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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Bosnia & Herzegovina

Bosnia & Herzegovina

Up ahead are white dusted tipped mountains, down below are valleys, and I’m somewhere in the middle, driving along twisty mountain roads in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although I’ve never been in this part of the world before, I find it strangely familiar. It’s as if all of the cities and all of the countries I’ve traveled before have mashed together before my eyes and I’m in a place that I’m familiar with.

As we make our way down the twisty mountain roads towards Mostar, I’m taken back to my childhood. To a time where I hated road trips. It’s likely due to the fact that as an only child in the early 90s, I grew bored with them. On any given Sunday, my grandparents (who raised me and I love dearly), found entertainment in the 3 hour drive around the world’s famous Cabot Trail. As a nine year old, I did not. I joined because 1 – I was forced to, and 2 – I thought that by agreeing with little fuss, I’d get an ice cream cone in Cheticamp out of the deal. Sometimes I was lucky, other times my hopes faded when I realized that the ice cream shop was closed for the season.

image5Before we make our way to Mostar, we stop briefly in Medjugorje, a small town near the Croatian border which has been an unofficial pilgrimage place for Christians since the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared on Apparition Hill in 1981. It’s a place where my French, Catholic grandmother would have aspired to visit if she was a fan of traveling – which she’s not. All of the little gift shops are jammed with empty bottles for tourists to fill with Holy Water, postcards with the Virgin Mary, and other religious knick-knacks to stock up on. But what’s really magical about this place is the church. While I don’t believe in a higher power, I admire those who do. Seeing the masses of people who have traveled from far and wide to attend mass in the St. James Church was magical. After some tea and walking the main strip, we’re on the road again, heading towards Mostar.

image1Mostar is named after its famous bridge, or by those who historically guarded it I should say. Walking through its streets filled with small stalls, you’d never realize that just a short time ago, the city was heavily destroyed in the Siege of Mostar, and since then, the city has been working to rebuild – but the effects of the war can still be seen. According to a tour guide that I overheard near the entrance of the market, Mostar has a 40% unemployment rate, but the city is working to fix that and a hotel that once welcomed many to the city before the war, will be opening again next year, employing hundreds of people. While things are looking up, there are signs placed around the city with the simple message “Don’t Forget”. It sends a powerful message even among the bustle of restaurants, cafes, gift shops, and flocks of tourists of the county’s bloody past.

image3The bridge jumpers, young men who take payment from tourists to jump from the centre of the Stari Most bridge (24m high), take the plunge into the frigid waters below. I wasn’t sure if there would be any present since it was the end of October, but there were two. Neither of which I had the opportunity to see do the jump. I’m sure there are many more during the summer months.

While I only had a small taste of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it left me wanting more. My curiousity has been peaked and now, after just a week being back in Canada, I’m already looking at ways to go back! To anyone traveling to Croatia, consider Bosnia and Herzegovina as a side trip. It’s very accessible from both Dubrovnik (2.5 hrs) and Split (a little over 2 hrs).

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