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Flores, Guatemala’s Back Door to Tikal

…and that’s the kind of place Flores turned out to be.

Thoughts On Planning and Executing Travel During the Time of Covid

After sitting it out for most of 2020 and into the fall of 2021 due to Covid travel restrictions, I am finally back wandering the world. After careful consideration, based on various countries’ travel restrictions, I chose Mexico to relaunch my wanders. I have spent a great deal of time in Mexico dating back to 1974 and I love the people and the culture so it is a bit like going home. At this time in Mexico visitors are only required to fill out an on-line form answering the usual covid questions regarding health and contacts. Easier than a lot of other countries that require the covid tests 72 hours in advance of travel. Mexico has had it’s fair share of Covid but as in Canada people wear masks, social distance, limit gatherings and capacities and temperature checks before entering premises are standard. Having had both vaccines I am happy to say that with the precautions in place here I feel as safe, although still cautious, just like at home.

South America “No Go” – Best Laid Plans and Political Strife

I wrote the above in late October just after I arrived in Mexico and at that time I had planned to stay 2 months and then head to South America to visit, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I had spent several weeks pouring over travel guides, which I buy at second hand stores, planning my trip to include the sights most important to me. However, shortly after arriving in Mexico, Ecuador had some internal strife, closed its borders and I decided to postpone my wanderings in that part of the world until things are more settled. As it turns out, along came Omicron another letter in the Greek Alphabet, and I felt doubly sure that staying in Mexico for four months was the wisest course of action.

Heads Up When Entering Mexico Things Have Changed….Maybe

However, NOW when you arrive in Mexico they might ask you how long you are staying and when you think you are only staying a couple of months, (which is what I thought since I was eventually headed to South America) they write down 60 days, meaning that, you have sixty days on your tourist card. I guess I missed that memo, but I am not alone, I have read several on-line forums from other folks who had assumed that as in years past the tourist card allowed them to stay 180 days and no other limitations. Not anymore, it is now up to the discretion of the Immigration Officer. NOTE: When I returned to Mexico from Guatemala through Cancun airport it was business as usual. Two questions only, where did you just come from and what is the purpose of your trip, nothing more, hard stamp on tourist card allowing for 180 days and “have a nice day”. None of this “how long are you staying?”

Turns out, short of becoming a resident, which is complex and expensive you can’t renew your tourist visa from inside Mexico which means of course you have to to go outside and reenter if you wish to extend your stay. I know, I know, poor me, more hardships and of course the solution is…..I’m in Guatemala!!!!

A “Had to Trip” To Tikal in Guatemala Becomes a “Glad I Went” Trip

Getting from Puerto Escondido to Flores Guatemala turned out to be fairly involved, requiring a flight from Puerto Escondido to Mexico City, a two hour wait for a flight to Cancun, a four hour wait, and a flight from there to Flores in the NE corner of Guatemala. By the time I arrived in Guatemala 14 hours after leaving my apartment in Puerto Escondido I had spent too much money on airport food, lost my luggage, spent hours reporting my lost luggage in Cancun and arrived tired and without a change of clothes. Forced to go shopping on my first day as I had only my plane travel clothes I found a colourful little outfit with matching flip flops to do until my bag arrived four days later.

Boarding the plane from Cancun to Flores, with about five other people, was really nice though, and the prop plane was comfortable and very empty. The pilot told me this was an inaugural flight for AeroMar which was adding Flores as a stop on their regular flight to Guatemala City. Arrival in Flores was equally pleasant and after explaining about my lost luggage and since there were no taxis in sight the Immigration Officer, who processed my arrival, drove me to my Hotel. That’s the kind of place Flores turned out to be.

My first four days I spent at the Casa de Turquesa a lakefront hotel on the Isla de Flores. Beautiful views and so clean with great sheets and a soft bed. From here I was able to make arrangements for a tour of Tikal but spent the first day wandering the streets (and shopping) of the Isla de Flores. A quaint little town with cobblestone streets, Isla sits in the lake, attached to the mainland by a narrow spit of land, just wide enough for 2 lanes of traffic and a pedestrian walkway. Very picturesque the place really glows in the night time and it being the holiday season it was especially lit up.

Beautiful Isla de Peten
Cobblestone Streets
Lago Peten Itza Skies
Nighttime Doesn’t Mean Dark

It’s easy and inexpensive to get around Flores by tuk-tuk and by boat. There are many launches that will take you anywhere on the lake you wish to go and as you can see by the map above their are several small towns around the lake that make a nice day-out.

Tikal – A Maya Ruin Located in Tikal National Park

Tikal, a place I’ve wanted to visit for some time, did not disappoint, even though my “private tour” turned out to be on a mid-sized bus with about a dozen other people. The hour and a half drive to Tikal was beautiful, gliding through the emerald green country side that I remember from past trips to Guatemala. Coffee fincas, rancheros and fruit plantations dotted the hilly horizons and small towns slapped together and strung out along the road to support local commerce were a quick window into the world of the local people. It was on the bus that I was reminded of why I love to wander. That sense of freedom on the road with the beauty that the countryside has to offer and the weather temperate enough to allow for open windows and fresh breezes. A slight rustle in your hair and your soul.

Tikal National Park

  • Tikal is an ancient Maya citadel in the rainforests of northern Guatemala
  • Possibly dating back to the 1st century it flourished between 200 and 850 AD with a 65 km radius and was later abandoned
  • Its iconic ruins and temples and palaces include the giant, ceremonial Lost World Pyramid and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar and rightly became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979
  • Ti ak’al in Maya means “in the lagoon” and is known as the “place of the spirit voices”
  • Temple IV is 70 m in height and I climbed every last one of them
  • Divided into plazas, groups and complexes to identify the various areas of the park…it is so big!
  • Tombs have been excavated in various locations throughout the park
  • Some of the temples took 1000 years or more to build
  • Steles (stone tablets) seen throughout Tikal describe the history
Mascarones Temple 700AD
History on a Stele
Templo II – The Mascarones Temple
Maya Ceremony Alive and Well

New Years Eve 2021/22 – Serendipity of Travel

I find there’s always a moment of serendipity when you travel alone that reminds you that you are never really alone and it’s easy to make connections with people if you are open to them. And so it was, on the bus back from Tikal, I met a lovely woman, Maritza, from Guatemala City who was traveling with her sister, Maria and her daughter, Keily. This was their first trip to Tikal and Isla de Flores and fortunately for me, Maritza spoke very good English, having lived in the USA for two years as a teenager. They invited me out for New Years Eve the next night. My new friends came to my to my hotel to fetch me at the appointed hour and to my delight we made our way to the waterfront and took a private boat across the lake to a beautiful restaurant. We had dinner and waited until midnight when across the lake the fireworks exploded seemingly from every house in and around Isla de Flores. So pretty and obviously so enjoyed by my Guatemalan friends. They insisted on paying the bill and dropped me back at my hotel before returning to their hotel. Their kindness, friendship and hospitality will stay with me long after the New Year begins.

New Friends
New Years Even Restaurant
Maria, Moi and Maritza and a Midnight Toast
New Years Eve

More Fun in the Lake

New Years Day, my 3 friends and I bought a picnic lunch and took another boat further up the lake to a swimming beach. We were dropped off at a park by our boatman with promises to return at 5:00 pm. The park was full of family picnickers snoozing in public hammocks, and although the lake-bed was rocky and a bit swampy the water was good for swimming. Keily spent over two hours in the water splashing and swimming…a true water baby. She was quite impressed that her mother spoke English, she asked “momma can you talk like that?” Eventually she decided that I wasn’t fundamentally weird for speaking Spanish so poorly and even started calling me Tia.

Maritza and Kiely
A Family Float

So the first six days passed quickly in Flores Guatemala but the last two days poured rain and made me huddle up in my hotel room watching the downpour with Guatemalan TV in the background. Tikal isn’t the only ruin worth visiting around Flores, there are several others, and a volcano lake to visit and visits to the small villages around the lake are things that just didn’t get done. But two days of catching up with correspondence and blogging and doing laundry in the room wasn’t so bad and I returned to Cancun Mexico refreshed and glad I went and hopeful to return to this sweet gentle little place with the kindest people you’d ever hope to meet.

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Christmas in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Christmas in the Oaxaca Sun

Returning to Puerto has become one of my routines in Mexico. As in Progreso, I have made good friends there and am always excited to return and catch up with their lives. In years past I have stayed at Casa Rosada, but this year I booked a place on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Rinconada, a trendy restaurant filled area close to several great beaches. I was really pleased with my apartment and the view was stunning. A bonus was that Inti, my landlord was super.. helpful, responsive and friendly too! Cielito Lindo is the name and they have studio and one bedroom suits.

My Apartment
Stunning View & Great Sunsets from Patio

With Covid in the picture I wasn’t too keen on sight seeing and exploring, but fortunately I have done a lot of that on earlier visits so going to various beaches, open air restaurants and sitting by pools had to do. I know…poor me. If you’re interested in knowing more about what you can do in and around Puerto here is a link to my previous posts on the area.https://wanderwithstella.com/2016/03/31/oaxaca-coast/ or scroll through the posts to see others including Oaxaca City.

For many people, Puerto is all about the beaches of which there are many and one can easily spend a whole day at the beach under a palapa umbrella with the odd chelada (cold beer and lime juice on ice) to quench one’s thirst. People watching is a great pastime at the beach and even in covid locals and visitors enjoyed swimming and playing in the waves. Mexican families are generally large and they tend to travel in multi-generational groups, making for lots of antics and noisy fun.

My “Home” Beach – Playa Manzanilla
Playa Zicatela – Long, Lovely, Big Surf
Playa La Punta – Javier & Gabriela, Surfer Beach like Zicatela Has Big Surf
Playa Principal – Popular with Local and Families
Watch Out for Pool Sharks Like Gabriela on Zicatela
Soft Sand and Shady Palapas!

Food in Oaxaca is among the best in Mexico and some of the worlds top chefs have made the State home, opening great restaurants in the capital, Oaxaca City, and other smaller locales. I have some personal favourite dishes: tacos pastor, pozole (soup) and tlayudas.

Street Tacos – The Best!

Mid-way through December, Christmas vacation brought large numbers of people to Puerto, which in a normal year would add to the fun. But given the crowds that began to cluster on the beaches I refrained from going every day unless it was to Bacocha Beach where there is plenty of room to social distance they have the most incredible sunsets…so again no real hardship. There are two beach clubs at Bacocha and for a fee you can eat, drink, use the pool and beach chairs for the entire day and the costs come out of you fee.

Bacocha Beach
Sunset at Bacocha

San Jose del Pacifico – A road trip from Puerto

Lucky for me, my friends Javier and Gabriela were game to rent a car and make the drive up the long and winding road to San Jose del Pacifico in the Sierra del Sur. A small town in the mountains, it is a place for adventure seekers, hikers and climbers to visit. It is truly beautiful and charming and due to its location in the middle of pine forests, the building practices incorporate more wood than is common in Mexico, giving the place a definite flavour of mountain retreats. The clima also reflects the altitude and out came the jackets, pants and socks from the bottom of the suitcase when the temperature dropped to 6 Celsius when the sun set over the mountains.

The highway between Puerto Escondido and the turn-off to San Jose is greatly improved since my last visit and and a by-pass road before Pachutla meant that we missed the traffic of this busy commercial centre. As you leave the coast and head up into the Sierra the road becomes narrow, with hair pin curves and even some “logging” trucks. The road as you would expect was lots of fun to drive and Javier and I took turns, and much to his dismay Gabriela favoured my driving to his!

Stunning Scenery Makes the Trek Up Worthwhile
Miradors Along the Way
Many Little Pueblos Along the Road

We stayed in a very nice hotel overlooking a valley, built with lots of pine wood the cabins were post and beam with timbered rafters. There weren’t many people at this newish hotel and we generally had the dining room to ourselves. I can see where the visitors will come once covid is over and the word is out. From this same road that takes you to the top of the Sierras you can take a turn a little further down the mountain and take the original road from the coast to the city of Oaxaca. Javier recalled driving his entire family, most of it in the back of a pick-up from Mexico City to Puerto Escondido when he was just a teenager. Some of the folks in the back lacked an appreciation for his enthusiasm for the road as car sickness overtook them.

Our Hotel and Gardens

We hired a local guide who showed us the sights, taking us to all of the spots of interest for visitors. Our first stop was a combination resort, restaurant, fish hatchery and zip line, with of course Javier and I had to try out.

Fish Hatchery, Hike and Even Turkeys
Guide Held This Interesting Insect for the Photo

Following our hike and zip-line adventure our guide took us to a local home where the owners have suspended a wooden swing close to the edge of a cliff and so you swing out over thin air, belted in you are relatively safe and again the views were spectacular.

Wheeeeeeee!
Javier All Set to Swing!

This was the first of our human launch experiences and I must admit the next one did take my breath away.

San Jose del Pacifico is all about tourism and forestry including furniture making. There are many attractions for visitors whether you want to jump off the edge of things or stay firmly on the ground like Gabriela, there is something for everyone.

Christmas in Puerto Escondido

Back in Puerto, after our weekend in San Jose del Pacifico, it was clear that Christmas Vacay was really ramping up and the night market on the Adoquin in Centro was packed with people and possible regalos. Decorations sprung up all over town and Javier and Gabriela invited me to join them for their Christmas Eve dinner.

Adoquín Busy with Christmas Vacationers

Lots of Christmas spirit in Puerto with lights, decorations and fireworks to celebrate the many special days in the Christmas season.

Javier and Gabriela invited me to their family Christmas Eve dinner which is the main event in Mexico. Javier picked me up at 8 PM and we drove to their home. They had set up a table in a neighbour’s yard under an almond tree strung with Christmas lights and along with four of their neighbours, Javier, Gabriela, their two sons and I enjoyed the typical Christmas feast of fish and pork. Both dishes took two days to prepare and the neighbours contributed a few dishes of their own including a sweet crepe desert with honey drizzled on top.

And now with Christmas done, I will say goodbye for now and set my mind to my next adventure….Guatemala.

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A Little Girl’s Birthday in Mexico

I had so much fun at this birthday party, watching the proceedings and savoring the joy that only children exude when they are excited. Jade is the daughter of Nora & Beto, a couple I have known for many years in Progreso. Beto and I share a birthday and a few years I have been lucky enough to share a celebration with Beto starting Nora’s home made flan!!!

This is Jades’s birthday though and as a nod to Covid and during the time when folks thought we had it on the run (pre-omicron) with vaccines etc. a face to face almost normal party was held in her honour.

The birthday girl in her fancy ball gown.

Nora hired a couple of young men you ”do” kids birthdays, bringing music (loud), lights, games, prizes, and decorations. Momma has only to shop up. What a great idea. The kids are entertained and kept busy though out, right up until the piñata is smashed and the cake is eaten.

Nora and her neice Catya
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More Wanderings in the Yucatan

Day Trips from Progreso, Yucatan

If you have a rental car and if you’re lucky enough to have friends to share the driving and the cost, there are great places to visit within a few hours of Progreso.

Day Trips

Sisal, a beachside Puebla where we understood many changes were taking place, was one of our destinations. Easily combined with a trip to Celestun to see the flamingos, Sisal has been “discovered” and real estate is reputed to be flying off the shelf. Worth the drive as the beach is pretty, there’s good swimming and several beachside restaurants serving local seafood. The history of Sisal is interesting too and was the port from which the heinequin rope was shipped to all corners of the world.

Sisal Pier

Celestún, another town easily reached from Progreso has been a favorite of mine over the years. I’ve probably been about three times to take the launcha through the mangroves to see the flamingos and other birds. Boat tours leave from the beach in the center of town, or a shorter option is to take a boat from the lagoon as you enter the town. No need to book ahead or even try to find a boat, they will find you. If you are a bird watcher I’d say this day out is a must, I have never been disappointed and have seen a variety of bird life including pink herons and lots of pink flamingos.

Pink Herons
Pink from Camarones

Cenote San Ignacio is a cenote with an above ground pool, gardens, a restaurant and an underground cenote that is beautiful, clear and refreshing. One of my favourite cenotes, it offers change rooms, an above ground pool, a restaurant and of course the underground cenote. A quaint little Puebla, San Ignacio is a good place to see the old style maya homes with adobe covered rock walls and palapa roofs. 

San Ignacio Cenote

Xzamal My first visit to Xzamal and I have added this to my must do list for future visits to the Yucatan. Xzamal is notable for its profusion of yellow buildings. The Pope visited (1973) a particularly famous and sacred Franciscan Monastary here and in honour of his visit and as a sign of welcome the people painted everything yellow. The Padua Monastary is large and an interesting example of early colonial architecture built on top of the ancient Maya town that preceded the Spanish. Apparently it has the largest open atrium outside of the one at the Vatican and around the atrium are statues of Saints who are said to have performed miracles.

The madonna wears a crown, gift from the Pope.

From the walls of the Monastary you can look across the main square with it’s yellow arches to Kinish Kak Mo, a smaller and easily accessible Maya pyramid. The meaning of its name translates to “macaw of the solar fire face”. We were able to climb right to the top for a great view of the surrounding area. The Yucatán is as flat as the Canadian prairies so you can see quite a distance.

Main Square
Kinish Kak Mo
Entrance to the Pyramid
View of the Yucatan from the Pyramid

On the recommendation from a friend we dined at a fantastic restaurant called Kinish, where they serve traditional Maya cuisine including cochinita, a pork dish marinated with sour orange juice, wrapped in plantain leaves and cooked underground.

Progreso and Merida After my friends left for home I immersed myself in life in Progreso. A friend living in Chelem got me aquainted with the beaches there and in Chuburna, communities adjacent to Progreso. It was often windy but the water was warm and we all swam and enjoyed the beach in relative solitude, which of course in the time of COVID is advisable. Of course Merida is close and movies, bowling, restaurants and a jazz club rounded out my last days in Progreso. Next stop Puerto Escondido.

Chuburna Beach
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A Month in the Yucatan: Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead, a colourful, festive and joyful way to show love and respect for deceased family members.

As in years past, I started my Mexican Adventure by returning to the sea side town of Progreso in the Yucatan. This year for the first time I made it to Mexico in time for Dias del Muertes, a celebration in which death and deceased loved ones are honoured. Things were scaled back somewhat due to Covid but there were still some interesting things to see and do.

Symbols of the Day of the Dead: Skulls, Calvera Catrinas, Offerendas & Papel Picados

If you haven’t seen the movie Coco I highly recommend it as a fun and touching way to acquaint yourself with Mexican culture and especially the believes and practices around the Dias del Murertes.

Dias del Muertes is actually several days in duration with a day dedicated to children, and then one for adult relatives and ancestors. Similar to our Canadian Halloween, people dress in costume and walk the streets admiring each others costumes. Adults and children alike participate. There are generally musical & cultural events and each community celebrates in a different way but all have in common a visit to the cemetary to spruce up the graves of lost relatives and to invite them to return to this realm by offering food, drink and special treats. Elaborately decorated altars can be seen in private homes, (called offrendas) to welcome the spirits.

Family Home Oferenda
Costumes often include Marigolds

We spent a few days visiting various locations that we heard would be interesting examples of the festivities. One evening we went to Merida and sat in a restaurant to watch a pasado of costumed families followed by a cultural performance in a square at the end of Paseo de Montejo.

Perhaps the most interesting event for us was a visit to a pueblo called Pomuch, where we walked through the local graveyard. The tradition here is to open the boxes of the deceased and clean the bones, leaving them on display, free to roam, for a few days before they are returned to rest in peace. Unlike Halloween which is a dark night of terror and mischief, Day of the Dead festivities take place over two days and are colourful, festive and joyful, with the point being to show love and respect for deceased family members.

Cemetaries are Cleaned and Decorated

A mish-mash of indigenous and christian beliefs the symbols of the Day of the Dead are important and include calveras or skulls. One of the most ubiquitous symbols of the Day of the Dead came about when Diego Rivera, Mexicos beloved muralist, painted a stylized skeleton in one of his murals. Dressed in a large feminine hat, Rivera named her Catrina, a poke at the rich. Sugar skulls abound and food items like pan de muerto, or bread of the dead is often shaped into bones and skulls. Other sweets include tiny dough teardrops to symbolize sorrow. Of course there are drinks too including pulque, a sweet fermented drink made from the agave. Of course costumes are important as festivities normally spill into the streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night. Faces are painted to resemble skulls and the Calvera Catrina. It wouldn’t be Mexico without some noise and costumes often include shells or other noisemakers to rouse the dead and keep them close during the fun.

Calvera Catrina

To represent the wind and the fragility of life Mexican’s use layers of paper, piercing it with a hammer and chisel points to form elaborate patterns. The Papel Picado is draped around homes, streets and restaurants and adds to the festive atmosphere that permeates the day of the dead.

Certainly this celebration of death wasn’t the same as in other years without the pandemic but Mexico being Mexico there was still lots to see and do even without the large scale celebrations and gatherings that are the norm.

Marigolds
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On the Road Again….Headed to Mexico and with any Luck, South America.

It’s been a long 2 years since covid hit and the pandemic stalled my travel plans, but here I am on the road again. As with most of my wandering this one started with a float plane to Vancouver, A beautiful blue skied fall day. Not a bad way to say goodbye to Vancouver Island and flying over my house for one last goodbye was as delightful as being driven to the float plane by my lovely friends Ralph & Lucy. A proper send-off indeed.

Farewell
A beautiful fall day in Nanaimo

All Set to Fly

Now at gate 53 YVR and I know it’s the right one because not only does it say that on my boarding pass but most of my fellow passengers are speaking Spanish. These mostly men have been working in Canada on a special program that brings them here to fill in positions unfilled by Canadians, usually in agriculture.

I am so excited to see my friends in Mexico, to return to Progreso, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca City and to explore some new destinations as well. If all is safe by next January, I plan to fly to Ecuador and Peru, but that remains to be seen. If not, Mexico will more than suffice.

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Phu Quoc Island a Tropical Paradise

Phu Quoc is a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. It belongs to Vietnam but lies closer to Cambodia. It is easily reached on a short 50 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, over the mighty Mekong Delta and is well worth a visit.

After two plus months of traveling throughout SE Asia, Phu Quoc was a welcome beach vacation destination. Admittedly there are many touristy things to do on Phu Quoc but if you’re me and your somewhat tired of shifting about, sitting still on a white sandy beach under some palm trees for a week or more is a welcome respite.

There are several different areas to stay on Phu Quoc and we booked way back in October in an area quite far from the main town of Duong Dong. First impressions along the highway and the side roads may not be favorable, there is a lot of garbage and the ubiquitous unruly collection of traffic, businesses and residences that I have come to associate with SE Asia.

Busy streets, a mix of everything.

But once you are off the beaten track and you have arrived at your accommodation, then hopefully you will find what we did at the Camellia Hotel & Spa, (spa because you can arrange to have a massage there). We had booked this hotel well in advance and by Vietnamese standards we paid a high price, 63.00 CAD per night, if we’d waited we would have paid much less, maybe even half.

The rooms were big, well appointed and the pool and free breakfast offset the distance to the beach, (about a 25 minute walk, although the hotel ad says 10). Sadly, the closest public beach was squeezed to a bare minimum by beach front hotels with private amenities so we opted to spend most of our day around the Camellia pool.

The area around the Camellia is very rural, as in….there were roosters, lots of roosters and we saw a new born calf, still wet and wobbly legged in the road right in front of our hotel. Nearby there were lots of restaurants and bars so we didn’t have far to go to eat and we found a variety of cuisines from French to western and of course local.

One evening we ventured into town by cab (pricey enough you wouldn’t want to do it everyday) had dinner and wandered through the night market. Lots of seafood of course, Phu Quoc being an Island.

Four nights passed quickly and it was time for my Canadian friends to head back to the chill of the Yukon, the poor things. I was to stay on for another nine nights and opted to shift to a “Retreat” Hotel closer to town. So glad I did, the An Nhien retreat lived up to it’s promised amenities with friendly helpful staff, healthy breakfast, massage, pool and beautiful tropical garden complete with a small stream full of fish and ornamental fountains. My room was a good size and done up like a cabana, very nice.

The hotel was a three minute walk to the beach and An Nhien shared a private beach with another hotel. Great place to the spend the days and the truth is I did little else. Swimming, reading, snoozing, contemplating and ruminating with very little movement from A to B. I didn’t even head back to town.

I met very few English speaking people on Phu Quoc, most other beach goers were from Russia. It is a close sun spot for them and plane loads arrive daily if not hourly.

Here come the Russians….

I made a decision to return to England a week early when I heard that there was a Corona Virus quarantine in a small village in northern Vietnam. A week more in England seemed a good bargain given that the most fun you could expect to have in a quarantine situation would be to stay healthy. If I had only just started or was part way through my explorations I would have stayed on. But I am glad to have had the luxury of playing it safe and don’t feel that I have made too much of a concession. After all, I’m all tucked up at Heather’s in Brighton, drinking tea and watching Tellie and hoping that Vietnam is spared the spread of the virus.

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Once Upon a Time it was Saigon…Now Ho Chi Minh City.

The Wild West of the traffic world….

Ho Chi Minh City is the Wild West of the traffic world. There are more scooter/motorbikes here than anywhere on the planet I am sure. It’s as if my travels through Vietnam led to this crescendo of ever pulsing veins of traffic coursing through the heart of the city, pumping its way out to the eighteen districts that make up HCMC. Imagine crossing this road…..we did and we survived, without a cross walk or a light I might add. There is an art to this!

Saigon it was, that was until the communists rolled into town in 1975, taking control of the city and renaming it HCMC a year later. In spite of the official change, the name Saigon still lives on, particularly in the French Quarter and many people use it to this day.

Districts 1,2 & 3 are where most foreigners hang out and within this area is where most of the sights are located including, museums, palaces, pagodas, temples, towering skyscrapers, glitzy malls, trendy restaurants and more down market tourist bars and clubs around the “Backpacker Area”, which is where we stayed in the Beautiful Saigon 3 Hotel. A great small boutique style hotel, it was clean, friendly staff, good breakfast, up a quiet alley-way but close to everything, I would recommend it if you are on a budget.

A walkable area, both night and day, we took in the sights mainly on foot. We had time to visit the Night Market, one of the high end shopping malls (WOW), the beautiful old French Opera House, and we wandered along streets lined with other examples from the French colonial period.

The War Remnants Museum as it is called was an interesting stop. Meant to depict the horrors of war in general and the war with the Americans specifically. With three million dead, and two thirds of those being non-combatants it’s hard not to feel anger at the fate of those poor souls. However, in spite of some hard hitting exhibits the message of the museum is clearly one of peace since the brutality of war ultimately effects more citizens than combatants. There are photo displays of mutilations, napalm burns, torture and massacres including the famous My Lai where American troops murdered nearly a whole village of innocent elders, women and children.

But in a spirit of apparent forgiveness there is a large display of photos on the “peace movement in the States” and subsequent visits and charitable acts of American Vietnam veterans. All in all a moving place and for those more mechanically minded there are some tanks, planes, bombs etc outside that you can wander around and see up close.

The Reunification Palace, previously the Independence Palace (to celebrate independence from France), was renamed to signify the reunion of North & South Vietnam. Located on park like grounds, it’s working days were in the 60’s and 70’s and everything is preserved from this time, a gentle mix of modern style furnishing with Asian materials and symbolism. There are a number of floors with meeting rooms, hosting areas, the presidential library and private suites. All eerily preserved and roped off with red velvet and brass.

With limited time, we really wanted to experience at least some of the Mekong Delta, so we signed on for a day trip to cruise around Dragon, Unicorn, Phoenix and Tortoise Islands. The first stop in the tourist van was a beautiful pagoda and temple, and if you look closely below you will see my selfie.

After the Pagoda we boarded one of dozens of sampans and cruised through the brown water channels, narrowly missing other sampans as they paddled by. We were taken to a fruit orchard where we saw where they grow mangoes, jackfruit, something like a lychee but smaller, dragon fruit and pomelos. The best part was getting to taste everything the farmer grew.

After the orchard we were paddled in a tippy sampan to a honey farm where we got to hold the honeycombs while the bees slept peacefully but we were warned not to drop them. After the bee combs we were introduced to a boa than snaked it’s way around my shoulders and then proceeded to probe my arm with its head. Much more dry and solid than you would expect I was nevertheless glad when Dave snapped the photos and the snake was taken away by its owner.

Back on a larger boat we cruised around the Mekong delta and more of its islands. It is a busy river and much traffic in a variety of shapes, sizes and conditions floats by. The river, we were told, is brown in colour due to diluvian deposits of clay, sand and silt at the mouth of this long and flowing river and not to more unsavoury confluences.

Three days is probably not enough for Ho Chi Minh, especially given it’s proximity to the Mekong Delta and the famous floating markets that you can visit but are some distance from the city. However we were anxious to move on to Phu Quoc Island and the beautiful beaches where we could restore ourselves before my friends head home to Canada.

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Da Lat – The Central Highlands of Vietnam

Da Lat..the flower city, a breath of fresh air.

Da Lat, the flower city, is located in the central highlands of Vietnam and it is a breath of fresh air. We arrived at our very pink hotel, the Dalat Boutique, with it’s great views of the city below, with enough daylight to wander out and about, down the hill along twisting streets to Lake Xuan Huong, in the center of the city. At the Lake we rented bicycles to ride the 7 km trail that circles the late and that took us through beautiful flower gardens. With spring in the air and on the heels of Tet there were plenty of floral arrangements. In keeping with the “got space…fill it” philosophy of Vietnam, this well used path, was a bikers obstacle course full of runners, walkers and sightseers, and even the odd motorcycles.

Other thank the crowded path it was a lovely ride and gave us a change to get the lay of the land in central DaLot. The center of Da Lat is very busy with traffic circles, open air markets, narrow lanes, busy streets and a hodgepodge of buildings mixing French colonial with Vietnamese homes, stores, malls big and small and myriads of street vendors.

Examples of French Colonial architecture, like a Catholic Church, are interspersed with new construction, much of which fails to conform to any particular style and visual collisions happen on every corner. We saw a building that resembles the tip of “The Pickle”, London’s city hall and just behind it was a communications tower build to resemble the Eiffel Tower.

We reached the end of our bike ride as the sun set, returning the rentals we struck off on foot toward the night market. Hoping for some delicious street food we soon found ourselves faced with the prospect of crossing the road connected to a traffic circle. A near impossibility given the dangerous swirl of buses, cars, trucks and motor bikes. Our weeks in Vietnam have taught us that however counter intuitive it may seem you cross by launching yourself at the vehicles and as soon as they pass you advance as many steps as possible until the next one zooms by. By some miraculous process you go around the cars and the motorcycles go around you. Repeating this process you eventually arrive on the other side of the street shaken but not scathed. It’s like a very complicated game of dodgeball. The other option is to attach yourself to a group of locals, ignoring the traffic and keeping your eyes glued on their movements which you copy through the river of traffic.

The night market was packed, blocks and blocks of open stalls selling everything under the sun. We managed to scrounge a spot for ourselves at a street food spot with their pint sized chairs and tables which are fine until you try to rise up out of them. We paid a pretty penny for our supper, mostly bbqued meat and vegetables which were good but definitely foreigner priced.

Dalat is an outdoor adventure city, perfectly situated in the highlands, surrounded by pine forests, and blessed with natural beauty. For about $25 CAD each we signed up for a small group tour and were picked up at our hotel for a day long trip to the areas surrounding Dalat.

Our first stop was Robin mountain where we rode a gondola to the top and had views to the farmlands below. The area around Dalat is densely agricultural and hothouses stretch as far as the eye can see.

Back in the van, we followed the twisting mountain road to the Truk Lam Zen monastery the biggest Zen monastery in Vietnam. Here

the monks and nuns have built a beautiful series of gardens and trails, including some really interesting bonsai, all linking the various temples and pagodas.

Our next stop was Datania falls accessible by foot or by a much more novel means, a self operated bob sled on a narrow track. We opted for the sled ride and whisked our way down to the falls. At the falls we saw some folks who had repeled down the whitewater, and we thought we were extreme by taking the sleds. Fortunately the sleds also took you back up the mountain and at one point if was pretty vertical with the track taking over the controls so you just had to lie back and stare at the deep blue sky.

A few miles from the bob-sled/falls was the “Glass Pagoda”, which on closer inspection is made from small bits of broken china and glass. An elaborate design it is a real draw for both Buddhist pilgrims and sightseers. You are able to climb the internal staircase of the pagoda and from there you see the farms below.

An odd little stop was at a “Puppy Farm” whose claim to fame was being a breeding kennel for more than 100 breeds of dogs. Not really my cup of tea, I didn’t like to see so many dogs (no puppies) in large but cement floored kennels or small individual cages. Still not sure why this was on the tour except right next door and included isn’t he price of admission was another beautiful garden, well worth visiting.

Saving the best for last we parked the van at the bottom of Langbiang mountain, the highest point in the Da Lat area. Leaving the van we were loaded into a very old, utilitarian jeep to make the steep climb to the top.

The mountain is named after a tragic love story between Lang and Biang, young lovers, and like Romeo and Juliet they were denied the chance to marry by their rival parents, ending in their double suicide. The elephants that were present cried so hard a waterfall, aptly named “Elephant Waterfall” formed nearby.

At the top there are a number of attractions like a craft shop by a local indigenous group, pony rides, hiking paths, a restaurant etc. The views alone were worth the trip up in the clanking grinding jeep.

Tour over we spent our third and final day in Da Lat revisiting the city center and visiting a place know as the “Crazy House”, which was only half a block from our very pink hotel.

A most unusual attraction it was built by Mra Dang Viet Nga, the daughter of Ho Chi Min’s right hand man. She studied architecture in Russia but her creation certainly doesn’t resemble anything you picture as coming out of Russia. The Crazy House is in fact a hotel in addition to be a busy tourist attraction with dozens of bus loads of folks visiting everyday. The place is not finished and has an organic propensity toward expansion not unlike the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Like Gaudí Nga’s vision is a chaotic construction of intertwining buildings all connected by tangled walkways suspended mid-air giving it the air of a tree house.

There are a couple of restuarants and coffee bars, the rental rooms are all named and overall the place looks like Gaudí fed steroids to the Hobbits. There are giant cobwebs, oversized mushrooms, aquarium motifs and a museum describing Nga’s journey.

It was hard to leave the beautiful city of Da Lat, the fresh cool air, the gorgeous scenery and the rural vibe made the “Flower City” well worth the visit.

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Hoi An – Ancient City of Vietnam

Beautiful, poetic Hoi An

After leaving Halong Bay we took a short flight to Da Nang, situated along the western coast of Vietnam about mid-way to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). Da Nang is Viet Nam’s 5th largest city and for most travellers it is the entry point for both Hue and Hoi An, ancient cities that have been recognized as UNESCO Heritage Sites. With more time I would have travelled more slowly by train from the north to central Vietnam. As it was with three days to visit the area it was just enough to get to know Hoi An and enjoy some of the interesting history, diverse culture and delicious food. Da Nang and Hue will have to wait for another trip.

We stayed just outside of the ancient city which was a blessing given the hoards of tourists and the number of people who work and live in the area. The Prince Hotel is great if your there, the staff is friendly and helpful, the rooms are clean, comfortable, the service is great and the breakfast good and at $29.00 CAD the price was right too.

About a twenty minute walk to the edge of the old town it isn’t long before we were emersed in the interesting history of Hoi An. For a small entrance fee you receive a ticket which entitles you to visit 5 of the more famous merchant homes and private temples and gardens in the Ancient City, a rich fusion of Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and European influences that date back to the 16th century. A major trading port,people came and went and stayed on as merchants, building the old wooden fronted merchant homes that you see today.

The walkways and bridges that connect the various neighbourhoods of Hoi An, were designated areas such as the Japanese or Chinese areas. The 200 year old shophouses are now home to boutiques, craft-stores, restaurants and bars, whatever brings them in to shop and to spend.

The Japanese Bridge is on of the most famous and connected the Japanese community to the Chinese community in the 16th century. Most merchants built dimly lit homes with dark wood doors and panelling with shops in the front of the house.

At night the shops are festooned with multi-coloured lanterns and range from souvenirs to boutique clothing stores. So fun to wander about at night and watch the dinners, shoppers and strollers enjoy the festive streets. Along the river are walkways and a favourite thing to do, after enjoying some street food, is a lantern boat ride in a sea of long boats and lanterns. The night market features many of the foods that are enjoyed by visitors and locals alike but I’m afraid that neither quail nor frog was not on my list of things to try. The lady selling the frogs told me I should “change my mind”. She’s probably right, but not when it comes to frogs. All I could think of was Kermit.

A great thing to do in Hoi An is to take a cooking class, which was actually a whole day long adventure that started with shopping for and buying the freshest ingredients at the morning market. Our guide/cooking teacher (wearing the white ball cap below) led the ten of us skillfully through the crowded market and down to the river where we caught a boat downstream to where the cooking class was to be held. A really fun way to get to class, the longboat that we boarded took us past homes, fishers, under bridges and into the delta.

Once off the long boat we were led to a smaller dock in some mangroves where we teetered our way into teacup boats, paddled by the locals, all part of a show put on for the tourists. It was so fun and our paddlers seemed to really enjoy the reactions of the passengers as they spun the boats in dizzying circles, rocking them precariously back and forth for effect and then a number of men, alone in their tea cups were demonstrating how fast the boats could spin and what a wake they could produce when rocked to their gunnels. All done to K Pop music like Gang-am Style. What a hoot. We were taken up some of the narrower passage ways in the mangroves and were able to see the mussels clinging to the roots and the boats laden with tree fronds for weaving baskets, clothing and kinds of household items.

When we arrived at our cooking class we found ourselves in a very clean and organized outdoor kitchen. All the ingredients we had purchased early were cleaned, measured and placed at individual stations. We made two different kinds of Goi Cuon (salad rolls) with Nuoc Leo (peanut Hoisin Sauce). Then, Bang Xeo (sizzling savoury crepes) resembling tacos were made from rice flour, spices and coconut milk, dipped in Nuoc Cham sauce. Our Mi xao hai san (seafood stir fried noodles) was delicious and was followed up by the final dish Pho Bo Hà Nội (Hanoi style rice noodle soup with beef). Learning how to make the sauces meant learning how to combine seasonings, spices and herbs for ultimate flavours. Best of all we got to eat everything we made.