Look What’s Happening to Halifax

Look What’s Happening to Halifax

There are times I wonder if there is anything these days escaping the pursuit of constant change. Don’t get me wrong in thinking I am against change because I definitely am not. Change is good, but I do feel that we need to pursue it with some caution.

Lately there has been much talk about all the changes taking place in my birth city…Halifax… the capital of Nova Scotia. Human nature dictates that changes will result in two opposing sides: those who look to the past wanting to keep things as they are and those looking to the future willing to support any kind of change. Halifax is presently facing this problem, but from what I can tell they might be following another human reaction to change…. that of moving from one extreme to the other. “Let’s join the race to become a world-class city at all costs” seems to be the mantra. This is good, but let’s slow down a bit and try to do it with taste.

Historically, the city has shown an inclination to get stuck in the past right up until the early 1970’s when the urge to move forward began with the beautification of its waterfront. When I was growing up in Halifax, Water Street, down by the harbour, was a place to avoid. I always hated that fishy smell. The street was a series of dilapidated grey warehouses, the naval dockyard, seedy taverns, with some notorious ‘red light’ houses thrown into the mix. Then in the 70’s it all went through a huge metamorphosis resulting in the Historic Properties. Our waterfront suddenly had changed into not only a major tourist attraction, but also became accessible to all Haligonians. It had managed to preserve some of the old fish houses and wharves to produce a nice mix of the old and the new.

Other changes took place at that time and well into the 80’s. Some were good others not so. Spring Garden Road became a major shopping area to the detriment of Barrington Street which always had been. The old Capitol Theatre, which my grandfather helped engineer, was demolished resulting in much hue and cry to be replaced by the Maritime Centre, a large modern complex at the bottom of Spring Garden Road. Many of us kids, and adults too, were upset at how the ‘powers that be’ could have torn down such a unique theatre as the Capitol which resembled the inside of a grand old castle.

Perhaps this flurry of changes was too much for conservative old Halifax because for the next few decades, primarily under the mayoralty of Peter Kelly, the city showed little forward movement. Under his leadership any wise planning and growth had come to a screeching halt. Barrington Street became more derelict as retailers moved out to swanky suburban malls, affordable housing became a scarcity as evidenced by the increasing numbers of homeless on the sidewalks of Spring Garden Rd., and few construction sites and cranes were to be seen anywhere.

However for the past several years, the construction tap has been turned on full blast under the leadership of Mike Savage, Halifax’s present mayor. This began with the regional council’s decision to go ahead with the construction of a new convention centre, after many years of wrangling on whether the city should or shouldn’t take the risk of pumping millions of dollars into a new one when they already had one… albeit a small one. Located in the heart of downtown, the Nova Centre has caused traffic chaos and scores of disgruntled restaurant and store owners. Whole streets have been closed for a year or more as the structure endures one delay after another. To satisfy my curiosity, I just had to go see for myself what all the fuss has been about and have to admit I was blown away by what I saw. It’s stunning and should put Halifax up there on the list of world-class cities. It’s definitely had a ripple effect as nearby buildings in the downtown core are either being spiffied up or torn down to be replaced by more modern buildings. I couldn’t help wondering if this really was the staid old city I was so eager to leave 40 years ago?

On a whim, I decided to wander further down to the south end of Barrington Street where my father lived for most of his adult life, and where I spent my first three. I wanted to see if #315, a stately old house where he had his apartment, was still standing. It was… but barely! A huge sign was posted next to the main door indicating that this house and the one next to it is slated for demolition. But hold on… this decree was issued in 2015 and the house is still there because there was another smaller sign stating that these premises have been declared ‘heritage’ houses. It’s not just for personal reasons I want to see these houses saved, but also because they represent an old style of architecture from Halifax’s past which is too rapidly disappearing. I hope the city councillors will consider this and support the Heritage Society rather than another greedy developer.

As I continued to search out other changes in the city, harkening back to my early years, I decided to pay a quick visit to where once my old high school was located. Queen Elizabeth High (QEH) was demolished ten years ago and been replaced with an unusual project called the Common Roots Urban Farm which supports community and marketing gardening for the purpose of promoting health and wellness in the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). This is the acronym used for the city of Halifax and the outer regions including Dartmouth…another change which has occurred since I left. Nevertheless, here is a wonderful example of how a prime piece of land in the midst of one of the busiest parts of the city can be used to introduce some rural living into that of the urban.

In case you are wondering what happened to QEH, well the good news is that a gleaming new high school uniting protestant and catholic students under the same roof now stands nearby. When I was a high school student, St. Patrick’s and Queen Elizabeth were rivals just a few blocks away from each other. St. Pat’s has also faced the wrecking ball, leaving a piece of prime land vacant until a decision is made on what its fate will be. Let’s hope it will be a wise choice that will bring more country into the city and be of benefit to all people.

These days my visits to Halifax invariably end up in a quick stop at the new Central Library. This building has garnered accolades and awards for its architecture from all parts of the world. It’s an environmentally sustainable building which can boast of a rooftop terrace growing native plants, and toilets that are flushed with rain water.  An abundance of windows strategically placed on all levels allows the sun to pour in to control the indoor temperature and help reduce electrical costs. All the materials used in its construction are natural. You can really notice the difference when you spend time in this building. For this reason alone, I could spend days there instead of just a hasty stop for a cup of delicious coffee and a home-baked pastry at the Pavia Cafe on the roof top overlooking the harbour.  This library is truly accessible to all citizens providing cultural activities and small rooms which are rented out for other varied purposes. The acoustics are fantastic because no matter how many people pass through its doors or what is taking place inside, the place still feels and sounds like a library…quiet and peaceful. Halifax can be proud of this building.

Yes, the attitude and the look of my home city has certainly changed for the better. Where once it was conservative and rather dowdy, it’s now bright with a positive vibe prevailing. It is fast becoming a ‘world-class’ city and a more desirable one to live in as far as I can see. My one hope is that it doesn’t become too obsessed with trying to outdo other cities. Having lived in Toronto for many years, I certainly don’t want it to make the same mistake that city did by erecting tall office towers and condos, as well as a hideous express way that not only obscures the view of the lake but also cuts it off from the rest of the city. This has left the best part of the city mainly for the enjoyment of the well-heeled and the tourists when a waterfront needs to be accessible to everyone. Halifax, if you truly want to be a world-class city then learn from the mistakes of others by being a leader for what can be better.

To make a slideshow of these pictures, left click on the first one and follow the arrows.

A Brief Trip to Rome

A Brief Trip to Rome

Rome is now toted as one of the world’s most exciting places to visit…according to Trip Advisor. Their recent reviewers have urged readers and prospective visitors to put it on their bucket list instead of by-passing it as many tend to do. It fact, it came in as the second best place to visit managing to beat out Paris! I suspect that one of the reasons for this is because it’s cheaper. For example, a cappuccino is usually 2 euros compared to five in Paris. Of course, Rome has many other lures,too… history, art and architecture, location, good public transit, Roman ruins everywhere, and the food!

This was a second visit for me having made my first in 1970. With that trip rapidly becoming a fading memory, I was eager to take a few days at the end of our stay in Gaeta and have Hubby act as my tour guide. He has returned to Rome at least eight times so I knew I would be in good hands.

Three days didn’t give us much time to see all I wanted to see. Not keen on standing in line ups to see the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica, I was content to settle for a quick visit to the square to take some pictures and feel sorry for all those who were enduring the line ups. I may live to regret it unless I can return again.

St. Peter’s Square

Because we happened to be there at Easter…one of their busiest times of the year… I agreed to attend a performance of the St. John Passion on the outskirts of the city in the Parco de Musica, a park with three modern theatres devoted exclusively to the arts. We attended this event on our first night, to be followed by an overly long, two hour Easter service next Sunday morning. This was enough for me, so from then on it was primarily my choice of what to do and see.

The performers for St. John Passion taking their bows.

Rome is a terrific city for walking. The centre of the city with its numerous piazzas, churches, and famous Roman ruins can easily be done on foot. Places to see are clearly signed and, wonder of wonders, I didn’t find the traffic too chaotic. If you tire of walking or want to go to the outer parts of the city, you can take an easy to manoeuver subway, or a tramcar that runs from one end of the city to the other, or tons of buses which all seem to end up at the Centro Termini where all the trains throughout the country meet up, too. Our hotel was near the station which was convenient for us to get anywhere in the city and out to the airport.

A good deal of our remaining time was spent simply walking and sight-seeing, and most importantly, lapping up the ambience of this eternal city. When our feet and legs began to protest, we had no trouble finding a cute cafe for a drink or for a sample of that delicious Roman food. A favourite ‘pick-me-up’ was an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon. Romans don’t drink cappuccinos after ‘noon’ so feeling obligated to ‘do what the Romans do’ we opted for the spritzers.

One of our first stops was the Spanish Steps…a wonderful Baroque masterpiece designed by that prolific sculptor, Bernini, and constructed in 1726. Next to it, was the one-time home of those two famous English poets…Keats and Shelley. At the top of the steps, I was rewarded with a great view of the city spread out before me. In case you didn’t know Rome is built around seven hills and the Tiber River with no high rises in the centre…. they are all out in the suburbs. There are over 3 million people in all of Rome with over two million in the burbs. The centre has only 80 thousand residents. The crowds of people you encounter are tourists.

View from the top of the Spanish Steps.

Rome has over 336 fountains which can be found in every piazza, large or small. The Fountain at Trevi is one of the most famous. Immortalized in song and movies, it’s here where visitors flock to throw in a coin or two to ensure that they will return again. I heard that they can haul in up to 2,000 Euro a day!

Another beautiful fountain crafted by… you guessed it…Bernini that great Italian sculptor appears in the Piazza Navona. There are two fountains here, but the more significant one is his Four Rivers masterpiece with an Egyptian obelisk in the centre. This plaza dates back to the 1st century A.D. when the early Romans congregated to watch their games. Later on in the Baroque period, they went to see theatrical events. Now it is used for a Christmas market and, of course, for tourists and residents alike to simply rest and have a drink at one of the numerous cafes. It has been featured in many movies: for example “Angels and Demons” written by Dan Brown and starring Tom Hanks.

The Piazza Navona

Bernini’s masterpiece.

Next to the piazzas in large numbers are the churches. There are many and they are all beautiful. Most of them are now a blur in my mind, but the one which stands out for me is the St. Louis de France boasting three Caravaggio paintings.

Inside St. Louis di France

Caravaggio painting.

The building which most impressed me was the Pantheon, founded in 27 B.C., destroyed in 80 A.D., and restored by the Emperor Adrian in 118. In the 7th century it was converted to a church. The ancient Romans used it as a meeting place. Over the centuries it became a burial spot for the remains of the Italian kings. Today it can proudly claim to be one of the finest preserved buildings in our modern world. Not only this, it’s one of the few famous pieces of ancient Roman architecture that you can visit for FREE…and there wasn’t a huge line up! Once inside you will be awed by its structure. The huge domed roof with a hole in the centre is made of unreinforced concrete to let the rain in. But where does the water go, and how does this help explain why it is so well-preserved today?  The answer is thanks to the foresight and clever thinking of the builders who put in a sloping floor with small holes for proper drainage so we can enjoy this wonderfully preserved building today.

You can’t visit Rome and not visit the Colosseum, if not to enter at least to go and gawk at it. It is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Construction began in 72 A.D. and was completed in 80 A.D. In its day it could hold up to 80,000 spectators who would come to witness drama, concerts, games of all kinds, animal hunts, and the ever popular gladitorial fights.  Again we opted to forego the line up and the crowds to simply admire its grandeur from the outside. Both of us had seen it on our previous visits when it was mostly under construction. Today it is all spruced up and looking awesome. One thing we noticed here, as is true for most of the important ruins and piazzas drawing huge crowds, was the soldiers and sometimes tanks standing guard just in case….

Nearby the Colosseum is the Forum with ruins of temples and monuments scattered here and there. Both of these famous spots are located in what we know today as Ancient Rome. Construction is ongoing and what has been accomplished so far is truly commendable….and it helps bring the tourists! Tons of money has been poured into these restoration projects over the years, not only by the Italian government, but by organizations around the world. The question is how much is enough?

At the Forum with Temple of Minerva.

This mosaic wall looks like a recent find and still is in great shape.

The Temple of Peace built in 70 A.D. after a succession of wars.

In between the piazzas, churches, and ruins, we found time to visit two villas both housing wonderful collections of art. Our first one was the Farnesina Villa. To reach it, we had to cross the Tiber River. The Tiber is a beautiful river which the Romans don’t give enough credit to. Like the Seine in Paris, it’s spanned by numerous small bridges… all walkable… with a bike/pedestrian path running along it. Strange that not many people use it. Could it be that the steep stairs leading down to the river are a hindrance? Our walk to the villa took us to small cobblestone streets and a world far removed from the frenetic pace of the centre. This area definitely had a village feel to it. The Villa de Fernesina and grounds were absolutely lovely. Antonio Chigi owned this villa and to satiate his passion for the arts became an avid collected of fine paintings by Raphael, Peruzzi, and Baldassairre.

Ralphael’s “The marriage of Psyche and Cupid”

Our second choice was another small gallery in the Villa Doria Pamphily facing the Piazza Navona…back to the centre again. This villa was once the home of Innocent 10 who was proclaimed, not only the pope, but the king of Italy in 1644 or thereabouts. He was one powerful man as was his family. In fact, the family to this day is still involved with running the gallery. Innocent’s cousin, Camillo, was the avid art collector so it’s thanks to him that we can view sculptures by Bernini, and, once again paintings by that very famous artist, Caravaggio, who broke all the rules of his day by insisting on using prostitutes for his models. He really pushed the envelope by using one to portray Mary Magdaline!

Here she is.

A room in the Pallazzio Doria Pamphily.

Rome is facing the same problems, if not more, as most large cities these days. Parking and transportation are and always have been a huge problem, as is housing. There is a whole city underneath the city above waiting to be unearthed. The question is does more money go into that, or should it go towards building a present day city that will provide for the needs of the people living there? Romans seem to be divided on this. The one thing we kept hearing was that they don’t much like change, yet they like to complain about all its ills. It remains to be seen just which direction they will head in. They hated their previous mayor so have elected a young woman. Could she be the answer to helping wake them up to what is facing them down the road? Rome has faced many hard times over the centuries yet it has managed to endure. Surely it will continue to  live up to its reputation as ‘the eternal city’.

In and Around Gaeta, Italy – Roman Ruins and Beautiful Beaches

Spending a month in the town of Gaeta in central Italy has catipulted me back to my high school studies in Latin. At that time, I questioned my choice to study a dead language but was encouraged by the fact that with it came the revelation of how our English language was built on it, and my discovery that Roman history was far from boring. These past few weeks have certainly sparked a renewed interest for me in all things Roman.

Overlooking the harbour in Gaeta.

In their hey day, the Romans spread their empire to many parts of Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa. Most historians today would agree that they were master builders as evidenced by their remains which people have been flocking to for centuries. The Coliseum in Rome, the Pantheon, and the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum are a few of the notables which have been well-preserved and draw hoards of tourists every year from around the globe.

You could say that the legacy of the Romans is broad enough to cover almost all facets of our life today. Its influence can be traced to the spread of Christianity, the basis of our law system, and our democratic form of government. Other things which come to mind are roads, aqueducts, baths, temples to various gods and goddesses, forums or sports stadiums, coliseums, amphitheatres, and beautiful homes with their *atriums and *peristiles. And, let’s not forget to thank them for a myriad of smaller necessities such as, our newspapers, our calendar, and our public toilets, to name just a few.

In the atrium of a Roman house.

Rome and its environs were the centre for this ancient civilization. However, it was the towns and cities further to the south on the western sea coast sheltered by the Aurunci Mountains, which provided valuable places for trade and places of refuge for emperors and those of the upper class who wanted to escape the clamour of the city. All have their Roman remains with stories to tell of their time spent here.

The Tyrranean Sea and the Aurunci Mt. range.

Gaeta was one of those towns, along with Sperlonga, Formia, and Terracina. These are coastal towns located midway between Rome and Naples. Picture the Almalfi Coast…Capri and Sorrento. This will give you an idea of what this area has to offer: sandy beaches, weird and wonderful rock formations, grottoes, and mountains. No wonder the Romans loved it! Modern day Italians and northern Europeans still flock here in the summer months. March and April are ideal for visitors like Hubby and me because we can not only avoid the crowds and get cheaper prices for just about everything, but also enjoy the sun with moderate temperatures. Nights are cool but days are usually around 18 degrees centigrade.

Overlooking Gaeta

Gaeta, with a population of about 40,000, is divided into two areas: the old and the new which is typical of all the towns we have been….Sperlonga, Terracina, Formia, Itri, and Naples. If not situated on the coast offering beautiful beaches, they can be found further inland on a hilltop in the mountains. All of them have an old and new part, and all of them have Roman ruins scattered here and there. The old parts of town often reveal their Medieval influences with narrow, cobble stone streets, and piazzas or squares usually dominated by a cathedral, town hall, or museum. Larger towns and cities are linked by bus or train running at an affordable cost. A rental car would be the best bet to get to hard to reach places in the mountains but is more expensive. Gasoline isn’t cheap in Italy. We have relied on the bus to get to most places except for Naples when we took the train.

The highlights of our travels in and around the area have been Itri, a small mountain town which lies on part of the Appian Way, the Archeological Museum and the Cavern in Speralonga, the Circeo Promontory and the Temple of Jupiter in Terracina, and Herculaneum near Naples.

The Appian Way was built by the Romans beginning in 312 BC to give their capital a link to the south extending as far as Brundisi. Cutting the rocks, paving the road, and constructing the temples and cisterns must have required careful planning, great expertise and super human endurance. Over the centuries reconstructions have been carried out making it still a viable road even today for automobiles, bikes, and pedestrians. We stopped near the town of Itri to walk on a part of the Appian Way dating back to its beginning. The thrill of our walk was slightly marred by the hordes of mountain bikers who were using the road for racing, a popular sport in Italy.

Watch out, the race is on.

Our walk along the Appian Way.

Itri was the only town we visited that wasn’t on the sea. It’s a small village sitting atop a mountain 170 meters above sea level dominated by a Medieval castle. Being fairly remote from any discernible public transport, we were thankful to have friends with a rental car and an excellent driver to manoeuver the incredibly narrow streets of the Old Town. Here we witnessed the bonfires which are set every year on March 19th to honour St. Joseph. People come out in droves from all over the region to dance, sing, and prepare “zappole di San Guieseppe” a fried dough made of sugar, eggs, and coated with honey. We would have liked to have joined the fun and sampled some of their food, but because there were so many cars leaving no spots to park, we decided to head back to Gaeta for a bite to eat.

A narrow street in Old Town Itri.

This house is for sale.

Sperlonga’s Archeological Museum and Cavern was my top choice for a delightful tour of Roman ruins. The museum portrayed sculptures and artifacts depicting the mythology relating to the battles between Ulysses and the Scylla, leading archeologists to believe that the discovery of this collection in 1957 actually dates back to the Greeks. Over the centuries most of them were reconstructed by the Romans during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Not far from the museum is the remains of a village, the villa where Tiberius lived in the summers, and the cavern where his sculptures were hidden. With such an idyllic setting by the sea and the mountains , no wonder Tiberius fled Rome’s heat to spend his summers in Sperlonga.

Sculpture of Ulysses and his men fighting the Scylla.

Ruins of the village where Tiberius lived.

The Grotto where the sculptures were discovered.

Terracina is another coastal town situated near a gigantic rock promontory jutting out into the Trryhanean Sea with the Aurunci Mountains on one side and a fertile plain on the other. The rock was split in two for the construction of the Appian Way, and there are remnants of Roman rule everywhere. On top of the promontory sits the ancient Temple of Jupiter. In the Old Town on the slope of the mountain, narrow, cobblestone streets lead to a piazza which is built on a Roman forum. Presently, the site is undergoing more excavations to unearth an amphitheatre.

The Temple of Jupiter on the Promontory overlooking Terracine.

Unearthing more Roman treasures.

Formia is the closest town to Gaeta. Bus service runs on a regular basis every hour so we took advantage of this for a change of scenery…to try a new cafe for coffee and pastries… and to explore. Formia claims to have a several notable ruins but we discovered that some simply were not accessible. For example, Cicero’s villa is located on a private property. However, we were successful in finding his Mausoleum located near the Appian Way. Cicero was one of the better Roman Emperor’s; however, his reign ended because he was too outspoken, resulting in his death which was common in those days.

Cicero’s Mausoleum

Another indulgence!

Herculaneum was well worth another trip back to Naples for us. Since we had both visited Pompei many years ago on separate trips, Herculaneum was our undisputed choice. Both of these ancient cities were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Pompei gained its notoriety from the body of the little boy covered in a coat of lava. This image, becoming so embedded in our minds over the centuries, caused people to flock to Pompei and bypass Herculaneum. However, in recent years Herculaneum has been gaining popularity because it actually reveals a closer look at ancient Roman life. Their almost intact buildings, pottery, and art are in much better condition. Apparently reconstruction was started soon after an earthquake in 63 AD. It has been ongoing so the whole site is much better preserved. Moreover, Herculaneum was a more compact city with narrow streets and layered buildings ….their version of our present day high rise…which makes it an easier site to walk and do in a day. I remember how spread out Pompei was with its wide streets making it difficult to see everything in one visit.

Ancient Herculaneum with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.

A pub and eatery with the pots used for cooking.

A two layer boarding house.

Many school groups visit to learn their history.

An excellent example of Roman artwork.

The men’s bath house.

The peristile at the House of Argus.

  

Gaeta is the last place on my list for finding Roman ruins because it seems to have the least amount that are visible. Bits and pieces are scattered around the Old Town in the columns of some of the churches reconstructed during Medieval times. The Italians are very proud of their Roman heritage so wanting to preserve some of it, they became masters of incorporating pieces of what was left into their reconstruction efforts.

An arch in Old Town Gaeta which has some parts probably dating back to the Romans.

The most complete Roman structure in Gaeta is a mausoleum located somewhere on top of Mount Orlando, overlooking the beautiful Serapo Beach. It’s not visible from down below. It was built by the Romans in honour of Munatius Plancus, a Roman senator who spent time in Gaeta. We tried walking up to see it but never made it. The path wasn’t clearly signed, and we had no way of knowing just how far we had left to go. However, what we accomplished was worth our effort. On the way, we got a close up view of the Turco Grotto which comes with a religious story mentioned in the book of Matthew. The story goes that the rock jutting out to the sea was split into two pieces forming the grotto at the exact time of Jesus’ death. We also stumbled upon some rocks, which upon closer look, resembled a small Roman bath and some type of fortification. Our third reward for this strenuous walk was a fabulous view of Serapo Beach which is the longest (1.5 km) and most beautiful beach in this area. This is the beach that is only a 10 minute walk from our apartment, and where we have been working on our tans on those sunny days when the breeze was warm enough.

The split rock named the Turco Grotto.

Can you guess what these ruins are?

Gaeta and its environs are primarily noted as a tourist area today….as a place to escape from the larger cities… as it was in the time of the ancient Romans. That much hasn’t changed, thank goodness. The beaches we have seen are clean with crystal clear waters. There are ample apartments and hotels to stay for as long as you want. Fish, artichokes, strawberries, pears, olive oil, buffalo cheese made from the milk of water buffalo, rustic sausage, and chickling peas (like beans) are some of the foods the area is noted for. All are readily available at good prices in the numerous markets to be found in every town and village. Gaeta’s location between and not far from both Rome and Naples is another plus if you want a reprieve from small town living and fancy the buzz of the large city for awhile. Most importantly, if you are at all interested in the history of the Romans and how it has impacted our present day life, this would be an excellent area to brush up on that, as I have discovered.

That’s Gaeta and its Serapo Beach.

Watching the sun set over the Gulf of Gaeta.

*atrium – the open area of a dwelling surrounded by rooms on all sides as in Roman days. The concept is very popular today.

*peristile – an open garden surrounded by a colonade of porticos.

*triclinium – a formal dining room lined on three sides by reclining benches familiar to the Roman house a wealthy family.

 

Naples – You Can Love It or Hate It

Before you make up your mind on what your impression of Naples is, you should either read what I am about to write or go and visit it for yourself. If possible I would suggest the latter.

When I was back- packing my way around Europe with my girlfriends, we decided to bypass Naples because of the rumours we had heard and read…”Watch out for all those men who hassle women on their own and be careful of pick pockets.” There were other negative comments I’m sure but this is the one that stuck in my mind. It was definitely not on the ‘bucket list’ of most travellers back then and, unfortunately, not so for some even today. I must confess that I would not have chosen to visit Naples this time around while in Italy if it hadn’t been for Hubby and some friends who lived there in the ’80’s. At first, I met their enthusiasm for this great city with scepticism, but thankfully my open mind and curiosity won over. Here are my impressions of this controversial city which will hopefully give you some idea why people either love it or hate it, or perhaps fall somewhere in between.

The Architecture

The proliferation of fine old buildings reflecting a mix of architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic and the more modern art deco designs introduced by Mussolini before the second world war are outstanding. In fact, Naples was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. There are hundreds of beautiful churches, castles and palaces, and famous piazzas commemorating the city’s heroes in its historical centre.

Its Setting

Naples has been gifted with an ideal setting. The beautiful Bay of Naples provides it with one of the world’s busiest ports as well as gorgeous sunsets. It is the launching pad for ferries travelling to one of Europe’s most glamorous regions: the Almafi coast, Sorrento, and the islands of Capri and Ischia. The mountains of Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei provide another lovely back drop. Surrounding all of this are miles of fertile land which produce fruit and vegetables year round due to the mix of Mediterranean and tropical climates.

The Narrow Streets

It’s famous for its one-pedestrian, cobble stoned streets strung with lines of laundry and hanging off balconies. Everyday life is highly visible and can be chaotic but that’s Napoli. I never felt unsafe or encountered any rude behavior. Shops with mouth-watering pastries and cafes serving up the best coffee from the region, abound. It’s almost impossible not to stop and sample some of this so why not indulge? As we discovered, a coffee and a delicious pastry will cost 2 or 3 Euros… about 3 to 5 Canadian dollars.

The National Architectural Museum

This museum is a must see. It houses one of the world’s most complete collection of  sculptures reproduced by the Romans from their older  Greek compatriots, as well as mosaics and paintings from the cities of Herculaneum and Pompei which were devastated by the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. The first floor of this magnificent building is devoted to sculptures depicting Roman heroes both real and mythological. You can’t help but be mesmerized by the beauty of both the male and female anatomy…especially those male bums! Another sculpture which should not be missed is the “The Torture of Dirce” or the Farnese Bull carved from one solid piece of Italian marble. Michelangelo worked on its restoration. The second floor is filled with lovely mosaics and paintings rescued from the ruins of Pompei. Apparently you can see more of how life was lived at that time than if you went to visit Pompei itself. In recent years a little room portraying the sex life of the citizens has been added. Now dubbed the ‘porno room’ it has drawn considerable attention. My thoughts on this display were that it’s not so different from the tantric sex motifs one can view in India. Good for Napoli for daring to portray the reality of their past life.

The Torture of Dirce sculpture built AD 212 to 216.

Teatro de San Carlo

The ornate Teatro de San Carlo was built in 1737 making it the oldest working theatre in Europe. We were fortunate to hear one of the best symphony concerts I have ever heard, not only because of the wonderful acoustics but also the program conducted by Leonard Slatkin from the US. His excellent conducting skills, the appearance of Alexi Volodin, a Russian pianist who received two encores and could have had more, and an interesting modern piece composed by Slatkin’s wife, Cindy McTee, made this a memorable evening. The icing on the cake was accidentally meeting Slatkin and McTee at the Architectural Museum the following day where we had a great chat about the previous night’s performance and other things musical. Hubby was in his element sharing stories of great conductors and musical performances he attended during his employment at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto.

The Cappella Sanservero

The Sansevero Chapel Museum is a sepulchre located in the heart of Naples. Created by Giueseppe Sanmartino, its prime focus is the Cresti Velato or Veiled Christ. People of strong faith, or not, can’t help being moved by the intricate realism of this sculpture where every nuance of Christ’s suffering is vividly portrayed in his body shrouded with a thin veil so real you can almost feel it. Many other masterpieces can be found in this chapel making it one of the ‘most impressive monuments ever conceived by the human mind’.

Neapolitan Food

As all Neapolitans would like us to know, pizza was invented by them, but did you know that the Margherita pizza is named after Queen Margherita and that the ingredients for a true Neapolitan pizza are regulated by law? Since 2004 only a special kind of flour, yeast, and mineral water can be used so only those restaurants who meet these requirements can claim they make the ‘real thing’. Patrons of these restaurants will know because each restaurant must display a special logo at their entrance. The Neapolitans also lay claim to being the masters of spaghetti especially the seafood dish. Then, as I already mentioned, there are those yummy pastries which again they are masters at producing. Napoli’s signature pastry is called a sfogliatelle….light layers of flaky pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese.

Art and Culture

Their art and culture, which goes back centuries, is still very much in evidence today especially in their churches and major museums. After admiring the Duomo, the largest and most significant of Naples’ churches, we visited the Misericordia where Michelangelo Caravaggio’s famous art piece …”The Seven Acts of Mercy”…is housed.  Another major undertaking exposing the culture of the Romans is ongoing. An underground city under the present day city is slowly being unearthed and giving us a close up of early Roman life.

Caravaggio’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy”

There are numerous other sites for which Naples is noted, but I would need at least a week or more to see them all. They are all the things that people love about this city. Now for the things that some people hate about it so much that they have vowed never to return.

Garbage

A few years ago, Naples made the world news when the garbage collectors went on strike for more than a year. You can imagine the problems this created which didn’t do anything to help the city’s already negative image. I hate to say that even though the strike is over the city is still having some problems. Although some garbage bins were visible, there were not enough as garbage was usually spilling out  around them, not to mention everywhere else. Nevertheless, I don’t think their problem is much worse than many of the cities I have seen in South East Asia, such as Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the country roads in Viet Nam. Proper garbage disposal and the citizens’ concern for keeping their cities or towns litter free simply aren’t a priority in many parts of our world. For Italy it has always been Naples and many contribute this to the poor choice in municipal government influenced by the Camoura, an organized crime network.

Graffiti

Yes, there is a good deal of graffiti in Naples, which I don’t think is worse than some other European cities I have seen. I remember that Lisbon and Athens both had problems with it as I suspect many other European cities have. Walking around the historic centre of Naples, I spied one shop keeper painting over some of the graffiti on his storefront. It is a shame that the city hasn’t been able to stem the tide as it does contribute to its overall grungy, dirty appearance.

Begging, Touts and Pickpockets

Naples is one of the poorest places in Italy so there is bound to be begging with desperate people looking to make money any way they can. I noticed some begging around the Central Train Station but none on the trains or the subway. We were approached by one tout who wanted to help us purchase our tickets, but he backed down fairly quickly when we stated firmly that we didn’t need his help. We experienced much worse in the medinas of Morocco.

Lying, Cheating, and Thieving

Over the years Naples has been accused of them all. During our two-day visit, we encountered only one incident: lying. This happened where we least expected. After finishing a delicious Neapolitan meal of antipasta, seafood spaghetti, red house wine, and frizzante (fizzy water), and of course, the crusty bread served at every meal, we were presented with our bill which totalled 55 Euro…about $80 Canadian. We were astounded! Hubby had eaten at this restaurant last year and paid much less. This was our reason for returning…good, authentic food cooked up by the family who run the place and at very good prices. They had no real menu other than a set price for whatever they were cooking for the day and another higher price if we chose what we wanted. He told us they had seafood pasta so we thought, why not, if that’s what is on the menu for the day. He didn’t present any other options. When Hubby picked up the bill the whole place heard a loud, “What”? Immediately our waiter left our table and returned with a new price of 45 euro! Having looked at their pricing for the two sets (with or without choice) as we were entering the restaurant and seeing that the counter offer still wasn’t good enough, I jumped in and pointed to the sign at their door. Realizing again that he didn’t have a strong rebuttal, he brought the price down to 40 euro. Allowing for the possibility that prices had gone up from last year, we stopped at this point and paid our bill. If we hadn’t been so savvy, he would have gotten away with it. Too bad as this is the sort of thing that Napoli has been known for and why people are reticent to go back.

Neapolitan seafood spaghetti.

My conclusion on Napoli is that like many cities it has its good and bad points. If you go looking for the good, with an open mind, and some common sense, you will accept it for what it is and leave on good terms. However, if you buy into the negative hearsay and look only for its bad points, you will come away with the wrong impression and never want to return. If you choose the latter route, then I think you will have missed experiencing a city which is vibrant and real. Beneath the layers of grime you will find beauty and the remains of a storied past.

A gallery of additional images of Napoli. Click on each picture for the caption.

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

Life on a Homestay in the Mekong Delta

The prospect of spending more than a day or two in Ho Che Minh City…again…held no appeal this time around so I opted to make a quick trip back to the Mekong Delta specifically to experience life on a Homestay.

Homestays are cropping up like flies all over this part of Viet Nam notably on the numerous canals that meander through this fertile and densely populated part of the country. They offer tourists a break from the fast paced life of the cities and a chance to see and experience how life and the commerce of the delta region is conducted.

I booked myself into the Minh Viet Homestay about 12 km outside the largest city in the Mekong Delta, Can Tho. However, getting there was not as easy as I had anticipated. After two bus rides from where I was staying in HCMC to the bus station where I would get the bus to Can Tho, I then faced a three hour ride. This was fine as I had a sleeper bus so could recline leisurely as we travelled along a fairly straight highway. I must add that the highways I travelled while in Viet Nam were in good shape. The trouble began when my bus left me off in what seemed like the middle of no where on the outskirts of the city. The driver’s assistant spoke no English so pointed that I could get to my destination by going over to the left where there were lots of buses but no station, or to the right which appeared to be a huge department store. Neither looked promising and there were no taxis in sight except for a couple of men wanting to take me on their rather dilapidated motor bikes. The only thing to do was to solicit some help from someone who could speak a little English. Luckily I found a young chap with a phone who called my Homestay. I was hoping they had got my message on the time I would be arriving and would be able to meet me. No such luck! They advised me to grab a taxi. I had the choice of a motor bike or an auto taxi which had miraculously appeared. I took the car and showed the address to the driver who nodded he knew where to go. However, I soon realized he didn’t have a clue where he was going. Several stops for directions, a few phone calls, a couple of back tracks, and we finally found the correct address. All this time I am watching the meter creeping upward to a point well beyond what I paid for my bus trip. I guess I should have taken that motor bike after all!

Arrival at a homestay isn’t anything like that of a hotel or guest house. There is no desk and there may or may not be someone there to greet you. In my case, there was a woman who I later found out was the mother of this family. She spoke no English but was smiley and kind. She showed me my room and that was it. My room was small and rustic…rustic meaning it had just the bare essentials: a bed with a mosquito net, a small wooden table, and a cabinet for putting clothes in. At least I didn’t have to share a bathroom as I did at my place in HCMC. Although my room was small and dark, it did face on the canal so I had a view.

My room at Mien Viet Homestay.

Feeling somewhat marooned and very hot and thirsty after my long journey to get there, I spied a cooler with cold water and drinks so grabbed a water and sat down at one of the tables in the open air dining room to get my bearings. I had no sooner sat down wondering if I had made a mistake coming here when out of the blue an older couple who spoke English arrived. I was starved to have a conversation in English with anyone who was willing to do so, and like all Dutch people who are very much at ease with our language, they were more than happy to sit down for a chat. We soon found out we had lots in common on the subjects of travel and the political and other problems facing our respective countries. For the duration of my stay they were my meal time companions and bicycle tour guides.

Dining and rest area.

We started out the next day after breakfast, on free bikes from our homestay, to explore our surroundings. Unfortunately, free bicycles often means they aren’t always in the best condition. Out of the two that were left, I chose what looked to be the best and off we went. We hadn’t gone very far before one of my bike’s brakes gave me some trouble. We tried fixing it to no avail since we didn’t have the right tools. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go too far before we spied a house which looked like it might have what we were looking for and sure enough it did. One of the men quickly had it fixed, and we were once again up and running.

Could there be anything more peaceful and uplifting than this, I wondered? Seeing the homes… some fancy, others not…having the children greet us with their smiling faces, waves, and chirpy “hellos”, along with the proliferation of colourful flowers and greenery, was a wonderful treat. I must add that the motor bike traffic wasn’t a problem. The only time we had to get off our bikes and walk them was when we came to a village with a market. The land is flat so we had no hills to climb. However, the weather was hot and humid so we stopped often to keep ourselves hydrated with drinks.

Early on we came across a family party for their grandson’s 1st birthday and were invited in to celebrate. Not wanting to intrude, we didn’t stay too long. However, the Viet Namese don’t look at such a visit as an intrusion. For them it is more an honour to have us help them celebrate such an occassion so they immediately provided us with drinks and plates of food. The only way to return the favour was to take some pictures of the family which I was able to share with them and later send along via email.

The birthday boy and his mother.

One of the main attractions for visiting Can Tho and its environs is to witness the early morning floating markets. The one which draws the most crowds is the largest and most colourful: the Cai Rang. After speaking to the one member of this family who spoke fairly good English, the son, Minh, about his tour to the floating markets, we decided to forego it. For me it was the expense of doing it on my own since my Dutch friends opted to do it on another day. Furthermore, I was not keen on having to be up at four in the morning. I needed to rest up after the trip down. I only had one full day at the Homestay before heading back to HCMC so couldn’t do it all. For me it was either the all day tour visiting not just the Cai Rang market but a smaller one, the Phong Dien, in the other direction which would have meant more boat travel rather than actual sight-seeing, or taking the leisurely tour on bicycles on our own which would cost nothing and be just as stimulating. If I ever do another homestay in the Mekong Delta, I will plan for at least two if not three full days to really have enough time for both.

The one thing that Mien Viet Homestay excelled in was the fabulous meals that the women of this family produced. My room fee included both breakfast and dinner at $20 a day. You can’t beat that. The breakfasts were fairly standard with a banana to start, followed by eggs (any style), bacon, a crusty bun or baguette with jam, and good Vietnamese coffee. Freshly squeezed orange juice was available for an additional cost. For both dinners, we had appetizers, a main meat or fish dish with rice and vegetables, ending up with fruit. Every plate was tasty and there was always something different…with the exception of rice which accompanies every meal. I would see the women washing, cutting and preparing food throughout the day. They took their craft seriously making sure their guests were happy and well fed.

Mother and grandmother.

I don’t think it’s really possible to sleep in while you are at a homestay if it fronts a canal. Canals play a big part in the Delta’s transportation system and are the life source for the people who live along them. Boats of all shapes and sizes laden with just about anything and everything seem to be constantly plying the dirty brown waters of the canals. Business usually starts about the time the sun rises and doesn’t cease until it sets, if not later. Add to this the proliferation of boats transporting tourists and you have a constant stream of activity.

My two nights and a day at the homestay allowed me to observe first hand how families live and work in this vast delta, dubbed “the bread basket of Viet Nam”. There is a noticeable hustle and bustle as the inhabitants go about their personal and commercial business. The people are friendly and appear to want to share their lives with all the visitors who seem to be coming in droves. There are many homestays to choose from. The one I stayed at was fairly basic but some offer more amenities and are better run. They will cost more but are more suited to those who want a little more comfort. If a homestay of any kind is not your preference, you can stay in one of the many hotels available in Can Tho. Tours to the floating markets and canals are available from there. Whatever choice you make, you are bound to enjoy all that this driving force of Viet Nam has to offer. I know I did and am glad I went.

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

Dalat “Le Petit Paris”

My latest post “A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam” mentioned three reasons for returning to this country. It should have been four.

Returning to Dalat is the fourth for me and a good reason for anyone visiting this country for the first time. If you like anything that is reminiscent of Paris or anything French, such as fresh baquettes, colonial architecture, an Eiffel Tower look- alike which happens to be the city’s radio tower, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and just plain old charm, then take a side trip up to Dalat.

Dalat's Eiffel Tower

Dalat’s Eiffel Tower

Discovered and built primarily by the French when they occupied the country in 1912, it was an answer to their search for a retreat to escape the heat of Saigon. Dalat’s location at 4,900 feet above sea level offers a temperate climate where the yearly temperatures hover at 15 to 25 degrees C. It’s no surprise that over the years it has earned another appropriate title…”the city of eternal spring”. If you don’t like this title, then how about “city of a thousand pines”? The city has so many tall pines that you can actually smell them. If it weren’t for the usual traffic woes, I would have a hard time believing I was in Viet Nam.

A nice pine-scented view.

A nice pine-scented view.

My first visit to Dalat was five years ago. The city, I am happy to report, hasn’t lost its charm, and there are little if any signs of climate change. The one and only complaint I have is the constant traffic which is chaotic and noisy as it seems to be no matter where you are in Viet Nam. It’s just the way they drive here, and we either adapt or end up as toast.

There is a motor bike under there.

There is a motor bike under there.

Dalat’s temperate climate in the Lang Biang Mountains has created an ideal place to grow things making it literally the ‘bread basket’ of Viet Nam. All kinds of vegetables, fruits, and flowers can be found growing year round. Their speciality is strawberries, black currants, and artichokes in the produce department, and when it comes to flowers, it has to be hydrangea and roses found just about everywhere throughout the city… lining the boulevards and hanging from lamp posts.

One of the best places to see what grows here is the Dalat City Park located near the Xuan Huong Lake. This lake was created after the construction of one of the area’s many dams resulting in one of the city’s main attractions. If you are one for walking, it’s a 7 km trek all the way around. I got marvellous views of the city from all angles because of the lake’s configuration which resembles a banana.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat's churches.

Looking across the lake to one of Dalat’s churches.

A view from the other side of the lake.

A view from the other side of the lake.

To some, the Park borders on the kitschy with its ceramic animals placed strategically amongst the flower beds, and the gaudily adorned horse-drawn carriages readily available to transport weary visitors. Nevertheless, the gardens themselves with their variety of flowers and shrubs are absolutely beautiful on a perfectly clear, sunny day such as I had.

Dalat Park entrance.

Dalat Park entrance.

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Inside the park.

Inside the park.

Coffee is another rapidly growing industry here putting Viet Nam in second place on the list of the world’s coffee producers. Their focus has been the Robusta type used primarily in instant coffee like Nescafe, but since its lofty position as number two coffee producer, the farmers are beginning to move over to the Arabica type and gaining recognition there. Coffee cafes are on every street corner, but most don’t serve Italian or American coffee – just Viet Namese which is very strong and sweetened with condensed milk. I find it ironic that most locals still prefer to drink tea.

Wine production is becoming a serious concern of late. It started with the French in the ’50’s and has now morphed into a viable industry. Dalat wines can be found throughout Viet Nam and Japan and other SE Asian countries are now importing it to good reviews.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Advertising Dalat wine at the Park.

Dalat, like all cities and towns of a certain size, has a market as one of its central attractions. Nestled between two hills in a tiny valley, it’s a beehive of activity any time of the day or night. Smack in the middle of the city, it’s close to a host of small hotels and hostels and great places to eat. My hotel was probably a ten minute walk away as ‘straight as the crow flies’, but in order to get to it, I had to go down one hill and up the other making my trip much longer. The city is very hilly so walking can be difficult as the streets seem to meander up and down and around. Walking around in circles can be frustrating for those of us who are directionally challenged.

Looking down on the market at night.

Looking down on the market at night.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

Every kind of fruit imaginable.

In spite of the heavy traffic, Dalat’s air is clean which was a real treat for me. Certainly its lofty location contributes to this, but another reason is because other than growing food, the only industries are in education and scientific research. Many schools were started by the French so Dalat quickly became a learning base for all Indochina. Today there is a large training school for teachers and a thriving university. Tourism is growing, too, as travellers and locals seek a respite from the heat in the south and the cold in the north especially at this time of the year. For the adventurous tourist, there is trekking, canyoning, and mountain biking. There are numerous minority villages to visit for handicrafts, silk farms, six good-sized waterfalls, pagodas, and lastly the number one attraction right now…the Crazy House.

Is it the name or is it the fact that the weird architecture of this house reminds tourists of Gaudi’s creation in Barcelona? Whatever it is, it’s become a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Dalat. I have to admit I didn’t go to see it this time around because I toured it five years. My husband and I joined in the fun of exploring its maze of tunnels, climbing its ladders, and being constantly surprised by what lay ahead…spiderwebs, mushrooms, strange animals, with everything seemingly sprouting from the trees. A Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, daughter of the successor to Ho Chi Minh as Prime Minister of Viet Nam, received her Ph.D in architecture from Moscow. Her objective was to build a house which would bring people back to nature so she began with a giant banyan tree. It’s absolutely amazing what she has accomplished over the years. She is still alive and her creation has garnered the reputation as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Outside of the Crazy House.

Inside the house.

Inside the house.

Yes, Dalat has much to offer tourists who come here, as well as the people of Viet Nam who are beginning to tour their diverse country now that they have the means to do so. The Viet Namese are romantics at heart so Dalat provides them with the perfect setting for their wedding pictures or a honeymoon. Roses, flower gardens, a beautiful lake setting, and hotels that cater to them, is this not enough? Apparently not, as not only locals, but bus loads of tourists will include a trip to the Valley of Love for even more love theme kitsch. As a mature, solo traveller I might have felt a little out of place so didn’t make the effort.

Dalat does have more serious attractions for visitors, however. The French left behind a noticeable legacy with their catholic churches exemplifying their gothic architecture. They are lovely to look at from the outside but, unfortunately, aren’t open for viewing.

Lovely gothic style church.

A more modern church.

A more modern church.

However, there are numerous elaborate pagodas to visit reflecting the Chinese architecture. They are open for viewing. My choice was to check out the Truc Lam Pagoda. This zen monastery sits on top of a mountain to the south of the city and is easily accessible by cable car. After a hair-raising motor bike ride out to the lift, I was then treated to my own cable car for a 15 minute ride through the lush greenery of the pine forest. I instantly felt at peace and totally safe. What a fantastic view of the city and its environs! The grounds of the monastery were almost as peaceful save for some bus loads of Russian tourists who arrived. This wasn’t a problem for me as the grounds are so spread out and beautifully designed, providing many secluded spaces with tables and benches for sitting and meditating or just getting away from people.

Entrance to the pagoda.

Entrance to the pagoda.

A temple with huge bell.

A temple with huge bell.

Hollyhocks.

Hollyhocks.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

These are for real. Not sure what they were.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

A quiet spot for some meditation.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Zen affiliates from around the world have donated benches. This is from Canada.

Descending down a tree-lined path, I came upon Tuyen Lam Lake, another man made lake.

I was surprised to find stalls selling souvenirs and one in particular caught my buyer’s eye. Taking a chance and wandering in, I found some money belts handcrafted by a minority village in the area. They were a decent price so I bought some.  Over to the left, at the end of the lake, I spied some signs advertising food and coffee. Hot and weary, I decided to check them out. I didn’t see anything that whet my appetite until a restaurant advertising classic cars and ‘weasel’ coffee grabbed my interest. In case you don’t know, ‘weasel’ or civet coffee is made from this animal’s poop… and it’s expensive….way too expensive for my budget! However, since I hadn’t had my coffee fix for the day, I decided my caffeine treat would be a mocha latte…made with regular coffee. Yum! I thought this was an appropriate way to end my visit before heading back to the city.

My mocha latte.

Would I return for a third visit? Without a doubt should the occasion arise. Dalat may not have the history and culture of other hot spots, such as Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi Han, Hue, or Hanoi, but it does have a comfortable climate and enough things to see and do to keep visitors there for at least a few days. Like the French over a century ago, we tourists are searching for a place that not only offers a relief from the sweltering heat, but also some of that irresistible French charm they left behind.

Mui Ne: A Little Resort Town in Viet Nam

People who visit Mui Ne either love it or hate it.

Before I get into why this is so, let me give you a short description of its location and geography. It’s approximately a four-hour drive northeast of Ho Chi Minh City on the coast of the South China Sea. It’s easy accessibility to the city and its 10 km long beach make it a great seaside escape not only for HCMC residents but also tourists. Over the past 10 years it has morphed from a sleepy fishing village into an over-developed resort town.

The main and only street follows the coastline for 10 km. When approaching it coming from HCMC, you enter from the west which puts you into the actual town of Mui Ne… the main tourist strip with all the fancy resorts. This end of the street is called Nguyen Dinh Chieu which then turns into Huynh Thuc Khang somewhere in the middle. Keep travelling along and you will find yourself in the City of Phan Thiet…also the capital of the province…which is graced with a large harbour dotted with a multitude of colourful fishing boats. Here is the centre for SE Asia’s production of nuac mam or fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Boats used to catch fish used to produce fish sauce.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

Overlooking the harbour of Phan Thiet.

So this is Mui Ne. It’s a one street strip of restaurants, fancy resorts, budget hotels, and restaurants lining both sides of the street and hemmed in by the ocean on one side and sand dunes on the other.

Most people who absolutely love it are the windsurfers. They come from all parts of the world to do their stuff. With more than 200 days out of the year with strong winds coming off the ocean, it’s a surfer’s paradise.

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The red  and white sand dunes are another rave about this place. Coming very close to the strip of beach resorts along the sea, they appear to be in the backyards of many hotels. I just had to go to the end of the garden at my place to see a part of them. The better views are outside the town where you can be right in the midst of them and experience the joy of driving a dune buggy. I preferred to simply walk and observe the buggies as they got mired in the sand. I was attempting to be more ecologically responsible.

On the white dune.

On the white dune.

The Russians love Mui Ne  because they get great package deals to and from their country, and like us Canadians they are eager to escape their harsh winters for some fun in the sun. In fact, they have almost taken over the town as evidenced by the restaurants which serve Russian food. Even the menus are in Russian. Many restaurants, shops and hotels are now Russian owned by expats who have moved there.

Anyone who likes sun and a tropical climate also loves it, especially at this time of the year which is their dry season. For those staying in a four or five-star resort with their own private beach, life at the beach is good. However, for budget travellers a beach isn’t always easily available. If your hotel/hostel has wrangled a deal with one of the bigger hotels or resorts who are willing to let others use what they think is theirs, then you’re in luck. Fortunately, the place where I stayed did have access so I had the beach at my disposal. Although the beach itself is lovely, it is beginning to show some wear and tear. In some spots the sand is disappearing due to erosion. In other places, the beach is being invaded with piles of garbage and cattle who are allowed to roam at will. For me this was not inviting so I merely used the beach to capture a sunset or two. I didn’t bother to sun bathe or go swimming. I may have if I had been staying in one of those swanky resorts who lay claim to a piece of the beach or have their own outdoor pools.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Beach at a swanky resort.

Is it now evident to you what people might hate about Mui Ne? The Russian invasion, the dirty beach, the over-development, and one more thing…the bland food….are the list of complaints I have heard. I have to agree on the dirty beach and the over-development, but the Russians and the food were more than acceptable to me.

I had a young Russian couple next door to my room at Diem, Lien where I stayed. Although their English was limited, I found both Vera and Vasili easy to talk to and curious about Canada. We found we had much in common. Yes, most Russians prefer to keep to themselves, which has earned them a bad reputation, but I have found they are actually shy with other tourists because of their lack of English. I have not and did not encounter any difficult or loud Russians.

As for the food, I found a lovely little restaurant newly opened three months ago, on my first night in Mui Ne. I enjoyed the food and ambience so much that I returned every day from there on. Owned and managed by a young Viet Nam couple with a four-month old baby, who was at first fussy and probably colicky, I indulged in fresh scallops nicely prepared in a garlic sauce, stewed chicken in a clay pot, tasty grilled chicken with morning-glory greens, fresh spring rolls, and for a change, spaghetti carbonara. All the food was prepared by the husband who was a fabulous cook in my opinion. Everything was fresh, tastefully spiced, and reasonably priced. A glass of good Dalat wine was only $1.50. My dinners were consistently at about $5,00 including the wine. The name of this little gem, in amongst all the other similar restaurants along the strip on the Huynh Thuc Khang end on the dune side, was Mui Ne House. They have no website and aren’t on Face Book since they are so new, but if you are ever in Mui Ne then do try to find them. By the way, the baby settled down after that first night and slept peacefully in her hammock from there on.

One more attraction which gets mixed reviews is the Fairy Stream. I wasn’t too excited about seeing it. However, it was part of the tour package I took to see the dunes at sunset so I had no choice. It’s actually a pretty half hour walk…in bare feet…from the sea up to its source. Strange rock formations in various shades of red and white shaped by the water as it meanders through the sand dunes create an unusual and different site every day.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

At the start of the Fairy Stream.

Strange looking sand formations.

Strange looking sand formations.

Our group.

Our group.

I read in Travelfish that they wouldn’t recommend it because of reports that it was dirty and hazardous. Other than a couple of cows we met along the way, I noticed no garbage at all. Apparently the town authorities have been working on a clean up. One thing which did take me by surprise was the demand from a sweet young woman who was showing us sites and taking our pictures along the way. Little did we know she wasn’t a part of our tour, but a self-employed ‘tout’ who demanded we each pay her 100,000 dong at the end. In Canadian dollars this would be $6,00. Being more budget conscious and perhaps a little more experienced at what was happening here, I immediately spoke up and stated this was way too much money for a half hour of her time. After some haggling, we settled on 20,000 each. To me this was worth her time and the information she was able to share with us. We could have paid her nothing since she wasn’t a part of our tour. Our jeep driver had no English and didn’t accompany us. I doubt if we could have learned anything on our own.

There was one other incident on this tour which took us by surprise. After we had toured the great white dune on our own time, we were told to meet our driver at the jeep by five o’clock so we would have time to catch the sunset at the red dune before heading back to town. After we had all finally assembled to head back, we had to wait. At first we weren’t sure why, but our driver after much discussion with the other jeep drivers informed us simply that the police were asking for money to the tune of 5 million dong or $295 Cdn. I couldn’t believe it! Here, right in front of our eyes, was the corruption you hear about in this and all SE Asian countries. Fortunately, our driver was honest and had the decency to tell us. After a 20 minute wait, we started out only to stop two if not three more times to wait out the police. There was much telephoning and further yelling from the other jeep drivers at each stop until finally our driver informed us with elaborate hand signals that we would be taking another route back to town. There went our opportunity to see the sunset which was to my mind no big deal. It wasn’t until the next day when I met up with a gal who had toured the dunes the day before with a group that actually paid a lower fine…a fine for doing nothing wrong as far as we could tell…that I realized what we had missed. The red dune at sunset is absolutely gorgeous!

I hope I haven’t painted too gloomy a picture of Mui Ne. What impression you come away with is purely a personal one. My eternal optimism sees it for what it is. It has its problems and isn’t perfect. However, I am happy with my time there even though I am not a surfer. Looking back I enjoyed my meals at the Mui Ne House Restaurant immensely, not only for their good food but for the warm greetings I received from the owners. The family who own and manage Diem Lein Hotel were also helpful and hard-working, especially the two sisters. I particularly enjoyed the garden, a little haven of flowers, trees and butterflies, which provided me with a peaceful place to have breakfast each morning. Furthermore, I was able to catch up on my sleep because the building was built like a motel and situated well away from the noisy street traffic. I doubt I’ll ever return to Mui Ne unless I were to use it as a short stopover on my way to HCMC or Dalat… or take up surfing!