Cruising The Seychelles

We arrived on Praslin Island after a speedy inter island ferry trip from Victoria. The crossing was smooth and offered beautiful views of the smaller islands surrounding Mahe.

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Dream Yacht Charters is conveniently located at the base of the pier our ferry docked in Baie St. Anne. Since we were in the midst of a Seychelles winter, the islands were relatively quiet and our boat ‘Fronsac’ was ready nice and early. Fronsac was a well maintained Jennaeu 42 so the three of us had plenty of room to move around. After three separate briefings (technical, safety, float plan) we were ready to head out.  We had been warned that Saturday night the jetty was the place to party for all the young folk on the island, and we felt we’d get a better sleep if we headed out of the harbour and anchored near La Passe on the Island of La Digue. Unfortunately, Saturday night was also the night for the disco club on La Digue and we had a fitful slumber between the bouts of pumping base and the swells of the oceans. Let’s just say the boat was a rocking, but for none of the enjoyable reasons.

 

Cruising in the Seychelles was a delight.  For the past year and a half I’ve listened to Marv and Kim talk about their warm and windy tour, so I was keen to partake in the cruising experience.   It turned out the Seychelles offered the penultimate warm and windy cruising.  We were surrounded by breathtaking beaches, clear turquoise waters, strong winds, and warm weather…for the first half of the charter.

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An afternoon snorkel by the boat.

What I most enjoyed were the strong and consistent trade winds as they made for good sailing and we could reach our destinations with relative ease.  However, those strong winds also limited the anchorages we could use, which meant we doubled up on a couple of the moorings.

Taking advantage of the southeasterlies, we headed back towards Praslin.  As we approached,  Kim was on the lookout for the best beach. When she asked Marv to detour into a shallow bay called Anse Volbert that had a stunning 2km white sand beach, we knew she had chosen well. Once our anchor was firmly ensconced in the sand, we headed out in the dinghy in search of diversion and wifi.  We spent the afternoon lounging on the boat, walking the beach, frolicking around the natural rock formations, snorkelling, and enjoying our beautiful surroundings.  Having given up on restaurants, we made an epic roast chicken dinner and watched another beautiful sunset.

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Marv and Kim on Anse Volbert

The Seychelles recognize that eco-tourism is a big draw for foreigners and as such, they have roughly 40% of the land under protection. After a filling breakfast of bacon with a side of bacon (thanks chef Marv!), we cruised over to Iles Curieuse to see the Giant Tortoises. Fortunately there were moorings available at Baie Jose so we had peace of mind as we headed into the dense bush in search of tortoises. Unfortunately Dad blew out a flip flop at kilometre 1 and had to turn back for the boat, but Kim and I carried on. I had a mild panic attack when I went to step on a boulder and it moved! I hadn’t been expecting the tortoises higher on the trail and shrieked like a banshee. They have about 100 tortoises on the island.  We saw the baby enclosure, along with some juveniles (1-2 years old), and the grounds were filled with adults of varying ages. On average they live to be about 100 and weigh 100-200 kilos. I think of them as gentle giants.  The ones on Iles Curieuse are accustomed to tourists and human interaction so they have no qualms about you touching them. Some even love having their necks scratched! A few thought I have treats for them because I was carrying around a ziplock bag (for our cell phones) so I had quite a following at one point.

That evening we anchored in a beautiful sand bay called Petit Cour. There was exceptional snorkeling right off the boat and the natural beauty of the Seychelles below water was just as picturesque as above.  

A restored colonial resort called La Reserve was in the same bay as us and it was supposed to have an excellent restaurant.  Fancy dress was required so we donned our less smelly best!  Unfortunately the excellent restaurant turned out to be a buffet that didn’t start until 8pm. We wanted to be back on the boat by that time so instead we opted for their happy hour special in the bar by the swimming pool. Unfortunately the food situation on the islands continued to be underwhelming. Fortunately, the stellar sunset that evening made us forget about our frozen pizza meal.  

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Half way through the week our potable water reserves began to run low, so we sailed back over to La Digue to stock up.  As we sailed, we saw dolphins and sea turtles along the way. For lunch we headed into La Passe to check out Fish Trap, a recent addition to the culinary scene on the island. Fortunately, it turned out to be a beautiful restaurant right on the beach. It was hands down the BEST meal we had in the Seychelles. I indulged in the Creole seafood curry with local spices. Oh My Goodness. Heaven. The restaurant even offered free wifi (I guess that comes with finer dining 🙂  

After lunch we wandered the largely pedestrian town, picked up a few more groceries, and headed back to the boat.

On our afternoon sail we sailed by Iles St Pierre and I tried to snap a photo, but the beautiful granite rock features were not done justice on my camera. Eventually we reached our destination after a two hour sail and found a comfortable anchorage in Baie Lazio. It turned out to be a popular spot as 9 other boats anchored near us.  It promised to be a clear night, and with the light breeze I opted to sleep above deck.  I dragged my mattress up onto the deck and made a berth of my own. It was marvelous.

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As I said, my picture did not turn out so I borrowed this one 🙂

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Crafty Kim capturing a sunset

I spent the next few days continuing my exploration of the plethora of flora and fauna on these islands.  Marv and Kim graciously took me over to Cousin Island, so I could visit the bird sanctuary.  The crossing was pretty rough due to the giant swells and steady breeze. The guides picked me up from our boat and the dinghy ride onto the beach was like a mini roller coaster as the boat scooted up on shore.

I held a giant millipede, watched as a few male lesser noddies tried to woo females by bringing them the perfect leaf to add to their nest, and enjoyed keeping my eyes peeled for the ground nesting white tailed tropical bird.  They  lay their eggs on the ground because their legs are positioned so far to the rear of the bird it cannot balance itself on a branch. I was particularly excited to see blue or red footed boobies, but it is the wrong season for their migration.  I also had a chance to get in some SCUBA diving.  Imagine my delight when I saw reef sharks, sea anemone and clown fish, cuttlefish, eel, rays, an octopus, sea turtles, and a whole host of other marine life.

Mixed in with my explorations was more sailing with Marv and Kim.  As the weather cooled a bit during the second half of our charter, the wind picked up.  We sailed back over towards La Digue and cruised around Petit Soeur and Grand Soeur Islands.  We had hoped to be able to go ashore, but the waves and winds were too much for a dinghy to handle and there was no protected place to anchor the boat.  Many of the islands near Mahe are privately owned, which further reduced the number of destinations we could sail to and go ashore.  This was our second last day on Fronsac and unfortunately we ended up with a rip in our mainsail.  We sailed back to Praslin Island under the power of only a jib and still reached a boat speed of 7 knots.

 

The Seychelles were an undeniable treat to visit, and I’m thankful Marv and Kim let me crash their party.  Exploring these islands from both land and sea provided a more in depth experience than I would ever have had on my own.   I’d like to toast the couple for hosting me 😀

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Day Tripping Around Mahe

The Seychelles have been on my bucket list since studying bio-conservation in university, so imagine my delight when Marv and Kim had incorporated a visit to this archipelago on their Warm and Windy Tour. The vibrancy of colours in this tropical paradise with its white sand beaches, lush verdant forests, turquoise waters, and stunning sunsets surpassed my expectations.

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Typical coastline…winter in The Seychelles is a hardship.

 

The Seychelles are comprised of 115 islands about 1500km off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. The influence of French, British, East Indian, and African cultures are evident in the capital of Victoria on Mahe Island.  Colonial architecture mixes with Hindu Temples and aluminum covered clock towers. Given its relative isolation from other countries, The Seychelles are an island destination that possesses its own unique flavour, setting it apart from other tropical destinations I’ve visited. Marv and Kim picked me up at the airport after visiting the bustling morning market.  I was glad to finally be under sun and blue skies having just arrived from Dusseldorf where the last weather update I saw stated “it looks like there’s a 100% chance it will rain all day.”

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What’s a traveller to do with a 12 hour layover? Why explore Dusseldorf in the rain of course!

After a quick lunch in town, we headed to Beau Vallon Beach and our resort for the next two nights.  After 36 hours in transit I was looking forward to a calm evening. The Berjaya Hotel Resort and Casino was a little rundown, but the beach and pool side setting were exactly what I was in need of.  We had a couple of drinks in late afternoon before heading down the beach in search of dinner. We ended up at Boababs Pizzeria and it was a great find, providing excellent wood fired pizza, served to tables right on the beach. We watched the sun go down with an uninterrupted view and chuckled at the adult take on sand sculptures.

The next day we loaded up our small rental car and set out to explore Mahe, the biggest island in The Seychelles.  As a self-described fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants traveller, I hadn’t done any research, so I was grateful for a detailed map that highlighted the region.  Having just spent a week in Europe touring galleries and museums I was eager to spend time appreciating the natural beauty of the area.  We headed out to Morne Seychelloise National Park along a road that twisted in on itself so much so that  Dad could barely take his eyes off the road. The roads have no room for error, shoulders don’t exist, and there is usually an immediate drop of 1-50m off the road.

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View from Mission Lodge

Mission Lodge Lookout offers exceptional views down the west coast of the island.  It is also the site of Venn’s Town, colonial ruins which comprise a school built by the Church Missionary society (a philanthropic group in 1876-1889) to accommodate children of liberated slaves.  After a quick wander around the site, we piled back in the car and continued along the road.  Originally I had wanted to hike up Mont Blanc which is the second highest peak on the island.  However, finding a place to park the car was a bit of a challenge and we ended up wandering the plantation grounds of SeyTe Tea Factory instead.  As we walked up a trail, we came across some workers who had run into car troubles.  Their truck had fallen off the narrow path and they were attempting to lift it back into place.  Dad and I never being ones to shy away from a challenge offered to help the stranded workers.  With some effort, the four of us were able to lift the truck back in place.  So while we didn’t hike up a mountain, we did lift a truck…..  

The trail led us to a stunning lookout and this biology teacher was rather excited when we came across some Pitcher Plants. This was my first time seeing a carnivorous plant in person and I went overboard taking pictures!  Eventually we made our way back to the SeyTe factory and got  an in depth tour of the local tea manufacturing facilities.  At one time, it was a much larger operation and they exported their teas to mainland Africa.  However, due to the rising costs shipping, it is a product produced solely for sale in the Seychelles.  

 

Leaving the hills, we headed for the coast and ended up near Port Glaud.  We were reminded of the importance of negotiating services upfront after an encounter with Marvin (a local vendor/guide/historian/coconut salesman), but enjoyed visiting a nearby waterfall, tasting cinnamon bark right off the tree, and learning about his life on the island.

As we drove, we could see evidence of plantations that continue to grow vanilla and cinnamon, 2 major exports during the 20th century.  Today tourism seems to be the dominant industry as it accounts for one quarter of the country’s GDP.  The fisheries, specifically tuna and prawns, are also big contributors.  The ferry we took to Praslin Island was actually located beside a massive tuna processing plant.  Considering the abundance of fish around the island, it was shockingly hard to find fresh fish and produce.  90% of the food is imported and the restaurants leave something to be desired.  We had lunch at Surfer’s Beach Restaurant which offered sublime views of the ocean, but mediocre food.

We continued our loop around the island and stopped in at the Michael Adams Gallery where the one painting I inquired about turned out to be 8,000 euro….a bit beyond my art budget.  Eventually we headed back to the resort for a cocktail or two on the beach.

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Deciding to play dinner safe after our disappointing lunch, we returned once again to Baobabs for pizza.  The walk home was eventful as we came across a night market of sorts.  Cars had music blaring from their trunks, folks were pumping iron, barrel BBQs were grilling up meats, and folks were enjoying their saturday night.  After sampling some local cocktails from a tent stand we continued down the boardwalk and stopped in at The Savoy (an off brand savoy that is).  Kim ordered a martini and based on the amount of time it took to make the martini, she figured it may not turn out to be an actual martini.  Sure enough, when it arrived, it tasted as though there was some halzenut liqueur added to the mix. However, the basket seats, croning musician, and good conversation resulted in a pleasant evening.  

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The next morning we packed up early and headed to Praslin Island to pick up our yacht.

On Safari: Kruger Park & Karongue Reserve, South Africa

Soon after our flight took off from Cape Town airport, we were rising above the series of ‘Cape Fold” mountain ranges and finally above the ‘Great Escarpment’ to settle into a 2+ hour flight over the interior plain on our way to Johannesburg. The flight made for a great reminder of the scale of South Africa as a country as the plains stretched to the horizon in all directions. On our arrival, our new NatGeo guide, Guillaume, headed our congenial group of 14 ( 8 US, 5 Canadian & 1 UK ) onto a mini bus and off to a local hotel. It must be quite hot in South Africa for most of the year because heat sources seem to be scarce in all our accommodations and it was cold in July. None the less, a good BBQ dinner and an agenda review seemed to get everyone warmed up before an early lights out in preparation for an early morning start the next day.

And the morning did come quickly with a grab and go breakfast as we set off on a 9 hour driving tour from Johannesburg to our first ‘camp site’ in Kruger. The early part of the drive, in darkness, was across the continuing great plains past looming coal fired power plants , farms and ranch land. Shortly after lunch however, the terrain changed dramatically as we began to  descend the eastern side of the ‘Great Escarpment” …the scenery was on a dramatic scale equal to the Grand Canyon. We visited several viewing stops including Blyde River Canyon, Bourke’s Luck Potholes & God’s Window…all spectacular.

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Blyde River Canyon

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…now, THAT is a Pothole!

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God’s Window

All that and we still arrived at our camp by mid afternoon and were all settled in our ‘tents’ in time to watch a family of elephants having sunset dinner just in front or our veranda. I guess that counted as our first sighting of one of the “Big Five” game animals. Being an event worthy of celebrating we headed off to the main lounge where there was a human watering hole right beside the equivalent feature for Hippos.

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Sunset at the watering hole at camp Nkambeni.

Not to be left out of the party, soon enough a couple of Cape Buffalo wandered into the scene making for sighting of our second of the Big Five. We began to think that the whole safari thing might be over by dinner!

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Cape Buffalo…viewed by some as the most dangerous of the ‘Big Five”

At 04:something the next morning, our local guide was knocking at our door to get us up and going for a day long jeep safari in Kruger Park. I now recalled that I was never such a big fan of hunting when I was a kid growing up on the farm…it was always cold, dark and everything seemed like an extra chore. However, this experience came with a solid breakfast, lots of coffee and a jeep with blankets plus you only have to carry an iPhone to shoot with…there have been a lot of improvements since I was young!

The first hour in the jeep was near total darkness ( being the height of winter after all ) but soon enough the sky started to lighten and a plethora of animals became visible. Most common was the Eland antelope, beautiful but timid & for good reason as it does not rank high on the food chain. The early morning light made for beautiful scenery all around.

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A dazzle of Zebra at dawn.

Soon there were elephants, zebras, kudu antelopes, wilder beasts, giraffes, crocodiles many different birds and eventually a pride of 3 lionesses snoozing on a large rock by the Sabie River. Number 3 of the Big Five! However, they were not soundly asleep. One of the lions raised her head at one point and took a look around…she had heard something. Our guide directed our attention a bit further down the river shore where a full sized hippo was wandering along … leaving out the details, lets just say the 3 lions were set with a big lunch in less than a blink of an eye!

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After that, it was our turn to head off for a break by the river side and get warmed up with some coffee.

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River Side Coffee

We continued touring all afternoon with many great sightings of animals in their natural habitat. The highlight of the afternoon was a close range sighting of a white rhino with a young baby rhino. Yes, #4 of the big five. As large as the mother rhino was, what really stood out was the size of her horn…I would make it close to 3 feet long. While a thing of beauty it is at the same time the threat to the existence of the species as it is the prime target for poaching. The size of the park combined with the limited resources of the government means that responding to the poaching threat is hit and miss at the best of times. The Black Rhino is now effectively extinct and the population of the White Rhino is in decline. All that driving and we only covered a small corner of Kruger Park…the park is about 360 Km on its north / south axis and about 60 Km east / west…a lot of territory to say the least. The timing of our visit coincided with the South African school holiday, so as we were bouncing around in an open jeep type vehicle, it was not uncommon to see a local family out for a drive in the family SUV. Not unlike May 24 weekend in Canada’s parks I guess, except no one is allowed out of their vehicle in the park as it tends to create anomalies in that well established food chain.

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Road side attractions in Kruger Park

One of our last stops was atop a large rock outcrop overlooking a large section of the park. The place is quite dry in the winter ( supposedly the best time of year to actually see the animals ) and you can understand why the park has to be so big to support the animal population. We watched the shadows lengthen as the sun set and then headed back to camp for a shower and dinner with lots of stories to share amongst our group.

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A rock in the park !

The next morning made for another early start but this time we were on foot as we headed off on a bush walk from our camp. I think the best part of this walk was our lead guide, a seventy something Afrikaner by the name of Geert. He allowed that he had been guiding for over 40 years but he had some rules that each of us had to follow…he mentioned this as he was inserting .458 caliber shells into his Winchester rifle so he had our full attention. Of primary importance was that we all stay close together in single file since ‘the big cats’ view any stragglers in a herd as the weak and hence the best prey. Hmmm…I am right behind you Geert!

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What ever you say Geert!

Our morning bush walk was over all too quickly as we had to pack up and head for our next destination, The Karongue Private Game Reserve some 3 hours drive to the north. We arrived in time for a light lunch followed by a lecture from a representative of an NGO focused on the preservation of cheetah populations in southern African countries. While the cheetah is renowned for its speed ( world’s fastest mammal ), its population is under pressure from a loss a habitat and it is also prey to poachers not to mention traditional threats like lions. The big picture trends don’t bode well for the future with demographers predicting the population of Africa will grow to 2.5B people by 2050 ( from 1.2B now ). Additionally, the trends for the growth of tourism in South Africa are even more dramatic. In the face of these challenges, private game reserves such as the one we visited, can play a useful role in keeping the genetic diversity healthy for many species especially ones like the cheetah which require large land areas to survive.

After our lecture, Kim and I headed out for a little walking tour of our new camp ground and found that we were not the only guests at the ‘inn’.

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Fellow guests at Karongue Reserve

Next was an evening jeep safari so off we went again. Soon there were lions, elephants some very big and very very close…I recall a brief debate with myself as to should I actually reach out and touch this beast beside our jeep…a glance at the bull’s 6 foot tusks caused me to dismiss that idea quickly. Soon enough there was a frenzy of dialogue on the VHF radio and several jeeps converged on a dry river bed where a female cheetah as basking in the sun having just finished her dinner ( remember those ubiquitous elands?).

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Spot the Cheetah!

As I mentioned, Private Game Reserves are distinct from government parks since they effectively manage the animals on their property for the benefit of their guests ( and for the economics of their business ). So things are not totally ‘natural’ since if you are going to have elephants on your reserve, you will probably pick the ones that are most appealing visually. Likewise, you will develop relationships with NGOs, etc to try to encourage rare animals ( cheetahs, leopards , etc ) to hang out on your reserve. As I said, the net effect is good for the tourism industry and good for maintaining genetic diversity.

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Full moon rising.

But wait! The evening safari is not over. By now it is dark. And there are lions.

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Will he sleep tonight?

And green things!

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Guillaume and a chameleon.

If you have survived reading this far, you may have noticed that we have made it up to the four count of sightings of the big five. One of my first questions to our NatGeo guide is why are the ‘big five’ called that since a giraffe or a hippo is bigger than a buffalo or a lion. Well, the “Big Five” term comes from hunting legend where these five animals were the five most dangerous animals to hunt…they don’t like being stalked and their response is to attack. So if you were going hunting for Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino or Leopard in 19th or 20th century, you better be a good shot because you usually only had one crack at the target before you became the target. But, that digression aside…our last sighting of the evening safari was a leopard finishing off her dinner.

 

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Leopard = #5

Needless to say, there was lots of excitement around the bonfire BBQ dinner ( a ‘braai’ in Afrikaner ) back at the reserve. OK, maybe some wine as well.

04:30 , dark and cold…really cold. A slug of coffee and into the jeep we go once more. Soon we are seeing some of our friends from the night before.

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The Leopard , once again.

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…and the lions.

But , all of a sudden, it seems that our jeep is not working so well. In fact, not at all. After many cautions that everyone MUST stay in the jeep for safety reasons, it now seems that we are required to give a big push to get things going again.IMG_4760.jpg

Let’s get moving!

We returned to the lodge for a late brunch and some time to relax before heading off on another evening drive. While the animals are the main attraction of course, it should also be said that the scenery was pretty cool as well.IMG_4762.jpg

Picture perfect…except the clouds delivered a thunder storm later on.

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Highlight of the second evening safari.

We had a great Rhino sighting on our last evening safari. You might notice that the horns don’t look as impressive as in mentioned earlier. This is again because we are in a private game reserve where the owners cut off the horns to discourage poaching. There are also signs posted around the reserve perimeter fences suggesting severe action will be taken against any poachers entering the private property of the reserve.

Back at the lodge for another fun dinner with perhaps even more wine that the previous evening…there were some empty seats in the jeep the next morning is all I am say’n.

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Sunrise

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Final scenes before departure.

After one last (cold ) morning safari, it was back on the bus for a 7 hour drive back to Johannesburg, Our hotel was a run by an Afrikaner family with an amazing home cooked dinner but again a bit light on heat for both water and air in our room. Order more wine. The next morning Kim and I headed off to the Radisson Hotel in Sandton ( a suburb of Johannesburg ) to await our flight to the Seychelles where Liz was to join us for a sailing adventure.

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Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton

Western Cape Province, South Africa

Vague recollections from grade school studies in history and geography had left a lingering romantic images of sailors, settlers and spectacular natural scenery of the Cape of Good Hope & Cape Town in my mind. OK,  the wine bottle label from the “Two Oceans” winery with a really cool photo of Cape Point may have served as a more recent reminder of the uniqueness of this part of the world. Anyway, prior to flying to Cape Town from Singapore, I took some time to refresh ( and correct ) my memory so we would have a good orientation on our arrival so here is a quick summary.

Geology wise, being at the edge of the massive African continental tectonic plate, it is fair to assume there has been a lot of ups and downs here. The results are very interesting to geologists and equally exciting visually for us tourists. There are a series of mountain ranges ( Cape Fold Ranges ) to the north of Cape Town leading to the great central plateau of the country. However the land in a 50km radius around the city of Cape Town is very flat and agricultural except for a spine of rock which begins with Table Mountain and runs south to Cape Point to create the Cape of Good Hope. For us Canadians, think of the Rocky’s in Banff with a couple of oceans thrown in to enhance the scenery. However, beauty aside, it should be noted that this is NOT the most southern point of Africa as one has to travel 200 km or so to the east to Cape L’Agulhas to reach that most southern latitude.

On the historical side, the Portuguese explorers were the first to adventure around the cape as they searched for opportunities to make financial and territorial gains. The first western explorer to see the cape was Bartolomeu Dias in 1488 as he tried to find a sea route to the riches of the east. He did make it far enough to believe that the coast of Africa eventually turned northward again ( & hence the possibility to reach Asia )  however as the storms were so severe that he returned to Portugal wanting to call the place the “Cape of Storms” .  The King of Portugal thought such a name might deter future sailors from returning so he overruled Dias and renamed it the “Cape of Good Hope” . The strategy may have worked as Vasco da Gama rounded the African tip in 1497 and continued on to India. The next milestone for the Cape was when the Dutch East India company established a settlement of 300 people at what is now Cape Town in 1652 to act a food and water replenishment stop for ships traveling to and from the far east. The settlement grew slowly over time with the addition of immigrants from Holland ( the Boers ) and slaves from Asia and Africa. Unfortunately for the Dutch, they sided with Napoleon and after Waterloo, British sovereignty was established over the Cape which remained until the independence of “The Union of South Africa” in 1910.

All that to say that Cape Town has a long , complicated and important history to go along with its natural beauty.

As we flew into Cape Town I was glad to have read up on the area as it was a clear day and the coastal mountain ranges, the city and the cape itself were all on perfect display. We made our way to our hotel in Camps Bay and we had our first view of Table Mountain towering above the city of Cape Town.

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The scenery continued when we arrived at our hotel…we were close to the beach with a stretch of the cape mountain peaks called the Twelve Apostles behind us.

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Twelve Apostles and one lost soul.

The next day, we were ready to explore the area using one of our favorite methods, the Hop On / Hope Off bus tour…and this was one of the best we have experienced. We drove all around the city, Table Mountain, visited a couple of vineyards, did a walking tour of downtown and took the cable car to the top of the Table Mountain.

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Lion Head (?)

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National Legislative Assembly Building

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“New World” wine since 1685!!

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Spectacular scenery at every turn.

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Going UP.

We had several days in Cape Town prior to the beginning of our National Geographic tour of South Africa so we had arranged a mini-tour to the East of the Cape Town area with a local guiding company. We basically drove east for 300 km along the coast to a nature preserve called De Hoop which was originally a large ranch on the coast prior to becoming a reserve. Our driver / guide picked us up early on another clear ( and cold ) morning to head off on a day long driving adventure.

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Coastal drive scenery…and whale spotting.

One spot that Kim was really looking forward to was the African Penguin colony at Stony Point near the picturesque fishing village of Betty’s Bay. These birds are about 1/4 the size of the Emperor Penguin but no less entertaining to watch as they waddle about on land but turn into dramatic swimmers once they enter the ocean.

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Mates for life!

We stopped in another sea side town, Hermanus, for lunch and some provisions before continuing on.

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Provisions.

We arrived at De Hoop just prior to sunset and got settled in our cottage. Good thing there were electric blankets as heating is not a big agenda item in South Africa.

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Kim’s Cottage.

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Complete with a sunset.

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…and a fabulous dinner in the Fig Tree Restaurant.

The next day we explored the De Hoop Reserve. We began with a birding expedition conducted from a barge on an estuary…made for an interesting but cool adventure.

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Going Birding!

The afternoon was spent on a guided marine tour along the coastal area of the reserve.

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Looking for sea life.

As the reserve is just that, there are many native animals on the reserve …and a lot of them are close to your cottage day and night. None are harmful with the largest being a Kudu antelope along with zebras, ostriches, and many other members of the antelope and bird families.

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Neighbours.

Day 3 of our mini-tour took a different route back to Cape Town with notable stops at the previously mentioned Cape L’Agullas…the real most southern point of Africa and notionally accepted as the dividing point between the Indian and Atlantic oceans ( & conveniently at 20E longitude ).

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At the tip.

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…and to the top of the light house.

Conveniently, there are several new wine regions which have developed in the valleys that run back from the coast line. We stopped at one such valley , The Heaven On Earth wine district for lunch. The name is apropos as the valley is bounded by ocean views on the south end with a fjord like valley opening wide to the bright blue sky. The food and wine is divine also 😀.

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Heaven on Earth.

The next day was the July 2 and our first day of our NatGeo tour which comprised a couple of days in Cape Town before heading off to Johannesburg and safaris in the north east provinces of South Africa. We had some extra time to get to know the other 10 members of our group as our bus driver got lost and couldn’t find our hotel…not a good start. None the less , we were soon heading off to see some new areas around the city. First stop was in an area of the city called Bo-Kaap which is where many slaves from Malaysia & Indonesia were settled under Apartheid laws. We enjoyed some local breakfast sweets as we strolled the colorful streets.

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Bo-Kaap with Signal Hill as a backdrop.

Next stop was the Kirstenbosch Gardens. The beautiful spot is located on the ‘other side’ of Table Mountain from Cape Town and was originally established by Cecil Rhodes. It is a show case as to why the tiny area around Cape Town diverse enough to be one of the six floral zones of the the world…the others being entire continents in size.

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A morning walk in the garden.

We continued our ( by now scary due to the suspect driver ) drive down the west coast of the Cape Peninsula arriving at Cape Point in time for a climb up to the light house before having lunch.

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Sea food for lunch?

After lunch we made the official visit to Cape Point , the most South WESTERLY part of Africa!

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Get the point?

The afternoon was filled with a drive up the east side of the Cape Peninsula with stops at another penguin colony and the naval base of Simon’s Town ( famous for it’s only RN enlisted dog: ensign Just Nuisance who was helpful getting sailors to the city drinking establishments ).

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Just hanging on the beach.

July 3rd was a ‘free day’ on our tour schedule and our last day in Cape Town. It was a no brainer for us that we would spend the day on a wine tour of the Stellenbosch / Franschhoek area. Once again our driver was some what late and a bit hung over but it was a good tour once we got going. As I mentioned before, the area around Cape Town is quite flat as you drive north or east from the city. As you approach Stellenbosch some 50 km east , you find stunning scenery as the plains give way to the first of the coastal mountain ranges. We had our own list of wineries that we wanted to visit and each was unique and enjoyable…a perfect day to end our visit to “The Cape”

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Beautiful and enjoyable…Stellenbosch area.

Singapore Swing – 30 Hours

Our round the world airline ticket had us launching to South Africa from Singapore so we decided to lay over a day and spend some time in a city we had often visited before and really liked. We had also booked a lunch with a former colleague and now a fine friend of Marvs.

Also, we had always wanted to try the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, mainly because of the spectacular rooftop infinity pool and the city views from the top.

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The Marina Bay Sands Hotel as seen from the Gardens by the Bay which were under construction when we had last visited in 2011.

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The infinity pool on the 57th floor. The views of the city are quite something from up here.

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Opposite the pool are hot tubs that looked in the other direction to the port and Singapore Strait.

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The lasting dividends of a long working career are the friendships that remain. Thank you NK !

The Marina Bay Sands complex includes a huge, upscale mall with a river and skating rink, not to mention many restaurants. We met NK for lunch and heard all about the growth in Singapore since we had last visited.

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Though our time in Singapore was short, we had a great time in this architecturally beautiful city. Our stay at the Marina Bay Sands was a perfect ‘once in a lifetime’ experience but, as you would know by now, we would opt for a less touristy and quieter place next time…perhaps the Long Bar at Raffles for a real Singapore Sling!

SoCal

Imagine having a holiday from your holiday! Two months at our home in Corona Del Mar became part of our Warm and Windy tour as we decided to await the ‘best time’ to safari in South Africa and sail in the Seychelles by spending the time revisiting what we most love about our California home.

And so in homage to this part of the world, I give you the Ten Best Things about Newport Beach.

Number 10: The Sunsets From Our Deck

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We weren’t disappointed by the beauty of the sunsets, even though ‘May grey’ and ‘June gloom’ gave us a few foggy evenings.

Number 9: The Flowers!

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We arrived in town the same time as Spring decided to be in full bloom. The air was thick with the scent of jasmine and everywhere you looked was a riot of color. Newport Beach floral displays are at their most glorious in May.

Number 8: Proximity to Wonderful Things

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Where will we go today? LA County Museum of Art? The Ritz at Dana Point? The new Pacific City in Huntington Beach? Check, check and check! There are so many places to visit within a short drive from Newport Beach!

Number 7: Visiting Favorite Haunts

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What is it about home that when you have been gone a long time you can’t wait to see your favorite places again? Luckily for us our favorite places are mostly within walking distance from home. From top to bottom, left to right… Newport Beach, The Fun Zone at Balboa Peninsula, Wooden Boat Show at Balboa Yacht Club, Little Corona Beach and two shots of The Galley Cafe just because it is awesome!

Number 6: The Boating Culture

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We love boats and that is a good thing because there are a lot of fun things going on in Newport Beach and surrounding areas that include boats. One of the more memorable events this time around was the Bloody Barge (top photo) – a delivery boat bringing Bloody Mary’s to your boat early morning at BYC Opening Weekend in White’s Cove, Catalina Island- more about that later!

Number 5: Catalina Island

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An old song goes, ‘Twenty-six miles across the sea, Catalina Island is waiting for me.’ And luckily for Marv and I, our friends DeeDee and Steve invited us along on their boat, Proud Bird, for Balboa Yacht Club’s Opening Day at White’s Cove. We are so lucky to have this beautiful, natural, mostly park land island on our doorstep. A hike to JC Peak, a sand dab fishing excursion, dinner in Avalon and entertainment and dinner at White’s rounded out the perfect weekend!

Number 4: Crystal Cove

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This wonderful beach is a State Park and an historical place where cottages from the 1920’s and 30’s are being restored. The Beachcomber Cafe is one of the few restaurants on the sand- all our guests will eventually find themselves at Crystal Cove!

Number 3: Great Hiking

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Living in this part of the country is good for your health! The weather is so amenable and there are so many beautiful places to walk. There simply are no excuses for being sedentary.

Number 2: Friends and Family Come to Visit

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It could be lonely missing your friends and family but lucky for us we are blessed with visitors. John celebrated his birthday with us and we had an early birthday celebration with Liz. We had an awesome few days with Chris and Jane- thanks for making the journey.

The Number 1 Best Thing…
Reconnecting With Our California Friends!

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There are many more than I had pictures but our California friends always make us feel welcome- we miss you all when we are away!

 

One Night In Bangkok

If you remember the ’80s, you may recall an ABBA song ‘Chess-One Night in Bangkok’ which delineates many things that can happen in a short period of time in this spectacular city. I guess there has even been a recent re-statement of this theme via the movie “Hangover II”. It is all true and more making this city one of Kim & my favorites which we have visited many times over the years.

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In fact, our first vacation together was to Bangkok ‘way back’ in 2006. See if you can spot the difference in these 2 photos taken at the same spot !?!

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We literally had just one day in Bangkok on our way back to California from Myanmar so we wanted to relive some great memories and mix in some new things in a day. The city is called by some “The Venice of the East” which means a lot happens on the rivers and canals so we chose a hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya River which conveniently has an evening dinner cruise that we have always enjoyed…the magic of the lighted stupas, royal palaces, the bridges and even churches are augmented by fan tail boat taxis darting through the darkness of the river. The food is good too😀.IMG_2455.jpg

Shangri-La Hotel overlooking the Chao Phraya River

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King Rama V Bridge…turning point on the dinner cruise.

The next morning was a leisurely start but we did make our way back to the river before lunch time to hire a water taxi to take us on a canal tour. Here you really see the ‘Venice’ theme being picked up as the daily lives of people roll out before you on what is essentially a neighborhood tour with the good, the bad and the ugly. In the latter category, most striking were the 5 foot ( +/- ) lizards hanging out under peoples homes followed by a solid number two , floating trash. There were lots of Buddhas along the way to emphasize the good! IMG_2577.jpg

You may not want to know what is under there!

By the time we finished the canal tour, visited a street market or two and rested Kim’s weary injured ankle, it was time to have dinner and head off to the airport…but with a beautiful refresh of another “One Night in Bangkok”

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Waiting for the plane.

Me & Marv in Myanmar

The second tour package of our Warm and Windy Adventures found us in Myanmar, first in the city of Mandalay. I was considering titling this blog entry, ‘Stupa-fied in Myanmar’ – the idea occurred to me as we were viewing one of the largest stupas in the country in the city of Yangon. However later that night my karma changed and I twisted my ankle. I guess my flippant title was not appropriate for a blog that needs to seriously reflect the role of Buddhism in this very devout country.

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It’s complicated… Myanmar has a long history with many invasions.

BUDDHISM IN MYANMAR

We peppered all of our guides with many questions trying to get a handle on Buddhism and how it impacts the lives of the Myanmar people. Over 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. It seems so much a part of their daily lives and many incomes are tied to their beliefs. We visited a ‘factory’ dedicated to making the gold leaf that covers many stupas and Buddha images. We saw artisans applying the gold leaf- it is also for sale in many pagodas for people to buy and apply to the Buddha image while making a wish. We saw carving workshops and bronze casting plants making the statues and decoration for the temples. It is not unusual for a temple to have hundreds of Buddha images of all sizes.

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Making a living from Buddhism.

Buddha images are not all the same and in fact there were four Buddhas over time and place. Though Buddha is definitely a man, we were puzzled to see some modern images sporting what looks like nail polish and eyeshadow. Our guide said it was ‘just decoration’. Some of the Buddhas of modern time even have neon lighted and flashing halos! Can we draw a parallel to the commercialization of Christmas?

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Most of the pagodas and temples are administered by boards and are funded by donations. There are many donation boxes about and people can donate to a specific part of maintaining the temple.

Some of the temples have monks in residence but most of the ones we visited did not. No one really knows how many monks there are in Myanmar, but experts say about 500,000,  including novices and nuns.

The monks and nuns seem to provide some good services to the country including education- both religious and some secular, orphanages and old age homes. One interesting feature of their lives is that they are totally dependent on charitable donations of food. We visited a monastery and witnessed donors arrive with food to feed 400 monks. We also witnessed novice nuns- children- asking for donations in the street market in Yangon.

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Over 500,000  monks and nuns are leading the monastic life.

MARKET

Like Vietnam and Thailand, people in Myanmar produce fresh food and the market is a part of daily life. Farmers rise early to bring produce to market and the variety of goods on offer is broad. Street Food is in abundance too and we had a good taste of local fare on our last day in Mandalay.

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The bustle of the local market

SIGHTS TO SEE

Our tour guide promised us the largest book in the world and I think she delivered! In the Kuthodaw Pagoda are 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist scriptures. Each one is housed in its own White House.

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729 marble slabs! Shoes are removed at all religious places.

The view  of the Ayarwaddy River from Sagaing Hill, considered to be the living centre of Buddhism in Myanmar.

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In ancient Mingun we witnessed this huge, unfinished stupa commissioned in 1790 and weighing 90 tons. It was not finished due to earthquakes. ( and maybe a faulty structural plan…)IMG_2244.JPG

What did get finished in Mingun is this temple called the Emerald Temple, built by a king whose wife died in childbirth. He buried her emerald necklace somewhere within. Stupas are built to contain a relic- usually of Buddha or a famous monk. The relic here is a necklace.

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Many newly engaged couples arrange for photos in this picturesque place.

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GETTING AROUND

The experience from Mandalay to Yangon is very different. Mandalay is an emerging city and many tasks are still done as they would have been a century ago. Transportation and farming rely on animal power and person power. Unlike Vietnam, the scooter is just beginning to arrive and most people are too poor to have one.

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Our modes of transportation ( when not in the car)

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Yangon is a busy, car filled city. The colonial times saw to some wide boulevards but they don’t seem to help the traffic jams much. Scooters are not allowed on inner city streets.

Yangon is undergoing a big growth boom with lots of foreign investment pouring in building large complexes and literally changing the skyline.

On our second last day I had a bit of a trip and ended up getting my ankle x-rayed at a very good private clinic. Luckily it was just soft tissue damage and not a break. Our tour guide said since we had already seen the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2500 year old wonder of the religious world and the reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Kyi we had seen the best parts and wouldn’t really miss much on the agenda!

We filled in our time doing things we could do sitting down- dinner at famous Le Planteur Restaurant and lunch at The Strand Hotel!

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Le Planteur Restaurant in Yangon

Our next stop was to be Bhutan. Unfortunately, my foot required a couple of weeks rest at the least and the Bhutan trip involved some walking and hiking. We sadly had to cancel Bhutan but are excited to be heading bak to California for a couple of months before we set off to Africa.

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Yangon Airport

Chiang Mai – A holiday from our holiday

Thailand has long been one of our favourite destination countries…in fact, Bangkok & area was the location of the first vacation that Kim and took together “way back” in 2006. We had returned several times to other areas in the country and always had a great time. One region that we had not visited was the northern part of the country so when we were developing our “Warm & Windy”’ tour plan, very early on we put Chiang Mai on the itinerary. Also, the timing was such that we could arrive in Chiang Mai in time for the Thai New Year celebrations ( Songkran Festival ).

As we approached the time for our Thailand visit, we had been on the road continuously for more than 3 months never staying in one place very long. Increasingly our focus for Chiang Mai became the desire to just stay in one place, go to a lot of spas, hang out at the pool, get some exercise, eat some great Thai food and maybe take in some of the Songkran events. We arrived at our hotel ( appropriately called the Rarinjinda Wellness Spa Resort ) to find an inviting pool, a great in house spa, several restaurants across the street on the banks of the Ping River and within easy walking distance to the old town ( Songkran centre )…all the attributes necessary to achieve our very modest agenda. Setting low expectations is a great method to get that rush from over achievement!

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On Holiday!

Chiang Mai means ‘New City” which it was in 1296 when a local King of the Lan Na people got together with a couple of his ‘bro’ kings from the area and the 3 of them decided this was the spot for the new capital city of the Lan Na people. The new town was fortified with a square red brick wall about 1.5 km long on each side all ringed with a moat. A few remnants of the wall remain visible today and the moat is very much in place essentially defining the ‘old town’ of what is now a modern city of 1.5 million people. The moat these days, as you will see later on, has a much more recreational than military application.

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Three Kings and a Pilgrim.

Taking our holiday plan seriously, we arose after a great sleep on our first night, headed to the gym for a while then off to a self guided walking tour of the old town. Our 2 hour trip to the spa was scheduled for 4 so we would have time to get to a riverside restaurant for dinner as the sun set over the mountains behind the city…as I said, minimal goals are a wonderful thing. They are also very repeatable ( & in Thailand very, very affordable ) so we did exactly that several times! We did break rank one day to go to a modern shopping mall for a minor refresh of our wardrobes and to search out other maintenance items like hair cuts and pedicures!

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At The Mall

However, it was becoming apparent that something big was brewing. As we were walking around, each day saw more and more temporary shops / stalls / road side tables being set up largely to purvey buckets, plastic hats, plastic pouches for cell phones, pool goggles and mammoth squirt guns!!  Plus, the shops were full of very brightly colored, very new, shirts and other new items of clothing. It turns out that Chiang Mai is THE go to spot to celebrate the Thai New Year, both for foreigners and locals alike. And, like many religiously inspired events ( Christmas ), it has become complicated as the celebrations morphed into the modern era. The Thai people, as a country, are more than 90% Buddhist in their faith. While Songkran is a celebration of the lunar new year, it is historically a solemn time for marking respect and praying to the Lord Buddha. It is a multi day affair. The first day marks the end of the last year, homes are thoroughly cleaned and food supplies laid in. In the community temples (Wats), a Buddha image is placed on a float or litter to be paraded through the town. During the parade, the Buddha image is splashed with water, to symbolically clean it. This water thus becomes holy and monks then ‘re-splash’ the water on the people washing away bad luck and sins of the year just passing. The next day traditionally was to prepare food offerings for the temples / Wats and also uniquely in Chiang Mai, to bring sand from the river to the temple ( restoring all the sand that was taken away on your shoes from visiting the temple during the previous year ) and taking ’supporting sticks’ to the temple to hold up the Bodhi tree ( under which Buddha found enlightenment ). The next day, the food offerings were taken to the temple and new clothes were worn. The last day was for paying respect to elders. As I said it is complicated.

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Reason for the Season?

Ok, Forget all that. Here is what happens over 4 days:

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Everyone gets wet.

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Songkron Pacifist – my weapon

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Songkron: Dr Strangelove Version

As we were unfamiliar with the events planned for Songkran, we thought we should go to the Tourist Bureau to get a schedule of events and some explanations. We received said advice but it turned out be some what notional. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. The first event was supposed to be a parade of “young ladies in traditional Thai dress riding bicycles while holding a parasol” …who wouldn’t want to see this even if the agenda said it started at 7AM! We arose early to see this wonder of wonders but all we found were a few emergency vehicles and some sleepy shop keepers. We went back to the hotel to have coffee and breakfast. The main parade of the Buddha images was to start at 1:30 so we walked back to the old town where at least there were lots of people now…and a lot of water. We were thoroughly soaked by 2PM and no parade in sight. So we had lunch. By 3PM things were happening as the parade, at least 5 miles long, reached the spot where we were…and it was as spectacular as it was crazy. Every community Wat from the city and miles around had their Buddha, community band, Ms & Mr Songkron finalist, dancing troupe in costume, etc. I was sort of worried that the presence of so many foreigners along the route engaged in fun water wars would detract from the traditions but once you see a young Thai child with a water blaster, not quite sure what is going on but fully aware that fun is in the air, you get the full feeling of Songkran! As I mentioned above, there are traditional events scheduled every day (e.g.: a Supporting Stick parade on day 2 ), the reality is there are 4 solid days of continuous dousing of everyone in sight. Enter “The Moat”. Just in case one might be concerned about water ( ammunition ) shortages, the ancient moat around the old city is drained a week or so ahead of Songkran and filled with fresh(?) water and aerated. This ensures an unending supply of water and just to add further effect, some festival participants add ice to their buckets / barrels to keep their victims shockingly chilly in the 40C temperatures. When I say barrels, literally every half ton truck in town is full of water and people throwing it as they drive by. Other families just set up a family fort on the side walk to dispense their wet well wishes. I think beer was a close second in terms of liquids being applied to the celebrations, but none the less, the environment remained very jovial and fun through out all 4 soggy days. It was great.

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Predator

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Predator

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Predator

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Prey

After all that , we went back for another spa treatment. Having regained our sensibilities, we thought we should jazz up our agenda by taking a day trip to the ‘Golden Triangle” where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand all share a border. While it was quite a long drive, we saw a few more temples, some great scenery and even took a boat ride on the Mekong River. It was our first a rainy day in Thailand so a good time to be in a van. Best of all, the adventure placed us clear as over achievers on our of Chiang Mai agenda.

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White Temple

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Me, Mekong, & Buddha

Now, having spotted Myanmar from the Mekong river, we were ready to head off to that country with Mandalay as our first stop.

Vignettes of Vietnam

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Our ‘Warm and Windy’ tour began on May 8, 2016 so as we reached Vietnam we had been living out of a suitcase for almost 11 months. In all that time we had never taken an organized tour, but had preferred to plan ourselves. We decided to take a break from being the organizers and let a tour company do the work. Our 12 day tour took us from Hanoi in the north, Hue and Hoi An in the central region and Ho Chi Minh City in the south with side trips to the Mai Chou Valley, Halong Bay, and the Mekong Delta.

We were left with a myriad of impressions of this cultural and agricultural land so this entry will highlight a series of vignettes that are distinctly Vietnam.

LANDSCAPE

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Two words- beautiful and diverse. The shape of the hills is unusual and lends a somewhat mystical sense to the landscape- no more evident than in Halong Bay!

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The cities are an interesting blend of old and new and Hanoi has two lakes that make for good photo opportunities. We had dinner overlooking ‘Turtle Lake’ on our last night in Hanoi. The skyline in Ho Chi Minh City is decidedly modern- trying to be like Singapore we were told.

An of course there is China Beach- an almost 30 kilometre stretch of white sand that the locals and tourists flock to during the dry season.

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SCOOTERS 🏍

Our Hotel in Hanoi was in the old town at an intersection of three roads without traffic signs of any sort. We spent many hours on the outdoor patio mesmerized by the street action-‘organized chaos’ our guide told us when we asked how it could possibly work. The scooter has taken over- our guide’s family of 4 had 5 scooters…just in case. They have recently instituted a helmet law but any family of four on one scooter might have one or two helmets- ‘it takes time’ our guide said. The scooter is much more versatile than one can imagine, often taking the load we North Americans might think is suitable for a four by four pick up truck. Scooters are certainly a symbol of the rising standard of living and personal freedom in Vietnam.

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COLOURS

Our excursions outside the big cities to Mai Chau in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south gave us up close encounters with miles of verdant green rice paddies. In the north they were about a month away from harvest and in the south some had started to turn gold signalling a more imminent harvest. From flowers in our room everyday, the fresh food markets, the beautiful weaving of the people of Thai ancestry in Mai Chau, the colourful displays of incense, the artistic food creations and the silk sarongs of the women Vietnam is a sight for the eyes.

The colours of Hoi An, a beautiful tourist destination outside of Danang were especially memorable. At night the town is alight with thousands of colourful lanterns that glitter in the reflection from the river.

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FOOD

We loved our culinary experiences in Vietnam but an all time favourite has to have been the street food tour in the markets of Hanoi old town. We were certain to have never tried any of this food had we been on our own. Our guide led us through the maze of venders and picked out a variety of simply delicious foods- spring rolls cooked before us, local beer and a salty cracker dipped in hot sauce, a sandwich made with pork satay barbecued right there, the best soup in Hanoi found down a dark and narrow alley, and the best of all- a rice donut that we had to wait a long time to be deep fried but that was so worth the wait. The food in Vietnam is loaded with vegetables and super fresh- the Vietnamese go to market twice a day!

We had two cooking lessons and learned to make both fresh and fried spring rolls. If there would only be one reason to go back to Vietnam, it would certainly be the food.

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PEOPLE

Everyone we met was friendly, polite and respectful. We were left with an impression that people were family oriented- we even had a discussion of how the Vietnamese can’t understand the North American tradition of family generations not living together and looking after the parents and grandparents. Many Vietnamese made their living from keeping traditional crafts alive. We learned to make a paper lotus blossom from a lady who just wanted to pass along the skill to others as she was afraid it would be forgotten.

Our guides were great and were representative of the younger generation who had only learned about the American War from school and family.

One interesting encounter was a visit to the ‘Garden House’ in Hue. This house had been destroyed in the war and had been lovingly rebuilt by Mr.Vinh, an architect, as homage to his grandfather the original builder. He carved the wood beams and inlaid the decor with mother of pearl like the original- a true labour of love. Paying respects to ones ancestors is a large part of being Vietnamese.

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OLD & NEW

We enjoyed our tour of Vietnam and were left with a sense that this is an emerging country proud to share with tourists its roots and heritage yet also proud of what is new and dare I say, western.

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