Tag Archives: Tours

Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi

Day 1:  Our jet-lagged party of six was greeted by our friendly guide Nam upon landing at Hanoi airport in Vietnam  and we felt instantly in good hands. On our trip from the airport to the Authentic Hanoi Hotel, my first thought was “where is the sun”?.   The hazy sky of Hanoi seemed a combination of exhaust, smoke, and humidity, and it was hard to pinpoint where the sun actually resided.

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A roundabout near our hotel

Hanoi is a crazy chaotic city with an astonishing number of small cars, trucks,  scooters, bikes, pedal cabs and people that drive, walk, cycle and park in whatever direction they want, on the roads and sidewalks.   The majority of vehicles are scooters, which carry up to four people, and are often used to carry huge loads including fish traps, produce, poultry, eggs, and building supplies.  Whole families with the dad in front, mom in back, and two small children sandwiched between them are seen everywhere.  Most intersections are  uncontrolled and the infrequent traffic lights are largely ignored.  There is a constant cacophony of honking, and weaving going on, but there’s a certain rhythm to it all that works.  Paul summed up the rules of the road as “Everyone has the right of way;  just don’t hit anyone.”  Road rage seems nonexistent.  But more than half the scooter riders wear face masks to filter out the fumes.

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Intrepid pedestrians

Crossing a busy road for the first time was a life-altering experience.    Traffic will never stop for pedestrians, even at a crosswalk.  Our guide Nam instructed us to raise a hand, move into the fray (and pray), walk slowly but steadily, make no sudden moves,  and weave in between the traffic.  The ‘raise your hand’ step didn’t seem to  be used by the locals, but perhaps helped the locals recognize us as tourists and make some allowances for us.  The method of  give and take, ebb and flow, seems to work.   Nam shared with us a story of his friend who got a ticket from the local police for not stopping at a traffic light.  The police asked him “Did you see the light” and he said “Yes’.  The policeman then asked”  So why didn’t you stop” and he said  “because I didn’t see you”.  Wrong answer, followed by pretty large fine.

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The 1000-eyed Buddha might have foiled the pickpocket

I wasn’t paying attention on the first day while walking in a crowded tourist area in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake,  one hour into our first outing, and  had my wallet stolen from my purse.  Cancelled the cards quickly, but lost some cash.  Took a day to shake off the funk, but it was a reasonably inexpensive lesson.  After several tips with my bag zippers pinned together, I had grown careless.

Dinner out at a nice restaurant with nearby croaking frogs.  Great spring rolls, beer passable.

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The sacred unicorn

Day 2: We also had the second day on our own, so we visited the Museum of Natural History, where we discovered the four most important sacred animals for the Vietnamese – the phoenix, unicorn, turtle and dragon.  Of these, only the turtle closely resembles the western concept.    We now had our “Hanoi legs”:  using bottled water, finding our way around the restaurants and local shops, figuring out the money  (15,000 Dong = 1 Canadian dollar) and how the ATMs work, and returning to the correct hotel at the end of the day.  Still, we kept forgetting to watch for mopeds traveling counterflow on both sides of the street, and seriously doubted our sanity when we contemplated a city tour by bicycle the following day.

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About one ATM in five honoured our cards

We failed to notice that the Temple of Literature was on tomorrow’s tour agenda, and spent a couple of hours marveling at this centuries-old university.

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At the outskirts of Hanoi

Day 3: Our single day of cycling in Hanoi consisted of a visit to crowded cemeteries and rural pottery plants, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed Mondays and Fridays, unfortunately for us), the Ethnology Museum,  the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Citadel.  As with almost every meal on this tour, we enjoyed a copious set-menu lunch at a nicely appointed restaurant revealed to us by our guide.  Still enjoying the spring rolls.

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Excess kumquats

After our first and only day of cycling 30 kms within Hanoi, at the end of the day were amazed at how well we had done in the traffic, without feeling the  panic we would have felt doing the same at home.  The relatively slow pace of the cars/scooter/bikes probably made this workable.  Speeds ranged from 10 kph for the latter to 30 for the former.  We finished the day with a colourful water puppet show just a block from the spot I last saw my wallet.

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Nam, our guide for the North

We especially enjoyed the personal stories told us by Nam:  how he’d helped a friend dig up his ancestor after three years in an overcrowded cemetery so his bones could be reburied more compactly;  how he’d paid for his condo with a backpack full of Vietnamese cash (worth about US$ 38,000) delivered by scooter;  how he’d paid his bride’s parents about one percent of that for the ”bride price,” and a bargain at any price.  Friends of Nam’s, faced with a bride price financially out of reach, did an end run around the parents by getting in the family way.

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At the Museum of Ethnology (Objects not to scale)

We were most fascinated by the Ethnology Museum, where we learned a little about some of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, some male-dominated, others ruled by the women.  We would run into several of these groups during our rural cycling in the days to come.  We tried out some of the houses on stilts, not unlike one we would later spend a night in.  We fell asleep dreaming of the quiet country roads we hoped were in our future.

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Several ethnic minorities live on stilts

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Changing of Ho Chi Minh’s guard

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3 Days in our City of Love – Slovenia

Sometimes when you’re traveling, you just have to go in the direction the horse wants to go.

When we were on our recent trip to Croatia, we’d planned to take a side trip to Venice. The only other time we’d been in the “City of Love”, we’d been treated to two days of non-stop rain.

Romantic Venice by Gondola

“This wasn’t what I had in mind for a romantic proposal in a gondola in Venice!”

After several frustrating hours searching Google Flights and Rome2Rio, we reached the conclusion that cheap flights across the Adriatic came to an abrupt halt in mid-September. Since we were already scheduled to fly into Zagreb from Frankfurt, we opted instead to double back two hours by train for three days in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenia.

Slovenia - I Feel Love

The Official Travel Guide by Slovenian Tourist Board

Through AirBnB, we booked the top floor of a heritage building apartment in the old town, right on the Ljubljanica River. We were looking forward to meeting our host, Sara, and getting to know a bit more about the city. As the date of our arrival grew near, Sara decided to go on a round-the-world sojourn, and told us we’d have the entire place to ourselves. A friend would meet us there and let us in. By then we knew that the train connection in Zagreb would have us arriving in Ljubljana around midnight, so we hoped Sara’s friend was a good one. We checked the walking route from the train station to the apartment – looked at a couple Google street views – and convinced ourselves it would be safe enough, even at that late hour.

Dragon Bridge

We first crossed the Dragon Bridge after midnight, but returned late the next afternoon.

Likely the most dangerous thing we did was to walk down 20 minutes of cobblestone streets with our suitcases mimicking rolling thunder. Such unneighbourly behaviour might soon be banned in Venice – and I completely understand. (Does anyone make a suitcase with soft rubber tires?) Fortunately, no one pelted us with tomatoes, Sara’s friend was right on time, and we crashed into a comfortable loft bed in our old town apartment.

Apartment on Mestni Trg

Our apartment building from across the River, with Ljubljanski grad above.

Jet-lagged from our overnight flight to Europe, it was 11am before we awoke to a sunny September morning and a view of the hilltop Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) a few blocks distant. We decided to climb the hill first thing, get an overview of the city, and perhaps spend a couple of hours in the castle. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon: going on a castle tour, visiting the small museum, and eating at a tasty yet reasonable heritage restaurant. We learned that the area has been settled for thousands of years. Six thousand years ago there were stone-age farmers living in houses on piles in the marshes. The oldest wooden wheel ever discovered was found in this area. Exactly 2000 years before our visit, the Romans founded the city of Emona on the site of present-day Ljubljana. And we also learned that Slovenians love their ice cream – which is very good, and quite similar in style to the Italian gelato. We had our first of many in the castle.

Mural in Ljubljana Castle

A mural in the museum in Ljubljana Castle reminds us that, peasant or noble, we are all equal in death.

For the rest of the day, and the following morning, we simply wandered around the pedestrian streets along both sides of the river. The river is criss-crossed with foot bridges in the old town, and at the edge of those limits is Zmajski most , the famous Dragon Bridge. The town is a peaceful and attractive place to while away a day. With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana must be one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. It’s clean and comfortable, and offers many outdoor cafes and restaurants. And ice cream on every corner. On the riverside walk right outside our apartment was a wonderful cart offering homemade flavours such as black sesame, and pink grapefruit with fresh basil. I went back for seconds.

Triple Bridge (Tromostovje)

The Lower Bridge, designed in the Venetian style by Giovanni Picco, became the distinctive Triple Bridge when Ljubljana’s best-known architect Jože Plečnik added the two side bridges in 1929.

We found the people of the city friendly and helpful. The fact we knew only ten words of Slovene was no hindrance. Almost everyone we met spoke fluent English. The Slovenians liked to tell us that their home was a country of poets. Their streets are named after literary figures not generals, and the central Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg) is named after a 19th-century Romantic poet. The Slovenian poets were out in full force the morning we visited, gathered around the statue of France Prešeren for a “day of solidarity” for Edward Snowden. A placard quoted the poet and followed up with, “Hang in there, Edward, Slovenian poets are with you!”

Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg)

“Less fearful the long night of life’s denial than living beneath the sun in subjugation!” ~ France Prešeren

For the last day and a half of our stay, we elected to take a couple of day tours with a local company called Roundabout. The company offers several half and full-day tours out of Ljubljana, and is well regarded. Our first one was a long “half-day” tour which allowed us visit the famous Postojna Cave, where an electric train carried us several kilometres into the mountain. Nearby is Predjama Castle, where a 15th-century “robber baron” weathered the Holy Roman Emperor’s military siege for over a year by means of secret caves through the mountain behind the castle.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle is built into a cliffside cave. The baron met his end with a cannonball fired into the toilet on the far left.

We especially liked that each tour was limited to four people plus a guide. This allowed us a lot of flexibility on the various options along the way. On our second tour, we were all energetic enough that when offered a choice of a hike through Vintgar Gorge, or a boat ride to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island, we opted for both – an excellent choice as it turned out. While the highlight of this day was a visit to Lake Bled with its hilltop castle and island church, the stops at the glacial lake of Bohinj and the medieval town of Skofja Loka were equally as interesting. Throughout both days, our personable guides were able to keep answering our questions and providing us with interesting historical detail.

Lake Bled with the Church of the Assumption

A sacred site since prehistoric times, the famous Church on Bled Island recently hosted its first gay marriage.

We enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana, and could easily have made a longer visit of it. Given its small size, so many of its attractions were within walking distance of our apartment on Mestni trg. We enjoyed walking down streets at random, and checking out anything that looked interesting. Returning from Tivoli Park one morning, we stopped at an open-air café near the Narodna galerija. A sign advertising evening jazz had us return after dinner for a drink and a little sax by candlelight. If you want to know where it is, we can’t help you. The place is only open in the summer, and had recently moved. Next year it may be somewhere else. So you’ll just have to go wandering and see what you find.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

View from the Castle toward Tivoli. Our apartment was on the river in the foreground, with the Triple Bridge to Prešeren Square on the right. The “square” is actually round. The open space near the left is part of Congress Square (Kongresni trg)

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Best Tour Ever?

Cheryl and I recently spent a couple of weeks on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.  We had chosen to stay in a former small fishing village, now growing in popularity with European tourists.  With few North American visitors, there was little English spoken, something that appealed to our sense of adventure.

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Gourmet seafood with new friends from the dive shop

Adventures came from unexpected quarters.  An aborted snorkel trip had led to our befriending the French family who ran the dive shop, and we had joined staff at their home for a gourmet seafood meal.  We’d also put our travel technology to the test.  A family health emergency at home had Cheryl trying to manage doctors’ care and hospital transfers remotely, spending hours every day sitting by the pool on her iPod skype-to-phone connection.  Maybe the stress still won out:  she spent most of the second week knocked out by a nasty bug.  After a week of house calls at the small family-run hotel, the patient was old friends with the doctor.

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

Doctors still make house calls in the DR

On the last day of our stay, I insisted Cheryl treat herself to a massage.  The stomach bugs had canceled a couple of tours so we had a cushion in the budget.  Meanwhile, I spent the morning wandering around town with my camera, taking in the sights.  The air was warming, the sun was growing hot, and I was enjoying the rhythm of the place.  Pretty girls said “hi” in passing.  Everyone seemed happy.

A young man joined me with a friendly “Hola” as I was strolling up the street.  How was I enjoying his country?  He mentioned he was one of the security guards at our hotel.  I couldn’t place him – there were a couple of shifts of each day – but I didn’t let on, and we continued to chat.  I was happy for the chance to practice my Spanish, and he seemed willing to humour me.  He asked if I liked fishing, and said he had a cousin who could give me a deal on a fishing trip.  I smiled.  We’d been declining similar offers all week, and fishing wasn’t my thing anyway.

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

One of the sites around town that caught my eye

He talked a bit about his family, and told me he was worried about his baby son.  A doctor had just told his wife that the baby wasn’t getting enough nourishment, and that she needed to start supplementing with formula right away.  He wanted to get some today, but he didn’t have the cash.  He asked if I’d be able to lend him the money and he could pay me back at the hotel that evening when he got paid.  I thought to myself that I’d likely not see the money again, and immediately felt guilty.  I reasoned that I wouldn’t mind contributing a few dollars to a struggling family.  Our short stay in their town had shown us that many here got by on very little.  I told him I could help him out.

He thanked me and suggested the easiest thing to do would be to buy the formula together, and I could pay the store directly.  He knew a store up the street a bit where the prices were lower, but he was concerned they were about to close for siesta.  He quickened his pace considerably explaining that he knew the shopkeeper and it really would be the best place to go.  As I tagged after him, we continued to talk about some of the things we’d done in the past couple of weeks.  Struggling with more complex Spanish, I told him of our own medical challenges.  A couple of times, I suggested we could stop at another store, but my new friend appeared to dislike the thought.

Out for a stroll on Main Street - what will you see?

Out for a stroll on Main Street – what will you see?

By then we’d left the part of town frequented by tourists.  I suspected that a local on a security guard’s salary would find better deals in the less upscale neighbourhood.  Just as I was about to ask how much farther, we arrived at a small grocery store – with the metal shutters down.  My companion let out an exclamation, then asked a boy sitting out front something I didn’t quite catch.  “Good news!” the distraught father said, “My friend is still inside.”  He knocked on the side door, and it opened to admit us into the dimly lit interior of the closed store.  The shopkeeper behind the counter said hello, and the two men exchanged a few words.  The young security guard asked for the formula and the shopkeeper went to the shelves and brought back a box that looked like it would last until the baby was weaned.  I felt an unpleasant taste in my throat.  While I was still recovering my equilibrium, a case of disposable diapers appeared on the counter beside the box of formula.  At my urging, the bill was quickly calculated, and the shopkeeper held out his hand for the equivalent of about sixty dollars.

At that moment, the growing unease I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the last twenty minutes asserted itself.  I saw I’d put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.  Here I was in a part of town where tourists didn’t go.  I was inside a shuttered store, with two young men, both of whom now looked surprisingly burly.  The young boy outside was probably a lookout.  The young “father” had suddenly grown shrill and demanding – I had promised to pay for the milk, after all.  I was definitely past my physical prime, and with no fighting skills to speak of.

The candidate's message: a much bigger scam?

The candidate’s message: a much bigger scam?

My priorities changed rapidly.  My overriding objective was to get back out on the street.  Giving up sixty dollars to ensure my escape seemed a small price to pay.  I didn’t even blink when the young man grabbed the extra bills from my hand as I was paying the shopkeeper.  Pushing open the door, I burst out into the bright sunlight, stepped over the boy, and high-tailed it back down the street even faster than we’d come up it.  As the shuttered shop fell behind me, I counted my losses, about $75 all told.  I imagined the milk and diapers going back on the shelves.  I wondered how many times they’d been “sold”.

The next day, as Cheryl and I were taxied out of town, we passed the store, now open.  I briefly considered stopping and raising a scene, but figured nothing worthwhile would come of it.  Besides, they’d played a good game and won.  We continued on to the airport without interruption.  Losing the money had been one thing.  The blow to my pride and self-confidence had been much worse.  How had I let myself be taken in?  “I don’t know what you were thinking!” said Cheryl.

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

We visited this park on one of the legal tours

With a bit of perspective, the money ceased to bother me.  In fact, I came to think of this experience as just one more “tour,” an educational one this time.  The price of $75 was the norm for the higher-end tours in town.  I had to admit that this was the most memorable tour I’d had in the two weeks!

Talking to strangers, meeting people when we’re on the road, these are some of greatest pleasures of travel for us.  I’ve always tended to trust people’s motives until proven otherwise – and I don’t really want to change.  Cheryl doesn’t want me to change either, but she does wish I’d be a little less willing to suspend disbelief.  Frankly, I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t fall for a scam like this quite so easily next time, so I spent some time thinking about how I fell for this one, and how I might train myself to heed the warning signs sooner next time.  I’ll share some of that next time, as well as some security tips from travel gurus.

I trust no one reading this will restrict their travels as a result of my story.  In over forty years, Cheryl and I have traveled a fair amount – and I’ve been in a few dicey locations – but all told, we’ve had very few problems between us.  A couple of pickpocket attempts, one successful one during the Munich Olympics.  I’m sure we’ve paid more than we should have for the odd purchase abroad.  In Costa Rica, I lost my electric razor to a “fisherman” – I’ve traveled with blades ever since.

Many years ago, while serving tables in a small town in Germany, I lost a hundred Deutschmarks to a winsome young German lass – almost $150 in today’s money.  I learned from the “polizei” that many other young lads in town had been fleeced during her short stay.  She knew her marks!

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul's first "tour" - still looks lovely as ever.  I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

This lovely old hotel was the site of Paul’s first “tour” – still looks lovely as ever. I wonder if Brigitte still visits?

What about you?  Have you ever fallen prey to scams or other petty crime while traveling?