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

 

 

 

 

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!

A Wonderful Welcome to Viet Nam

 

The mighty Mekong River.

The mighty Mekong River.

There are three reasons for my return to Viet Nam for the third time. Since my last trip here was over four years ago, I was curious to witness the changes that might have occurred in this country now toted to be the fastest growing economy in SE Asia. The second reason was to delve more closely into the Mekong Delta region in the south…a part of Viet Nam I have never visited. The third is the people…for their spirit, openness and generosity.

I have been twice to the North and seen many of its beautiful attractions, such as Halong Bay, Sapa, Hue, the original Imperial capital, and the present capital of Hanoi. However, it is the south that beckons me this time around. The two regions are quite different in culture and historical background. The war in the 60’s and 70’s precipitated by Ho Chi Minh’s dream to unite his country with his communist manifesto seemed to divide the country more than ever. As we know, he was not successful, but that has not stopped this country from moving on. Both the south and the north now look at Ho Chi Minh as a national hero.

My entrance to this beautiful country was at the small city of Chau Doc bordering onto Cambodia…and why Chau Doc? It is one of the overland border crossings into Viet Nam where with relative ease tourists can enter the country from Cambodia after a leisurely boat trip down the mighty Mekong River.

Having our visas checked at the border.

Having our visas checked at the border.

I was pleasantly surprised by what I experienced in this friendly town with a population of about 103,000. There isn’t anything outstanding about it other than it claims to be Viet Nam’s foremost fish farming centre. It also has a floating market as many towns and cities in the Mekong Delta can lay claim to. Nevertheless, there is comfortable feel to it which lends visitors a reason to linger for awhile.

Chau Doc lies beside the Baasic River, a tributary of the Mekong. This is the walkway.

Chau Doc lies beside the Baasic River, a tributary of the Mekong. This is the walkway.

The Victoria Chau Doc Hotel. A piece of grandeur built by the government.

The Victoria Chau Doc Hotel. A piece of grandeur built by the government.

I had to stop for a refresher in its inviting surroundings.

I had to stop for a refresher in its inviting surroundings.

My waitress dressed in her Ao Doi.

My waitress dressed in her Ao Doi.

Chau Doc's market.

Chau Doc’s market.

Selling flowers for Tet, Viet Nam's New Year.

Selling flowers for Tet, Viet Nam’s New Year.

I almost made the mistake that most tourists do… of going straight on to Ho Chi Minh City thinking that there was nothing of interest here. However, something told me I needed to give Chau Doc a chance so I booked a hotel for four nights. I was more than ready to leave behind the chaos and grime of Phnom Penh and Chiang Mai for the slower pace of a town in the idyllic Mekong Delta.

Chau Doc welcomed me with open arms. Mr. Nguyen Van Long, the owner and operator of Mr. Long travel agency, which happened to be right around the corner from my hotel was the first to do so. I arrived the night before so next morning before looking for a place where I could get some good coffee and food, I first needed water and a map, and he had both. An older man in his 60’s, well-educated with fairly good English, we were able to quickly connect. In no time I had booked a tour to the floating market and a fish farm, as well as my bus trip to HCMC. I also discovered he was teaching English in his spare time to a small group of kids who were anxious to improve their skills When he found out about my teaching background, I was the perfect catch for him and immediately received an invite to attend his attend his Sunday morning class.

Mr. Long with his wife and granddaughter.

Mr. Long with his wife and granddaughter.

His generosity didn’t end there. He arranged to partner me up with the mother of one of his students to take me out to their favourite restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. I was not expected to pay so they blocked any attempt at my efforts to return the favour. After my second meal with them, Trinh, the mother, insisted on taking me to the closest thing to a night club. We watched couples who took formal dancing with a smattering of jazzy moves thrown into the mix strut their stuff. Added to this were some pretty good singers accompanying them with sad love songs. Again I tried to pay for our drinks when she went to the ‘ladies’ but again she had beaten me to it. Later on I found out that the Viet Namese are very good at adopting people they like, going above and beyond in their generosity to prove this.

Mr. Long with mother, Trinh and her daughter and son, two of Long's student's.

Mr. Long with mother, Trinh, and her daughter and son, two of Long’s student’s.

Two more students I met at Mario's coffeehouse both eager to speak English.

Two more students I met at Mario’s coffeehouse both eager to speak English.

There was no question that I was being treated like royalty. In fact, Trinh would arrive at my hotel to pick me up on her motor bike at exactly the time we arranged. Like all bike drivers in Viet Nam, she was a master at manoeuvering the traffic all the while she was turning to talk to me sitting behind her. She spoke very little English making it difficult for me to understand her and know what she was doing. I had to resign myself to sitting back and going with the flow… not always an easy thing for me to do.

The tour I had signed up for with Mr. Long had me up at six in the morning for a visit to a floating market.We left just as the sun was rising in a small wooden boat steered by a woman which is common throughout the delta. Seeing how the families live on their boats and conduct their business is always interesting. We stopped to visit a family who had received bags of watermelons which they were busily sorting and preparing to sell to the vendors at the markets. Of course, I got to sample some.

On one of the floating markets.

On one of the floating markets.

Watermelons for sale.

My tour also included a short visit to a Cham village where we visited a mosque since many Cham are Muslim. They and the rest of the Viet Namese who could be of either Khymer or Chinese lineage all seem to carry on peacefully with their daily living. However, I did see some rather poor children begging so my guess is that this Cham community isn’t doing as well as the others.

Path over the canal leading to Cham village.

Wooden bridge to the |Cham village.

Wooden bridge to the Cham village.

Mr. Long informed that the fish farming industry in Viet Nam accounts for over 20% of the country’s seafood output. He remembers when there were maybe 100 farms around Chau Doc where he grew up but now over 150,000. The fishing is carried out on the in houses built on stilts with floating metal drums attached underneath them for raising the fish. The fishermen import the fish eggs come from the Tonlee Sap…the largest lake in SE Asia located in Cambodia. They are then raised to a market size of about 1 kg. and fed on a dough like substance consisting of cereal, vegetables and fish scraps. Each drum can produce up to 400 tonnes of fish in a 10 month cycle. Their fish is exported to all of Europe and the Americas. It’s a huge business with two kinds of catfish as the prime fish. For how much longer I asked? His answer was that the industry is already showing signs of trouble ahead for several reasons: the rising cost of fish food, the dams which have been built on the Mekong by China, and climate change.The farmers now supplement the fish food with their own food scraps. The excessive building of dams and climate change have played havoc with the water levels causing the fishermen to move around much more and work harder than they ever had to.

Fish farms built on stilts.

Fish farms built on stilts.

Drums where the fish are raised.

Cages where the fish are raised.

Meeting Long, his friends, and students were the highlight of my stay in Chau Doc. They are perfect examples of the open and generous spirit which caught my attention the second time I visited Viet Nam. On my first visit to Hanoi in the north, it rained the whole time I was there. The terrible weather, my too brief visit, and the more reserved nature of the northerners failed to make a positive impression upon me. The special energy that I and many others have noticed which prevails largely in the south, perhaps explains why this country is moving forward in leaps and bounds. They have left their horrific past behind them, they are living very much in the present, and  they dream of a better future for their country. No where is this more evident than in Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, formerly Saigon, which will be the subject of my next post.

 

A Brief Hiatus to Phnom Penh

Ever since the devastating turmoil imposed by the despotic years of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge in the late ’90’s, Cambodia has been struggling under a repressive Communist government to rise again from the ashes. On the outside it appears that the country is achieving this as evidenced by the flocks of tourists visiting the ancient city of Ankor in Siem Reap and the rampant development of slick new condos, hotels, gourmet restaurants, and fancy vehicles in Phnom Penh or PP, the capital of the country. It appears to have all the trappings of a world-class city, but as we know all too well appearances can often be deceiving. You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence of poor services…more trash everywhere…and too many people living in poor housing or practically on the streets because of lack of employment and the rising cost of living. Yes, there is still a long way for this country to go to get back on its feet.

A luxury govt. hotel across the river.

A luxury govt. hotel across the river.

So why have I returned to Phnom Penh and Cambodia for the fourth time? I have finished my shopping…at least most of it…and I have seen most of the country before.

There are two…no three… reasons why I have returned:

  1. To meet up with a friend I met several years ago in Bangkok who lives and works here.
  2. To splurge a little by eating out at good NGO (non – government organizations) restaurants with some of the best food in SE Asia.
  3. To spend my tourist dollars to support the sweet Cambodian people who work so tirelessly in the tourist business.

My friend, Michelle, is a journalist for the  Cambodia Daily newspaper and fellow Canadian originally from Quebec. She has lived in Phnom Penh for more than a decade covering a fledgling art scene in hopes it will help give the people a better sense of their historical past, something which has been sorely missing in this country. She loves Cambodia for the people and their perseverance, as I do. She endures the corruption, the dirt, the poverty, and the crime by striving to help all the people she employs and meets here in her daily life. Like many journalists today, she faces cuts in her salary and the possibility that her paper could fold. Yet, she still keeps the interests of her cook, her cleaning lady and her tuk tuk drivers at the top of her list even though she finds it increasingly difficult to pay them. As she puts it, their livelihood depends a great deal on her.

As soon as I arrived she and her driver came to pick me up at my boutique hotel, The Little Garden http://www.littlegarden.asia/and whisked me off to “Romdeng” one of the first restaurants established by a well-known and respected NGO called Friends http://friends-international.org. Do take the time to look up this group of dedicated individuals who have done so much for this country. This is their mandate:

“We are a leading social enterprise saving lives and building futures of the most marginalized children and youth and their families across the world.”

Michelle and I celebrated our reunion with a glass of wine…the first of my splurges… and delicious Khymer food in a lovely garden setting.

To further my pace of self-indulgence on my second night here, I suggested we meet for dinner at another well-known restaurant in PP… FCC or the Foreign Correspondence Club http://fcccambodia.com. FCC had its beginnings in the late ’90’s after the Pol Pot days as a place for foreign correspondents and aid workers to eat, drink, and share stories of the horrors of war. It became a PP icon. Unlike most private correspondent clubs, this one is public and run as a not-for-profit. I first went there over five years ago and was disappointed in the food. It was nothing to rave about and was expensive. Now the food is tasty, nicely presented, and decently priced. We splurged once more and had a cocktail ‘two for one’ special. The ambience and decor at FCC have remained as they always have been since its inception. You can sit on the roof top terrace looking out at the Tonley Sap River with the twinkling lights of the many boats as they sail past.

The FCC restaurant and hotel.

The FCC restaurant and hotel.

Enjoying our splurging.

Enjoying our splurging.

Although most of my shopping was completed and shipped from Thailand, I was hoping my buyer’s eye could find some hand-made items made out of recycled materials which the Cambodians are masters at creating. I found my store as I was walking along Sisowath Quay on the river front. With the help of an eager young sales clerk who spoke fairly good English, I picked up some small money pouches or pencil cases made of recycled materials by victims of the landmines.

My time in Phnom Penh and Cambodia is almost over, and I’m ready to go. I accomplished everything I had set out to do. Michelle and I had a fantastic time splurging and indulging ourselves…. a rarity for both of us. I enjoyed every meal I had while I was here including the breakfasts at my hotel which were delicious and varied with real coffee. I skipped lunches which I made up for with dinners, wine and cocktails and all met my expectations. With the help of the tuk tuk drivers, I was able to give my feet a well-deserved rest after all the walking I did in Chiang Mai. And, I found some saleable items to take back home which I know will be a hit because they support a very good cause. Tomorrow I will say ‘good-bye’ to Cambodia and sail down the Mekong River for Viet Nam. Another adventure awaits!

A typical Cambodian tuk tuk.

A typical Cambodian tuk tuk.

Trekking Around Chiang Mai

For those of you who might be looking for an escape to nature not too far from Chiang Mai, I can recommend two little gems. The nearest one is Doi Inthanon about 60 km west of the city, and the second one is the Chae Son National Park about a two and half hour ride northeast of the city in Lampang province. Both day-trips are well worth a visit if you are seeking clean air, beautiful flora, birds, and waterfalls.

Although I have visited Doi Inthanon on previous trips to Thailand, I was still eager to visit again not only for the clean air it offers… it’s the highest peak in all of Thailand…. but because this trip took me on a trail I had not been on before. Chae Son Park was my first escape thanks to a friend who arranged a car and driver to take a small group of us there. I would never have known about it, otherwise.

We were a group of seven… 50+ in age…who set out on our first trek to Chae Son Park. Our expert driver chose to take us up through a mountain pass which provided not only gorgeous scenery but some hair-raising curves and twists. Needless to say, some of us were very happy to arrive at our destination. With good walking shoes, sunscreen, water, and snacks, we set out on a 5 km. hiking trail which took us to the highest waterfall, Mae Mon, about 2,000 m.

The upward climb to Mae Mon.

The upward climb to Mae Mon.

Looking down.

Looking down.

Mae Mon

Mae Mon Waterfall

Chae Son was opened in 1988 making it Thailand’s 58th National Park. What was surprising to us was that in the middle of the week there was nary a tourist around and only a handful of Thai enjoying this beautiful park’s offerings…the hotsprings, waterfalls, and abundant flora.

Hot springs

Hot springs

Our second waterfall

Our second waterfall

Mushrooms anyone?

Mushrooms anyone?

The mostly deciduous trees meant lots of birds which were apparent from their calls although none of us had binoculars so we didn’t actually get to see them. I read that there were caves in the vicinity but those escaped us, too. Our focus was on the walking or I should say climbing, the waterfalls, and the river leading to them. Upon entering Chae Son we couldn’t help noticing how well-kept the park was with immaculate landscaping and neat little bungalows with spa facilities for those seeking some rejuvenation. However, we were there to walk so decided to forego them.

Hot springs near the park entrance.

Hot springs near the park entrance.

C'est moi.

C’est moi.

Like so many public parks and places of interest in Thailand, the signage wasn’t up to par. There were some signs with a smattering of English but most of them were in Thai making it difficult for us to figure out what direction to take and just what we were seeing. The maps and information at the entrance were not clearly presented…at least not to our 50+ minds.

This was the most prominent sign.

This was the most prominent sign.

As we ascended the well maintained trail with sturdy steps and handrails, and adequate rest stops, we were treated to two lovely waterfalls. I read that the park has six in all. The rest of them we never saw because the trail abruptly ended when we came face to face with a bridge that definitely did not look safe enough to cross. At this point we decided to head back to enjoy the hot springs which we had only observed at the beginning of our trek knowing full well that our tired feet would enjoy them more at the end.

Three rare birds.

Three rare birds.

Taking a much-needed rest.

Taking a much-needed rest.

Such a treat.

Such a treat.

The highlight of the hot springs especially to the Thai is to have the thrill of boiling some eggs which you can then feast on for breakfast or lunch. The numerous pools of boiling water average about 73 degrees centigrade and will boil an egg in about 17 minutes.

One week later, our trekking group now diminished to four, visited Doi Inthanon at 2,565 m above sea level. Like Chae Son the park here is also a major water source for Central Thailand. What is so interesting about visiting this area is you get to experience two climates. At the beginning or at the bottom, you have a tropical climate but about half way up, you begin to notice it gets colder and by the time you are up to the top you are putting on a jacket and noticing plants that look a lot like home.

The trekkers.

The four trekkers.

Here the signs were much clearer than those of Chae Son, and it was brought to our attention at various points that it was now about 17 degrees centigrade.

Oops, the temperature has dropped!

We were in the cloud forest! The scenery brought images of Switzerland and Scotland to my mind… I haven’t been to either but it’s how I envision them… with the grasses, jutting rocks, and rising mists. It was breath-taking.

Up into the clouds.

Up in the clouds.

Scotland or Switzerland?

Scotland or Switzerland?

Suddenly, we saw specks of red which turned out to be masses of rhododendrons growing up into huge trees.

Can you see them?

Can you see them?

There's one!

There’s one!

The proliferation of lianas and ferns produced a brilliant green which is a result of higher rainfall levels than down below. I read that there are over 360 species of birds making it the best birding site in the entire country. Again we weren’t able to see them because of the height of the trees, but we did hear them. It’s at times like this I wish I were a birder or with one who could educate me. Although we were accompanied by one of the park’s guides and our driver who had some English, it was still difficult to understand the names of any flora or fauna we were witnessing. However, I kept reminding myself I was there to walk and to witness the gorgeous scenery, not become a bird-watcher or a botanist.

On our way down the mountain, we stopped to take a brief tour of the Two Chedies we witnessed on our way up. These chedies ( the Buddhist word for stupa) were built to honour the late King of Thailand, Bhumibol, and his wife Queen Sirikit. They were built to commemorate their 60th birthday’s. Although the Queen’s is smaller, it is the more elegant of the two with beautiful murals depicting the women in the life and times of the Buddha.

The Two Chedies

The Two Chedies

The King's chedie.

The King’s chedi

The Queen Sirikit Chedie

The Queen’s

We made another stop after our visit to the Two Chedies to see the Vachirathan Waterfall which fortunately looked wonderful with lots of cascading water. On my previous visits I was never so lucky because there was not much water and wondered why the Thai would even bother taking us there to visit such a puny site. This has been a fairly good year for rain in this area and what a difference that makes. We have to remember that this is the dry season here in Thailand which can mean that waterfalls start to shrivel up about this time.

Great group picture taken by our expert photographer guide.

Great group picture taken by our expert photographer guide.

By the time we got down closer to Chiang Mai, one of the members of our group wondered if our driver could take us to a wat (temple) which sits on small mountain overlooking the city. Being a polite Thai man who likes to please his customers, he consented and with perfect timing got us there just as the sun was setting. We were also blessed with clear skies, something of a rarity at this time of the year when the city could have been shrouded in haze. Fortunately it wasn’t, so we were able to get some pretty spectacular photos. Thank you Patty!

Overlooking Chiang Mai from the wat.

Overlooking Chiang Mai from the wat.

A Big Buddha at sunset.

A Big Buddha at sunset.

This is the thing about Chiang Mai and its environs. It’s still relatively easy to use the city as a great starting point for numerous day trips which can take you in all directions to scads of attractions mostly provided by the mountainous terrain and the Hilltribe villages. I will be forever indebted to my friend, Buddy, who put much time and effort into pulling us together and getting us out of the heat and noise of the city to enjoy Nature’s beauty.