A Travellerspoint blog

Halong Bay & Sapa

Halong Bay

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Happy Valentine's Day everyone! We really wish we had a wonderful romantic story to tell you regarding our valentines day however ours ended up being a little hectic, but worth it. We started off our day at 8am by getting picked up at our hotel by Tony (our Halong bay guide), thus beginning our 4.5 hour drive to the coast on one of the craziest roads we've ever been on. I'm not sure why we continue to be surprised by the chaos, however we honestly believed that the road to one of Vietnam's premier destinations would have better access (we eventually learned that they simply didn't want to pay the tolls so they avoided the nice highway). The trip was only 110km and it honestly took 4.5 hours. We were tossed around the bus, horns honking and the breaks screeching.... SUCH A GONG SHOW. We're not really sure how more people aren't seriously injured or dead.

We finally made it to Halong Bay, the sun was shining and hot as we boarded a little transport boat that took us from the port to our "Lemon Tour Boat". We opted only to stay one night on the ship as we heard from others that this was sufficient, and it was. The ship was pretty standard; our room was basic but cute, nice dinning facilities and a wide open sun deck which was great for sightseeing (and we finally had a comfy mattress!) We were fed some lunch and our adventure began. We first visited the islands and a small little beach where some people opted to kayak, but we decided to get in some rays on the sand. These islands, honestly, are so hard to describe. Only pictures could attempt to and those won't even do them justice. They are absolutely beautiful, scattered in each direction, rock faces with a variety of green, lush vegetation growing in between the cracks, hawks gliding in the wind circling their nest on the highest of perches, turquoise water with a little bit of haze melting into a never ending blue sky - stunning to say the least.

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We had supper on the boat and went squid fishing in the dark while listening to our fellow ship mates sing karaoke. In the AM, we were taken ashore and allowed to explore some of the caves on one of the islands. While it would have been nice to stay an extra day or two in Halong City, the next tour called, so back on the death road to the train station for our overnight train to Sapa, in the north.

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Sapa

So, the night train... this was my (Lindsay's) first experience with such a thing and all I can say is: I'm glad I was able to experience it one time in my life, but I would only ever do it again out of necessity!

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It worked out well for us this time as the Sapa tour began as soon as we got off the train and headed to our hotel. We ate breakfast and rented some rubber boots prior to meeting our group and beginning our trek through the hills. No rest for the wicked ;). Our first trekking day was quite foggy, so we were unable to see much of the landscape. These trails are so, so muddy and slippery that it was hard to even look up or around without the fear of falling! Our guide, Quang, told us that most people when they remember Sapa, remember only the mud. It's true! There were some lovely local ladies who followed our group for the whole trek and were there to help us out with the slippery parts. Sean and I, being from Canada and the rocky mountains, were slightly cocky about not needing their help...and then quickly bit our tongues as we realized how slippery the trails actually were!

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Our second day was one for the books. The sun came out early in the day and we unfortunately ended up with sunburns as we were not expecting this type of weather. Quang told us that this amount of sunshine is very rare at this time of year. He reminded us many times that we were very lucky to have the views that we did. Everything we saw this day was spectacular! What was hidden by the fog the day before, was out in full force and we were in awe. Mountains were soaring farther above us than we had imagined, the colours of the flowers were sparkling in the sun and the layers of rice fields were stretched out as far as the eye could see.

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After Sapa, we hopped a bus back to Hanoi where we spent the night. We are headed to Hue next.

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 08:33 Archived in Vietnam Tagged mountains beaches boats cliffs hiking trekking rice tours north bay sapa halong limestone paddies Comments (5)

Hanoi - The Good, The Bad & The Exhaust

To all of you who know us well, you were well aware of our plans of visiting Australia and New Zealand this winter. However, as plans tend to do in life, they change. We ended up buying our first house together in July which as many of you know, can lead to many new and larger bills. In the end we decided that Asia would be much more affordable and that we would make it to Australia and New Zealand once we had more money. After much deliberation we made the informed decision to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. We embarked on this journey leaving Calgary in a -30 deep freeze and headed to Bangkok and its sweltering +30. After 2 days acclimatizing to the heat and time change we boarded a flight to Hanoi.

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Oh Hanoi...the capital city of Vietnam and the capital city of the world for exhaust. Maybe not, but it sure felt like it! We arrived in Hanoi at the peak of rush hour (if there is such a thing here) and to only +14, which after Bangkok felt a little chilly. After an unsuccessful search for a cheap bus ride to our hotel in the Old Quarter, we opted for a taxi. Our first thought of Hanoi is that it's noisy, dirty, chaotic and the exhaust from the motor bikes and cars is actually quite suffocating. No wonder all the people here wear masks. The motorbikes were parked on the sidewalks, along with the street vendors, so we were forced to walk on the street and were honked at for being in the drivers way. Once we finally found a clear section, we would still have bikes coming at us even on the sidewalks. It honestly felt like a game of "frogger" :) which was an adventure to say the least!

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There are a lot of sights to see and activities to do in and around Hanoi, so we tried to hit up what we could in 3 days. We stayed quite central in the Old Quarter, which to our dismay actually doesn't seem to be very old at all, probably from having to rebuild after the war. As we were still recovering from the jet lag, we were up pretty early the first day so we trekked the streets to Hoan Kiem Lake. To our surprise, the city shuts down the street around the lake on the weekend, allowing all the locals to run, dance or play badminton anywhere they can find room. It was lovely to see and a nice reprieve from the chaos. This beautiful lake houses a pagoda on an island at the north end and a temple on another island at the south end. Fortunately for us, we got to experience this without tons of traffic or tourists.

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We then made our way to the "Hanoi Hilton", otherwise known as the Hoa Lo prison. This prison held many souls, mostly the Vietnamese trying to resist the French occupation but is probably most famous for imprisoning the American POW's during the Vietnam War. There isn't much of the original jail left, as 2 massive sky scrapers now surround the grounds, but the displays inside are quite thought provoking and well done. One of those displays focuses on American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo during the American War. One of those pilots was John McCain. His flight suit is displayed in the prison along with photographs of local Hanoi residents rescuing him from Truc Back lake in 1967. Quite a sobering place to visit.

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We woke up bright and early again for day number 3 and decided to go to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex. This place is massive. It houses the Mausoleum, Ho Chi Minh's personal residence on stilts, botanical gardens, a pagoda and a massive military parade route. The line up to get in snaked around for blocks and blocks. This allowed me enough time to put Sean's socks on to cover up my legs because I forgot to bring long pants on this trip! Nearing the entrance, we finally were able to look up at this gigantic square cement building where all of the guards were dressed in pressed white uniforms and not a smile cracked. The line was single file, hands out of our pockets and no talking. All this for a 15 second saunter into a dimly lit room with Ho Chi Minh, preserved in a glass casket, hands crossed over his stomach and 4 more guards standing at attention at each corner of the casket. As we left the room, it was easy to see that this place was a refuge for many Vietnamese people and something important for their country.

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After a few hours at the Mausoleum complex, we continued our excursion to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1070. This temple has all the markings of Chinese culture, and early Vietnamese architecture with many ponds and gardens, pagoda's, gongs and statues of Confucius. This temple was the place of Vietnam's first University and honors those who studied within its walls. Though there were a lot of people visiting the temple, it was easy to get lost in the moment; the setting sun bouncing off the dark red wood structures, golden Chinese characters and dragon sculptures protecting their offering pots filled with incense.

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Now that we've seen Hanoi, we're on our way to Sapa and Halong Bay. We want to give a shout out to Paul and Hana from Adventure Indochina Travel in Hanoi. They treat you like family and provide frequent follow up and information while you are on your excursions. If you're ever in Hanoi, please look them up! They are incredibly helpful, friendly and made sure everything was perfect. We didn't have to lift a finger ;) Here is a link to their website: Indochina Adventure Travel

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 01:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples church vietnam hanoi chi ho minh mausoleum Comments (3)

The Land of the Gods - Greece Part 2 - Ios

IOS

Ios was our next stop and after an hour-ish ferry ride we stepped off the boat to an unexpected sleepy little island. We had heard that this was THE party island in the summer and were looking forward to some late nights out but what we didn’t realize is this island almost completely shuts down once summer is over. Hotels and restaurants were closed, buses ran less frequently and even the “locals” left their businesses to return to their home towns, usually on different islands, until the next summer season arrived. What a difference from Santorini! We welcomed the rest and relaxation immediately, hanging out by the pool and moseying around the port.

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The town of Chora was super cute with zig-zagging cobblestone pathways and beautiful flowered trees overhanging the shops and restaurants. Even though it was a steep climb from our hotel, we explored as much of it as possible and eventually found some amazing old wooden wind mills and the Odysseas Elytis, an open air theatre that overlooks the sea.

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After hanging out in the town and some nearby beaches for a few days, we decided to rent a jeep and toured the island. It was so nice to get out and discover the secrets of this incredible island. While we were driving, it felt like there was no one else in the world but us. Like we could do whatever we wanted and no one would know. We stumbled upon some secluded beaches that we made our own for a few hours and we found the Tomb of Homer, which was quite disheveled and missing pieces but was still very interesting to see.

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On another part of the island, some extremely old wooden windmills attempted to blow in the wind and an old castle, perched high on top of the cliff with trees and shrubs growing through the old stone walls and footpaths. The ruins still had some distinguishable rooms and even a church in the middle that is still used by the locals today. Standing on top of the island like that, feeling isolated from the world and taking in the sights that were only meant for us that day was just so surreal. It was the perfect end to our day and island trip.

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Though this island was not as busy as Santorini, Ios was a pleasant surprise and we truly enjoyed the sights and relaxation. We would have loved to spend more time on some other Greek Islands, but with reservations and plans calling our names, we had to leave the beautiful Cyclades. We will be back for some more exploring and incredible sightseeing, but for now the city of Athens awaits!

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Posted by BlondeandCurly 16:20 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

The Land of the Gods - Greece Part 1 - Santorini

Santorini

As long as I (Sean) can remember, I have had a fascination with Israel. I cannot for the life of me remember when it started or why, but I have always felt a need to visit. Combine that with Lindsay’s desire to visit Jordan, we had quite the finale to our adventure. The months leading up to the trip we had heard it from all sides. Everyone who we knew had an opinion on whether or not it was a good idea to visit such a volatile region. Some people thought it would be absolutely insane to go to Israel, even leading to the question “why in the hell would you want to go THERE?” Every time I was asked that question or anything similar, I never really had a good answer. My answer always seemed to revert back to “because I have always wanted to”. That answer never seemed to be adequate for people. Most people simply accepted it because they had no choice, but it didn’t always mean they liked the decision. As more and more people created a negative environment for our plans (even though we understood it was because they loved us and didn’t want us to get hurt), it slipped to the backburner for a while. But, as we drew closer to our departure, I met with a couple of people who we both work with. One is from Israel and visits there frequently and another had just returned from the region. After talking with both of these individuals, it renewed our interest in the region again. They both had a type of energy when speaking about Israel and all it has to offer, even with the “security threats” that exist there. It was great to hear the different perspective on countries who receive mostly negative news coverage. As the trip progressed we followed the Israeli news like hawks. It seemed as the trip went on that everybody in the region had settled a bit and it seemed as though things were going to work out. Unfortunately the day we were supposed to purchase our flights to Tel Aviv, a fighter jet was shot down and the tensions in the region sparked once again. We unfortunately had to make the decision to delay our Israel/Jordan trip for another year. Even though we were both very disappointed (our parents were probably ecstatic), we promised each other that we will get there, even if it takes years. So with the weather turning frigid in Germany, we decided to jump ship to the lovely land of the God’s…Greece!

Santorini lived up to the hype, it was stunning! We were so blown away when we arrived to this little gem in the Cyclades of Greece. However with the beauty came a little bit of a disaster on arrival as our taxi driver dropped us off at the completely wrong hotel. And for those of you who know me, I (Sean) am usually a pretty organized guy. I figured “how hard could it be to find this hotel, it’s a small island and we are staying in a little beach town, no problem”. That attitude along with having no map and a non-functioning phone mixed in with a slight language barrier led us on quite the adventure. 45mins later and a shirt that looked like I had just jumped in the pool, we arrived at our hotel. We debated for days on whether or not to stay on the beach side or the cliff side of Santorini, but after spending one day at this hotel we knew we made the right choice. I rarely advertise hotels/hostels that we stay at, but I must make a mention of the Santa Elena B&B in Kamari. The staff at this hotel were absolutely fantastic. It was like we were staying with a Greek family at their own home. They went out of their way to make us feel welcome and the homemade breakfast was the icing on the cake.

This amazing little island is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption destroyed the earliest settlements on a formerly single island, and created the current geological archipelago. The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, which occurred some 3600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep and which according to our volcano guide may have led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, through a tsunami that was created post eruption.

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One side has lovely black rock, red rock or white rock beaches depending on which section of the geologic volcanic layers have been exposed, while the other more famous side boasts stunning cliff edges with beautiful white buildings topped with blue roofs and views of the ocean as far as the eye can see. Lying on the beach was perfect, though swimming was a bit difficult. The waves were pretty big and the slimy large rocks in the water, which were old, now smoothed lava from previous eruptions, were quite hard to stand up on. There was a lot of falling and splashing!

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Fira

Our first night took us to the other side of the island to the hustle and bustle of Fira, one of the more well-known towns in Santorini. Perched on top of and even built into the towering cliffs are shimmering white hotels, restaurants, boutique shops and the occasional house, surrounded by zig-zagging cobblestone pathways. With beautiful views and hundreds of tourists, it was quite easy to wander and perhaps get lost for a moment or two. We found a restaurant with a rooftop patio we decided would be the best place to watch the sunset, and that’s where we parked ourselves for the rest of the night. Our first Greek sunset had us hooked. I (sean) have been to Greece twice before (never to Santorini), but I had forgotten how delicious the food is in Greece. Whether it was the REAL Greek Salad, the Saganaki, the seafood or simply the fresh ingredients that we in North America sometimes lack, Greek food is some of the best in the world.

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Ancient Thira

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We did two breathtaking hikes; one that took us to the windiest place in Greece (and to one of the oldest settlements from the Minoan era, Ancient Thira) and the other took us along the cliff side from the town of Fira to the town of Oia, which is home to the most photographed spot in Santorini due to its stunning sunsets. We climbed the mountain/cliff/volcano edge to the ruins of Ancient Thira, which is thought to be one of the oldest settlements from the Minoan Era. Although it mostly looks like crumbled stone and the occasional formation of a house, it was neat to see the remains of how advanced this civilization actually was. They had sewage systems, pipes that carried cold AND hot water, roadways, a theatre and some buildings that stood 3 stories tall.

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The highlight of this hike though, other than the amazing views and ruins, was the wind. We found out later that it is the windiest place in Greece and we would both definitely agree with that fact. It was so gusty and strong that it almost knocked us off the side of the cliff, rivalling the hurricane winds we felt in New York for Hurricane Sandy only a few years ago. Crazy!

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Fira to Oia

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Our next hike was another incredible adventure. A cobblestone, dirt and pumas pathway lead us from Fira to a town called Oia, on the north-west side of the island. The views from that cliff side were some of the most stunning we have ever seen. To look out onto an everlasting sea with small islands popping up every now and then and seeing the sun setting slowly in the distance with colours you wouldn't believe existed in nature. The hike takes approximately 4 hours, but as you can see, very few people actually do the hike and it is a wonderful way to see the rest of the island. It was a very calming experience once you leave the town of Fira. The sunset at the end of the hike, overlooking the large church and town of Oia was breathtaking. It’s the most photographed sight in Greece and the pictures will never do it justice. Even though we were hot, sweaty and tired, it was completely worth it.

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Volcano Tour

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We also did a sail boat tour that took us to the active volcano, the hot springs and the island of Therasia, which was once attached to the rest of the island. Being able to walk on an active volcano (last eruption in 1950) and see the smoke expelled from the ground was riveting. This volcano caused so much damage in the past, destroying cities and civilizations and here we were meandering along its’ paths, carelessly taking pictures and enjoying the sunshine.

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We spent a full week in Santorini but it went by way to fast. We could have easily spent another week there as we still missed some of the things that we wanted to accomplish. I guess that is just another excuse to come back. We are now off to the island of Ios.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 13:49 Archived in Greece Comments (1)

Nuremberg

We have now parted ways with Neil and Amanda, as they head towards Belgium and onwards to home. We would love to see and do more of Germany but didn’t realize that the whole country would be so expensive and fully booked during Oktoberfest! Instead of heading to Berlin, we decided to spend a few days in Nuremberg and then most likely head to Greece for some warmth because it’s starting to become significantly cooler here. Nuremberg is a beautiful little city that we unfortunately only had two days to explore.

Nazi Party Rally Grounds

The first place we explored was the Nazi Party Rally grounds. This 11km area is filled with massive buildings, lakes and pathways and is known for some of the most iconic pictures from WWII. The complex, whose grandeur and style were inspired by classical Roman architecture, served as the site for the ritualistic Nazi party rallies between 1933 and 1938. Constructed by ‘Hitler’s favorite architect’ and Nazi minister Albert Speer, it formed the backdrop to the synchronized marching and showmanship captured in so many pictures and films. Large parts of Speer’s intended complex, such as the world’s biggest stadium, were never completed after the outbreak of World War II. Much of the architecture was defaced by advancing Allied soldiers at the end of the war and have since fallen into disrepair. The city of Nuremberg recently announced 90 million Euros are to be used to restore the entire grounds area. We have read that many people who live in Germany and Nuremberg disagree with this action, even though it is part of our history, many feel that the cost is to high. What do you think??

the Congress Hall

The first building we came upon was the Congress Hall, which is the biggest preserved National Socialist Party Monumental building in Germany. The building was designed to look exactly like the Coliseum in Rome. Even though it was so large there was an incredible amount of thought and detail put into it. On the inside, the bricks from the walls were crumbling away, plants were growing in and around walls and fences, and some old “rooms” were being used for storage. The outside however is made up of clinker with a facade of granite panels.

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The Great Road & The Zeppelinfeld

Next, we walked the pathways along the Dutzendteich Lake to the Great Road, which is 2km long and 40m wide. It was intended to be the central axis of the site and a parade road for the Wehrmacht (The unified armed forces of Germany). In its northwestern prolongation the road points towards Nuremberg Castle. This was to create a relation between the role of Nuremberg during the Third Reich and its role during medieval times. Now, a parking lot for festivals and football matches and once used as a runway for the U.S. army, it’s hard to imagine the amount of people that were involved in these massive parades and rallies. Continuing along some paths, we at last found the Zeppelinfeld, where Hitler used to make his propaganda speeches. Looking out from his podium, Hitler could watch thousands of soldiers marching by, professing their loyalty with the familiar Nazi salute to their Fuhrer. We both had the chance to stand on this perch and to see the enormity of this field and stadium. It was an experience like no other in the sense that we have visited so many places where WWII was fought, but this was the first time we had experienced a place that was used prior to the wars beginning. To think that this was exactly where Hitler stood and exactly where he made his hateful speeches that eventually allowed for the atrocities that occurred many years later, made us speechless. It will remain one of the most humbling experiences of our lives. We have included some old pictures to give everyone some perspective on what it used to look like.

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Old Town

Once we made it back from the rally grounds, we decided to wander around the old city in Nuremberg. We passed through the old city walls, which are still “protecting” the castle inside. Inside we found lots of new shops and restaurants, but also extremely old churches, bridges market spaces and of course, the castle. The city was built in medieval times around the 10th century, so the architecture was breathtaking. Enormous churches towered above us with gargoyles and solemn statues staring down. Cobblestone roads and bridges were leading us up the hill until finally we saw the stunning castle. It really was quite the climb to get to the gates, but it was so worth it once we got inside. We could see the whole city from up there! There were these perfect German wooden beams that cover the walls, with pink flowers flowing over the railings of windows and walls that were made of stone over 1m thick surrounded by gorgeous manicured gardens. Sigh….oh to be royalty ;)

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It was definitely a packed 2 days, but it opened our eyes to the enormity of what the Nazis were trying to accomplish prior the start of WWII. Germany you have been good to us and we look forward to seeing the rest of you very soon. Until next time.

Posted by BlondeandCurly 14:05 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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