How I Dealt With the Effects of Climate Change in Laos

Having to deal with climate change has never been on most travellers itineraries in the past, but I am betting it will be in the future if it isn’t already. I know it will be on mine. When Luang Prabang was experiencing erratic weather such as it did last week, most people I talked to were trying to ignore it by calling it a fluke or quickly changing the subject if it was brought up. Their intention was clearly on what to see and where to eat and not the weather.

Last week when I was packing my bags to catch the bus to Vientiane, the capital, I realised that I really didn’t want to leave Louang Prabang. I wanted to stay and experience the city bathed in sunshine and warmth. I wanted to explore some more of the Hill Tribe villages further north. I wanted just to linger a little while longer and savour its charms and slow pace of life. I have to confess I felt short-changed for I had only two measly days out of nine with clear, sunny skies. The others were dull and grey with maybe a few feeble  rays of sun trying to break through here and there. The worst of it was that each day the temperature dropped a little bit more…down to as low as 10 degrees! Not expecting this kind of weather left us tourists basically shivering in our shorts and sandals.

Over the years I have learned to adapt to travelling to this part of the world by taking as few clothes as possible …. just what I think I’ll need. Other than what I wear when I leave Canada is all I will have for any kind of warmth. So for the time I was in Luang Prabang, it was this outfit every day except for those two days of sunshine. At least I didn’t have to waste precious time deciding what to wear. Instead an easy routine set in: just grab those jeans, a long-sleeved top, my one and only fleece cardigan, my runners with my one pair of socks, and a scarf, which I broke down and bought at the Night Market, and get this on as quickly as possible in the morning. I must confess, I had to resort to wearing this outfit to bed on the night the thermometer went to below 10 degrees. It felt more like zero to me… worse than my  old drafty house in the dead of winter in Victoria Beach.

The five-star hotels probably had some kind of heating source, but my guest house certainly did not, and why should it? This kind of weather is not the norm for Laos. Yes, Luang Prabang is in the mountainous north of this small country where cooler temperatures can prevail in the dry season but apparently not as intense as what I experienced. The one blessing I did have for those cold nights was the fluffy white duvet on my large queen – sized bed. I was able to double it up and make a comfy little nest out of it to help keep me warm. Usually the places I stay will supply you with just a sheet and a light blanket which is quite enough for warm nights so I was lucky to have that duvet.

On our coldest day, I just couldn’t bear to be in my room at my computer making plans for my upcoming travels, blog writing, or wading through E-mail. I had to find a warmer place to do my computer stuff and keep moving. With this goal in mind, I set out. Although my guest house had Lipton’s tea and instant coffee available for breakfast, I have to admit that a cup of good coffee is the best way for me to start off my day. With that in mind, I headed for Le Benneton Cafe which became one of my favourite places to relax and savour a really good cup of coffee along with the newspapers to catch up on the latest Lao news. Fortunately, they provided thick plastic covers for the doors to shelter us from the cold making it warm and cozy. Most eating places were all open so weren’t much better than my room.

After tearing myself away from there, I decided to visit Mount Phousi (meaning sacred hill) in the centre of the city to climb up the 328 plus steps leading to the top. This hill which is over 100 meters high is graced with a golden pagoda which cannot be ignored as you approach the city or from wherever you happen to be while there. Once up to the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the region including the two rivers…the Mekong and the Nam Kham. It’s not surprising that it has become the perfect place to view the rising and the setting of the sun. I regret not experiencing either but at least it helped to warm me up and give me some much-needed exercise. Furthermore, I had avoided the crowds who go up to catch the perfect sunset or not so popular sunrise picture and had the place to myself.

With the stair climbing under my belt, I decided to go to the nearby Indigo Cafe for a bowl of their pumpkin soup. This was definitely a soup day. I wasn’t too disappointed except for the rather small bowl which was, however, accompanied by a delicious, healthy roll.

The next thing on my agenda was to indulge in a massage and hot sauna. The only place that had a sauna as far as I could find was the well-known Red Cross Massage Centre. It wouldn’t be everyone’s first choice for indulgence and pampering because there were absolutely no frills. Everything was basic, but it supported a good cause, and I wanted that sauna to help draw out the toxins which were contributing to my cold brought on, no doubt, by the erratic temperatures. I was on a mission to outwit the weather. As I had hoped, the sauna did the trick even though there were at least a dozen near naked women packed into a small room. The heat and close body contact set up a curiously funny but intimate atmosphere, not just for me but also the young Lao women who were with me. I felt like we had really bonded even though we didn’t share the same language. I love their sometimes child like sense of humour where they take delight in such little things. The Centre does have separate saunas for males and females but that’s it. Everything else is shared. If you are taking a sauna, you must basically fend for yourselves by bringing your own towel, or a sarong as I did, for a cover. The massages were mostly good I would say based on what others told me on Trip Advisor and word of mouth. My masseuse had very strong hands which made things a bit too uncomfortable for me at times. However, she apologized and did try to lighten up when I let out a groan every now and then. It wasn’t one of my better massages; however, the whole experience gave me what I wanted. I felt better afterwards and definitely warmer.

My day ended with a hot and too spicy Laotian soup for me. Nevertheless, I managed to have one of the best sleeps in a while as I bunked down in my day clothes under my duvet tent. Having to deal with the effects of a changing climate in Laos had not only turned out to be my most memorable day of all, but may mean that I will have to revisit this charming and most beautiful country in southeast Asia.

Click on the pictures for the captions.

 

Travel in 2018: Fulfilling a Dream

I recently wrote about the challenges I face as a senior traveller in my post entitled How Our Changing World is Affecting Our Travel. This left some of my readers wondering if I was going to give it all up and stay at home for our Nova Scotian winters.

My answer is, “No, not yet.” There are still places to see. Travel is in my blood and my desire out weighs any challenges I will face.

In fact, my travel plans for 2018 are my most ambitious yet for I will be heading “down under” to Australia to fulfil a life-long dream.

This dream surfaced some time around fifth grade when I was introduced to this fascinating country in my geography classes. Who wouldn’t have been intrigued with the strange animals and plants of this vast country which had English-speaking people reportedly to be much like us Canadians? To top it off Australia has or did have a warm climate, gorgeous beaches, and the Great Barrier Reef. What did it not have, I wondered?

In 1970 my first husband and I seriously considered migrating there, to the city of Perth. He was an avid sailor and thought this would be the perfect place for him. I wasn’t a sailor but it was Australia so I wanted to go…no question. The problem was timing. I had just returned from a year-long back packing trip to Europe… broke! I needed to get back to my teaching and make some money. Moreover, we found out just how difficult it was for us to get accepted into this vast country. If I recall correctly, I don’t think teachers were on their needs’ list, and neither were sail boat enthusiasts. Thus, that dream quietly faded away….for awhile.

As the years passed, however, the dream was revived each time I taught geography to my students as a grade six teacher, or by a TV show filmed there. Does anyone remember “MacLeod’s Daughters”? Then there was “Crocodile Dundee” and the popular detective series “Dr. Blake Mysteries”. Moreover, I was constantly running into Aussies on my travels to Thailand which only served to whet my appetite to visit there even more.

The spark that finally did it for me was the threatening eruption of Mt. Agang in Bali. I had already booked a flight to Singapore for mid March of 2018 when the first eruption occurred in September. After consulting a map, I realised that Singapore was just a hop, skip, and jump away from Australia. Here was the perfect opportunity knocking at my door. There could no longer be such excuses as how expensive this country is for a budget traveller like me. Something told me I had to do it now.

The result of all this is I have just finished making a reservation for March 16 to fly from Singapore to Melbourne. The rest of my itinerary is up for grabs. All I know at this point is that I will have a month to see as much of this vast and varied country (or continent) as money and time will allow.

As I write about fulfilling this travel dream, my endurance is being tested by the extreme cold weather and snow that has been engulfing the Ottawa/Toronto area this past week. By now I should be in the sky wending my way over to Bangkok, but I am not. My flight which was scheduled to leave at 1:40 this morning was cancelled. Thanks to the caring West Jet staff I am now re-booked to take off the same time tomorrow morning. At this time of the year it could have been much worse. I was given a voucher to take a taxi back to my daughter’s house for the night. Today has been sunny here in Ottawa…still cold at -30 degrees…but not cold enough to keep us housebound. What it did was give us that extra ‘mother and daughter’ time that we needed after a very hectic week to simply enjoy a delicious and nutritious lunch at a nearby organic restaurant and do some store snooping on Wellington Street, Ottawa’s trendy shopping area.

As we leave behind 2017 for whatever is in store for us in 2018, I can’t help but see how my last 24 hours are probably a fore taste of what is in store for my travels this coming year. There will be the inevitable challenges to face which will test me to the limit only to be followed by those good times where my faith and joy in travelling are renewed. This is my hope for the world and for everyone who reads this post. Deal with your challenges knowing that they will be followed by the good times.

Happy New Year everyone!

A typical Ottawa winter

 

With snow shovelling

 

…..and lots of fun!

 

But I’ll take this lovely beach in Thailand.

Overcoming the Fear of Travelling Solo as a Senior

To escape the harsh Canadian winters of Nova Scotia, the place I call home, I do what more and more people are doing which is… to seek out some place that is warm. Florida is not the answer for me as has been the custom for many Nova Scotians in the past. For the last nine years, winters have taken me to the Far East, to such countries as Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India, and, finally, last year to South America for the first time.

When I explain to friends, old and new, why I choose to travel to far off places by myself without my husband (Hubby), I get various reactions, such as: am I worried about getting sick, do I feel safe, how do I endure the long flights, or where do I get my energy? They might then end up by saying, “I could never do it.” Before addressing these concerns from the dubious, let me digress to the events leading up to my discovery of travelling solo as a senior female.

I never planned to do this kind of travel when Hubby and I moved to Nova Scotia from the big city of Toronto in 2006. It happened gradually. We kept meeting people in Annapolis Royal…the little town nearest to where we live in Victoria Beach… who had been to South East Asia. They helped perk my interest in the possibility of going there instead of to the south where we had gone previously. To my surprise I was able to talk Hubby into testing the Asian waters. We both realised it was so much cheaper to head east rather than south. For the same amount of money as we would spend to go to Cuba and stay at a resort for a week, we could stretch out our time away in Thailand, for example, to a month or more. Heck, after our second visit we realised we could stay for three or four months and live on a much smaller budget than we ever would if we stayed home. Home meant having to heat a century old house with oil and driving two cars.

Our home in Victoria Beach.

Annapolis Royal in December

After our fourth visit to SE Asia, Hubby announced that he was tiring of this part of the world and wanted to spend his next winter in Florence, Italy, where he had lived for a while as a young man. He also had friends in England he wanted to visit. The thought of spending my winter in either of these places left me cold (no pun intended). I was going back to Thailand again, not just for its warmth, but also because I wanted to shop. If you refer to one of my previous posts you will know why shopping in Thailand is my lure. Click on this link to read: Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai.

Hill Tribe village in northern Thailand.

Night market in Chiang Mai

So now back to the concerns I have encountered from those who are interested in travelling solo as an older person. I say “interested” as I accept that not everyone wants to do this. We all have different ways of deriving satisfaction on our life’s journey. However, for those who would like to do it, but think it’s impossible to travel as a solo senior who is married, I want you to know it is… if you want it badly enough. You can convince your spouse or partner, if you have one, that it’s better for your relationship if you take time off from it and just trust. You can be safe if you use your common sense…this is where seniors have something that the younger set may not. You most likely won’t do anything crazy like walk around deserted streets late at night. You won’t get sick if you are careful of what and where you eat, and should you get sick there are tons of pharmacies with qualified staff and good hospitals in all the countries I have travelled to. Finally, you will survive the long trip overseas if you prepare yourself for the flight and take it easy for the first week by not eating too much spicy food and keeping a normal sleeping schedule. I have many tips for keeping in shape and staying healthy while travelling which I can address in a separate post if you want me to. For anyone who does decide to give solo travel a try, two things can happen:

  1. You will gain a thirst for more.
  2. Or if not, you will be glad you overcame any fear and just did it…once!

Either way you won’t regret it!

Fear of what disasters could happen are a huge concern for anyone starting off on a solo trip. When Hubby and I went on our separate trips in 2013, I was scared, but at the same time I was excited to be out there on my own. I could almost taste the freedom facing me. To deal with the fear factor, I started off with the familiar by travelling to Thailand first. I had friends there and was so familiar with this country that was becoming like a second home for me as Florence was for Hubby.

Viet Nam, however, was another story. My first night in Hanoi scared me to death when I was finally faced with the hoards of motorbikes and cars which seemed to be everywhere buzzing around like flies. With few traffic lights and police to direct the chaos, the Viet Namese drivers cope with a seemingly effortless charge ahead into the flow aiming for any spot that looks like a possibility. As a pedestrian, we must wait for a small gap or lull before heading out into the traffic. Then we pray the drivers see you and go around you rather than into you. I will be forever indebted to Mike and his wife, Diane, for helping me master the art of crossing the busy streets of Hanoi. Their presence was a gift because having been there many times, they were happy to not only be a guide for me, but to be my dinner companions. Aware that this was my first venture to a new place on my own, they kindly took me under their wing… or tried to. I can be awfully independent at times.

Hanoi traffic

My next leg of this solo journey took me to India and Nepal. This was the most daunting part of my whole trip. Any traveller will tell you that India isn’t easy…Thailand is a breeze in comparison. I was definitely put to the test by having to endure scams, pushy males, and sickness. You will come away from India either loving or hating it. By the end, I was somewhere in between. Should the opportunity arise to return, I would. If you want to learn more about my adventures in India you can click on my post Incredible India. 

This is Kerela in South India

Nepal came much easier to me, but it still had its challenging moments, such as my encounter with a bull who didn’t like what I was wearing. You can find out more about this adventure by reading my post Adventures in Nepal.

The Annapurna Massif – part of the Himalaya range.

What I learned from this trip was that any fear you might have about travelling on your own can be overcome by simply doing it. If you don’t have friends you can meet up with, you can always find fellow travellers willing to help you out at the places you stay or eat. Moreover, don’t discount the incredible helpfulness of the locals who in almost all cases will bend over backwards to help. Not everyone is out to scam you. Even in India which probably has one of the worst reputations for devising outlandish schemes to get your money, you will find incredibly helpful people.

So what I have learned about overcoming the fear that comes with travelling on your own is to gain all the information you can about whatever it is you need to know. And, of course, what better way to gain this information than by actually doing it. You can read all the guidebooks and talk to others who have done it, but the best teacher is your own experience. You will make mistakes, things will go wrong, you will get scammed, you will get discouraged, and sometimes feel very alone. However, look at these as the ingredients that make up the experience. Keep at it and you will get better at it. Fear will be replaced with love. Through your own growing, you will learn to not only love yourself more because you have done something you wanted to do and be proud because of it, but you will also become more accepting of all those you meet up with on your travels. You will become that better person where you will have gained a more open mind and be more compassionate towards those who have less than you. You will cease taking our wonderful country we call Canada for granted. This is what travelling solo has done for me, and I am so grateful that in my senior years I can still do it.

For more thoughts on my solo travels, you can refer to Travelling Solo or Not?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

 

 

 

 

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.

mui-ne-and-dalat-075

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.

thailand-burma-viet-nam-xavier-2012-452

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!

Vilcabamba the Village of Longevity

“Please don’t forget about us. We need you to come back.”

This was a heartfelt plea from many Ecuadorians, locals and ex-pats alike, after the devastating  earthquake that hit this beautiful country on April 16th of this year. I was fortunate enough to spend enough time there in January to develop a real liking for Ecuador and its generous people. Yes, our tendency may be to write off a country which has suffered such a blow, but it’s just when such a disaster like this happens that tourists need to keep on coming. Perhaps they won’t want to visit the western coast where the earthquake caused the most devastation, but there is still the central and eastern part of this tiny country which was still impacted both emotionally and economically rather than physically. Under the leadership of Raphael Correa for the past nine years, Ecuador has progressed from one of the poorest South American countries to one that has progressed to one of the most developed. As a result it has gained a reputation as a comfortable and affordable place to retire. Yes, this country now needs us to ‘keep on coming’ more than ever.

One place that I visited this winter which was not affected by the earthquake due to of its southerly location in the central Andes is Vilcabamba. It has over the last 15 years or so become a magnet for not only tourists but also for adventurous if not disenchanted  ex-pats looking for that proverbial ‘land of milk and honey’. It first grabbed the world’s attention back in 1955 thanks to an article that appeared in the National Geographic. They had heard the rumour that a more than usual number of its inhabitants were living to well into their 90’s so they decided to check out the rumour for themselves. Their article attracted a lot of attention but provided no conclusive observations. To this day, the answer is still up for debate on whether the story is based on myth or reality. Over the years, it’s been called the  Valley of Eternal Youth or Longevity and sometimes the Sacred Valley because the Inca claimed it as one of their most spiritual meeting places.

I first heard about Vilcabamba in the International Living magazine which I have subscribed to off and on over the years. For five years straight, this organization has consistently given Ecuador the first prize as the best place for people to move to for retirement. It’s true, they often paint a picture of this country through rose-coloured glasses earning them the dubious title of “International Lying”, but nevertheless, they have succeeded in helping many people find a lifestyle which for the most part is fulfilling all the dreams they might have had.

So, you may ask, is there really any evidence to support the claim for why this village has gained such a reputation as a haven for healthy living and longevity?

There are many reasons as far as I am concerned, and the first that comes to mind is it’s almost perfect climate. From what I could gather by talking to those who live there and what I experienced, the climate is pretty steady and is almost ideal all year round. It’s not too hot and it’s not too cold. In a previous post “Ecuador – A Land of Diversity”, I wrote that in the northern Andes where the town of Otavalo is located, it can be quite cold, just as all along the low-lying coast it can be hot and humid. Vilcabamba also seems to get just the right amount of rain keeping everything green to allow for all manner of fruits and vegetables to be grown all year-long. You can expect grey skies, blue skies, sun, and maybe a light shower or two all in one day. This was the pattern while I was there and apparently this is what you get for most of the year. Boring you say. Well maybe for some but not for me; it’s what keeps their temperatures comfortable. Vilcabamba is located in the southern part of the Andes where the mountain chain begins to taper off, but it’s still over 3,000 ft. above sea level and, of course, near the equator which is another explanation for its almost perfect climate.

When you live in a climate like this where you can grow fruit and veggies year round, chances are you will be eating a more healthy diet than you ever would in Canada or the US. Almost every fruit and vegetable imaginable can be grown there including coffee and cocoa beans providing two of our all time favourite foods – coffee and chocolate. Heavenly! Pesticides are not used here either. Could such healthy foods not be another good reason for the longevity myth?

Vilcabamba’s  environment is pretty decent, too. It has the Andes Mountains surrounding a spacious valley which in turn produces numerous rivers and waterfalls. There is no lack of uncontaminated water. In fact, much of it is used as a source of bottled water for parts of the country who want clean, healthy drinking water. This abundance of water also explains why fruit and vegetables grow so prolifically. Then there are the surrounding mountains with their imposing presence not only giving the village a pretty setting, but also providing many walking trails, hot springs, and spa resorts, another plus in support of health and longevity. Nature reserves and parks are abundant with at least three in the vicinity. I decided to take a morning hike to the Rumi Willco EcoLodge and Nature Reserve with trails to meet all levels of physical endurance including well-marked trees and plants for those of us who lack knowledge in botany. This reserve is situated in one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world with over 132 types of birds and 500 plant species. In fact, the Huilco tree from which the park derives its name is only found here and goes back to well before the time of the Inca as source of medicine for all kinds of ailments.

So much green space in a high altitude would naturally suggest that the air is clean – another argument to support the longevity myth. Moreover, there is little industry here other than farming which seems to be all sustainable and organic, and the one water bottling plant I already mentioned. Nor are there any towns or cities within a 200 mile or more radius that have any kind of heavy industry to pollute the environment. For the time being at least. It seems that developers and farmers who want to burn their land to get in an extra crop or two are threatening to upset balance. The Rumi Wilco Reserve is one such project which was started by a private concern to be sustainable and to preserve what is in danger of disappearing.

My  final pitch as a possible reason for the longevity myth could be that so many of the herbs and medicinal plants that we have access to for good health are grown in this valley. Over 200 species of plants grow in this area and have been used by the indigenous people for centuries. The Wilco tree in the Nature Reserve is a good example. Would you  be surprised to know that many North American companies are now looking at some of these plants as a potential cure for cancer?

I have to admit I didn’t see any centarians while I was in Vilcabamba or even octogenarians for that matter. I was told, however, there were some around in the rural areas. Nevertheless, it makes good sense to me that if people are living in a warm climate with plenty of sunshine, growing and eating food that comes from clean soil, drinking clean water, breathing fresh air, and working hard at things that are meaningful to them, why wouldn’t they live a longer and healthier life? Do you still think that longevity in Vilcabamba is a myth?

I enthusiastically recommend that people keep Ecuador in mind when planning their travel itinerary either now or for their next winter escape. I think you could easily fall in love with it as I did and the thousands of other ex-pats who now live there and make it their home. My bucket list does include another trip there in the not too distant future, and I definitely want to return to Vilcabamba. There are numerous places in this area where you can find that affordable haven for rejunvenation and well-being to suit all pocketbooks, great restaurants offering all organic food, delicious coffee, clean water and air all around. Let’s hope it can stay that way; a village that can still offer an almost perfect environment in a country which is still relatively safe and has worked so hard to promote its fledgling tourist industry.

Resorts for nature lovers and good health located around Vilcabamba:

  1. Hosreia Izhcayluma
  2. Madre Tierra Eco Resort
  3. The Community Cultural Centre for yoga.

A Picture Gallery of scenes from Vilcabamba

 

A Walk About Cuenca

I love Sundays. There has always been something special about them. In fact, I wrote a post about a year ago titled “ A Precious Gift” about spending a memorable Sunday in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Sundays have no special religious connotation for me but I do find them inspirational. For example, I have noticed it is often on a Sunday that I get inspired to write another blog post.

I woke up today realizing this is my last day in this beautiful city called Cuenca. What was I to do with it after I finished Skyping my daughter and my travelling friend, Cathy? Some of the guests here where I’m staying were taking an excursion out to visit some nearby villages for their Sunday markets, but that didn’t hold much appeal for me. There were other things I could have made an effort to see, such as the El Cajos National Park but that didn’t ring my chimes either. What I opted for was to set out to explore all my favourite places right here within walking distance from my hostel.

Tourists and locals who want to explore or who simply want to stroll will invariably head for the pulse of this city: the Plaza del Calderon.2016-02-21 13.50.11

As I approached it, I could hear authentic Andean music or folklorical as I’ve seen it referred to. This was exciting because I have been wanting to hear more of this music but somehow the opportunity had just not presented itself. There it was, finally, at the Nuevo Catedral! Three men dressed in native costume were making music that literally sent chills through me. 2016-02-21 13.40.59

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At last I had found what I was looking for and to sweeten the pot even more they were selling CD’s. Without hesitating I bought one on the spot for only $5.00!

Feeling quite elated, I decided to head down to Calle Larga the street following the Tomebamba River one of four rivers snaking through Cuenca. The streets here are laid out in a kind of grid pattern in spite of the rivers, mainly because the heart of the city is nestled between the Andes that run parallel on either side of it. The Tomebamba River, which is the nearest to the centre, flows from west to east so all the north south streets lead to it.

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I find myself on a street I have not walked on before. At first it appears to be rather nondescript with houses, shops, and a few eating places on either side. Suddenly a shop with colourful textiles and a few people milling around catch my eye so I  decide to check it out. I find the kind of llama sweater I bought for myself a few weeks ago which I mentioned in my latest post. If I can get several of those at my price of $10 I decide I will buy them. I am in a shopping mood after buying that CD. He starts at $28 and finally comes down to $15 but I can’t accept that even though they are thicker and of a slightly better quality. I know I am fighting a loosing battle. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I spy some bags which might sell if again I get the right price. Starting at $15 he eventually lowers to $8 so I buy two of the three he has in stock. Buying in Ecuador takes much effort so I’ve had to walk away from many of the things I see and like because of our crummy Canadian dollar!

Purely by accident or maybe it was fate, but the next street I take leads me straight to Cafe Goza, the most popular spot in Cuenca for their many specialty coffees all grown in Ecuador. It’s popular with locals and ex-pats alike and is always busy: so busy in fact that it has a security guard standing outside where everyone sits. I’m not sure why this is so, but I’m assuming there must have been a nasty incident there at one time. It’s odd because I haven’t seen much evidence of police in the rest of the city. Better to be safe than sorry I guess when it comes to the safety of the ex-pats. Apparently there are well over 5,000 living here.

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Sated with a cappuccino and some apple cake, I continue my walk, snapping pictures of the old colonial homes, the bridges spanning the river, and stairs leading down to it.

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By this time the sun has come out from behind the clouds to pour its warmth on me. Sitting there beside the quick-flowing river, I take the time to appreciate this environment for possibly the last time and to realize how fortunate I am to be here in this wonderful place. I love people watching and this was the perfect place to do it. Families playing games or splashing in the water, older folks out for a walk with their dogs, young lovers smooching under a tree, and old indigenous women looking for recyclables to cash in for extra money. It was all there; the good and not so good.

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It is time to move on again so I continue west which will lead me back to the centre. I am looking for Avenida Benigno Malo which has become one of my favourite streets. I discovered it for the first time yesterday and after seeing many restaurants offering daily luncheon specials I noted this and remembered to return. I know I might be disappointed because it is Sunday when many restaurants and shops are closed. However, as luck would have it, I find one which is offering soup, BBQ chicken, dessert and juice for the paltry sum of $4.00. I had taken advantage of a similar lunch special or almeurzo two days ago on another street. Such specials can be found in the better class restaurants on some of the smaller streets where foot traffic is lighter. Their portions are substantial and they are usually good. Tourists like me on a budget love them!

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Benigno Malo has a fine showing of the old Spanish colonial architecture which contributed to naming Cuenca a Heritage site some time ago. That’s another reason for choosing to walk this street and not the others. It’s a photographer’s delight. Right in the centre it runs smack dab into the famous Nuevo Catedral or Church of the Immaculate Conception which is another photographer’s gem. Snap, snap! I must have taken over 100 pictures today!

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Over four hours have passed since I stepped out onto the street at my hostel. Now I am back in my little room with a full stomach and at peace with this city which I hope I will get the chance to revisit. Once again, it’s time to pack up my bags for tomorrow’s early morning departure and long haul bus ride to Quito, my next stop. This will be another revisit to seek out the places I missed or maybe just to explore those already seen in greater depth with a more seasoned eye. Time will tell.

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