Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A Slice of Paradise

Ally and I had visions of spending time on a secluded tropical island paradise, with aquamarine water, loads of sunshine and a waiter that seemed to materialize out of nowhere serving us cold drinks and delicious meals.  I would spend my days on a lounger with a big floppy hat sipping delicious beverages out of a coconut.  Ally would be beside me reading her book and Mark and Meg would be playing in the surf, somewhere close by.  You can picture it right?  Well…Mark, being the amazing man that he is wanted to make our dreams come true and booked us in for five days on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.  Our rustic little cabin with a restaurant, bar and wait staff, was right on the beach, with open windows, mosquito nets and solar heated hot water.  There were lots of palapas, beach loungers and quite a few staff waiting to meet any request that we had.  It was just what we were looking for! 
Our new little home.

The girls love living in their own place, we are afraid what will happen when we get home! 

Just chill in in their own private bungalow!
It was slow season in Phu Quoc, and we were pretty much alone at the resort.  We were hoping for a couple of sunny days interspersed between the spattering of rain, since the rainy season had just started.  Day one was mixed weather and it didn’t bother us one bit.  Mark and I took a long walk down the secluded beach on our first morning and ate fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt for breakfast.  Mark researched the next leg of our travels in the hammock with Ipad (remember her from earlier posts), and the girls and I read and listened to music.  I even got caught up on some writing. We really enjoyed our first day in Phu Quoc and figured we would be able to tough it out for four more days, no problem.  Perhaps I would book a massage in the massage hut, or take in some snorkeling with the girls.  Other than the overpriced restaurant, everything was what we wished for.  Then the rainy season hit full force!

Artsy instalment

Mark and his second wife, living large!

We were awakened by gale-force winds, the sound of the surf crashing on the beach, and the shutters banging against their frames.  It was still awesome though, and Mark and I laughed like teenagers tucked inside our little bungalow under the mosquito net at 2:00 am.  We wondered if our thatch roof would hold and if the girls were awake in their bungalow behind us. It was hot and the storm didn’t seem to cool things down too much.  We slept late the next morning, and tried to run between the raindrops on our way up to the restaurant for breakfast.  A little bit of rain wouldn’t get us down; we were in paradise after all!
The view from our bungalow.
Day three brought more rain and with it lots of cloud cover.  Although it was hard to imagine anything being cold in Vietnam…the shower was!  Solar hot water is great provided there is sun.  So, there we were, huddled under cover, avoiding the rain AGAIN, with the only change of scenery being a cold shower and another round of Euchre with the girls.  My little paradise island wasn’t quite turning out as I had planned.  Where was the sunshine…my big floppy hat… and would someone please bring me a drink in a coconut!

Playing Hearts and Euchre underneath the mosquito net!
By day four I had come to realize that the odds of us living out our dreams on a secluded tropical island were not going to happen. It was still raining and as I lay on the bed, I heard a strange noise coming from the bathroom.  Meg and I went to investigate and found this little (read GIGANTIC) fellow on the wall.  

He was about 1.5 feet long from nose to tail, and that is no fishing story!
Now, not only did I have the raging tropical storms to keep me awake at night but the thoughts of this guy snuggling up next to me in bed too.  Yes, this is paradise all right!  I’m secluded on a tropical island with a ‘komodo dragon’ as a house pet and rain whipping through the shutters.  Oh and did I mention that the mosquitos have also arrived with the rain, and they are only slightly smaller than the lizard!
Passing time, waiting for the rain to stop AGAIN! To be honest, it is pretty amazing spending this much time
together in a tiny little bungalow!
On our final day the rain let up a bit, but the surf kept pounding the beach.  I laid on the bed watching it through the doors that I had latched open.  The breeze flowed through and I could feel the salty air on my face.  Mark had headed out for a swim and Ally came bounding down from her bungalow.

“Guess what Mom, I just saw a snake!” she exclaimed. 

The geckos and spiders could be dealt with; the ‘komodo dragon’ freaked me out a little, but snakes?  Snakes are not cool!  My tropical island dream was turning into a nightmare!  I don’t drink but I am really tempted to ask for something a little stronger in my coconut next round!
Of course Mark is not phased by anything!

He was even able to squeeze in a tune before the rain started back up again!

Mark says I am sure to have many “woe is Lisa”, “get out your little violins and have a pity party” and  “cry me a river” comments on this post. Let’s face it; nobody out there is going to feel sorry for little old me having her dreams dashed.  I know I get it, but please whatever you do, don’t cry me a river.  We are practically floating as it is, and your tears might just send our little bungalow adrift. Well, I had better run and check on Mark; hopefully the sharks haven’t gotten him.  Here’s to sunnier days in Cambodia, ahead.

Ahhh, he is just fine!

Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Puke, Blood and Beauty of Vietnam

About a year ago this time, I was at school clearing out my classroom, preparing to take a year leave.  On my way out I stopped to chat with one of the cleaners, working away in the hallway.  I remember her asking where we were going on our trip, and her surprise at our desire to visit her country of Vietnam.  During our travels, I had heard lots of travelling nightmare stories about Vietnam, and to be honest I was a little skeptical.  As it turned out for the Mitchells, Vietnam was full of wonderful people, amazing food, beautiful scenery, thrilling adventure and so much more.
Our first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi where we spent several days with Narelle and Dong, in an Airbnb and had an amazing time.  Narelle is an English teacher from Australia and Dong owns a travel agency; together they make an amazing team, that can meet and exceed any traveller’s expectations.  The girls played with their new puppy, Caru, we dined on Bun Bon Nam Bo (our favourite Vietnamese dish besides fresh spring rolls), and wandered around the town avoiding motorcycles and taking in the scenes of a busy day.  The water puppet show was recommended, as was a trip to the country.  We were amazed at what they call ‘Vietnam telecom’ and are still wondering how it was possible to make it through the week with wifi and electricity.  We toured the Women’s Museum and learned all about women’s roles in the war and also visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, the jail made famous by its POW, Senator John McCain.
The music was amazing at the water puppet show.
The puppet masters wore hip-waders and stood waist deep in water behind a screen, manoeuvring the puppets.
 There was smoke, fire and lots of cool affects.
Biking in the country - boy was it hot!
The Hanoi Hilton
We thought this was quite amazing.  The barber shop is on the sidewalk along with the motorcycles!
This is what they call Vietnam Telecom! I included this in a previous blog, but it is
just so unbelievable we had to post it again!
You couldn’t help but notice how the women covered themselves from head to toe when outside, and we learned that men find women with white skin quite attractive in Vietnam.  Facemasks, gloves, long wrap skirts that cover bare legs, conical hats, and hooded jackets were part of every city women’s daily wardrobe.  We on the other hand were sweating in our tank tops and shorts in the 40-degree heat, and couldn’t imagine adding any more layers to our bodies.  The white skin is believed to indicate wealth, as the women have not had to work outdoors to sustain themselves.  Ally and Meg sure did attract attention from the young men, and Mark and I were told many times how beautiful our daughters were.
Jessie, I borrowed this photo from you, but it was the best to capture how the women cover
up in Vietnam!
Another example of the 'undercover' women.
We took a boat trip to Halong Bay, staying overnight on a small wooden vessel, surrounded by beautiful scenery.  I’ve never taken a cruise, but if the volumes of food on our boat were any indication, I can imagine the abundance.  Venturing into caves, visiting a pearl farm, kayaking, and seeing what life is like in the floating fishing village, were highlights.  Mark played the bagpipes for the other boats docked in the bay and we met some amazing people during our days aboard.

Smooth sailing into Halong Bay.

We hiked up the edge of the mountain and explored deep into the caves.  You
can see the floating fishing village in the background.
Just beautiful!
A cooking lesson, we are learning how to make fresh springrolls - yum yum!
After spending the night on the sleeper train, we found ourselves in Hoi An, one of Mark’s favourite places in Vietnam.  Hoi An is famous for clothing tailors and I had a couple of skirts fashioned for my return to work.  We were fortunate enough to be there during the lantern festival and joined the festivities by making wishes, while launching lanterns into the river.  The town itself is an example of a traditional South-East Asian trading port.  It is one of the only towns in Vietnam that has survived intact since the early 15th century.  

The streets were beautiful, and all of the buildings maintained the same heritage look.
The lantern festival was spectacular.
Young children and moms sold the lanterns to tourists to launch into the river.
We purchased four to send a drift.
It is tough to see but the river was bright with everyone's lanterns floating down stream, here is Meg
launching hers.  We were so caught up with everything we almost forgot to make our wishes!
My new skirt hand tailored by Duc Minh Tailors at Cua Dai Beach.  I probably
should have had more clothing made at these prices!
We made a quick stop in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam, before we ventured to Nha Trang.  We found ourselves back on the sleeper train, but this time, were able to enjoy the landscape by day.  A quick boat trip up the river in Hue took us to the Citadel.  Nha Trang is a beach community with a large Russian tourist population, seeking the sunshine.  We relaxed, walked along the boardwalk, and enjoyed the view from our high-rise apartment.

We took a trip on the dragon boat up the river for a tour.  It cost 75 cents each for about 3 hours of time.
I don't know how the families can possibly make a living at that price.
The Citadel in Hue.
Just checking out the beautiful scenery; water buffalo, workers in the fields in conical hats, rivers and rice fields.
Our view in Nha Trang; it reminded us of Australia... a bit.
The sleeper bus took us to Dalat, where there was no shortage of adventure .  It seems that every tourist blog about Asian bus trips, includes vomit, and we were not spared.  The little boy beside me woke up from a nap and started puking up a storm.  Thankfully we were on the top bunks, and the passenger below made a quick escape when it started raining ‘puke’ from above – yep GROSSE!!! Thankfully it was at the end of our journey and we all kept our cookies down until we were able to make a quick escape. Mark loved the cooler temperatures in Dalat, and morning runs around the 6 km man-made lake with the girls each morning, was a treat.  We visited a Gaudi inspired hotel, called the Crazy House and found ourselves canyoning! Rappelling down steep rock walls and crazy waterfalls, definitely took us out of our comfort zones, but we were thrilled that we gave it a go. 

The top bunk of the sleeper bus!
What a crazy adventure, still can't believe we did all of this!
Check out Pine Track Adventures in Dalat for the safest, most professional experience.
We paid a little more but believe me, it was worth it when we saw what the other outfits were doing out there. 
Checking out the crazy house, high above the ground!
Our beauties at the Crazy House.
We took a cable car ride and captured this photo on a hike around a temple, so beautiful!
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is our home for now, before heading out to the tropical island of Phu Quoc for some sun, surf and relaxation.  My body is still aching from the adrenaline rush of rappelling, but there is no time to recover!  The Saigon streets are crazy with scooters, buses and cars and my heart jumps out of my chest every time we cross the street. We have learned it is best to close your eyes and hold your breath, or as Mark says, hold your toes and cross your breath, either works! I don’t think we have ever been so happy to reach the sidewalk as we have been in Saigon!  We spent an educational and sombre afternoon at the War Museum; thankful we were Canadian, but questioning history's path.  So much blood was shed, and all to protect Vietnam from communism??? Hmmm 

An afternoon history lesson at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Mr. McGall would be so proud!
School is not quite out for us Mitchells yet.
Thousands of bombs remain un-detinated in Vietnam, threatening the lives and
safety of its residents.  
Yes, you even have to watch out for motorcycles inside restaurants! So crazy...
Vietnam has been amazing and we are sorry to be leaving this beautiful country in a few days, but Cambodia and Thailand await, and our time is running out. I appreciated the warnings we were given before our visit to Vietnam, but sure am glad that we made a stop here.  Make no mistake, it has some sad history, and I can now appreciate why my friend questioned our intentions to visit her homeland. However; learning about, appreciating, and respecting the history of the countries we have visited, has made our travels so much more rewarding.  There have been times when it has been difficult to learn about the past, but we are so grateful for the journey, and the beautiful people we have met. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Adventures in Muggings, Robberies and Kidnappings

If you have ever been pregnant or known anyone that has been pregnant you may recall the inevitable change of conversation from the gushy congratulations, when are you due, is it a boy or girl, rub of the belly stuff to some horror story from labour and delivery.  If it is not a labour and delivery nightmare there is colic, nursing or sleep deprivation that moms feel the need to share.  I don’t think people mean to scare the day lights out of unsuspecting mothers, they feel it is their duty to share their experiences, or their cousin's friend's sisters.  Perhaps it is a bonding experience - a kind of warning that will miraculously allow the receiver of such information to avoid the pitfalls of the teller.  No I am not trying to segway into an announcement that Mark and I are expecting, but merely creating a parallel to travelling. 
Four crazy tourists visiting the Crazy House in Dalat, Vietnam.  Doesn't look like we are suffering too much!
The same kinds of warning stories happen among travellers.  Stories about who had to replace their passport, got their camera stolen with six months of photos, or got their hotel room broken into while travelling, are plentiful.  Usually all of this stuff has happened in the country we are headed to next!  If we are really lucky, we will hear about the young woman that got locked into a taxi and driven around the countryside, then dropped off in no man’s land without any money or a phone because she got mugged too!  During our trip we have heard some nightmares and met some ‘real life’ people that have been victims of some sort of major scare, crime or inconvenience.  So, like every new mother, it is only natural that one (OK ME!) would feel a little nervous or anxious when travelling to some of these countries. Particularly when I'm now carting around a catalogue of warnings from some stranger’s boyfriend’s sister’s friend, from ten years ago.
Just in case, we purchased a wishing ribbon to keep our family safe while travelling.
Thankfully, Mark only hears about how beautiful the places we are planning to visit are, how amazing the food is and immediately starts making lists of the places we need to see.  I on the other hand am zoned in to every scrap of information that will prepare me for the inevitable muggings, robberies, and kidnappings! Mark and I have fallen into our roles quite well.  He is the ‘tour guide’ and I am the ‘protector’.  I am armed and ready to pounce on the first person that approaches us in any new country.   Actually, I really don’t like confrontation at all, but just try to take advantage of me and I turn into some judgemental, crazed, human being.  To be honest, the occurrences have been seldom and of really little substance, but when I put on the ‘not going to happen face’, even Mark and the girls get scared.  Of course the perpetrator doesn’t realize that my heart is pounding out of my chest and I’m ready to run.

If you look carefully, Mark has his phone in his hand researching a restaurant for dinner.  I on the other hand
am chatting with a local.  I was skeptical about his approach initially, but it turned out he was
a computer engineering student who just wanted to practice his English. 

As it is my duty to ensure our conversation heads to the traveller’s horror zone, here are our adventures in muggings, robberies and kidnappings.  Be warned it is not that exciting, but I could introduce you to my friend who has a brother and his girlfriend’s sister could tell you a story much more colourful than ours! 

Incident #1 Rope Robbery:
A cow vendor in Kenya stole one of the ropes we had purchased to lead the cow back to the village.  Fortunately for us, he stole it while I was videoing the scene of the crime.  Thieves can be really dumb sometimes!  Within minutes the thief was apprehended and rope returned.  I didn’t have to put on my mean, scary face, but the guy that wanted to charge us an additional fee to register the cow in our names and provide me with a licence, got an earful.  I had felt victimized by the rope thief, and be darned if I was going to be ‘taken’ again.  Turned out the licence was all part of a legitimate cow transaction and I had over reacted – who knew? 
See that white rope - it is ours, and the fellow in the light blue hat walks off with it. Busted! 
Incident #2 Pineapple Kidnapping:
While in Vietnam a pineapple vendor came up to the girls and plopped a conical hat on their head and a quang ganh (two baskets slung from each end of a bamboo pole) on their shoulders.  It was my fault; I had paused to see what she was selling and that was the moment of opportunity.  It is such a sight that you automatically want to capture it on camera.  Thankfully for us, this was not the first time we had been requisitioned for money after taking a photo, so Mark knew to negotiate a fair price before the happy snappy!  After our small payment, the girls were returned to us safely, and were spared a life of pineapple peddling.
Pineapple anyone? Very cheap price!
Incident #3 Magnet Replacement
While poking around in a souvenir shop, Mark accidentally knocked a high end, made in China, poorly painted, magnet off a rack.  Actually the magnet was so weak it just slid down the metal board and hit the floor.  Immediately three women, who spoke little English, pounced on Mark.  The magnet was scooped up, claimed to have been damaged, wrapped and was now being used to demand payment.  Mark looked at the other magnets on the board; all were damaged and were merely samples of the new plastic wrapped magnets below.  No way, the ‘not going to happen face’ came out.  If we had truly damaged something of course we would pay, but clearly we had done no damage to the ‘sample’ magnet on display.  Actually all of the sample magnets were in poor shape, I wonder how many tourists had fallen for that scheme and were the proud new owners of ‘damaged’ goods?

Incident #4 Bait and Switch
Check your goods people!  Electricity is expensive and in some areas you pay more for a cold drink as apposed to a warm one.  We stopped off at a convenience store and requested four cold waters.  The sales clerk put them in a plastic bag even though we tried to tell her we didn’t need one (Asia is obsessed with plastic bags).  We quickly realized the plastic bag was used to conceal the two warm bottles, placed underneath the glistening cool bottles!  Sucker!!  The same goes for fruit people…pick out your own and don’t be lured by the beautiful sample the salesperson has in their hand that you end up negotiating a price over.  We've come home with a few “lemons” on our shopping trips.
Fun times at the market!
Yep, I know pretty scary stuff on the Mitchell World Tour, I told you it was a horror show!  We feel pretty fortunate that these are the only incidences we can report (so far), and even then we had to brainstorm to come up with a blog post!  Despite all of the horror stories, most of the locals and tourists that we have encountered have been friendly, generous, helpful and kind. Our positive traveller stories could go on for pages and far outnumber the negatives (but that wouldn’t be too exciting). So there you have it folks, my contribution to the traveller’s nightmare. After reading this you too can now say, "I had a friend that knew someone that blah blah blah…." Perhaps we should write a book!  We could title it What to Expect When You're Expecting to Travel - we could be millionaires!  Just think of the travelling we could do then.