Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Sunrise in Jeju

If you want to watch the sunrise, the best thing to do is to first wake up to see the sunrise. ㅎㅎ.

The best thing to do on Jeju, is to hope (or plan) for good weather, camp out near Sunrise Peak (성산일출봉; Seong-San Il-Chul Bong), and then climb up early in the morning along with a bunch of other Korean (and maybe some Chinese) tourists. Pack your snacks, drinks and most definitely your camera and selfie-stick and you are good to go.
A common angle (or similar to) of Sunrise Peak featured on many postcards
Sunrise peak is one of the selling views of Jeju island. In a package of postcards, you might get 3-4 different angles and seasonal shots of the "Tuff Cone." Most tour companies bus their customers out to the east side of the island and wait the 30 mins to an hour while their tourists explore. At different times during the day, you can also see a demonstration by Haenyeo, Jeju's traditional female divers. (I don't know how these differ seasonally).

This past week, luck (and the weather) were on our side. One of my friends and I wanted to see the sunrise last April (click for blog post), but a cloudy night made for an anti-climatic morning. This time, it was different. At this time of year, the sunrise was also a lot later meaning we were able to sleep longer.
Heading toward the peak, the sun's rays already warm the horizon.
As we headed toward the peak in the early morning hours, we could already tell that it was going to be a good day. The sun's rays painted the horizon's edge in deep orange and yellow hues. The wisps of clouds creeping from the east edged into frame like actors setting the stage. The show was preparing to start!

There were many other people at the top with us, despite it being a Tuesday morning. A forest of selfie-sticks waving, the sound of camera shutters rippled through the crowd like leaves in the wind. We waited. The sky grew brighter, the light reflecting across the water and off the clouds. Then, the first sliver of the sun poked above the horizon. It was like we were at a sports match. There was a collective cheer and smiles all around. (My friends and I regret not filming that moment). In that brief moment we were a connected community and sharing a bit of the world's magic.
The sun above the horizon.
Canada Mitts!
I'm so happy that I was able to see the sunrise during this trip. We probably would have lingered longer, but the cold and our hunger eventually convinced us to return to the bottom. 

Until next time, Sunrise Peak. See you again.

Love and Hugs.
View from the top of the peak, looking back toward Jeju just after Sunrise.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Mon voyage (français) à Hạ Long Bay

After seeing pictures and hearing about my friend's experiences in Ha Long Bay, I knew it was a place that I wanted to visit. Travelling through a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site on a boat? Yes please! Sounds like a fun (and relaxing) adventure. I never expected that my vacation would also be so bilingual, an added bonus. (In truth, I think that during my time in Viet Nam I spent more time speaking French than English).

Before I insert too many pictures, I want to fore-front this post by saying that if you are travelling to Ha Noi/Ha Long Bay and are interested in doing a boat cruise among the islands, you do not need to worry about booking super far in advance. I booked in advance through my hostel, but when I got to Vietnam, I learned it was very easy to go to one of the many travel agencies in the city and book day before (or even morning of, as one of the people at my hostel did). For those more price-conscious, it can also be a cheaper comparing prices at different travel boutiques in the city, or even travelling to your chosen destination first and then finding a tour package upon arrival.

And now...
Leaving the harbour!
Among the islands
One Happy Camper, a Vietnamese Flag and some Islands.
Nous parlons français (^.^)
Compared to the busy traffic in Ha Noi, the constant beeping and the people, Ha Long Bay was pretty empty--even with ALL the tourist boats. There are over 1,600 islands and our guide said that despite giving this tour, he has yet to see all of the islands.

I love meeting other travellers and hearing about where they've been or where they are going. My cruise group consisted mainly of Europeans with people representing the UK, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, Germany and then Argentina and Canada. And while the common language was mostly English, there were overlaps in language. A group of us spoke French most of the trip and I'm happy to report that while I am often mistaken for an American when speaking English, I am always correctly identified as Canadian when speaking French.

One of my new friends preferred to take pictures of the islands sans bâteau, but I find the boats add perspective and depth to the scenery. Even the tour boats look lovely amid the jagged points.
From a cave lookout. I think this was one of my favourite views of the trip.
The islands rise from the water like spikes on a sea serpent. Sudden cliffs topped with tuffs of green hair, jut from the waves at sporadic intervals. These are not the same geographical features that I'm used to back in Canada or here in Korea.

Our first day, one of our activities was kayaking around these rugged giants. We struggled a bit against the wind and waves that pushed us toward the rocky walls. The kayaks are so small in comparison, no match for these massive islands, and yet they can slide quickly through and around the rocks. I liked being able to explore away from our tour boat, too.
Where we boarded the kayaks (and then put down anchor for night time).
Out on the water.
I opted for a 3-Day-2-Night tour. One of my friends did the 2D1N but recommended spending more time among the islands and I am glad I took her advice. On the second day, we headed to Cát Bà Island, the biggest island in Ha Long Bay. After a bit of hiking and lunch, we could choose free time on the island (many tourists rented motorbikes or bicycles to explore), or we had the opportunity to hop on another boat to visit Monkey Island. Naturally, I picked monkeys. Our whole cruise family did, in fact. All for one and one for all! Ha.

The island is known for its beautiful beach...
 ... and of course monkeys:
Monkey drinking orange fanta on a beach
Here is my commercial for Fanta.
These monkeys were vicious. As some other tourists were climbing the small mountain, a monkey jumped out of the trees with half of its face all ripped and bloody. They stalked us on the beach and at the snack shack. One of them stole a can of sprite right out of my friend's hand. No personal space issues here. I will admit I was a little scared of these guys. I remember thinking I did not want to spend my last hours in Vietnam at a hospital because of an accident with a monkey... But all good.

On our way back to our hotel on Cát Bà, our boat took us through the largest fishing village in Ha Long Bay. Home to 3000 people, these fishermen live right on the water. I cannot say that I'm jealous, but I definitely respect their hard work and perseverance. Props.

The Fishing Village near Cát Bà Island
A closer shot of the houses in the fishing village
This trip was a wonderful and relaxing end to my time in Vietnam. I met some super cool people and I hope that someday our paths cross again. I wish, as always, that I could have stayed longer, but I suppose I will just have to go back one day.

Love and Hugs.

P.S. Let the record show that I caught Pokemon on Cát Bà.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Postcard: From Tam Đảo

Dear Friends and Family,

After two days in Hà Ni, I was determined to get out of the Old Quarter. My trip to Vietnam was short in general and I didn't want to say that I had only seen the city (and then later Halong Bay). The receptionist at my hostel recommended a trip to Tam Đảo, a couple hours away from the city. She had gone recently and showed me pictures of a waterfall. It is very peaceful and relaxing, she said.

It sounded nice, but I wasn't sure. It's one thing to randomly hop on a bus in Canada or Korea--in one I can speak the language and at least in the other I can read and make small talk--but to venture a couple hours from the city in Vietnam alone? That was scary. Terrifying, even.

But I was on vacation and determined to have an adventure. I approached a French tourist who had arrived when I did and convinced her to come along. With directions written by the receptionist, we headed out early the next day. Three hours, a taxi, three buses and a taxi-bike later, we arrived on a clouded and misty mountain side (See postscript for details).
On the road up the mountain.
Clouds rolling up the mountain.
Whoa. My brain was stunned as the motorbike rounded a bend (btw, I do not recommend taking the motorbike up the mountain in inclement weather. It was chilly and I wished I was in the taxi). Tam Đảo is a settlement in the mountain folds. The picturesque houses, add spots of bright colour to the forested slopes. I wished to pause the moment as the bike carried me all too swiftly up to the drop off point, but in that moment, the whole trip was worth it.
Exploring town led to some beautiful pathways.
If only the rain held off...the clouds come in quick on the mountain and the clear patches were brief amid the dreary weather. Still, my new friend Chloe and I made the most of our time, hunting first for the waterfall that inspired our journey. I guess it might be off season as we didn't really see many other tourists--or many other people.

As a bonus, the whole community had wifi and pokemon. So yes, I can say that I've caught an Evee at the foot of a waterfall on a mountainside in Vietnam. Ha.
View from the top of a temple/pagoda.
We also wandered up to a temple and found some lunch at a small restaurant. We would have liked to stay longer, but the rain, wind, and daunting journey back to Hanoi pushed us to end our trip after a couple hours. As a result, we were able to meet some other friends in time for dinner. Not bad for a day's outing! I'm glad Chloe agreed to go venture out into the unknown with me otherwise I doubt I would have had the courage to try by myself.

On to the next adventure!

Love and Hugs

P.S. Directions from Hà Ni (Our Journey):

  1. Get to Long Biên Bus Station
  2. Take Bus #58 to Mê Linh Plaza
  3. Take Bus #1 to Vĩnh Phúc Province
  4. Take Bus #7 to Tam Đảo
  5. Agree to take one of the Taxis/Motor-Taxis to the village as it is still 13km away (We paid 50,000 vnd for this).

On the way back, the taxi driver helped us find a bus that took us straight to Mê Linh Plaza where we caught the 58 back to Long Biên Station. It was a bit more expensive, but I think overall the trip cost us about 15$ usd.

P.P.S. Two more pictures...
Panoramic view as we explored the town.
One last shot before heading back to the city...

Monday, November 07, 2016

Things I've learned about Hà Nội, Việt Nam

I feel like I've been on vacation for more than a week. After my time in Viet Nam, I feel so much more relaxed and rejuvenated. An indicator of how stressed and tired I was leading into the break, I suppose.

As with my trend in travelling, I knew very little about Viet Nam before I decided to make it my next destination. I don't recall ever hearing the language before, wasn't sure what was considered "vietnamese food," and didn't know what to expect culture-wise. ㅎㅎ. I know of the Viet Nam war, but I don't really know the details of that either. For me, that's what makes it fun: stepping out into the unknown to learn whatever I can.
This picture was snapped between passing cars and trucks; one of my first views after arriving
My first couple of days in Hanoi were overcast and rainy. Not really the best start to my vacation... But, you can't order the weather and I was determined to get out and do things (although I was tempted to stay inside). My hostel was located in Hanoi's Old Quarter, which I quickly realized is foreigner/traveller central. Every other booth seemed to be a souvenir shop, a tour booking agency, restaurant, or a hostel/hotel. ㅋㅋㅋ. Thus one of the first things I learned: tourists are abundant in Hanoi. Meeting other travellers is a very different dynamic than meeting locals, but still a lot of fun. I like hearing where people are coming from, where they are going, and asking if they'd like to do some exploring together.

2. The Old Quarter's Themed Streets
As you explore the quarter, you'll quickly notice that merchandise is localized. There will be a block where every store sells scarves and then a block later everyone is selling shoes. Do you need jackets? Go to the street over there. Dried goods? Check the one in that direction, and so on. I'm so used to the big stores that sell everything that it was cool walking past shops that were specialized--especially when I passed a stuffed animal store next to a Styrofoam store. Quite the contrast.
The stuff animal and Styrofoam stores
3. 'Bicycle Venders'
I wish this was a thing where I live. Many women (I don't recall seeing any men), have baskets on the front or back of their bicycles filled with produce, flowers or other merchandise. They walk their bikes along the streets, occasionally popping up their kick stand to "set up shop" at a certain location. There were so many people selling fresh cut flowers! I would love to buy fresh flowers from a bike vendor whenever I felt like it. Definitely a perk to the Hanoi life.
Flower power! (There were also fruit vendors at their backs)
A number of fruit vendors set up along the roadside
A bicycle vendor on the move in the traffic
4. What road rules?
Speaking of bicycles, they and motorbikes appear to be the most popular method of travel. I have no factual statistics to back that statement besides my eyeballs. They wiz in and out of everywhere. To cross the street, you just hold your hand up and walk, expecting traffic to part like the sea. It can be quite nerve-wracking at first, but surprisingly the system works. There's an ebb and flow that makes me think of those animated scenes from Finding Nemo.
In such a bustling city, this vacant railway stands out
5. If you are a foreigner, you will be cheated. No ifs ands or buts.
Sad life, really, but I don't think you can avoid it unless you are with a local person. If you're travelling in the first place, you must be rich, right? But in all fairness, even when I was cheated, I don't think it was very much by western standards.

6. A lot of people want to practice English.
A French tourist and I were walking around the lake near the Old Quarter and were stopped at least 5 times by university students and children wanting to practice English, asking us questions and so forth. Another traveller said that we were probably the victim of pick pockets, but I didn't have anything stolen and I don't think my friend did either. Honestly, it got to the point where we switched to French because otherwise we would never have reached the restaurant.
Night lights reflecting on Hoàn Kiếm Lake
7. The food is delicious
I had a lot of noodles (naturally) and only scratched the surface of the different Vietnamese dishes. There were too many to try in only a couple of days. In the picture below, the woman was steaming rice water (or milk, I'm not sure) until it became more like a pancake. Then she rolled veggies and meat inside. Tasty. It's a shame, but I suppose I'll just have to go back...
At a whole-in-the-wall restaurant you can find some delicious food
Love and Hugs.

Things I've learned about France (or at least Normandy)

Well there we go, my second European country. In some ways, very similar to England (a lot of meat and potatoes, fancy churches, pay toilets...