A few short hours (and a $9 flight via the incredible Vietjet Airways) after saying goodbye to Brenda in Ho Chi Minh City I was happily living the island life. Phu Quoc, Vietnam is just a dream. A sunny, white sandy, turquoisey sea dream. . . and I think I could have been perfectly content staying put and never waking up.
My days were spent exploring beaches with the antique bicycle out back of the hostel (which had a perfect little bell disguised as a hand brake and absolutely no brakes at all). I would sit on the white, sugar-sand beaches with my book, my music and a coconut for the entire day and sometimes never run into a single other human – HEAVEN! The Langchia hostel where I lived for five beautiful days was beachfront and an incredibly social place (18 beds in my dorm alone!). It had a saltwater pool, games tables, hammocks hung throughout the property and a great happy hour.
Every night a large group of us would walk to the beach with a cold Saigon beer (sold for cheaper than a bottle of water on the island) and sit together to enjoy the sunset. I have to admit, a couple times Bieber serenaded us via my iPhone playlist (I’ve given up fighting it! The kid keeps rolling out hits and now I’m officially a Belieber!!).
It was only after the sun had set that this sleepy island woke up and really came alive with dancing at the Pirate Cave, shopping at the bustling night market and a pier filled with all the seafood you can eat for less money than you could ever imagine.
I spent hours just walking around the seafood market, and although I suppose the live creatures swimming in aquariums are made to entice customers, I had the opposite reaction. I spent one day boating and snorkeling the relatively baron reefs around the island, and sadly witnessed first-hand the affects overfishing has had in these waters. Having said that, I must admit I did indulge in some seafood while I was in Phu Quoc … to be honest it’s not a decision I feel particularly good about for the simple reason that I am now a contributor to this problem.
Almost immediately upon arrival to my hostel I met a sweet angel from France that enhanced my island experience like I didn’t think possible. We were partners in crime for all things dinner, drinks and dancing; always managing to discover the best (hidden gems) to eat at and enjoying wobbly bike rides home after hours of taste testing house-made liqueurs.
By far my favourite meal in Vietnam was at a restaurant called Mystic on the main drag. My gorgeous friend and I sipped a cold beer and watched in awe as the chef himself showed us how to cut, prep and cook our meals on the beautiful outdoor wok.
We savored every delicious bite of those mouth-watering dishes (presentation was everything here; my food was served with such care in a pineapple with a sparkler that I almost didn’t want to eat it).
Together we discovered the most authentic seafood restaurant on the pier; you know you’ve found a good one when the place has no menu and you’re the only two foreign people eating there. A friendly Vietnamese gentleman led us to a counter sprawling with fresh seafood and veggies and yelled orders (to which I have no translation) to a larger woman in the kitchen as we pointed to what we wanted to eat for dinner that night.
We sat on plastic chairs alongside the sea and chatted with the sound of waves crashing (literally at our feet) as heaping plates of food came out one by one to our table. We ate like queens; octopus, squid, lobster, mussels, shrimp, fried veggies and beer all for less than $5 that evening.
One night over drinks and a game of cards at the hostel, an idea surfaced about taking motorbikes early the next morning to admire the sunrise at the Ho Quoc Pagoda on the other side of the island. I had this crazy thought that since I had driven a scooter two months ago in Thailand (for a total of about four hours) that I was capable of driving a scooter everywhere in Asia! Eek. I was absolutely terrified; mostly because I had no idea what I was doing, but also because it was pitch black and sprinkling rain at 5am the next day. I must admit, my friends were so awesome; keeping tabs on me and making me feel so much more confident than I likely deserved to. I wish I could say the one hour of ‘white knuckling’ the throttle was totally worth it, but to be honest the ominous clouds completely blocked the sunrise that morning.
However, the pagoda was a peaceful place with a gorgeous view of the sea and I learned a thing or two throughout that whole wild journey. First of all, I’m in no way skilled enough to operate a scooter with a passenger. . . ever. Secondly, if the group stops at a gas station for fuel and I foolishly think I have enough petro to get back to town and decide not to buy any… well, that’s just cheap and stupid. Thirdly, I deserve every word of teasing after I ended up having to flag down help on the side of the road because my bike had run out of gas and my group has disappeared out of sight ahead. Message received loud and clear. . . back to the brake-less hostel bicycle for me!
I was fortunate enough to spend Christmas with a group of five Swiss friends that I had met a few months earlier in Laos. Our paths brought us together in the middle of the country in beautiful town called HoiAn (for this I’m incredibly thankful because I truly couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place, or more perfect people to have surrounded myself with for the holidays).
To start, HoiAn is from a fairy tale story; illuminated by paper lanterns at night, tiny candles floating on banana leaves in the peaceful river each evening (sent downstream with well-wishes by tourists and locals alike), and littered with plenty of eclectic (impressive) art galleries.
There are tons of amazing coffee shops to indulge in Vietnamese coffee; served with fresh or sweetened (condensed) milk from a little one-cup press. I discovered so many delicious restaurants; one particularly well-hidden vegetarian restaurant that’s to die for had walls lined with inspiring books and made a tofu stir-fry sauce so good I could have drank it.
We spent Christmas Eve at Mrs. Hay’s restaurant (really not a restaurant at all, more of an outdoor food court of stalls with cooking equipment and long communal tables). We had some menu help from a local expat living in the city and ordered family-style; sharing everything and all sampling from the same plate and she cooked the dishes and brought them out to us one by one. How that woman created such magic with one tiny wok is completely beyond me, but it was some of the best food I ate in Asia to date! HoiAn has two signature dishes; Cao Lau ( noodles mixed with herbs, stewed pork, dark broth and topped with fried pork rind and onions) and white rose (beautiful flower-shaped dumplings filled with veg and/or shrimp). Still rolling with the whole vegetarian thing, I can only comment on the ladder… fantastic! From what I’m told, there’s only one family that has the recipe to the infamous ‘white rose’ and they make and deliver to all the restaurants in the city each morning. The tradition has been going on for three generations.
I must have been feeling incredibly indulgent that festive evening because my second Christmas Eve dinner was waiting for me when I arrived back to my hosts at Vesper Homestay. I really cannot say enough about this family… they are the sweetest angels and made my stay in their gorgeous home a completely unforgettable holiday experience. Although they practice Buddhism and don’t celebrate Christmas themselves, they had spent the entire day preparing an absolute feast for us to enjoy together. There was cheerful holiday music playing when I walked in, a Christmas tree and decorations had been set up, and a little gift jar of homemade chili sauce was wrapped and set atop my spot at the table! Although the real gift was to have had the pleasure of meeting these beautiful people, I think Mrs.Vesper would be so pleased to know that I still carry that jar with me to breakfast every morning to enjoy atop my eggs.
HoiAn’s social scene at night is a whole lot of fun to say the least. In the old section of the city the river is lined with a whack of relaxed lounges, an awesome Regae bar, and many party-type places handing out free shots and cocktail specials. Around midnight the street begins to close down and flocks of people head to the Why Not? Club on the outskirts of town for all kinds of late-night shenanigans. Our group much preferred the bar with the pool table across the street where, firstly they let me play my own music, and secondly we got front row seats to all the drunken happenings on the street out front of the club. I have no idea where the time went, but I had a few 4am night-turned-morning bike rides home from that bar (just in time to watch the seafood market come alive and see some seriously impressive fish throwing).
As if all this didn’t make HoiAn special enough, a white sand beach was only a short bicycle-ride outside of town past picturesque rice fields and overtop a lily-pad laden river.
We spent our Christmas Day soaking up some rays at this very beach; lounging, listening to music and posting lots of pictures of it all to make our loved-ones envious!
We headed back to town to shower (and myself to priss) for my first ‘fancy’ dinner in close to six months. Wow! What a treat it was to indulge in some good red wine and to be served dinner from a plate made of something other than disposable plastic! It could have been the alcohol, or maybe the nostalgic holiday carols in the background, but as I sat back and took it all in that evening I was overcome with feelings of gratitude. Gratitude first and foremost for having these special souls in my company for Christmas Day, but also gratitude to myself for believing in the dream that led me to this moment. I was exactly where I wanted to be, with exactly who I wanted to be with, drinking exactly what I wanted to be drinking! Life is so good!
Still not great with goodbyes, I had a few sad moments (and tears) saying farewell to the guys as they continued on their journey south and I prepared to meet with another friend in the north. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed that comfortable six hour bus ride along the Vietnam coastline to gorgeous Phung Nha national park and was excited to reconnect with Nick. Easy Tiger hostel had come recommended, and immediately upon arrival I could see why. It was an old hotel turned hostel with a great outdoor pool, a kitchen that cooked amazing food, and fire pits for everyone to sit around and socialize in the evening (I smile every time I pull out a piece of clothing and it still smells of campfire over a month later). The hostel had live music every night, and offered a free beer to anyone brave enough to try their hand at karaoke. It was such a social place, and if it hadn’t been for the miserable weather, I would have most definitely taken advantage of their ‘stay two nights get one night free’ promotion. I hate to complain when half the people reading this are amongst snow, but the weather was just so bleak; rainy, damp, cold and cloudy every single day. It made it difficult to do much but sit and unthaw in coffee shops; eating carrot and Nutella cake for lunch (which Nick and I were guilty of two days in a row).
He had purchased a Honda Win motorcycle in Hanoi a few weeks earlier and was moving south down the coast with his ‘Merrylegs’ when I met him. We took her out one afternoon in Phung Nha to do a 6km loop around the national park and visit the famous Paradise Cave.
I don’t mean to sound negative, but after visiting so many beautiful (free) caves in Laos I found this one to be just okay for what I consider to be a very expensive admission price ($23 CAD for a 1km walk through).
Either way, the drive through the national park was beautiful and (if it hadn’t been for the rain) I would have taken thousands of ‘postcard-worthy’ photos to frame on my wall. Until I return to this area in the dry season, my mental photographs will have to suffice.
The next morning we geared up in our plastic ‘ghost suits’ and said goodbye to the lush, beautiful scenery of Phung Nha to set off for the city of Hue (about a 5 hour drive south on Nick’s motorcycle). So many people I met throughout my month travels of Vietnam explored the country this way (via motorbike), and to be honest- it’s just not my thing. Granted, the rain didn’t help; producing a consistent wet pelting on my face and soggy sneakers almost immediately. I will admit, in the moments the rain let up, we got some pretty stellar views of both the coastline and the countryside.
Along the way we stopped for and coffee and to check out the Vinh Moc Tunnels; a series of underground tunnels built 30m deep underground to protected families from bombing during the Vietnam war. We walked for kilometres under the earth, exploring every nook and cranny to imagine what life must have been like for these people not so many years ago.
It was beginning to get dark as we coasted into Hue to end of what was a long and exhausting day (of course even more so for Nick as the driver). I can say with confidence that this will be my first and last long-distance ride as a passenger on a motorcycle, although I am grateful to have experienced it all. It was a day filled with all kinds of adventures; we had survived the storm, put a suicidal chicken out of his misery, got lost in the Vietnam countryside, and engineered a way to push that 200 pound bike under a three foot guardrail onto the highway.
As slightly disappointing as it may sound, the best thing I discovered in Hue was The Backpackers Hostel (that offers free cold beer upon check-in) and Ganesh Indian Restaurant (with a garlic naan bread that makes my mouth water just thinking about it). I was in town for less than twenty-four hours, ate Indian food twice, and had a really nice evening walk around the Empire City – but that’s all.
I waffled back and forth for a long while on the decision whether to use the last few days of my tourist visa to explore Sapa and the infamous Halong Bay or head back to the southern sunshine. In the end, Mother Nature graciously made my decision for me; it was 7 degrees in Sapa and 90% chance of showers on Capa Island. I decided I’d have time to explore the northern spaces of this amazing country when it was warm and dry enough to wear the clothes I had brought with me in my backpack (even with the incredible temptation of inexpensive Vietnamese custom tailoring, I still have yet to purchase a single new article of clothing since I left Canada). This meant I was off to Ho Chi Minh City for NYE 2016!!
If I thought Ho Chi Minh was a crazy world weeks before, on New Year’s Eve it was complete madness. Literally there are no words. The unimaginable masses of people and thousands (if not millions) of scooters in all directions made for an undeniably infectious energy in the air! I (soberly) took in every special moment; the celebratory lights of the streets, the live music on every corner, and an hour-long firework display so magical it brought tears of joy to my eyes. I spent my last day in the city revisiting some of my favourite places from my visit a few weeks beforehand; enjoying delicious coffee and quietly colouring (in what I now consider to me MY park) for hours.
And just like that, another life-changing month in SE Asia has passed and an exciting new year begins! As I took my seat for the last time on one of those oh-so-comfortable Vietnamese buses, I thought about what I was doing last January. It’s amazing how much can change in just 365 days! I will forever look back on 2015 with the biggest smile, the fullest heart and so many tiny sparkles in my veins. It’s been a beautiful year of learning, loving and letting go. And, like the wildflower I long to be, there’s lots more growing in my future. For although only some knew of my struggles last year, all will know of my LIGHT in the year to come.
Happy New Year. Happy New Dreams. Happy New ME.