we committed to one night.
After a shower and a nap, we flagged down a tuktuk and went to the central tourist district to check out other hotels, grab a meal, and have some drinks on "Pub Street". 232D3514EC90FF9FA2C72ADBFAF37D46.jpg Our first drinks: Angkor beer (the local brand) along with a cheap crocodile stirfry over rice, which was delicious. 232E20C4A0B9F9E975FB5AC201152037.jpg
The bill? $6.25 for two mains and three beers. We could definitely have done worse.
We tried out the fish pedicure for $2 each which included a free beer too, that was really weird feeling at first but a neat experience. 231AE52ED248AAAF16415D94937FD3D3.jpg We found a great hotel with a beautiful pool and they told us to come back around 1pm tomorrow to check for a vacancy. 231BD6360061D9D1D1FEBF92235F2B6F.jpg A little more walking around and taking in the city before heading back to the hotel around 1am. 231CB5D0FB6112AF3070CE4F9044ED08.jpg

March 12, 2018
It's taking us a few days to work through the jet lag. The 35 degree afternoons don't help - napping is definitely attractive to beat the heat. The pool is lovely and the swim up bar is great too. IMG_7431.jpg
Street food is around $1.75 for beef noodles with fresh veggies and beers are sixty cents. Great ingredients for staying fuelled up while wandering around town. 2331C3AFC15E82F02B433EC007861A38.jpg

Posted by Casualodyssey 18:28 Archived in Cambodia Tagged travel cambodia angkor tropical hot asia southeast reap siem Comments (0)

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