A Travellerspoint blog

March 2017

Gooooood morning Vietnam

I know it's a cliche title but I just couldn't help myself

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Travel is fun. Travel is amazing, liberating, beautiful. It takes you to places that almost don't appear real, even when you're standing right there. It reveals new cultures and ways of life. It is series of adventures, joys and wonders. But it isn't always a series of happy days. There are down days. Sometimes it's hard to talk about. Off on big adventures there is this pressure to always feel happy. This idea that you are free from work and responsibilities and should always be loving life. But I woke up in Vietnam and I felt sad. I slumped. I missed home, I missed family, I missed friends (finally hit the post-India slump), and I just felt sorry for myself. I remembered a quote from a great travel book I read: "most days travel is thrilling: it's new and exciting and challenging, and you want to take it all on. But some days, as in any place you happen to be, you're tired and blue." (Rachel Friedman- The Good Girls Guide to Getting Lost). I talked to other travelers who had similar experiences. I talked to the supportive people in my life. And I stopped feeling guilty for my negative emotions and kept on trucking one day at a time. Vietnam had a slow start and it also had some shit experiences.. but the thrilling travel days eventually made their return!!

First stop: Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, where I explored so much of the city on the back of a motorbike for a street food tour. Warning: many food pictures to come in this post!!


We made stops for green papaya salad, shrimp lettuce wraps, pho, baguettes (an amazing Vietnamese specialty) and quail, and 5 (count em, 5!) desserts. There isn't just amazing street food in this country, there's also fruit and sweets that are making my life complete!. We also enjoyed Vietnamese coffee (seriously strong, seriously sweet, seriously delicious), jasmine tea and sugarcane juice.


Just posting the pictures gives me another food coma.
Getting to drive around on the back of the bike for the tour was also a nice way to see the (crazy, hot, busy) city.


I also visited the War Remnants Museum, well recommended for an intense and informative museum about the Vietnam/American war.

Next up was Nha Trang. Where my Vietnam adventures hit an all time low. Anyone looking for my recommendation... do not go here. Everything they say about it being full of Russian tourists, unfriendly and boring.. it's true. Don't let the beach entice you like it did for me. It's not even a great beach. I did spend a good chunk of time soaking up the rays though!..


And then I attempted to join a 'booze cruise boat trip'. Which I put into quotations because I don't know how it would have ended up being boozy as my boat was full of old Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. Needless to say I did not stay on the trip. So who knows? The old guys could have ended up booze cruising after all. My hostel felt horrible for recommending the ride as a backpacker trip and gave me free entry for 2 people to the mud baths. My Australian friends Ari and Mark joined me for the weirdest adventure so far. An egg themed mud bath park...


This is where we bathed...


Sitting in an egg full of hot mud on a hot day I couldn't help laughing at the crazy events that had brought us there. Despite hating the place.. I met a couple awesome friends (that I would also meet up with again later) and now I have a great and weird travel story.

After this, things were looking up. I had an amazing time wandering the lantern filled streets of Hoi An..


Beautiful by day and by night..


Had amazing street food and joined a cooking class...


(Duck pho, sesame beef spring rolls, eggplant salad, and prawn and pork mousse on sugarcane)
With 'beautiful' banana fritters for dessert

(Hey... turns out not all the food photos can be pretty).

The amazing activities continued with a motorbike ride through the Hai Van pass from Hoi An to Hue...


The coast was breathtaking...


Not bad views for the day...


In Hue I took a quick trip to the imperial city...


And then I continued to Phong Na Ke Bang National Park. First activity was a jungle trek through the Abandoned Valley, along parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail used by the Vietnamese in the Vietnam/American war..


The jungle was so humid, muddy, challenging, and fun. We stopped along the way to swim in one cave..


Then climbing and exploring in another..


And an amazing barbecue lunch..


The climb out at the end was so sweaty. Seriously, so sweaty. But it gave us one final, beautiful view...


The park was amazing, and one of the film sets for the new King Kong movie. The highlight of this being that our guide had met Tom Hiddleston. He showed us pictures. Pretty sure I was more excited than he was. Unfortunately my second day was a rainy day, but I managed to finish off my time with a boat ride down the river and through Phong Na cave...


My next journey brought me to Hanoi. I spent one day in the city on another food crawl. Can't get enough of that Vietnamese goodness (such as banh mi, basically anything that starts with bun... And egg coffee). This food was less photogenic so I'll skip to the last beautiful event. I ended my time in Vietnam with a 3 day tour in Ha Long Bay. After feeling down about bad weather and a stolen GoPro (not even go into detail about it. The whole situation was weird and frustrating), I am happy to report that Halong Bay ended Vietnam on a high note. The initial boat ride was so beautiful..


The beer was delicious..


And the sun even came out!


We explored some beautiful viewpoints...


Had a great kayaking spot and overnight sleep on the boat. The wine was also delicious..

Something about being out on a boat in that beauty made the average wine taste amazing.

We spent the second night on Cat Ba Island where we got to do some of my favourite... hiking!


The island was quiet and beautiful, with a perfect beach to check out..


And place to rent scooters with my two fellow Canadian girls...


Vietnam ended with a great group!


I've never traveled to a country that had more ups and downs. I've never felt more challenged on this travel journey. And I've also never been more proud to look back and still say I had a good time, and everything was worth it.

Posted by elliehirch 03:56 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Quick stop in Cambodia

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Traveling always makes me step out of my comfort zone. It makes me do things differently than I do at home. I feel comfortable to just go places alone, I become much more willing to approach complete strangers and strike up a conversation and make new friends. It allows me plan less, it helps me go with the flow (ok, so I still suck at this, but it actually makes me TRY to go with the flow), and feel so much more spontaneous. It makes me grow. But upon reaching Cambodia.. it also made me panic a little bit. I realized that the total lack of planning meant that I would have to rush through a few of the next places in Southeast Asia. Meaning I would miss things.. but also feel that much more motivated to come back! So in my quick 5 days in Cambodia, I managed to take in the major highlights.
First up was the ruins of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap.
It was a very early morning with a group from the hostel to take in this beautiful sunrise...


We took a tour that visited a few other temples and we also went back to the main temple in the daylight...


It was nice to see the difference between morning and day!

After crossing one of the main bridges..


Our second temple was Bayon, a huge complex with many towers of carved faces..


It was so neat to be able to climb all through the temple, as well as some steep steps for a great view...


We could also do some climbing at Ta Keo, stop #3..


The fourth temple may have been my favourite. Ta Prohm is full of trees growing into the temple...


Last stop was Bantay Kdei...


The ruins of Angkor Wat were amazing, the beauty exceeded my expectation and the peace and tranquility throughout the whole place was amazing!
I also enjoyed some time exploring local restaurants, the market and tourist area in Siem Reap with friends from the hostel before heading to the next destination... Phnom Penh.

There are less exciting pictures to share when it comes to Phnom Penh. The main draw for visitors is a trip to the Killing Fields and the S-21 Prison. And these were without a doubt the most intense, heart wrenching, and awful places I have visited. Before arriving, I had limited knowledge of Cambodia's 1975-1979 genocide. There was so much to learn about the civil war, the association with the Vietnam war and corresponding conflicts in Indochina, and the culmination in the genocide, one of the bloodiest in history. It's horrible to hear about, a difficult place to visit, but also a must do when spending time in Cambodia. I encourage everyone to do a little reading about it if you have the time. The memorials set up outside Phnom Penh are eery but beautiful...


Above is the stupa at the Choeung Ek killing fields, below is the memorial at the S-21 Genocide museum stating "never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime"...


The audio guides at both stop were incredibly informative. When describing the S-21 museum, the narrator said something that will stick with me forever.. "The courtyard is pretty and peaceful, but there is nothing pretty inside." It made me think about the way these events are seen from outside countries. We often don't know the full magnitude of the tragedies in genocides or civil wars until it is too late. We look inside and we see how ugly it really is or was. I really appreciated the opportunity to be present and bear witness to all that happened in Cambodia's recent history.

There are many other places in Cambodia that I would have loved to see but alas, I just didn't have enough time. As I know I have a lifelong curse of the travel bug... maybe I'll be back someday!

Posted by elliehirch 05:13 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

SEA starts with a 'Bang'

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For once I'll actually have a relatively short blog post, as I only started off Southeast Asia with Bangkok before switching countries. I was prepared for the crowded and busy atmosphere of Bangkok after India and just spent a couple days exploring the downtown/tourist centered core. Get ready for lots of temple pics. I know, I know, there was so much of that in India.. but these ones are totally different, I promise! As always, it's hard to go back to traveling on your own, but I hit the jackpot in a hostel full of other solo travelers that I spent my time with. Two thumbs up!
Our first exploration was the big one.. the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha...


The temple area is the most intricate, called Wat Phra Kaew in Thai..


As you can see, it is fantastically ornate and beautiful..


And the Palace itself is also beautiful, even if we could only view it from afar...


It was also incredibly crowded and so so hot. India was hot, but walking around in Bangkok was so humid! Back to multiple shower a day life! After the crazy crowds at the Grand Palace, exploring the smaller Wat Pho was really nice...


And just as beautiful...


It is also home to the massive reclining Buddha..


Ok, so the last temple spot was Wat Arun..


Then we also spent some time in the streets of China Town...


Wandered through a beautiful park..


And stumbled upon another temple (sorry, may have lied before.. But this one was unique!)... There was a prayer ceremony happening inside and it was so interesting and peaceful to observe..


You can also see the photo of the late king in front of the temple, one of many that are seen all through the city!

Lastly, we enjoyed checking out the street food, market, and night life around Khaosan road. Bangkok is an interesting city, but many areas are incredibly tourist-y and had this feeling of 'just check it off to say you did it'. Which is never the most fun for a travel destination. The temples were unlike anything I've seen before, I ate so much pad Thai, and I met a wonderful group of people.. but I was ready to check out what Cambodia had to offer!!


Posted by elliehirch 02:42 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Reverse Oreo 2017

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And here's the final post of the amazing time that was Reverse Oreo 2017! Our last big adventure in India was a tour in the south. It began with a 35 hour train ride! My longest overland journey to date.. which really wasn't that bad. Turns out the time goes fast when you sleep a lot!
Our overall experience with the tour was a positive one, but there were some bumps along the way. The first one was disembarking hot and sweaty from the train to find that our companions for the next 12 days were just a weeee bit older than us. But we grew to love those old farts after awhile.. they were friendly, quirky and fun, always taking care of us, and giving us entertainment with the drama they created. Our first few days we visited quite a few temples in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu...


One temple in Rameswaran had an amazing view of the countryside..


While the temples were all beautiful.. they were also another struggle on the tour. There were just sooo many and multiple places would not let foreigners or non-Hindus inside. It was the first time in my life that I have been prohibited from entering a place based largely on the color of my skin. It was frustrating and also eye-opening.

Other parts of the tour were absolutely beautiful and being able to spend the time sightseeing with such good friends more than made up for issues along the way. Part of the beauty of traveling is that things often don't turn out how you expect and you learn a lot about yourself in your ability to handle difficult situations.

We took a backwater ride in Kerala...


And the boat drove us to the beautiful Golden Sand beach, where Hannah and I finally had our first beer in India!!..


Our next stop was the southern most tip of India, the meeting point of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea..


It is also the location of a couple islands that are the Swami Vivekananda Memorial, a devout Hindu monk largely credited for the introduction of yoga to the western world...


We headed further inland to the town of Thekkady where we saw a traditional Kathakali dance, involving an interesting display of eye and face movements through expressive dance.. Weird and interesting!


We also took a jeep ride in the mountainous countryside near Thekkady..


The viewpoints were amazing and the ride was winding, bumpy, and exhilarating!


We took in a couple amazing sunsets...


And then continued to Munnar to visit the tea fields..


Rose Garden..


And Mattupatty Dam and Lake for a motorboat ride..


Staying in a beautiful spice jungle hotel..


Our last outing was another boat ride, this time in the famous house boating backwaters of Alleppey..


After our busy tour, it was nice to take our last few days to relax with Unnati's family back in Baroda, get to enjoy some more of Mama Rani's cooking, and cross the last few things off our India 'to-do' list. A veggie Big Mac (or Maharaja Mac) at McDonald's. So much yes. Last shopping at the market and grocery stores. Unnati brought back a whole suitcase full of food! And our final activities included a birthday dinner and visits with Unnatis friends (who have obviously become our friends too!)...


And a visit to the Sarangur temples a few hours away...


... Where we attempted to attend a communal temple meal and were whisked into a 'VIP' room (due to being foreigners) that Unnati didn't even know existed. Talk about opposite experience to our earlier temple visits. This is India baby! You never know what is going to happen and I love that feeling of adventure!

When I sat down to write my final India notes, I realized that this may be my favourite country visited to date. It is so unique, so full of culture and 100% certain to be a place I will return (Unnati just needs to give me a couple years to save up before her wedding!). I can definitely say it was the best food experiences I've had anywhere, the people couldn't have been more amazing (causing copious tears at the airport), and the things we saw from north to south were gorgeous. I feel so lucky to have had such a beautiful opportunity!


Posted by elliehirch 03:56 Archived in India Comments (0)

This is India baby!

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Throughout our time in this country, we've repeated a few things wherever we go. One has been reverse Oreo 2017... see picture below for explanation...


And the second has been 'because this is India, baby!' For any noteworthy cultural or unique experience, whenever we are shoved around or find ourselves in a huge crowd, when we are stared at for our white skin, or have an amazing view that also includes garbage.. We look at each other and shrug, this is India! We've found ourselves in just as many strangers photos as ones we've taken of each other. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't come up to Hannah and I: "one photo, please?, one selfie?" I'm a celebrity in India! People have even asked to hand me their children for photos! I wish my looks got me this much attention in Canada! But we've also learned that these features get us a much higher price for anything negotiable (rickshaws, taxis, food, souvenirs). Anytime we want to buy something, Unnati says "you foreigners just stand here and I'll go find out the price!" This is definitely working in our favour. Besides which I don't know how we would have managed the trip without her. She's been the most amazing and patient translator. We also had a wonderful time with her cousins and family in the rest of our stay in Agra...
We spent a day out with cousins Abishek, Sourabh, Harsh and Anjali and their son Namesh in Mathura and surrounding areas...


Our day was a bit of a temple tour. We started out at the birthplace of Krishna...


Then Vrindavan Temple, the most crowded place I've ever been inside (hence why the only photo is from outside)..


And finally the love temple, Prem Mandir, lit up like a Disney castle and full of the most intricate marble designs of which I am also only able to show outside shots...


Despite the beautiful temples, the noteworthy event of the day happened while I was sitting in the street, minding my own business, reaching out to take a cup of lassi and finding myself clobbered over the head by a crazy animal. Turns out I had just been dive bombed by a glasses snatching red-faced monkey. When I finally came to my senses to comprehend what was happening, Unnati, her cousins and the street vendors had run after it to throw bananas in exchange for my spectacles, thankfully resulting in their return in one piece, only slightly chewed on one arm. Talk about monkey business!

We had a couple more days in Agra spent visiting family before another sad goodbye. Unnati's family was amazing. Every single person, friend or family member, that we met would be so welcoming and generous, making us feel at home and wishing us the best. I fell in love with the people even more than any place we saw..


Our next destination was Jaipur where we stayed with another cousin, Shivali, and her family, and had a couple days to explore the cities palaces and temples. We started with the amazing Amber Fort and Palace..


Our favourite part of Amber was definitely the mirror room...


The area surrounding Jaipur is full of barrier walls and forts, described to us by one guide as the 'mini Great Wall'. We journeyed up to the great viewpoint from the Jaigarh Fort...


We stopped by Jal Mahal water palace, the unfortunate location of a palace built in a valley that later flooded..


As well as Hawa Mahal, a building full of windows...


And the big and beautiful Govind Debji temple...


A visit to Jaipur's City Palace was also amazing.. beautiful doors and gates...


And a pink central building..


We also experienced a lot of Rajasthan culture (the state Jaipur is in) at a cultural center and dinner. Local buildings/architecture..


And food!!!


Tried fire pan.. a mouth freshener lit on fire that they basically jam into your mouth.. delicious and weird.. Indians love mouth fresheners after every meal. Some of them taste like delicious candy and then some are more reminiscent of chewing on soap or chunks of perfume..


After Jaipur we had a couple more days back in Baroda. Reunited with Unnati's friends and visited the city's large park..


Then completed a pilgrimage of 1000 steps up to the temple of Champaner Pavagadh. The view from the top was wonderful and the nearby ruins were also worth a visit...


We were spoiled with two days of our surrogate Mom/Rani's cooking before packing up for our next adventure.. a tour of Southern India!!


Posted by elliehirch 09:15 Archived in India Comments (0)

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