Saturday, 26 January 2013

Homeward Bound and Home at Last

We're now safe and sound in our not so little home in Winnipeg. It's -30C and fluffy snow has coated the cars and fence posts. Greg and I have enjoyed home brewed coffee just the way we like it with some Tall Grass cinnamon buns--a few of the things we dreamt about while we politely tolerated a few unsavoury hotel breakfasts consisting of instant coffee(with coffee whitener) and greasy fried eggs with white bread. Don't worry, we also recall some lovely tropical breakfasts as well:). The boys are settled back into their school and extracurricular activity routines and are very happy making up for lost time with their buddies.

 Our trip has officially ended. However, we feel we owe all our loyal followers one last blog about the last days of our sojourn. Well, that and writing it allows us to indulge ourselves once more in memories of warm sunny skies and turquoise beaches, free from piles of laundry, heaps of unread mail, and red-looking bank balances...

 January 6th: we flew out of Hanoi in northern Vietnam and were keen to trade the cool grey skies for some sunny beach weather. Destination: Koh Lanta, an island in south Thailand. On the map below, Koh Lanta is not listed, but it is between Phuket and Krabi.
We had already spent some time in Northern and central Thailand at the beginning of our trip but never spent any time on the famed Thai beaches of the southern peninsula. We also were eager to revisit some good Thai delicacies like green curry and mango sticky rice.

 Unfortunately, our timing for a beach holiday was not great as we arrived in the peak tourist season. Alas, many of the highly recommended backpacker(or "flash packer" as we are more aptly described) budget accommodations were full on the more popular destination of Koh PiPi island. Koh Lanta island is a less glamorous cousin but still warm and welcoming. We settled into our little beach side huts but it was hard to hide our disappointment in the beach itself. At low tide the rocky sea bottom was unwelcoming and the boys complained of water bugs that nipped at them underwater.

 However, our search for the idyllic beach experience was not in vain when we shelled out some cash for a one day snorkelling tour to Koh Rok.  We can say without a doubt that we found the ultimate beach experience on this little island that is a Thai national nature reserve and hence has been spared any commercial development. The snorkelling was fantastic too! We didn't spend much time taking pictures, so its hard to do it justice.

An unexpected highlight of Koh Lanta Island was an excursion to a pet rescue/shelter for dogs and cats. We were surprised to find that a visit to the shelter was the #1 rated activity in the area on "Tripadvisor"(our web best friend throughout the whole trip). The shelter was started by an American-Norwegian restaurant owner who took pity on the stray, and often detested, dogs in the area and soon was taking on more pets than she could really handle.
The shelter was then born and has been running for several years on donations, volunteers and the proceeds from her restaurant,"Time for Lime".
I'm putting in the link to the shelter because if any of you readers are ever looking for a great 1 month volunteer opportunity in Thailand you should really check this place out! Our family had a tour of the facility and then took a mama dog with her two grown-up dogs for a nice walk. http://www.lantaanimalwelfare.com/

After our stint in Thailand we headed back to Singapore to spend our final days in Asia with Rob, Anjali and Fischer(Cynthia's brother's family). Once again, we marvelled at the clean orderly city and revisited some of our previously enjoyed sites: "Sticky", the home made candy store, cycling along the beautiful East Coast Parkway,and a feast of chili-crab at a Hawker stall.

Naturally we felt the need to unwind by the pool and de-stress from all the strenuous travelling we had done... ...of course, I say this tongue firmly in cheek. Now that we've been back into the swing of work and Winnipeg life in - 30 weather I find myself just shaking my head at my former self :"really Cynthia....travelling was stressful at times was it...oh yeah, having to agonize over whether to wear your sun dress or your Thai fisherman's pants was hard work wasn't it?" Or those tough choices of whether to order the red curry or the green curry--as if I was caught between a rock and a hard place.

 Ah well, we had our fun and now the filtering of memories and nostalgia has begun. There were times of yearning for the company of friends and family, times of feeling like we fulfilled every stereotype of the stupid white backpacking foreigner(every country has a slang word for that you know)who doesn't know how the microsystems of the community worked. And let's not forget the literal pains of lugging around backpacks full of sweaty clothes and souvenir trinkets and manoeuvring through crowded buses, trains, taxis and planes. I don't miss all that.

 But the unsavoury memories have already started to dim as we recall the highlights: scaling medieval castles in Europe, trekking up hundreds of step in bare feet to reach towering temples, and hiking through lush thick jungles. We mud bathed with elephants, had some mean encounters with monkeys and fed a ridiculous amount of semi-domesticated animals in urban zoos. We visited no less than 5 UNESCO world heritage sites and  can tell a funny story about experiencing an earthquake.

 But the good times, the family bonding moments were often had during those less sensational moments in between: evening walks beaches dodging the waves as they curled onto shore, seeing the women in the markets smile at our enjoyment of ripe mangoes with juice running down our hands and faces, wandering in big cities with the boys scampering around us doing parkcour moves on benches and monuments of boulevards attempting to be grand( the boulevards and the boys!), the collective pride and joy we all felt when we found good food at little restaurants off the tourist track(we'd often go back again and revelled in being recognized as return patrons!), Christmas morning when we took turns unwrapping our $5 gifts to each other wrapped in newspaper. Those were the good times we will never forget. And the good part is we get to enjoy those moments from the snugly comfort of our home and our own beds. Perhaps the best part of trip has only started.

 As a final farewell, we bid you adieu dear readers. We have been touched by all the positive feedback we have received about ricewhine and are touched that so many have taken an interest in our little adventure. (Incidentally, Greg should take credit for the majority of photos, I rather lazily let him take charge of this aspect of our trip with frequent casual commands of "get a shot of that will you".)  I will admit, writing the blog entries was occasionally a chore but now I think it's quite possibly the best keepsake we have of our "trip of a lifetime".

 If any of you are ever planning a trip to South-east Asia, we are more than happy to don our "we are travelling experts" caps and go into a lot more detail about our experiences. Actually the mere mention of anything remotely linked to SE Asia will likely get us us started so just give us a signal to quit....after an hour or two.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Caves, Crotch-grabbing and Cats on the menu: Tales from Vietnam...

Cynthia:

We have been in Vietnam for sixteen days, traveling northwards. Yesterday we arrived in Hanoi. It's huge, dense and very chilly (~14*C) city right now and I find myself woefully underdressed both in terms of R- factor and style. I kid you not, everyone here seems to be wearing designer labels-- granted the labels are all misspelled but design labels nonetheless! My one pair of quick-dry traveling pants and flimsy rain jacket just don't cut it and I can't find a pair of knock-off designer jeans in the shops that I can fit my menno thighs into.....enough ranting.

Week one in Vietnam was spent in Hoi An, an old city known for its food, the old well preserved historic buildings that survived the 'American War' and tailor/custom made shoe shops. The boys and I all had shoes made to fit and I also indulged in a couple of dresses!

This dress was tailored in two days.
We celebrated Christmas here and stayed one more day to see the monthly Full Moon festival. Per (?tourist) custom, we were paddled out onto the river by a rather elderly Vietnamese woman, and in the dark of the evening we set our candles afloat. It was very touristy but really pretty nonetheless.

Lanterns afloat on the
Such little events are never without their follies, however, and in this case I had to laugh as our non-English speaking paddler all at once started saying something and then motioned for us to squish down low into the canoe as we passed under the approaching footbridge. The river had risen from the recent rains and the bridge clearance was tight, but not prohibitive with a little ducking! We all made it back to shore with nary a scrape.

On to Dong Hoi to see the magnificent and newly discovered 450 million year-old Phong Nha and Paradise caves, only open to the public in recent years. Now I'm no spelunker but these caves took our breath away. Our pictures likely don't capture the scale of Paradise cave but think airplane hangar with stalagmites and stalactites (i still forget which is which) the size of 4 story buildings and you might get the picture. Even Thomas, who usually doesn't impress to easily thought it was "pretty awesome".



Paradise cave
Next stop: Halong Bay. Our journey here started off on a sour note. We had taken an overnight sleeper train to Hanoi and at 5 am taxied to the bus station. The ticket office was closed but the route we needed (a complex all in one bus-boat-bus combo ticket, as per our guidebook) was clearly posted with the fare and the departure time of 0520. A bus and driver were parked in the station...

Cynthia and Greg: "we go to Cat Ba island, bus and boat and bus?"

Driver: "ya ya, Cat Ba island...office closed...ticket on bus"

We proceeded to board the bus quite readily and happy to avoid a cold dark wait at an empty bus station, and forked over the 190 000 dong(=$9.50) per person. Three hours later we arrived at a bus terminal and we were whisked off the bus, the driver motioning to a shack on the lot. The bus speedily pulled away. Something didn't seem quite right.

Turned out we were nowhere near our intended route. After taxing to a tourist information centre (with English speaking personnel) we figured out what city we were in and how to get back on track. We loaded another rather overloaded bus and eventually got to our final destination of Nam Cat Island Resort. The whole trip from hotel to hotel had taken around 24 hours and looked something like this: Taxi--overnight train--taxi--bus--taxi--taxi--bus--15 minute walk to the port-fast boat to island #1--taxi overland to different port--fisherman's boat to island #2. We arrived exhausted but proud. In spite of being scammed by a bus driver (apparently not an uncommon occurrence) we made it to Halong Bay that day.

...and how beautiful it was. Declared a world heritage site in 1994, Halong Bay is a an archipelago of 2000 indigo limestone peaks rising from emerald waters. We spent two nights including New Years Eve on this beautiful, but cold bay and enjoyed some wonderful seafood barbecues and evening bonfires in the cool night air.

This was the view from just outside our room at high tide.


The shots above from a floating fishing village in Halong Bay.
On New Year's day we moved on to Hai Phong, a city of one million and according to tripadvisor.com forums it's a city worth overlooking. Our family wholeheartedly disagreed. Hai Phong is definitely not a tourist town but it has many trees, cafes, friendly people and roads one can cross without having to muster up too much courage (more on this later when we get to Hanoi). Not much English was spoken here and we definitely felt we got a glimpse of the real Vietnam. And truthfully, sometimes it was a bit too real. One night we went to a guide book recommended restaurant and sure enough, there was cat on the menu. I wasn't all that surprised though, as I had heard that the robust looking dogs at our island hotel in Halong Bay and the other dogs roaming village and city streets were hardly street dogs but actually livestock and hence they look healthier than any other dogs we've seen in Asia!

An alley in Hai Phong. The state flags looked quite striking.
Another encounter with the "real Vietnam" occurred as a grinning elderly woman at a market stall expressed some delight upon seeing our boys...this we were used to but her hand darting in for a groin grab was a first. My hand was equally quick to intercept and this gave her a good laugh. Ironically it was just the day prior that I had read in our guidebook that such demonstrations of affection towards boys might be encountered. We moved on, our boys' prides and anatomy intact.

One unexpected highlight of Hai Phong was our discovery of a little amusement park in the centre of town. Among the rides, some of which had definitely seen better days, we came upon a crowd of roller skaters! We each doned a pair of sorry looking roller skates and Greg and I relived some good times from the eighties albeit among swirling Vietnamese hotshots and blaring K-pop. Thankfully none of us tripped on any of the potholes or cracks in the concrete and the boys moved on to the ball pen. They spent a good hour jumping and sliding around and even had a few local kids in on their fun. We returned the next day for more though park was substantially less populated.

This was our second day of roller skating and the rink was much emptier than the previous evening.
Max posing in a store selling mannequins.
January 3: arrival in Hanoi.

We were warned that Hanoi would be dense and kind of crazy but it doesn't seem so unmanageable. Yesterday we walked about the old quarter close to our hotel and also took in the Vietnam Women's Museum. It was really well done. Thomas has celebrated his first meals eaten entirely with chopsticks and the boys readily dig into the Pho Bo ( beef noodle soup) at small streetside restaurants. Greg and I prefer the Ban My (French inspired grilled pork sandwichwiches on freshly baked demi-baguettes) and the fantastic sweet and savoury vermicilli salads. We've gone from fearing street crossing to enjoying the challenge of slowly wading forward in a line parrallel to the curb. The motorbikes and cars zing around us like a school of fish on a mission and occasionally we arrive on the other side a bit disappointed if it seemed too easy!

Today we will do more walking, dining on street food and people watching. We also have tickets for the municipal water puppet theatre this afternoon which comes highly recommended.

A typical view of motorbike drivers. Note the face/ breathing masks which are worn to prevent suntanning, and inhalation of germs and fumes.
Another typical street scene in Hanoi. These hanging bamboo carriers are only used by women ( often vendors) and anything and everything can be carried in them.
Smoking is ubiquitous in Vietnam. Cigarettes can be bought everywhere.
The boys horsing around during our walk.
A Vietnamese couple getting ? Wedding photos taken on a celebrated footbridge in Hanoi.
Greg and I trying to warm up over a cup of sweet slowly dripped Vietnamese coffee.
Tomorrow we depart for our second last location: 4 days on a warm tropical Thai beach. Hopefully my teeth will stop chattering by then....



Saturday, 29 December 2012

Fried Stuffed Squid

Greg:

Some of you may recall that we attended a cooking school in Chiang Mai in Thailand. It's a popular activity that is well established in that city. In Hoi An, Vietnam, cooking schools abound, but they are really just an additional service offered by many of the restaurants. We chose to attend cooking school at one of our favourite restaurants in Hoi An, Cafe 43.

"Fresh Beer" or Bia Hoi is a cheap draught beer that is dispensed using a simple hand pump. For those brewers out there, this means that rather than using co2 to push out the beverage, air fills the headspace and oxidation ensures. Needless to say, the beer must be fresh for it to be any good. At 3000 dong ($1=20,000 dong) it is an outstanding deal.
But I digress. At cooking school, Cynthia, Max and I chose three dishes: Fried Stuffed Squid, Fresh Salad Rolls with Shrimp, and Chicken with Chili and Lemon Grass. Mmmm.

Here's how to make Fried Stuffed Squid.

Ingredients

  • 1 squid
  • 1/2 carrot, peeled, julienned and diced
  • 1/2 white onion, thinly sliced and diced
  • 1 bunch of spring onion
  • 100 gm minced pork
  • 1 tsp garlic, chopped and crushed in mortar and pestil
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp sugar
Steps

  1. Mix pork, garlic, pepper, salt and sugar in a bowl.
  2. Using 2 Tbl veg oil in hot pan, add pork mixture. Cook for a minute with high heat.
  3. Add onion, carrot and stir constantly until meat is cooked and onion is carmelized.
  4. Add green onion and sauté for 3 min.
Now the fun part. Stuff the mixture into the squid. Pack it down! And use toothpicks to close the end.

Hold on tight, squid is extremely slippery!

Using 2 Tbl veg oil in a hot pan, add squid and cook over medium heat until nice and golden brown on all sides.

Serve on a bed of lettuce. Before serving, make perpendicular cuts into squid using scissors.

Dipping sauce (not optional): mix together 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper and juice of two small limes.

Delicious!

 

Now, once we return to Winnipeg, the tough part will be finding good squid.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Merry Christmas from Vietnam!

Christmas away is bittersweet: not having to deal with the frenzy of Christmas shopping and schedule craziness but also missing the chance to mark the season with family and friends.

Here in Vietnam we've been surprised at how much Christmas bling there is-- no escaping the BoneyM Christmas diddies around here I tell you.

Wishing a warm seasons greetings from Vietnam with a short photo journal:

Christmas in Vietnam.

 

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Cambodia: Dec 16 - 19

Cynthia:

Throughout our travels we've seen temples and pagodas and shrines. But now we've experienced the mother of all religious buildings in Asia and indeed the largest religious structure in the world: Angkor Wat.

We only scheduled 3 full days to spend in the area of Angkor Wat and in retrospect I could have easily spent more time exploring the multitude of thousand year old ruins from the Khmer dynasty. Our time in Cambodia was also memorable in that we met up with some dear friends and co-supper club members, Jeff and Katrina with their sons Simon and Adam, who were embarking on a two week tour of Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Because of a flight delay on their journey to Asia, our plans for two days together was reduced to one. Kudos to all of them for withstanding our eager company-starved chattering as they fought off their jet lag.

Photo journal:

Day 1: Spent the afternoon and evening on a noisy "long tail" boat touring a muddy river and a local village on the water. The houses and community buildings are all on stilts to accommodate the high water of the rainy season. Midway through the tour we transferred to a shallow canoe type boat and two local women paddled us through a watery mangrove forest. The tour ended at the lake where the sunset over the water. For an informative summary of the fascinating Tonle lake, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonlé_Sap.

Our boat before it got stuck.
The boats spray a lot of water from the shallow river. We got wet once from another boat's spray.
You can tell its dry season.
The village children learn to swim and maneuver boats at a very young age.
This girl was upset with some nearby boys.
Paddling through the mangrove forest.
This girl was in the stern for our paddle through the mangroves.
Sunset over Tonle lake near Siem Reap, Cambodia.
 
Day 2: tour of the crumbling ruins of Beng Malea, an ancient Khmer Palace. Unfortunately we weren't able to get a guide and there was next to no signage which left us with many questions about these ruins that were slowly being invaded by wandering tree roots. It was an incredible sight and the boys loved clambering all over the rubble under a shady leafy canopy.

Greg took this shot of another tourist posing.
I love the way the tree roots follow the grooves of this frame.
A local scarf seller.
Day 3: our day with Katrina, Jeff and their boys was nicely pre-arranged starting with a 4:50 am pick-up by guided tour bus. (I must confess, I don't think our family would have had the gumption to roll out of bed so early had it not been on our friends schedule!) We made it to the magnificent Angkor Wat (with about 500 other tourists) in time to see the sunrise. It was really breathtaking. The rest of the day was spent touring Angkor Wat and several other temples in the area.

The picture we got up at 4:40 am to capture.
We weren't the only ones.
Four boys gazing at the ancient temple.
Greg took another great shot of a fellow tourist amid the ruins.
A demon holding the head of a giant snake.
We thoroughly enjoyed spending a day with Jeff, Katrina, Simon and Adam.
One of the many large trees growing about the adjacent ruins of Ta Prohm.
We also visited the very inspiring and moving Cambodian Landmine Museum and Relief Centre. I won't go into detail about the history of and ongoing battle against Landmines in Cambodia but suggest you visit www.cambodialandminemuseum.org for the incredible story of the heroic child soldier turned Landmine clearer who founded the museum and the relief centre. In lieu of Christmas presents to each other and to our families this year, Greg and I made a donation to this worthy cause.

Exhibit of of a rudimentary prosthetic leg.
We're now in Hoi An, a lovely old touristy town on the central coast of Vietnam. We plan to spend Christmas here, enjoying the beach, the historic buildings, great food and 15 cent local beer! That said, we find ourselves missing our families and friends back home and have already talked about the grand potluck supper party we want to hold when we get back. We miss you dear readers and we wish you all a new year filled with peace and joy and a very Merry Christmas!

With love,

Cynthia, Greg, Max & Thomas