Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

There are view places that have truly taken my breath away. The Kananaskis Valley in Alberta is one of them and the Amalfi Coast in Italy is another. On this trip to Vietnam, the place that had that affect on me was Halong Bay.

We were picked up by our tour (Maya Cruises) bright and early at our hotel in Hanoi. After about 2.5 hours in a ballin’ limousine bus, we arrived at the dock to board our ship. While we waited, we met some of the fellow visitors and chatted about life back home next to fish drying on the rack. While it wasn’t the fish that became part of our dinner, it did remind me of my childhood, back when my grandpa would dry and salt cod fish to preserve for the winter.

After a short taxi, we boarded our main ship with our outstanding guide, Tommy. We were greeted with a welcome drink and taken to the dining area for our 5-course lunch. This was my first cruise experience and it did not disappoint. After our lunch, we were given our room keys and told the agenda of the day. As we sailed further into the bay, the group of us made for two Australians (one of whom was originally from Vancouver), a Brit, and two Taiwanese from Halien. We quickly became a pretty tight knit group as there were only 7 of us.

After lunch and getting sorted in our rooms, we hopped into our bathing suits and prepared for our group kayaking tour around the bay. Once we were all in our respective boats, Tommy guided us around some of the house boats and showing us their oyster farms.

These house boats became a thing after the invention of polystyrene foam, which allowed for the building of cheap floating platforms. Prior to that, the families of Ha Long bay lived on land in traditional houses and in the natural caves on the islands. The last family living in a cave home moved out in 2009. Now, due to the bay’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, no new private homes are allowed to be built on land. Only a few yellow and red park ranger stations dot the landscape. The days of the floating homes are numbered too – the government is relocating those families back on land, due to the environmental impact of the breakdown of the polystyrene floats. I do wonder if ten years from now, visitors to Ha Long bay will see recreations of these villages, built strictly for tourists.

We chose the 3 day / 2 night option while the rest of our group would head back to Hanoi after just one night. While our boat made its way to drop the group off, we boarded a “day boat” cruise which included a different tour guide and a new group of sailers, all of whom were from neighbouring cruises in the bay. We were the last to join the group before we made our way to the famous Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay and is the only island with habitats. It’s also home to the endangered Cat Ba monkey. The monkey lives more in the middle of the island and there are less than 100 left in the world. While we didn’t see any of the monkeys, we did take a bicycle tour to Viet Hai, a small village just a few kilometres from the eastern port. The ride was a pretty easy one with only one big hill that I couldn’t tackle on the bike myself (I’m not a cycler) and the views were incredible.

After a visit to the hospital and school (both of which seem a bit much for a town of less than 200 people), we stopped in for a fish foot massage – strangest feeling ever! – and a rice wine tasting before heading back to the dock. The wines that we did try were infused with rose petals or banana… there was also the infamous snake wine which none of us tried but can be seen in a number of southeast Asian countries including Vietnam. After a nice bicycle ride back to the boat, we made our way to a kayaking raft where we paddled our way to our own private beach.

Paddling in Halong Bay really did bring us up close and personal to the bay. It’s unfortunate that over the years, so much pollution has accumulated in the bay. As you paddle around, it’s not uncommon to cross paths with multiple plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, pieces of styrofoam, and even a rubber glove. But as we made our way back to our main cruise ship, we did see two rangers gathering garbage from the bay, so there is hope for a cleaner bay in the future.

After an action packed trip, we ventured onto the water one last time to visit some caves before we left Halong to make our way back to Hanoi. I have to say that after two weeks exploring Vietnam, Halong Bay was by far one of the highlights of our entire trip. I only wish I could have spent more time…

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Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

It was three weeks out before our return trip to Europe and we still had no plans outside of visiting our beloved Paris, and spending a day in Champagne. At this point, we had planned a trip based on a cheap flight we scored direct to Paris and we had 10 days for our adventure. Since I’m not someone who goes to Europe and only visits one country at a time (ain’t nobody got time for that!), we plotted our course. We’ll spend the weekend in Paris with a day trip to Reims, fly to Bourdeaux and spend three days there, rent a car and drive to Barcelona, and make our way back to Paris to catch our flight a few days later. This plan was all well and good until the Catalan Referendum happened and there were protests in the streets of Barcelona. Three weeks out from our grand adventure, it was time to change course.

I jump on Google flights to see what I can find and after a few alterations with dates, I found a very reasonable flight from Paris to Split, Croatia. Croatia had been on our list for a while, but it hadn’t even crossed our minds this trip. We did the math and it all made sense… we were going to Split!

Our flight was direct from Paris on Croatian Airlines. Being the nervous flyer I am, I gulped my complimentary red wine as we hit some turbulence over the Alps. I couldn’t wait to land. Upon arrival, the earlier turbulence was nothing… the Bora winds had come in strong and our landing was one hell of a roller coaster ride. When we were finally on the ground, the guy next to B crossed himself, leaned over and said “This is a dangerous airport.”

We board the bus that takes you to the port of the city, it was cheap and easy to catch – they line up just outside of the exit. The historical centre of Split is spread out along the waterfront and our hotel wasn’t too far from the port (about a 10 minute walk). After ending up at the wrong version of the hotel (there were two by the same name), one of the staff found us and gave us a lift in their laundry buggy to where we were actually supposed to be. My first observation of Croatia, besides the insane winds, was that the people were super helpful. To the point, but very, very friendly.

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Much of Split’s historic downtown is made up of the Diocletian’s Palace, and the other half is tiny pedestrian streets that you can easy find yourself lost in. There are little shops selling olive oils, sea salt, and truffles around every corner but the best part is the tiny restaurants and cafes tucked into these narrow alleyways. On our second night in Split, we stumbled upon a resto-bar called Torito. It was 7 p.m. and it was quiet. We weren’t completely sure of it since there was only one other table seated but we were already there. We ordered the cheese plate and drinks. No word of a lie, of all of the cheese plates in all of the cheese countries I’ve been in, this was quite possibly my favourite. Accompanied with warmed homemade bread, plum jelly, and this homemade hazelnut chutney that I then spent three days wandering Split to try and track down (it turns out that it’s something that’s unique to the restaurant). The wine was amazing and we knew we’d be back before leaving Split. In fact, we returned twice…

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I didn’t know what to expect from Croatia. The only thing I really knew about the country was Yacht Week and sailing, oh and that Game of Thrones was filmed there – but I’ve never seen an episode so nothing really excited me about that. What I came to quickly learn was that Croatia is a foodie’s paradise. On top of the amazing cheese, Croatia produces some equally amazing olive oil, wine, and sea salt – in addition to being home of the infamous truffle. While we were there, we partook in an olive oil tasting – my first ever! The “instructor” walked us through the traditional and modern ways to produce olive oil, and taught us how to taste the oil like judges do in competitions. The tasting consisted of three types of olive oil, each from a different year and region of the country, and was accompanied with bread, vinegar, and sea salt. Paired with a lovely glass of Croatian Plavac, it made for a pretty unforgettable experience.

Split isn’t all food and yachting though, it also has a beautiful park within walking distance from the old town called Park Marjan. The park is quite large so you can easily spend a whole afternoon there – which we did. There are a number of ways to enter into the park, but we entered the park off of the city street – Senjska. From there we began the climb to the top. At the top of the first part of our climb, we came across a restaurant with the most spectacular views of the city. We stopped for a rest and a beer before continuing on. Along the way, we came across one of the many churches in the park, this one for St. Nicholas the Traveler.

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The hike through the park can be a long one, so I recommend taking water. We didn’t, and regretted it almost immediately, but it was too late for us to turn back, and we also didn’t know how much longer the walk would be. While there’s a lot of trees, depending on the time of the day, they provide little reprieve from the blistering sun. If you plan your day out well, be sure to bring along a towel and your swimsuit, as there are a number of beaches that you can visit for a cool off.

While Croatia wasn’t top of mind when planning this trip, I’m sure glad to stumbled upon the flight. The food, people, and beauty in Split gave me only a glimpse into what the rest of the country has to offer and I can’t wait to go back!

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