COVID-19: Turning a Breakdown Into a Breakthrough

COVID-19 Week 8 Update.

Never one to stay down, always one to turn a breakdown into a breakthrough.

This time is no different!

If you’re a regular to my blog, you’ll know that my 12 month adventure of a lifetime all over South East Asia (SEAsia) has been “postponed” due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Everything changed literally overnight for me, I was set to depart on March 18, 2020 and the Friday prior our Prime Minister had halted all non-essential travel outside of Canada and Vietnam (the country I was starting my adventure in) had closed its entry to Visa On Arrival, which I had.  So, 4 days before I was set to take off and start a year of sightseeing, exploring, soul searching came to a screeching halt.

I had resigned from my job, rented out my condo and sold my car! See that blog here.  Ummm, what the actual heck was I going to do?

I was able to find temporary accommodations until the end of April and then … I was back it again, looking for a place to stay.  It’s difficult during COVID-19 …. not a lot of landlords have openings, folks are not moving as they usually would (due to fear of contamination or lack of money due to losing their jobs due to COVID-19) additionally, there’s not a lot of interest in short term rentals.  ENTER MY CORONAVIRUS MOVE to British Columbia (BC)!

At the end of every break down there’s always an opportunity for a break through, the key differentiator is … DO YOU SEIZE IT?  I’m usually one to not stay “down” for too long – I stay  in that moment for a short time (I don’t live there), and then plot on.  It’s MY life to create.  

WE can create opportunity and happiness just as easily as we can create misfortune and misery.  Use that super power you have … CHOICE! 

And I did just that!


Opportunity Knocked

I’ve always wanted to live in BC, even if for a just a short stint.  I’ve been three times and fell in love each time. I can see why folk decide to make this their home base.

  1. I spent my first time on Vancouver Island, traveling through Courtney/Comox, Uclulet, Tofino visiting my cousin and her family.
  2. I also spent some time in Windermere and Invermere at the radium hot springs and at friends trailer on the Lake Windermere – mixed that in on a trip to Calgary as they are on the Alberta border.
  3. My last time in Beautiful BC, I spent in Richmond, Vancouver and Squamish – see my adventures from that trip by clicking here.

Opportunity created!  Now to seize it! I rented a chalet on Big White!

I initially had the intention of driving, I had a whole week long adventure planned to drive out West with my pooch and then changed my mind and booked a flight (pooch is staying with an awesome friend).  The thought of driving was daunting, I just bought a new (new to me) vehicle and didn’t want to take it on its first real trip across the country in case something happened. However, the biggest thing is that I’d have to cross 4 provinces to get to my destination and the COVID-19 pandemic brings the unusual presence of police and government checkpoints to several of Canada’s inter-provincial borders, adding to restrictions on movement in a bid to slow the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. So far, 8 provinces and territories have set up such checkpoints and travel restrictions.

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 10.56.28 PM

ENTER BIG WHITE MOUNTAIN …. tucked on the west side of Canada’s Rocky Mountains in the heart of the British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley lies Big White Ski Resort and I am fortunate enough to have rented a chalet on it for the next 2 months! YAY BABY! I imagine a lot of what I’d love to do while in the Okanagan Valley will be limited due to coronavirus, and I’ll still be able to take advantage of nature, secluded trails, the outdoors, and hiking – which are all free and do not require close proximity to others.


I’m Off … 

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 10.32.16 PM

Nothing really to mention about the 1st leg of the flight, smooth, no turbulence — I mean other than each passenger and crew member HAD to wear face masks at ALL times during the flight (unless you were eating or drinking, obvi!).  There was no food service – when you got to your seat it was pre-prepped with your food and two bottles of water.  Upon boarding you were provided with a disinfectant wipe, so that you could wipe down your seat – and we were practicing physical distancing in the plane – passengers were not sitting side by each.  Confused though, as that was all thwarted the minute we all got up and stood in the aisle waiting to deplane.


Arriving in Kelowna … 

Flying over the Rocky Mountains at night sucks – you miss the awesome view – and it is spectacular.  Major turbulence and air pockets on approach to Kelowna (we were flying into rain),  the last 10 mins were arm rest gripping!  Even the Flight Attendant said the to the Captain once the doors were open “Whew, that was a bumpy ride!”.

BC is on of the few provinces in Canada that are not mandating mandatory interprovincial quarantine – they only ask that you respect the standard COVID-19 rules – stay 6 feet apart and practice social distancing.

I’m starting my 2nd full day here on Big White – it’s sunny and there’s still snow!   The panoramic views are stunning. Today I plan on taking a hike around Big White (with a mask and not surrounded by people) and do my first real trek for the month of May.  Earlier this month, I created and launched My Better Life May 2020 Fitness Challenge.  Whereby participants set, crush and supersede any fitness goals they have set for themselves during this COVID-19 pandemic — over the whole 31 days in the month of May 👏🏻.

With the Prime Minister and Premiers starting to talk about reopening the economy – some of the COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted in the upcoming weeks.  Sure, this is not 12 month adventure of lifetime all over SEAsia AND it’s still awesome … opportunity seized — where I had no home, I now have a place to call mine for the next couple of months. I embraced the uncertainty.  Uncertainty is where new happens!  


Uncertainty is your personal pathway to opportunity. It’s the environment in which you grow, experience new things and produce new, unprecedented results. Uncertainty is where new happens ~ Gary John Bishop – UnF*ck Yourself


Photo:  views from my terrace at Big White 😍

Tell me, I’d love to know … what’s something uncertain you embraced recently?  

On Travel: Vietnam – What I Loved and Didn’t Love

I’ve been back from Vietnam for about 2 weeks now.  I have to admit it’s been tough being back – to the cold, the snow, back to working 9-5, not traveling …

Today I want to share a little about my overall experience in Vietnam.  What I loved, things I wished I had done and things that perhaps I wasn’t overly fond of.

If you’ve been following along with my blog and my journey through Vietnam, you’ll quickly remember how much I love this country.  Every one should get to Vietnam given the chance, it truly is spectacular (well I think so anyway) … I’m envious of my daughter for making this country her home.

As with any other country, Vietnam has a glowing list of fantabulous things to see and do, its natural beauty, its history, culture, kind and giving people whom I met and made my experience in Vietnam one for the record books.  But, it also has things that need to be improved upon and aren’t so glamorous, I’ll highlight some of those things in this blog.

I encourage you to go back and read my last few blog posts if you haven’t, just to catch up on the amazingness of Vietnam prior to reading this post.


🎶 Let’s Talk About Food Baby 🎶

The food 😋 was one of the absolute best parts of Vietnam, so many yummy choices, which vary from region to region.  For example, some of the foods I loved in the north (Ha Noi) weren’t necessarily available in the south (HCMC).  But, it’s great to be able to experience each region’s specialty dishes.

Eating street food in Vietnam is a rite of passage for every visitor, and I’m all about throwing myself into the local culture so I was prepared to give most foods a go. In every doorway, on every street corner, and down every alley, food is being prepared literally on the street.  Many a time I pulled up a tiny plastic stool to a tiny plastic table and ate.

Traditional Vietnamese cooking is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, complementary textures, and reliance on LOTS fresh herbs and vegetables. Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world and always combines fragrance, taste, and colour.

Below are just SOME of the foods I ate over my month long visit.


👍🏻  Fan Faves:

(1) Bún chả  –  served with grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce.  I ate this twice while in Vietnam.  Definitely worth trying guys! It was super good!

DSC00015
Bunch in Ha Noi (not yet assembled)

(2) Bún Rieu – LOVED this, I first tried this in Ha Noi –  it was incredible.  See below for the types of Bún Rieu I wasn’t so fond of.  Freshwater crab flavours this soup which is made with rice vermicelli and topped with pounded crabmeat and deep-fried tofu.  Chilies, lime and fresh herbs add the finishing touches.

IMG_6703
Bún Rieu in Da Nang

(3) Bánh khọt – if you love crispy savoury pancakes, you’re going to love Vietnamese bánh khọt – it’s usually provided with lettuce, tons of herbs and dipping sauce – really good. Equally as yummy in the pancake department is bánh xèo.

IMG_7160
Bánh khọt, a specialty of Vũng Tàu

(4) Bun Bo Nam Bo – could be the best street food in Ha Noi – the broth at the bottom of the deep bowl is made of fish sauce, sugar, lemon and chilli and has deliciously light sweet and sour undertones. The sauce is topped with marinated beef, vegetables, noodles, onion crisps and crushed nuts.

IMG_6248
Ate this yummy dish in Ha Noi

5) Cơm tấm – broken rice and pork chop – very basic meal – but reliable, inexpensive and yummy.  Usually served with pickled veggies and a side soup for about 20K – about $1.15 CDN.

IMG_7171
A staple for me in Saigon

I could GO ON … I had sooooooo …. many amazing meals whist in Vietnam, but, I’ll limit it to my top 5 —- Honorable Mention to rau muong xao you- morning glory with garlic.

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 12.42.30 AM


👎🏻 Not So Fussy On:

(1) Chicken Feet – I just didn’t enjoy them at all – no meat on them.  They were crispy, like chicken wings, but with NO meat. Imagine just eating chicken skin on bone – that’s what I can best compare it to.  I didn’t hate them, but I could definitely do without them.  Don’t quite get the appeal.  Is it your thing?

IMG_7468

(2) Bún riêu with congealed pig’s blood – bún riêu is a truly sensational Vietnamese street food — if you forgo the blood cubes.  I realized that in different areas of Vietnam – there are differing varieties of bún riêu.  For example I DID NOT like the bún riêu in HCMC at all, I liked the one in Da Nang and loved the one in Ha Noi – all a little bit unique with their own regional touches.  But , the main thing I realized is that I did not like it at all with the congealed pig’s blood. So, now I know to always order my bún riêu “không huyết” — with no congealed pig’s blood.

IMG_7397.jpeg
The bún riêu in HCMC that I was not fond of

(3) Mixed Rice Paper in a Bag – this wasn’t a salad – I’ve heard of Rice Paper Salad – this was more like a seasoned rice paper snack in a bag – which was essentially rice paper strips as well as chilli powder and other seasoning.  I had seen it on many vlogs and YouTube videos on Vietnamese street food, and I was disappointed.  It was hard, the texture was weird and only got soft after you chewed it for a bit – I guess I would liken it to chewing rice paper 😂.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 5.59.45 PM
Did not enjoy the rice paper snack while in Cần Thơ at the Night Market

(4) Rượu rắn – Cobra Snake Wine – an alcoholic beverage produced by infusing whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The snakes, preferably venomous ones, are not usually preserved for their meat but to have their “essence” and snake venom dissolved in the liquor. The snake venom poses no threat to the drinker. It is denatured by the ethanol – its proteins are unfolded and therefore inactive and would be denatured by stomach acid anyway.  It was good just to say I’ve tried it, but I just couldn’t imagine sipping on this  – it tasted more like tequila than wine to me (and I loathe tequila).

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 6.23.46 PM.png
Tried rượu rắn during our trip to the Mekong Delta

(5) Sweet Snails with Lemongrass – oc huong hap xa – not a dish I was particularly fond of.  They say half the fun is extracting the hot cooked snails from their shells (who actually says that?) – I did not find it fun nor tasty.  I’ve had snails here in Canada  – but we cook them with lots of garlic and butter and out of the shell.  Even here, I don’t LOVE them, but I liked them less in Vietnam.  They were chewy in texture – especially the head and had little to no taste.  It was decent enough to try, but I won’t order them – thankfully, I was offered one by a girl I met who ordered an entire plate – she loves them 🤢

IMG_7399
Tried these at Bến Thành Market in Saigon

Things I Really Enjoyed/Liked:

PLACES TO VISIT

I can’t pick just 2 places I loved to visit — I really enjoyed every place I chose to visit for different reasons.  Some were for beauty, some for historical importance or significance, and others for simple relaxation.  There wasn’t a moment that I didn’t enjoy being in Vietnam.  The sights, the sounds, the culture, the people and the food ♥️.

For things to do I would suggest the following as they were my top places, but truly, I loved every place I went, so you can’t go wrong:

  • Hoi An – all of the silk lanterns at night were gorgeous and the ancient town is a fabulous place to visit.   See my blog on Hoi An here for more details on things to do  and see.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels – outside of HCMC – you’ll learn about its important role in the Vietnam War, the daily struggles of its inhabitants, as well as the ingenious strategies and weapons that were used. Click my blog here for more about the tunnels.
  • The War Remnants Museum – HCMC – sad and heart breaking at times, but I would 10000% going to this while you’re in Saigon – it really gives you pause for thought
  • Ha Long Bay and Ha Long City – WOW!  Spectacular views, scenic, breathtaking – I only did a day trip – but next time I go I’d like to do an overnight trip and sleep on the ship.  Click here to see more about my trip to Ha Long Bay and Ha Long City.
  • Mekong Delta – this is what I think of when I think of Vietnam – this trip was priced right 550K for 2 days, 1 night – hotel breakfast and lunch included as well as English speaking guide and A/C Bus, for more click my blog here.

COST OF LIVING

As a foreigner, the cost of living is ridiculously low for us.  The exchange rate when I was there was $1.00 CND Dollar to 17,000 VDN.

Most basic every day things are super inexpensive for us as Westerners.

Here are some approximates:

Beer was between 11K and 20K on average, depending where you purchased and the type of beer – Larue was usually the cheapest (and luckily my favourite common beer), and then 333, Saigon and Tiger.  My absolute fave was Tiger Crystal in a bottle (I could def use one of those now).

IMG_6118.jpeg

Most street foods ranged between 10K and 70K – bánh mì was always on the low end at about 10-20K as was cơm tấm at about 15-20K

IMG_7428

1.5L of water was approx 10-20K, again depending on where you purchase it.

Grab taxis are super cheap compared to Canada – I think the sitting rate just to enter a taxi is now up to $3.80 where I live – in Vietnam that could literally be my whole trip (by Grab).  Taxi’s are more expensive and not always reliable for pricing.

Fresh fruit was always well priced – I picked up pineapple for 10K, jackfruit and a 1/4 watermelon both for 50K.  There are fruit cart ladies on each street corner, sometimes more than one.

Ice coffee was anywhere between 10-25K (depending where you went – chain coffee houses are more expensive).

Even hotels – my most expensive hotel on the trip was $17.00 CDN – and it was a very nice hotel.

Some days, I was living off less than $20.00 CDN and that included my hotel rate!

Below are some of the every day items that we would buy back home and their associated VDN price — remember $1.00 CND is 17K VDN!


Things I Wish Were Different:

HONKING

What I could have done without perhaps is all of the HONKING! They honk at and for everything.  Unlike us back in North American – we honk when we are trying to relay something important or semi important “hey, you’re crossing over into my lane”, “Come on man, the light is green!” or even “I’m at your house, let’s go.”

But in Vietnam they honk to signal EVERYTHING …  I’m here watch out, I’m behind you, move over, get out of my way, I said get out of my way 😜, I’m not stopping, go already, I’m turning … 

Honking is so loud and so regular in the country that people just seem to accept it, I’d be scared, in fact, of asking them not to honk … somewhere along the way, it has become habitual and a major cause of noise pollution. It can really get on your nerves when drivers keep pressing on their horns for no apparent reason.

I was fairly decent at blocking it out most days, however, the one day I was about to scream out “please, for the love of God, stop effin honking” … I mediated when I got back to the hotel and the moment passed 😂


LACK OF RULES OF THE ROAD

In certain parts of Vietnam there weren’t any traffic lights or signs – it just seemed like a free for all – some type of organized chaos that I wasn’t privy to – but somehow works, I don’t know how but it does!

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 12.21.27 AM.png
Crazy traffic in Saigon as we were heading home on our motorcycle

I’ve literally seen people drive on sidewalks rather than waiting in congestion.

The Vietnamese don’t often obey the traffic lights or signs when there are any – they seem more like suggestions than an actual legal traffic requirement.

Traffic moves in all possible directions, no matter if it’s a sidewalk, a pedestrian street, an alley obviously too narrow for a motorbike – I’ve also seen on many occasions traffic flowing in the WRONG direction – YEP – coming at you when it’s clearly a one way street!

Pedestrians:  Forget all the standard rules of crossing the street, the Vietnamese don’t seem to have the culture of respecting pedestrians. Pedestrian cross walks are rare and if they do exist, they are ignored. Crossing the street for a pedestrian is like a game of chicken each time! You learn to have faith. You start to walk and hope that the motorcycles and cars that run in both directions will avoid you. I became a pro at it very quickly – I look, I go and I watch – they will usually manoeuvre around me.

Screen Shot 2019-03-14 at 12.21.51 AM

Also, they park on the sidewalks (which is customary there).  So walking can be a pain from time to time as you’re constantly switching from road to sidewalk, back to road etc …


LITTERING

When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was struck by its beauty.  However, as I started exploring I came across a lot of litter on the ground in Ha Noi.  I thought it was initially just Ha Noi but as I explored I noticed that even in remote regions, I always came across large areas that were inexplicably strewn with trash. The litter consisted mostly of plastic bags, plastic bottles, beer cans, leftover food containers/items and plain old garbage. I didn’t get it!  The trash wasn’t piled up, awaiting collection at the side of the road; it was spread around, over large areas and in natural beauty areas such as river beds, beaches etc. Thousands of locations all over the country are now utterly ruined by trash. It’s sad, disappointing and infuriating.

These are just SOME of the pics I took – I only started taking photos of this my last few days in the country. I could have taken dozens more.

Very few people bothered to clean up after themselves – I would see people open items and then just toss the wrappers on the sidewalk. I was told by my tour guide to just put my litter in the gutter while I was in HCMC (which I absolutely did not) and a local once brought it to my attention that I had “garbage” in my back pocket – I put the wrappers there because I could not bring myself to just toss them on the ground – it just goes against everything we’re taught here in Canada and most certainly for me as an environmentalist.

I can’t even recall seeing trash bins, if there were any, they certainly weren’t prominent enough to stand out, given I was carrying my personal trash with me.  If they were more available, would people even use them?  Click here to read an article by Forbes Magazine on Vietnam’s littering epidemic.

DSC00101
Taken on a river bed in the Mekong Delta
IMG_7539
I took this as I randomly walked down a street in Vung Tau

Things I’d Still Like to Do

  • Head to Sapa to discover the spectacular scenery of the Tonkinese Alps where Montagnard hill tribes have lived for centuries.
  • Ninh Binh is a good base for exploring quintessentially Vietnamese limestone
  • Ha Giang is a beautiful destination located in the Northwest Highlands. scenery.
  • Ban Gioc Waterfall – the most famous place in Cao Bang province, the landscape is dominated by limestone hills.
  • I hear you can opt to skip out on Halong Bay (which is touristy) and head over to Bai Tu Long instead. Located North East of Halong Bay, this area can stretch up to 100 km to the Chinese border.
  • Co To is an island located in the middle of the sea in Quang Ninh Province, a beautiful island with fine white sand and blue water
  • Nam Du is one of the islands in the Nam Du archipelagoes. It’s about 60 km from the mainland. Nam Du is beautiful, pristine and peaceful with beaches.
  • Kon Tum province of the Central Highlands has a border crossing with Laos and Cambodia, also known as the Indochina Fork.

These are just some of the MANY MANY places I’d still like to visit in Vietnam – I chose most of these places specifically because they were less touristy and would allow me to truly explore the country and all that it has to offer.


Conclusion

Overall, while Vietnam has its quirks that it’s still trying to iron out, I still very much like the country.  I’ve had nothing but positive experiences there.  I’ve heard others have mixed reviews and others nothing but negatives.  I suppose part of it can be attributed to the way you prepare for your trip and how you’ve set your expectations … and the way you choose to look at the experience.  True,  you may get scammed – then try not to put yourself in a situation where you may be – book only with reputable companies, ones that come recommended to you by others.  You may get pick pocketed – well, that can happen any where in the world, not just Vietnam.  Yes, they will try to overcharge you on items – they’re trying to make a living – do you how much they make and live on? What’s an extra 50 cents or a dollar to me in the grand scheme of things?

It’s not a country without its share of faults, but it is an emerging country trying to change its past global footprint. They are now posting anti-littering signs and I hear that police are trying to enforce non littering (that I have yet to see).

Some ex-pats and locals who are passionate about the cause gather groups and clean beaches, neighbourhoods and streets.

Certain restaurants are now committed to recycling – when I saw this at one café in Saigon, I wanted to hug the owner.

At an ex-pat green market I attended (in D2 Saigon) they were focussing on the sale of reusable items – such as water bottles (it’s not common there to use reusable water bottles as we do in most other places in the world).  They also focussed on eliminating the need for single use masks by creating cloth ones.  There were also reusable cloth coffee holders for your motorcycle.  I know this is probably hard to understand to us, but, because everyone travels by motorbike, they actually sell you your coffee and put it in a plastic bag or plastic cup carrier (single use) so people can hook it onto their bikes when they drive – more plastic waste.  EVERYTHING comes in a plastic bag.  They looked shocked when I would tell them “no bag” cause I had my Herschel knapsack with me.

Think of what changes could be made IF every person, used a reusable bag, had a cloth mask, used a reusable cloth coffee carrier and water bottle!

On Travel: Mekong Delta, Vietnam 🇻🇳

tạm biệt Việt Nam

Today, I left Vietnam.  The country I have come to love over the last 3.5 weeks  It’s a mix of emotions having to go back to Canada.  I’ll miss it there, I’ll miss exploring, the food,  the culture, the adventuring and of course, my eldest daughter.  

On the other hand, I’m anxious to get back to my own bed and not having to live out of a suitcase and of course seeing Ellie (my dog), my family and friends.  But, I’m not looking forward to the weather – which I hear was absolutely atrocious while I was away – massive snow storms, blizzards, wind storms and freezing rain. 

As I say farewell to Vietnam and shortly say HELLO to Guangzhou, China for an 18 hour layover.  Let me take you back to the last couple of days of my vacation as Cassandra and I explored the Mekong Delta.

MEKONG DELTA

The Mekong Delta is a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape. Life in the Mekong Delta revolves much around the river, and many of the villages are often accessible by rivers and canals rather than by road.

The Mekong River itself starts in the Himalayas and passes through China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia before reaching Vietnam, which partly explains why the waters are so murky. More than half of Vietnam’s rice and fish comes from the delta region.

Day One:

Firstly, we booked our tour of the Mekong Delta via Khải Hoàn Travel in HCMC. With many options available, we booked a 2 day, 1 night excursion which included stops in Mỹ Tho, Bến Tre, Cần Thơ and Cái Răng. The entire trip cost 550K (only $31.00 CDN).

We departed at 7:45 AM to pick up the rest of the folks on our tour and left HCMC at approximately 8:15 AM for Mỹ Tho on our air conditioned bus.  Over the 2 hour ride, we passed rice fields before eventually arriving at our pre-determined rest stop/tourist trap 😆.

IMG_7519

From there we departed for Vĩnh Tràng Pagoda, Vietnam’s gorgeous Buddhist gardens. A happy place with Buddhas, beautifully maintained gardens and fruit trees.  Originally built in 1850 it has survived colonial wars, neglect and tropical storms.  It’s located approximately 3 km from the centre of Mỹ Tho city.

The Vĩnh Tràng pagoda features three enormous Buddha statues.

  • The standing Buddha represents Amitabha Buddha, who symbolizes ultimate bliss and compassion.
  • The Laughing Buddha symbolizes happiness and good luck and has become a deity for good fortune around the world.
  • The reclining Buddha represents Gautama Buddha before he enters parinirvana, the death of one who has attained nirvana during his lifetime and has been released from the painful cycle of samsara, or rebirth.

Our bus eventually stopped at the pier where we boarded a wooden boat to cruise the Mekong River in order to further discover the 4 islands:  Tortoise, Dragon, Phoenix and Unicorn.  

We were afforded the opportunity to visit a honey farm and try different honey and pollen products.  We were served a very sweet honey tea (which I and others found to be a bit too sweet) and given that it was 34 degrees out, the hot tea would have been better served cold.  I purchased lip balm (for those who know me I’m a lip chap addict (lol) – I bargained for 2 at 80K ($4.58 CDN) – she was selling then for 50K each, I didn’t want to bargain down too much, it is their way of making a living and the price was decent as far as I was concerned.  I’d have paid way more back home and these are all natural.  

IMG_7540.jpeg
Hot sweet tea, candied ginger and banana (not sure what the little round balls were)

We had the chance to visit a coconut workshop, to see how they make the coconut candy from beginning to the end.  How they first break apart the coconut, then mulch it up, and watch it go through the rest of the process until it ends up with the lady at the other side- who puts in into molds, adds rice paper (which is edible), cuts it up,  and passes it onto the few who manually (and very fast I might add) wrap it and package it for selling.  We were given the chance to taste test each of the different flavours of candy which were also for purchase – we didn’t buy any, but it was good!  

Forget eating the worm after downing your tequila, we drank Cobra Snake Wine! Cassandra and I tried something I never thought in a million years we’d ever try or get the chance to try.  Actually, I didn’t even know it was a thing — Snake Wine (rượu rắn), yes, that’s right folks — wine made with a real venomous cobra.  It’s an alcoholic beverage produced by infusing whole snakes in rice wine or grain alcohol. The snake venom poses no threat to the drinker. It is denatured by the ethanol—its proteins are unfolded and therefore inactive.  It did NOT taste like wine – it tasted like Tequila in my opinion – I cannot see any pleasure in sipping on this on a nice night in.

As an FYI – dating back centuries, snake and scorpion wines are known as a natural medicine used to treat different health problems such as back pain, rheumatism, lumbago and other health conditions.

IMG_7784
Shot of Snake Wine
Not the best shot, it was a video – but you get the idea

Coming to Turtle Island, we were provided the opportunity to taste fresh fruits, and listen to traditional folk Vietnamese music. The fruit included: papaya, dragon fruit, Vietnamese apple and longan.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 12.28.28 AM.png

The most amazing part of the trip followed – we cruised along a small canal on a traditional wooden boat with two rowers at the front and back.  This was exactly what I was thinking when I thought Mekong – traditional way of life and transportation and the  traditional conical hats (nón lá). 

IMG_7781

We had a Vietnamese lunch on the island (honestly, I’m sorry I don’t remember which island) – it was basically cơm tấm.  This meal was included with our booking. We then had a little free time to explore the island – which was a semi amusement area with kids playing in play areas, balloon balls on the water, an alligator pen (they’re also on the menu, sooo put 2 and 2 together).  

After lunch we departed for the 3 hour bus ride to Cần Thơ which is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and the largest city in the Mekong Delta.  It is noted for its floating market, rice paper-making village, and picturesque rural canals. It has population of 1,520,000 as of June 2018 and is located on the south bank of the Hau River, a tributary of the Mekong River.

Screen Shot 2019-03-22 at 9.37.15 PM.png
Bus ride to Cần Thơ

Our booking included an overnight stay at a 2* hotel.  We stayed at An Hotel.  I have to say this was more than a 2* as far as I’m concerned.  Looking at the cost for the standard room – 350K – that means the rest of our trip – 200K – was for bus, guide, lunch, samples of food and the experience – well worth it to me.  Some of the folks on our tour paid about $25.00 CDN more than we did for basically the same tour (except they had a 3* hotel and were given a fish and rice wraps at lunch).  

Once we checked in and freshened up – we went down to the Night Market in search of some dinner.  We were both exhausted from our day of travel and getting up at 6:30 AM.  The market included shopping, but, we immediately bypassed all of that and headed for the food stalls. 

Eager to find some tasty street food, we made our way around and came across bánh tráng nướng – which they call Vietnamese pizza.  The line up for this stall was bumpin’ so we knew it had to be the place to eat – and boy was it! Cassandra always wanted to try this dish so we ordered 1 each — we both loved it so much that we ordered another one, at a stall further up the way.  They were ONLY 10K each $0.57 CDN!  What they are is dried small shrimps, saute/chili paste, quail egg/chicken egg, spring onion, fried ground pork on rice paper, cooked over an open flame – I still cannot stop drooling when thinking about it.  I  may have to make these at home one night for dinner.

I also tried another dish I had seen on vlogs – rice paper bag salad (also 10K) – it wasn’t what I expected and to be quite honest, I wasn’t too fond if it.  It tasted like tough rice paper in spices. Now I know and can happily cross that one off my list of foods to try.  I also wanted to try bắp xào, a popular street food snack in Vietnam (corn) – but I was too full from the bánh tráng nướng to even consider tying it … next time for sure. 

Cassandra also had an order of fresh spring rolls – 2 for 10K and  I grabbed my fave Nước Mía – freshly pressed sugarcane juice – for 20K – these prices are outrageously cheap aren’t they?

With full bellies, we ordered a Grab car and headed back the hotel – our next day’s adventure started bright and early at 6:00 A.M.

Breakfast was included in our fee – it was basic and consisted of 2 eggs, a French baguette and a mini banana – as well as juice, water and coffee (boo – they had no milk – fresh or condensed – just sugar – and I need milk in my coffee).  Two people woke up feeling unwell – likely from something they ate the night prior.  One did not continue on the trip and he and his GF opted to stay behind in Cần Thơ and other other girl (and her friend) got off at the next stop to stay behind.  I honestly felt for both of them – I had a bout of food poisoning about the 3rd-4th day in Ha Noi.  It is not a good feeling, especially if you’re on a traveling tour and have no immediate washroom access.

We cruised along the small picturesque tributaries and trolled by the Cái Răng Floating Market – I found this amazing.  This is the biggest floating market in the Mekong Delta, Cái Răng is just 6 km from Cần Thơ.  People actually LIVE and SELL on the river. This is a wholesale market, so look at what’s tied to the long pole above the boat to figure out what they’re selling to smaller traders.

IMG_7614

We took in the scenery and the daily living of the local people.  We also toured a rice paper factory and witnessed how they make rice noodles – another very interesting process.  I should mention that this process as well as the process of making coconut candy is all done by hand – this is not an automated process – they are hands on with the entire process.  With our free time Cassandra and I made our way down to the village open market – which offered a variety of fresh fruit, fish, meat, eel and cafés.  We grabbed an entire pineapple for 10K, a pancake like yummy goodness for 5K and an ice coffee with mild 10K — are you catching that?  We got all of that for a mere 25K — $1.41 CDN.

We pressed on to visit a homestead ecofarm (ecofarms aim to increase agricultural sustainability & farmers’ resilience to climate change) where we visited their personal catfish farm, durian and dragon fruit plantation/orchards and livestock. 

IMG_7622

To round out our trip, we disembarked the boat in Cái Vồn where we set off for our 5 hour trek back to Saigon (there was one stop at the 2.5 hour mark).  

Once back in HCMC we relaxed for a bit and then went out for dinner to our favourite restaurant in Cassandra’s neighbourhood (I have to ask her to get the name because I would def recommend it) – we get the same thing to eat each time (except for the time we accidentally ordered chicken feet 🤣) — morning glory, chicken wings and Singapore Noodles. 

IMG_7196
This order was from our very first visit to the restaurant

Then it was time to hit the hay – we were both totally zonked.  She had to teach in the morning and I had to get up and pack for my departure.  

IMG_7649.jpg

Flying to Guangzhou, China For My Layover

I’m on my flight to Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (China) as I write this blog.  I have an 18 hour layover there. 

I’ve done some research online prior to my departure and saw that China offers citizens of certain qualifying countries 72 -144 hour entry Visas.  And, through China Southern Airlines – I read that I can be eligible for a free overnight hotel and free Guangzhou tour in the morning prior to my departure back to Toronto. 

So, I’ll ask when we land and hopefully that is the case.  I’d really not prefer to have to spend that time in the airport.  I’d rather sleep in a cozy bed and do a bit of sightseeing prior to my 15 hour flight back home. 

I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out in my next blog … 

NOTE: I wrote this on my flight to China, but the wifi was horrible at my hotel so I wasn’t able to post it.  I had to wait til I got back to Canada and had some time to adjust to the jet lag.

Screen Shot 2019-03-01 at 12.56.23 AM.png

T xo

DSC00098
Stilted houses on the river

DSC00110

On Travel: Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam

Xin chào!  

I hope all is WELL with all of you —- I’m continuing my travels through Vietnam this week – in Đà Nẵng and the ancient city of Hội An.

I am more than pleased with my trip to Vietnam to date.  It’s truly a beautiful country, steeped in a long difficult history and a strong resilience – through 4 separate Chinese dominations, a French domination (French Indochina), the Vietnam War and the re-unification of the North and South.

I’ve found the Vietnamese people who I’ve encountered to be kind and pleasant.  That’s not to say that I have not encountered the odd taxi driver trying to take advantage of the foreigner by offering me “foreigner” pricing.  One taxi driver wanted me to pay 150,000 to go airport when I know it should have cost way less (thanks to a nice guy who helped me on the bus – Instagram @Minhtraaa). I opted for a Grab car, it only cost me 85,000 VDN.  As a Westerner, I’ve found that Grab is the winner – it’s like Uber/Lyft back home – your price is fixed and you know your total cost in advance. 

Other than that experience when I got off the bus from Ha Long City on my way to Ha Noi airport – the rest of my experience has been a lot to write home about.

Ok …. let’s  move on to this week’s adventure …

Đà Nẵng

Đà Nẵng was the city I was MOST excited to visit — for me it holds the best of BOTH worlds — sea and mountains – it is ringed by mountains on one side and the South China Sea on the other. Most of the research I did before coming to Vietnam was on Đà Nẵng as well as its ex-pat community.  But, first and foremost, I wanted to explore the city, the culture and see the things I spent so much time researching with MY own two eyes – to make MY own memories. 

Đà Nẵng is the fifth largest city in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh City, Ha Noi, Haiphong and Can Tho in terms of urbanization and economy. It’s one of Vietnam’s principal port cities. Located in the south-central region of the country, at the mouth of the Han River.

These are some of the things I found interesting while I was in Đà Nẵng …. 

The Marble Mountains – Ngũ Hành Sơn

The Marble Mountains is a cluster of five marble and limestone hills located in Ngũ Hành Sơn District.  They literally just jet out in the middle of the city!

Regardless of it being jam-packed with tourists, it would be hard for anyone to find any place beside Marble Mountains which contains both religious diversity and magnificent scenery.

There are five separate mountains in the cluster, named after the five basic elements:  Kim Son (Mt. Metal), Moc Son (Mt. Plant), Thuy Son (Mt. Water), Hoa Son (Mt. Fire), and Tho Son (Mt. Soil).

I visited Mt Water.  I spent the better part of 3 hours here, I could have stayed longer – but it was stifling hot. I wish I had known that for my 40,000 VDN entry fee (about $2.30 CDN), I could have spent the WHOLE day there – I would have brought my book and just read in one of the quiet areas – it would have been a charming retreat.  

Be aware that you must climb many stairs …. like a trooper, I opted to walk up the stairs – but, I really wanted to take the elevator – which you can for an additional 15,000 VDN.  I was wearing flip flops and I found it manageable.  People opting for running shoes also had no problem.  The women wearing high heels struggled 🤦🏻‍♀️.

Mt. Water is famous for its amazing system of pagodas and shrines either on the ground or inside the caves.  There are 156 stone steps (built in 1630) set into the spine of the mountain. At the top is where you’ll find the 400-year-old sacred pagoda, Tam Thai Pagoda.  It  was built in the 17th century, but has been renovated many times.

Richico Apartments And Hotel

While in Đà Nẵng I chose to stay at the Richico Apartments and Hotel.  This location was perfect — the property is 550 feet from My Khe Beach and close to mostly everything I wanted to see.  The room was nice, clean and modern.  If offered free wifi, TV, A/C, a fridge and free bottled water.

The best part however …. the rooftop pool, offers 2 completely different sights of Đà Nẵng – sea and mountains on one side and city scape on the other.

IMG_6665
Sea scape side

IMG_6666
City scape side

IMG_6670 2

This hotel cost me 163,224 VND per night = about $9.35 per night CDN and breakfast is included in the room rate.  Great location and excellent pricing!  I would recommend this  place – especially for the price point and the location.  

My rating: 🧡🧡🧡🧡 (4/5)

My Khe Beach

My Khe Beach is famous for its blue sky, smooth white sand, clear & warm water year round and beautiful areas surrounded by coconut trees. Everything around you is peaceful, natural, relaxing …. those reasons and more are why Forbes Magazine selected My Khe beach as “one of the most attractive beaches on the planet”.  

I loved it, being in the heart of a major city, it wasn’t at all crowded – I had ample of beach space to choose to set down my towel and create a space for myself for the day.   You can rent a chair for 40,000 VDN, but I opted to save money and just lay down a towel, as I would have at the beach back home.  Most places offer drinks/beer for purchase.  I paid 15,000 VDN for a Larue bia and settled in for a few hours of peace and quiet, reading and a little bit of heaven (don’t forget to wear your sunscreen!).

Dragon Bridge

I decided to talk up to the Dragon Bridge one evening.  This 1,864-foot-long bridge has a steel dragon that breathes fire every Saturday and Sunday evening or during the country’s major festivals.

To celebrate the 38th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, authorities in the port city of Da Nang have opened the world’s largest dragon bridge. It has six lanes for traffic.    I mean it beats any of the bridges we have back home in Ontario (CANADA) so this fire breathing bridge is pretty cool.  I had missed it on the Sunday by 1 hour (because my flight was delayed).  

Lady Buddha @ Chùa Linh Ứng Pogoda

I met up with one of the girls I met while in Ha Noi.  We grabbed lunch and decided to take a Grab car over to Lady Buddha.  Being the tallest Buddha statue in Vietnam, Lady Buddha is located at Chùa Linh Ứng Pogoda on Son Tra Peninsula in Da Nang which is only 9 km away from My Khe beach and my hotel.  Lady Buddha is 67 m and the lotus diameter is 35 m.

Admission is free – Grab car cost Kim and I 130,000 VDN (about $7.40 CDN) – it’s less expensive to take a Grab bike, but they don’t accept two passengers.


Hội An

I took a Grab car to Hội An.  Old Town Hội An, the city’s historic district, is recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, its buildings and street plan reflecting a blend of indigenous and foreign influences. Prominent in the city’s old town, is its covered “Japanese Bridge,” dating to the 16th-17th century.

Two great things about Hội An’s Ancient Town are that it is small enough to get around in on foot and the traffic is nowhere near as heavy as in bigger cities (but it’s still very much tourist driven). Some of the streets only allow bike and motorbike traffic and some are pedestrian only.

You will notice Hội An lanterns best at night. Silk lanterns are everywhere. Locals say they hang them in front of their homes to bring health, happiness and good luck.  They really were breathtaking.  Hội An has a monthly lantern festival, this month it’s on February 18, 2019 – I am missing it.  But, I cannot imagine how much different it would be – Hội An is filled with colourful silk lanterns every night.  

Lantern Making Class

At the suggestion of some friends I met during my travel (thank you Miek and Kim), I joined a lantern making class with The Lantern Lady.

She offered two options:

1) she provides the bamboo that forms the base of your frame or

2) you build your lantern from scratch, including making the bamboo frame

I opted for #1.  Once completed, my lantern was easy to fold and put in my luggage. I’m not a fan of souvenirs – this is the ONLY thing I’m taking back to Canada with me because it’s my own hand-made souvenir home from my visit to Hội An.  

This is a must do experience in my books. 

Sac Xanh Homestay

While in Hội An I stayed at the Sac Xanh Homestay for 2 nights at a cost of VND 512,000 – $29.22 CDN.  I stayed in a Double Room, which included free (SPOTTY) WiFi.  To be quite honest, I wasn’t super pleased with this accommodation.  For $15.00 CDN per night I would have expected a bit more.  I know $15.00 doesn’t sound like a lot of $, but here it’s a decent chunk.  My room was a bit moldy and damp feeling.  The A/C didn’t get super cold (or maybe just as cold as I like it to be).  However, I suppose it may have been a fair representation of a Vietnamese “home” stay.  The homestay couple were polite.  The food for breakfast was good – they also offered tea and coffee and free drinkable water.  They seemed to struggle a bit with communication (English), but we managed.  The homestay does offer free bikes for use so you can bike to old town, around the neighbourhood or other sightseeing.  They were kind enough to assist me in securing a better deal to Da Nang Airport – Grab was 347,000 – I paid 250,000.

The stay was to include:

  • Minibar •  NONE
  • Safety Deposit Box • NONE
  • Air conditioning • WORKED OK BUT DIDN’T GET REALLY COLD
  • Balcony • WOULDN’T REALLY CALL IT A BALCONY PER SE
  • Bathrobe • NONE
  • Desk • MORE LIKE A PLASTIC TABLE AND CHAIR
  • Seating Area • AT THE TABLE?
  • Free toiletries • NOTHING PROVIDED OTHER THAN A TOOTHBRUSH
  • Fan • NONE
  • Private bathroom • PROVIDED 
  • Slippers • NONE
  • Flat-screen TV/Cable Channels • A SMALL 20″ TV WAS PROVIDED, I DID NOT TURN IT ON
  • Bath or Shower • SHOWER
  • View • OF THE SIDE OF THE OTHER HOUSE
  • Mosquito net • PROVIDED
  • Towels/Sheets (extra fee) • OHHH EXTRA FEE TO USE A TOWEL! FOR $15.00/NIGHT I WOULD HAVE EXPECTED FREE TOWELS TO USE
  • Wardrobe or closet • PROVIDED

My review of this one, is just ok — 🧡 🧡 (2.5/5)

Chùa Long Tuyền Buddhist Temple

I really enjoyed Chùa Long Tuyền, a Buddhist temple located just around the corner from my homestay. It’s a bit off the beaten track and away from the Old Town… which I didn’t mind at all – this meant it was totally empty.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have found this temple nor the rice paddies had my Grab driver decided to take the usual way back to my homestay after the old quarter.  Instead he took me the back way through the less busy roads and I came across this temple – which I went back to the next morning with the free bikes offered by my homestay.

Rice Paddies

Aside from taking in ancient town, another thing I loved to do in Hoi An was take the scenic route around town on my bike to see the city’s lush, green, rice fields. The locals probably thought I was crazy for stopping every few meters to take pics.  But, this is so new to me and we certainly do not have rice fields back in Canada 🇨🇦.

Next Stop … 

I’m currently at the airport waiting to board my flight to Ho Chi Minh City (flight is delayed an hour).  I’m excited to see my daughter (I haven’t seen her since she moved here 6 months ago) I’m not sure how I’m gonna handle Vietnam’s largest city … with a population of 8.4 million (13 million in the metropolitan area) as I thought Ha Noi was crazy at 7.58 million.

I hear I am missing miserable weather back home … 2 major snow storms, a freezing rain storm and temperatures still down in the minuses —- awwww zut lol

Keep posted for next week’s blog when I cover HCMC, Vung Tau and The Mekong Delta.

Comment below, if you’d like to know more about the places I’ve been so far or if you have any questions or comments 🙂

IMG_6993 2
You say I dream too big.  I say you think too small.  

On Travel: Beautiful Vancouver, BC and Area

Good afternoon, good morning or good evening folks, wherever you’re reading this from.  I’m writing this today from beautiful British Columbia (BC) – it’s so true that they immortalize it on their license plates.   I’m out here visiting my youngest daughter and her boyfriend who moved here a few months ago to enjoy a less chaotic lifestyle than that of Toronto.

Before I get into my 2 cents about Vancouver — let’s start with some FACTS for those of you who don’t know much about Van City:

  1. Vancouver is a coastal seaport city in western Canada, located in the Lower Mainland region of British Columbia.
  2. It is the most populous city in the province, the 2016 census recorded 631,486 people in the city, up from 603,502 in 2011, making it the eighth-largest among Canadian cities. The Greater Vancouver area has more than 2.4 million residents, is the third most populous metropolitan area in the country
  3. Vancouver was the host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics which were held in Vancouver and Whistler.
  4. Major film production studios in Vancouver and nearby Burnaby have turned Greater Vancouver and nearby areas into one of the largest film production centres in North America.
  5. Vancouver has been ranked one of the most livable cities in the world for more than a decade.
  6. As of 2010, Vancouver has been ranked as having the fourth-highest quality of living of any city on Earth.
  7. According to Forbes, Vancouver had the sixth-most overpriced real estate market in the world and was second-highest in North America after Los Angeles in 2007.
  8. Vancouver has also been ranked among Canada’s most expensive cities in which to live.
  9. Forbes has also ranked Vancouver as the tenth-cleanest city in the world.
  10. In May 2018, the Zero Waste 2040 Strategy passed Vancouver’s city council. The city’s plan is to decrease the amount of single-use items distributed in the city, and has stated its intention to ban these items in 2021 if businesses don’t meet reduction targets.
  11. A ban on plastic straws, polystyrene food packaging and free shopping bags will go into effect during mid-2019

Living in Canada, you’d think that I’d have visited BC more often.  But, the truth is that visiting within Canada is actually quite expensive, most times it’s much cheaper for us to travel abroad.  That’s unfortunately why I tend to visit abroad rather than within my own BEAUTIFUL country (unless you luck out and score a great deal on a flight).  This flight cost me $502 return CDN which is actually a great deal to be honest.  But most times it’s cheaper to do an all-inclusive somewhere.  For example my trip to Cuba this past March cost me $625 (flight, resort, food, alcohol and taxes).  See much better deal to go South!

The last time I came out West and came to see my cousin who lived on the Island in Courtenay.  Vancouver Island is a MUST SEE – Uclulet, Tofino, Victoria, Port Hardy, Port Alberni and so much more.

HERE ARE THE TOP THINGS I LOVED SEEING/DOING IN THE GREATER VANCOUVER AREA (in no particular order):

1. Capilano Suspension Bridge

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is a exactly as the name states, a suspension bridge, which crosses the Capilano River in the District of North Vancouver. The bridge is 460 ft long and 230 ft above the river. It is a private facility with an admission fee, I paid $50 for an adult ticket, which I found a bit steep as a Canadian visitor. Residents of BC can get an annual pass with the admission of a regularly purchased admission ticket.

The bridge was originally built in 1889 by George Grant Mackay, a Scottish civil engineer and park commissioner. It was originally made of hemp ropes with a deck of cedar planks, and was replaced with a wire cable bridge in 1903.  The bridge was completely rebuilt in 1956.

Being the end of September I was hoping for less tourists, that wasn’t so.  It was still jam packed.  The bridge is pretty cool, I won’t lie, but with so many ppl on it and most of them stopped to take in the sights or for photo opps it made it hard to enjoy and just be in the moment. Having a fear of heights, I thought I was going to be scared being up 230 ft – but I wasn’t, I walked right across the wobbly, unsteady suspension bridge with no problem. I felt safer knowing the stat that the bridge could hold the weight of 4 fully loaded Boeing 747s lol.

We also went up Treetops Adventures, which consists of 7 footbridges suspended between old-growth Douglas Fir trees.  We also toured along Nature’s Edge Walk soaked in the rainforest and braved The Cliffwalk – which features a narrow walkway that juts out from the face of a granite cliff perched high above the Capilano canyon. The dizzying distance from your feet to the ground makes your heart skip a beat.

RATING:   👍🏻👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻  – overall, it was a great day at Capilano, you can certainly spend a whole morning or afternoon there.  I’d say it’s a thing to do if the cost is no object to you.  It can be expensive for a group at $50/ticket for an adult – a youth is $30.

Daily traffic Around 2,200 per day (800,000 per year)


2. Fisherman’s Wharf – Steveston, Richmond

What a gem!  This village is super cute and littered with sit-down restaurants, fish & chip joints, and coffee shops.  This was one of my fave things to do.  What better place to take a stroll than to walk down the streets of a charming fishing village.

Located on the South Arm of the Fraser River, what was originally a fishing village has now grown into a bustling local & tourist area. Lots of benches for resting or just enjoying the gorgeous views. Watch fishing boats, freighters and tugs come & go. I was literally in awe here.  I enjoyed a great salmon salad lunch and rosé (rosé all day 🙌🏻) at Sockeye City Grill while overlooking the gorgeous view.  I felt I was in a little piece of heaven here.  Treated myself to a rum & raisin ice cream cone and sat on a bench and just soaked it ALL in – I really didn’t want to leave.

RATING: 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 – this place is just a hidden little gem and I absolutely loved my time in this charming little village.  It’s free to stroll and the prices for seafood off the boats is very reasonable – the restaurant prices are pretty decent – but that VIEW though!


3. Canada Place/2010 Olympic Cauldron

Canada Place is situated on the Burrard Inlet waterfront of Vancouver. The building’s exterior is covered by fabric roofs resembling sails. It is also the main cruise ship terminal for the region (cruises to Alaska originate here).  We were lucky there were two cruise ships docked at the time of our visit.  I’ve never been on a cruise before, so the I was awestruck at the sight of these mighty ships.

Canada Place was built on land which was originally owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway and which was built in 1927.  The structure was expanded in 2001 to accommodate another cruise ship berth and during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Canada Place served as the Main Press Centre.

The views from here are wow, especially on a clear day.  We sat and watched the boat traffic, watched the sea planes take off from the nearby sea airport.  No fee to walk around the harbour front.  There are some coffee and ice-cream shops. You can pay to take a ride on FlyOver Canada – we didn’t, we were more interested in the views.

RATING: 👍🏻 👍🏻  👍🏻 👍🏻  – for breathtaking views this is one of the places to go.  Stroll around for incredible views of the Port of Vancouver, Stanley Park, Coal Harbour, Burrad Inlet and the beautiful North Shore mountains.

During Vancouver’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2010 there were two Olympic torch cauldrons in the city, including the one by the Convention Centre. Although no longer still lit (except for special occasions I hear – sorry guys, but apparently our trip is not considered to be a “special” occasion), the Olympic Cauldron at the Convention Centre is available for viewing.

I love my country and I love the Olympics. The cauldron is one of the few overt remnants of the 2010 Olympics.  The cauldron no longer has flames like it did during the Games, but still takes pride of place at Jack Poole Plaza along the waterfront. It’s a beautiful sight during the day, especially when combined with the downtown skyline in the background or with the harbour and North Vancouver mountains to the north.

So, if you like the Olympics you can appreciate this piece. No flames, but still, it’s a cool remembrance from our 2010 Olympics.

Its just a short walk from the the Olympic Cauldron to Canada Place.  That’s why I’ve included these two venues as one visit.

RATING:  👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻


4. English Bay Beach/Stanley Park Sea Wall

The Vancouver Sea Wall is a stone wall that was constructed around the perimeter of Stanley Park to prevent the erosion of the park’s foreshore.  Park visitors walk, bike, roll, and fish on the seawall.

English Bay Beach is located along Beach Ave between Gilford St and Bidwell St, it is the most populated beach area in Vancouver’s downtown area. The Stanley Park Seawall, a popular running and biking route, runs along the east side of the beach.

I loved this beach, it had such a laid back feel to it – not like the ones back home in Ontario (Grand Bend, Wasaga) –  rock sculptures, logs laying in the sand and watching the world go at near sunset. It’s a great spot to wander, vibrant with other walkers, cyclists, bladers –  joyful on a sunny afternoon!

Take your time go for a walk along the sea wall or rent a bike. Sunset is breathtaking. And the best of all if FREE!

RATING: 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 – it’s free and a  great place to watch the sunset, ppl watch and get in your 10,000 daily steps.


5. The Flying Beaver Bar & Grill

The Flying Beaver offers great microbrew beers and inspired menus in an utterly unique West Coast environment. I know you’re probably saying “why the hell is she putting a bar and grill on her favourite places list”.  Truth is … it’s the sunsets, then the food.

Located at: 4760 Inglis Dr, Richmond, BC, their slogan is  “Giver on the river! You Drink, We Drive. Call us for more details about our complimentary shuttle”.  NICE! Who actually does that? That’s awesome!  Their menu even says “HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT OUR SHUTTLE BUS? YOU DRINK…WE DRIVE!”.  Hallelujah!

We had the best seats in the house, on the patio, at the edge, overlooking the water  – the restaurant lets you sit and watch the arrival and departure of the Harbour Air seaplanes on the Middle Arm of the Fraser River. The sunsets, look at that sunset, amazing!

I enjoyed the Seafood Hot Pot @ $19.00 – it was SOOOO GOOD – it was filled with mussels, prawns, cod, salmon, bok choy + rice noodles in a Thai coconut broth with garlic toast- yummy!


6. Granville Island

Granville Island is a shopping district and is located across False Creek from Downtown Vancouver, under the south end of the Granville Street Bridge.  Amenities include a large public market, an marina, a boutique hotel, False Creek Community Centre and various performing arts theatres.

The Granville Island Public Market was established in 1979 as a location where farmers and other food vendors could sell to consumers. It operates year-round in an enclosed facility where customers can purchase fresh produce, meat, fish and seafood, cheeses and other products, many locally sourced.

We enjoyed the view while we ate the yummiest New York cheesecake from one of the market vendors on the boardwalk and then went to enjoy a flight of handcrafted premium beers at Granville Island Brewing.

The Public Market is open 7 days a week from 9AM – 7PM

RATING: 👍🏻  👍🏻  👍🏻  👍🏻


6. Squamish, BC

I wish I had way more time to spend in Squamish, we only spent an afternoon there (6-7 hours), but, I have to tell you the drive from Vancouver to Squamish is one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever made.  Driving along Highway 99, it takes roughly an hour. The ‘Sea to Sky Highway’ curves along the seaside and affords breathtaking views of the ocean and mountains. This is one of the most scenic drives in Canada, so take your time and enjoy the views. It was an overcast day the day we chose to visit our friends in Squamish but the drive was still stunning!

Squamish itself offers endless options for both leisure travellers and adventure seekers. Within minutes you can mountain bike trails, hike in Coastal rainforests, climb one of the largest granite monoliths in the world, kiteboard, windsurf, kayak, paddleboard, and depending on the season, snowshoe and ski tour into the pristine backcountry.

I truly wish we had more time to explore Squamish – but, while there our friends took us on a hike on the Coho Park Trail for about an 1h15 mins and it was spectacular – I can only imagine living in Squamish.

We had dinner at The WaterShed Grill in Brackendale, BC (I didn’t even know it wasn’t in Squamish til I looked up the address).  I am strongly recommending this place – the view is stunning – mountains and the Squamish River (we saw a sea otter in the river) and the food was INCREDIBLE.  I had the salmon burger (5 oz of sockeye salmon with wasabi mayo on a brioche bun) and the roasted tomato soup – it was to die for!

RATING: 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 👍🏻 – visiting Squamish is a must see on my list – the drive up there alone is stunning.  Like I said, I wish I had more time to spend there – I could have spent a week there alone.

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 10.06.07 AM
📸: The WaterShed Grill (http://thewatershedgrill.com/gallery/)


Unfortunately my flight leaves at 3:00 PM PST, so I need to get packing to head back to Ontario.  I didn’t have the time to catch up with a few people while I was here – so I guess that means I’ll have to come back for more BC adventures – oh darn 😉 lol.  I was only here for 6 days, but, it was certainly jam packed.

NB:  For those visiting BC, note to purchase alcohol or to enter a casino you need TWO pieces of ID – even as a Canadian resident.  Not sure why this is in this province, but it’s the provincial law here  – so FYI.

How many of you have been to BC before? Where’s your favourite place to visit for next time?

On Travel: Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love

🎶 “In West Philadelphia not born nor raised, in Kdub is where I spent most of my days 🎶” which is why I decided to take my next  trip to Philly.  I love to travel, I love history – all kinds of history and Philadelphia is steeped deep in American history.

The primary reason for our trip to Philly was to attend Team Neve Quits Patriot Tour, featuring Marcus Luttrell, Retired Navy SEAL and author of ‘Lone Survivor’, Taya Kyle, author of ‘American Wife’ and widow of Chris Kyle, David Goggins, Ultra-Marathoner and Retired Navy SEAL and Chad Fleming, Retired Army Ranger.

Since we only had one full day of being tourists/sight seeing – we decided on the Philadelphia Sightseeing Hop On/Hop Off City Tour aboard an English double-decker bus, which was wonderfully convenient – you don’t have to worry about getting there, parking and you can pick from any one of 28 stops across sixteen-miles – choose your ideal visitation spot and they will deliver you to the doorstep (or close to it).  The loop takes about 1.5 hours if you stay on for the whole loop, the tour guides were full of facts and funnies = Live Expert Local Guide Commentary.  We purchased these through Groupon for only $22.00 USD per ticket (reg price is $32.00 USD) – so keep an eye out on this site if you plan on booking.  

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 5.21.10 PM

Had we had more time we would have done more – but given the time we had we chose: to exit at Eastern State Penitentiary, The Rocky Steps/Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Masonic Temple and Independence Hall.  Having had more time I would likely have added: Christ Church Burial Ground (where Benjamin Franklin is buried), Chinatown and Museum of the American Revolution. 

Below I’ll highlight some of the stops.

Eastern State Penitentiary

IMG_0100

Eastern State opened more than 180 years ago, it changed the world. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence in the hearts of prisoners. The building itself was an architectural wonder; it had running water and central heat before the White House, and attracted visitors from around the globe.  

In 1842 Charles Dickens visited the United States to see Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP). Of ESP he wrote “the System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong….”.  In my blog titled “Kingston Penitentiary: Canada’s Alcatraz – MY TOUR” you’ll see that Dickens also visited Kingston Penn in Ontario, Canada, the same year (likely the same trip to North America) and wrote in his American Notes for General Circulation, “There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated, in every respect.” He went on: “Here at Kingston is a penitentiary, intelligently and humanely run. Likely because KP was built under the Auburn system – which took a completely different approach than the Pennsylvania system.  While it too incorporates Quaker ideals of reformation — humane conditions from bedding to health care, strict routines, and religious contemplation – prisoners are together, side by side, during work, meals, and prayer but return to solitary cells at night.  Auburn introduced the tier system, different levels of cells built above one another, in which convicts are housed according to their offense category — first timers vs. repeaters, murderers vs. thieves, and so forth. Inmates wear uniforms of different colours, depending on their classification. The work regimen produces income that the Pennsylvania system could not generate, and this system is by far more cost effective and practical. Inmates are less likely to go mad, and it is easier to feed everyone in a group.

ESP held both women and men until 1923 when female prisoners moved to the new  prison at Muncy. 

Until 1924 inmates ate each of their meals, alone in their cells.  For the first time in January inmates were allowed for the first time to eat as a group in dining halls.

For 8 months during 1929 – 1930 – Chicago gangster Al Capone made Eastern State Penitentiary his home. I read in an article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929 this his cell is described as  “The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk …. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish…” 

Capone was imprisoned when he stopped in Philadelphia while traveling from Atlantic City back to his home in Chicago in May of 1929. He was arrested outside a movie theater for carrying a concealed, unlicensed .38 caliber revolver. The Philadelphia courts were tough and handed Capone the maximum sentence: one year in prison. Although the courts tried to make an example of the bootlegger, the officials at ESP were very  generous to him and allowed the comforts not typically granted to inmates, including fine furniture, oriental rugs, oil paintings and a fancy radio. He liked to listen to waltzes in his cell. 

Now, I nerd out just by viewing a cool exhibit, but hearing one of your favorite actors describe it while you’re there is super cool nerd exciting!  Steve Buscemi is the voice of the audio ESP audio tour  –  turns out Buscemi himself volunteered to help the museum while scouting a movie at Eastern State more than a decade ago. The audio tour states that perhaps Capone’s arrest was all too convenient as it came at a time of escalating mob violence in Chicago, he was accused of hiding in prison intentionally. Capone denied all his life that he came to Philadelphia to hide. 

Other fun facts:

  • 1970 January – Eastern State Penitentiary closes.
  • 1996 Eastern State’s arched cellblocks and central rotunda are transformed into a mental institution in the movie 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis and in 1998 is portrayed as a Southeast Asian prison in the movie Return to Paradise.

Rocky Steps/Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Rocky Steps are the 72 stone steps to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Pretty much everyone knows the Rocky movies, they’re a part of pop culture and a huge part of my childhood.  The steps made their appearance in all of the Rockies except for Rocky IV, which is my personal favourite.  Many tourists visit the steps to recreate the scene themselves – I however did not – I walked up them, slowly 😂

“Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.” – Rocky Balboa

IMG_0292
Photo: Eat your heart out Rocky Balboa, I walked up then in 10 minutes.

Fun fact:  Sly was actually injured when filming this movie, he only ran up the first 10 steps; a body double ran up the rest.

Stallone commissioned a bronze statue of Rocky.  The statue was initially at the of steps for the filming of Rocky III,  but was ultimately relocated at the bottom of the steps. I look bad in the pic, so I’m opting to not post it.

The Masonic Temple

I’ve always been fascinated by the Freemasons – I’ve watched so many documentaries on their origins and their society of brethren.

6 of those who signed the Declaration of Independence were Masons.  US Presidents who were or are Freemasons: George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Gerald Ford.

Other notables include: Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Mozart, Winston Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Benedict Arnold, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Scottie Pippen, Michael Richards, Shaquille O’Neal, Paul Revere, Cy Young, John Wayne, Richard Pryor, Clarke Gable, Don Rickles, Harry Houdini and Buzz Aldrin  — to name a few.

Masonic symbolism is abundant all over Washington D.C.  If you look at the layout of Washington DC you will see many Masonic references.

The Masonic Temple in Philadelphia was constructed in 1873. Tours are offered a few times a day,  so they have to be scheduled.  We weren’t aware of that and arrived an hour early, since we were tight for time, we toured the Library and Museum on our own (cost $7.00 USD).  The museum houses thousands of books and cool artifacts relating to the history of the Fraternity and the founding of the USA. The Museum’s collection consists of more than 30,000 items.

IMG_0236
Photo: Brother George Washington’s Masonic Apron

Along the whole double decker bus ride, you have the opportunity to take in the historic sites of Philly without getting off, as well as hear some colour commentary from the tour guides such as their favourite places in town to grab a cheesesteak and other places to check out while you’re in town. 

I’m a health nut, but when I eat, I go hard. I’m a Buffalo wing magnet, a sandwich fanatic, a cheesesteak guy. But I’ll only get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. No one else does it right – Kevin Hart

Independence Hall 

This is the start/stop point of the city tour.  Both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed in this historic building. We wanted to see The Liberty Bell before ending our day tour, but, there was a line up, and a security line to go through so unfortunately we had to opt out as we had to be at our VIP event for The Patriot Tour for 5:00 p.m. at the Kimmel Centre.

IMG_0365

2017 Patriot Tour

The event we made the 9 hour trek to Philly for was The 2017 Patriot Tour  – which features retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, author of ‘Lone Survivor’, the NY Times Bestseller, which recounts the heroic sacrifices of fellow SEAL Team members assigned to Operation Redwings in which Luttrell was the only survivor, Taya Kyle, author of ‘American Wife’ and wife of the late U.S. Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle, retired U.S. Army Capt. Chad Fleming and retired Navy SEAL and ultra-marathon runner David Goggins. 

Beforehand, we were able to have a quick meet and greet with the speakers – it was great to meet them in person and shake their hands.  Taya and I talked shoes/boots quickly and even Chad loved my Steve Madden Tsunami rain boots.  I’ll have to find the pic where I’m shaking Marcus’ hand and Chad and Taya are pointing at my boots.  We were also given signed copies of Lone Survivor and American Wife.

These humans were the most inspirational folks I’ve heard speak in a long time.  Talk about sheer grit, determination and sticktuitiveness.  These amazing people share their experiences with the crowd while also taking the time to recognize military personnel in attendance as well as the first responders – everyone in attendance stood in applause – this made my eyes swell up a bit.  

They each had something poignant to say.  

IMG_0325.jpgTaya Kyle shared that her faith in God got her through Chris being murdered. She recounted the story of how they met – which was very true to the movie script of American Sniper.  She jokes about the day they met in the bar and that yes, Chris did in fact hold her hair back while she vomitted.  About how she works to keep his memory alive, how humble he was that it made him feel awkward that he was referred to as The Legend.  

IMG_0324.jpgChad Fleming shared the story of how he lost his leg (transtibial amputation of his left leg) in combat and had undergone 23 surgeries!  I was in awe that once fit, he CHOSE to re-deploy five times, each time going right back into the fight. He spoke of how he was one of the few amputees who have been able to redeploy into combat as an amputee.  If that isn’t strength of character then I don’t know what is!

David Goggins – the word quit does not exist in this guy’s vocabulary.  I was astonished by IMG_0338.jpghis resilience and sheer grit to make it happen.  He told of how he was 297 lbs and needed to lose 100 lbs in a month to be able to join.  He did it.  He had to redo BUD/S training THREE TIMES! I can’t imaging doing it once, more or less going through hell week 3 whole times!  He told of having signed up for a 100 mile race in 24 hours, having only ran once for training – by mile (I want to say 75, shoot I forget) – his body was so exhausted he sat down to take a rest and his body gave out – he couldn’t go any further – his feet hurt so much that he couldn’t even get up from his blue chair to go to the washroom (he doo dooed himself).  Not wanting to give up on his dream – he taped his feet, got up and ran the remaining miles to successfully complete the race!  In 2013, Goggins broke the Guinness World Record for most number of pull-ups in a 24-hour period by completing 4,030 pull-ups in 17 hours. 

And lastly, the man of the hour – Marcus Luttrell – I am sure this man needs no introduction.  We all know his story from the movie Lone Survivor.  Watching the movie was good, but, seeing the REAL man behind the story in person and speak personally of  Operation Red Wings and the mission to kill or capture Ahmad Shah (aka Mohammad Ismail), a Taliban leader responsible for killings in eastern Afghanistan and the Hindu-Kush mountains. The SEAL team was made up of Luttrell, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson.  I won’t get too deep, I’m sure you’ve all watched the Hollywood movie, in which Marcus is played by Mark Walhberg, and if you haven’t – go. watch. it now.

IMG_0362.jpg

In short: a group of goat herders stumbled upon the SEALs, and the four SEALs immediately took control of the situation and discussed what to do with the herders. Murph suggested that they should be released. Luttrell believed they immediately betrayed the team’s location to local Taliban forces and within an hour, the SEALs were engaged in an intense gun battle – which he describes as being 3 hours in duration in real life as opposed to 40 mins or so in the movie. The rest of the SEAL team members were killed.  He told of how some scenes in the Hollywood version differed from real life events – in actuality Matt Axelson was not shot in the back of the head – he was shot in the face and his jaw was hanging from his face. Marcus was the “Lone Survivor”. Badly wounded (his back, leg and nose were broken and he was shot a few times), he managed to walk and crawl seven miles to evade capture – he tells that he kept his goals short – he would take a stone draw a line in the sand and crawl to it, if he made it, he’d keep on going. Most of the time he recounted these events, he looked down and to the right – like he was reliving it right there at that moment with us.  He was eventually found by a few villagers.  For days Mohammed Gulab and the other villagers protected Luttrell from the militants—even in the face death threats. They alerted the Americans of his presence, and American forces finally rescued him six days after the gun battle.  Another misnomer from the movie was that the rescue occurred during the day, but in actuality it was at night. Following his physical recovery from Operation Red Wings, Luttrell returned and completed one more tour before being medically retired.

Conclusion

Overall, Philly is a pretty neat city, I wish we had more time to explore, lots of historic things I would have liked to have had the time to fit in i.e. explore Penn’s Landing, enjoy fine dining aboard the Moshulu, tour the Cruiser Olympia and done a boat cruise up the Delaware.  

Of note for those considering visiting – parking is atrocious – I am not kidding – the streets are full 24/7 – good luck finding street parking anywhere – unless you stalk someone going to their vehicle.  It’s beyond jammed – both sides of the tiny narrow streets – I would HATE to be a homeowner and have to do this each night when I get home from work.  Also in the area we stayed in – there weren’t a lot of public parking options and if there were – they were all full.  Our first night – we arrived at about 8:45 PM and we had to park all the way at the University of Pennsylvania parking garage and take a taxi to our Airbnb! (FYI – taxi number is 215-666-6666)

Make very sure you read the street parking signs if you are lucky enough to nab a spot – most are 2 hour max parking without a permit – from what we were able to find – you cannot purchase time selected permits – we can do this back home in Toronto by simply going on line – entering your plate # and your credit card info and printing off a parking permit for the time you need.  

I now 100% completely understand why the A&E show Parkings Wars was a hit – holy snickerdoodles!

Have any of you been to the City of Brotherly Love?  What was your favourite place?


On Travel: My Japanese Experience

IMG_2762

こんにちは - Kon'nichiwa

Welcome to my first blog exclusively on travel.  I love traveling, I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to Mexico (4x), Cuba, Dominican Republic (5x), Aruba, Las Vegas (4x), NYC (2x), Mount Rushmore, Vancouver Island and many other places – but I’ve yet to have been overseas.  So this was a first!

Life can be so complicated at times can’t it?  My life in particular has been nutty as of late …  but at the spur of the moment, I made a decision – we all have choices and decisions to make each day of our lives in the betterment of ourselves, our lives, our spirituality and for our own personal growth.  So, I decided last minute to go and visit my friends Linda and Mark in Japan! They had moved there just 3 months ago for Mark’s work project with Honda.

It was late night, I texted Linda “Hi! How are you?  Saw your pics!  Looks like you guys are having a good vacay with Mark.  I have a few more wks before I have to go back to work.  Up for some company maybe?”

Linda and I have been friends since high school at St. Mary’s – initially an all catholic girls high school and then went co-ed in grade 10.  I loved being part of their “porto” group – I was accepted at as a quasi-porto (right Dill?).  The memories of being in high school — of sleeping over at her house and waking up to her mom and tias making Portuguese food (some of my faves – Rissóis and col verde) – that’s where my love of Portuguese food started – thank you Rosa!  We lost touch for a number of years mostly because our lives took us in different directions.  I had a baby at 19 and while I cared for her, most of my friends were out and about living average 19 year old lives (which is completely understandable).  We reconnected a few years ago and have been tight since … probably more than ever.  In any event, Linda and Mark said yes and their kids were excited to see me (and I them).


Day 1:


Travel Day
– I flew coach from Pearson International (Toronto) to Narita, which is the furthest airport from 21192631_10155474725600168_1545996121699494346_nTokyo centre, so, if you’re traveling into and/or are staying right in Tokyo, you may want to fly into a closer airport (flying into Narita was the cheapest option for me at $1080.00 CDN – return).  However if not, taking the train into Tokyo Station is very easy  – I managed it solo (you can also take a bus which takes longer than the 53 mins by train).  Most people at the stations speak English. The flight was 12h55 mins, and thankfully the flight wasn’t sold out – so I asked the flight attendant for a row without anyone in it and was able to sprawl out – but I didn’t sleep – I’m not the best of sleepers on flights.  It was smooth and uneventful, hardly any turbulence at all.  The time seemed to fly by (no pun intended) and the next thing I knew I was at Narita on the Narita Express (Nex) to Tokyo Station to meet up with Mark – this is gonna be quite an experience!

Mark met me on my platform and we hopped on the train to Masashi-Sakai to their IMG_1382.jpghouse.  They live in Mitaka Osawa, a suburb of Tokyo. I was pretty pumped to see Linda and the kids – these kids are the cutest things I’ve ever seen (other than my own of course). Their house was bigger and more modern than I had expected for Tokyo to be honest.   A 2016 United Nations estimate puts the total population Greater Tokyo Area at 38,000,000. It covers an area of approximately 13,500 km². It’s the second largest single metropolitan area in the world, only behind New York City.  So as you can imagine land is limited and at a premium.  Homes are typically small and inside space is tight – their house had an ingenious toilet/sink combo to maximize space (this Japanese toilet only dispenses water in its attached sink when the toilet gets flushed.  You wash your hands and that water goes into the tank to be reused and flushed – brilliant!). They have storage in the floors and in the pulldown attics. What surprised me compared to most typical homes I saw is that they had green space in their yard (i.e. they actually had a side yard with grass).

IMG_1527


Day 2:

Mount Fuji (Fujisan) – Jet lag is pretty rough! I’ve never experienced hard core jet lag before, prior to this the biggest time difference was only 3 hours.  My travel day commenced at 7:30 EST and went to bed 2:00 AM Japan time – so I was awake for an insane for 30 hours STRAIGHT!  Unfortunately, my body wanted to wake up after only 4 hours of rest, so, while everyone else – including the kids, were still sleeping – I got up and ate an entire plate of rice and shrimp lol.  When the kids got up we walked up to McDonald’s (yes, McDonald’s!) for a Filet o’ Fish – so sadly I suppose that was my actual first Japanese experience.  What can I say, my body was telling me it was still nighttime – and yes, you can get Filet o’ Fish on the breakfast menu there and yes,  I am aware I’m one of the very few who actually eat them 🙄.

For my first full day in Japan, we decided to hit up Mount Fuji! Mount Fuji is a distinctive feature of the geography of Japan.  Fuji-san is the highest mountain in Japan at 12,389 ft. It’s an active volcano which last erupted in abt 1707/08.  She lies about 100 kms south-west of Tokyo.  It was added to the World Heritage List as a Cultural Site on June 22, 2013. According to UNESCO, Mount Fuji has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries”.

We went up to the 5th station, which is at 2,305 metres. Check-in at the base of Fuji called for sunny skies, but it was not so.  The weather on Fuji-san is volatile and changes by the minute.  It can be clear one minute and the clouds can roll in the other minute totally obscuring your view.  The weather Gods were not with us this day, we never saw the summit.  It was only 8 degrees celsius.

We took the scenic route home and drove through the mountain ranges and some of the The Fuji Five Lakes at the northern base of Mount Fuji at about 1000 meters above sea level.  We stopped at Lake Yamanaka (山中湖) to take in the sunset and breathtaking views of Mr. Fuji, even though she was still partially obstructed by cloud cover.


Day 3: 

Shopping Day – Today was a shopping kind of day. We went to GU – this clothing chain is part of the Uniqlo brand – but cheaper – you’ll often see both stores side by side.  Not much for me there and a little too fashion forward and frumpy for my liking (it would def. be more for the younger generation). We also went to Uniqlo outside of Musashi-Sakai Station since I hadn’t even been to the one in Toronto.   I ended up finding a fab end of season dress for only ¥995!

Later that day, I was introduced to Tonkatsu for lunch. It’s a Japanese dish which consists of a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet and is often served with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup. Super yummy!

IMG_1556

I accompanied Linda in picking up some groceries at Ito-Yokado. I wanted to experience what a Japanese grocery chain looked like, the different food selections and the similarities.  What I found interesting was that Seven-Eleven Japan is held by the Seven & I Holdings Co. We all know 7-11 as our local convenient corner stores, what I did not know is that 7-11 is part Japanese and they have FULL grocery stores in Japan.

IMG_1553.jpg

Afterward we went shopping at an awesome second hand store (most of which was 100% name brand items).  The store had the worst of names “Hard Off”.   At first I thought it was because those who shopped there may have been “hard off” but when I saw a store called Book Off I was thoroughly confused.  Anyway, despite the horrible name I managed to pick up a Burberry scarf & Ralph Lauren pencil skirt as well as a Yukata (a casual summer kimono) and obi for the upcoming Fall Festival later in the week in Shinjuku.


Day 4:  

Shinjuku –  What a great day for a completely unplanned one! Linda and I spent the day exploring near Shinjuku Station.  We went to Shinjuku Goyen National Garden, a gorgeous garden space in the middle of this bustling city.  The garden, which is 58.3 hectares, blends three distinct styles: a French Formal, English Landscape and Japanese traditional. A traditional Japanese tea house can be found within the gardens.  We visited Kyu Goryotei (also referred to as the Taiwan Pavilion) which was built on the occasion of the wedding of the Showa Emperor.

Afterward we decided to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where we went up to the 45th floor north observatory and took in the landscape city views.  Of note, this government building is currently on “high alert” due to the ballistic missiles being launched over Japan and into the Sea of Japan by Kim Jong-un, North Korean Leader who seems to be begging for war.  Despite that, we enjoyed a drink and had some good chats.

Lucas and I went for a bike ride in the International Christian College grounds, where I got to ride a traditional Japanese bike (thank you Sofia).   I have to say, Tokyo has much more green space than I ever thought it would.  Knowing I’m a fan of curried foods, Linda made an excellent dinner of Japanese curry.  Japanese curry is a lot less spicy than Indian curry and is fairly sweet in comparison.


Day 5:

Kichijōji  – Rainy day today. We went into Kichijōji, a fashionable neighbourhood in Mitaka City in the western suburbs of Tokyo.  It is almost always at the top of surveys of the most desirable places to live in Tokyo.  We checked out where the festival we are going to this weekend is going to be held, shopped a bit, had lunch at Crown House (a North American locale) and of course had a couple of yummy sangrias.  Cheers to friendship !


Day 6:

Sensō-ji Temple: My first week here in Japan with the Middlestedt’s is nearly done. Today Linda and I went to Asakusa to visit Sensō-ji (浅草寺), the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan. It is one of Tokyo’s most colorful and popular temples.  The legend is that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensō-ji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.

We walked around town taking in the mixture of huge tourist spots and the normalcy of everyday life there. Even though it rained, it didn’t put a damper on this most spectacular of days.


Day 7:

Harujuku: We went down the famous I竹下通り Takeshita-dōri in Harujuku.  We were in search of some Harujuku girls and saw maybe only 2. For lunch I tried a Japanese version of a cheeseburger combo.  The meat was good but didn’t taste like typical North American burger/beef, it tasted like it had spice to it and almost tasted pork like – but was good, it felt lighter.  The fries tasted very much like home, the combo came with a side of fried chicken and a cheese powder, which I assume was for the fries – it tasted like Kraft Dinner powder. The Pepsi was Pepsi Nex which I found to be super sweet – do we even have this back home?

Fish Pedicure: We scooted over to Shinjuku by subway so that Lucas and I could have a fish pedicure aka Dr. Fish.  I was excited to try this as I had heard so much about it.  We soaked our feet in tanks of hungry Garra rufa fish.  The small, toothless fish gently ate the dead skin and left the healthy skin untouched.  For ¥1050 , it was worth the experience – but if you’re wanting an actual pedicure – pay for the real thing.


Day 8:

Awesome day:  This was a super awesome jam packed day. We started our day off at the Kichijoji Aki Matsuri (Autumn Festival), which was taking place on September 9 & 10 2017.  I was excited to fully partake and immerse myself into the Japanese culture and along with Linda and Sofia wore a traditional Japanese Yukata.  The main event is the procession of mikoshi, the ornate palanquins which transport the kami on their journeys through the shopping streets of Kichijoji.  In addition to the mikoshi from Musashino Hachimangu, ten others from the district, each with its own team, join in the festivities. Each team has its own unique rhythm and chant. Teams of mikoshi bearers suit up in traditional costume and prepare to march. Bearers take turns carrying the weight of the mikoshi.

Next stop:  Odaiba/ Tokyo Bay –  We took the Yurikamome rapid transit train across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba (お台場) – which is a large island in Tokyo Bay.  Odaiba is  a mixture of major commercial, residential and leisure – it would be fabulous to be able to live in this area, there’s so much going on! We walked along the beach, dipped our feet in the bay, and watched the gorgeous sunset over Tokyo Bay.

They also have a replica of the Statue of Liberty which I found to be odd, given that while we were in Shinjuku Goyen I saw a replica of the Empire State Building and that the Rainbow Bridge bore a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, USA.  Having been to the Statue of Liberty in NYC, this paled in comparison – actually there is no comparison, but, I had a bit more of an appreciation once I understood the reason for it.  The French Statue of Liberty from the Île aux Cygnes came to Odaiba from April 1998 to May 1999 in commemoration of “The French year in Japan”, because of its popularity, in 2000 a replica of the French Statue of Liberty was erected at the same place.

Staying in Odaiba, we dined at the Aqua City shopping centre (literally there are so many restaurants in all prices ranges in this centre to choose from).  We were looking for an izakaya (a type of informal Japanese gastropub) but we couldn’t find one nearby so we changed our pallets minds and decided to enjoyed the most mouth watering Indian dinner at Mumbai restaurant overlooking Tokyo Bay.  The butter chicken I had was sweeter than I’m accustomed to, but paired nicely with garlic naan, and a glass of sparkling white wine.

21557794_10155505770735168_7713488982611508790_n

From there we headed to Shibuya (right in the heart of Tokyo) to check out the night life, the night lights and of course the Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble.  Located in front of the Shibuya Station Hachikō exit and rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing, is just as the name eludes to – a giant scramble to get across the intersection before every light change. Hundreds of people – and at peak times I’m sure to be over 1000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions!

21371203_10155505770880168_3869120914787479968_n-1

Day 9:

Sumo!:  Today was all about the sumo wrestling – 1000%. What an amazing experience!  Sumo Wrestling is the national sport of Japan and compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago, about 1,500 years. The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses. A contest usually lasts only a few seconds.  I found it shocking that there are no weight restrictions or classes in sumo, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves matched off against someone many times their size.

We attended Kokugikan, the sumo stadium in the Ryogoku district, where tournaments are held.  We attended the 1st day of this particular Fall tournament, each tournament lasts for 15 days.  After a few chūhais and high balls Mark and I decided to wager on a few bouts.  Having no knowledge of these Gods of their sport or their records we chose simply based on their pre-match ritual, size and the colour of their mawashi (loin cloth).  I lost 26-15.


Day 10:  

Relaxation day, spent some time watching some docs and Gilmore Girls. Felt a cold coming on, nooooooooo!!!!


Day 11:

Is it ever hard to calm your mind, especially when you feel your getting sick!?!?!  On the morning of my departure from the most respectful, quiet and kind culture, Linda and I spent the morning being trained by a traditional Japanese Monk on the art of Zazen meditation.  Zen meditation is a very simple method of meditation, where the correct posture is imperative, most of our session focussed mainly on the importance of posture.  Zazen is practiced sitting on a zafu (a thick and round cushion). The purpose of this cushion is to elevate the hips, thus forcing the knees to be firmly rooted to the floor – this is very important. This way, your Zazen will be a lot more stable and comfortable.

Zazen is like water in a glass. Leave the water to sit quietly and soon the dirt will sink down –  Taisen Deshimaru

In Zen, the eyes are kept open during meditation. This prevents the you from daydreaming or becoming drowsy, this was a change for me as I have always mediated with my eyes closed.  Your hands are held in the Hokkaijoin (circle with fingers and thumbs barely touching). There are two reasons for this hand position, the Monk explained.  First, the shape of the hands harmonizes our minds. Secondly, if your mind starts to wonder elsewhere else, the shape of this oval becomes distorted and you can correct yourself (realign your posture and your mind).  The bell wrung 3x and we commenced zazen, after 14 mins zasen meditation was completed. Typically is lasts 40 mins, but since we were beginners and we required a tutorial – he recommended 14 mins to start.  To do this in a traditional Buddhist temple was a memory of a lifetime.

After my most enjoyable, peaceful morning of meditation – I was off to Shinjuku to catch my Nex train back to Narita airport to commence my 12 hour journey back to Canada.


On departure from Narita, I did however, catch a gorgeous sunset view of Mount Fuji ….

21740074_10155523509880168_6449699417556923121_n

A most heartfelt thank you to my gracious hosts Linda and Mark (and the kids) for opening your home and your hearts to me during this most unreal experience!  I look forward to returning next year …. I’m already thinking of next places to visit on my return — Nagano, Hiroshima, Okinawa, Nagasaki???

Have any of you been to Japan?  Where are some places you’d recommend for my next journey?

また近いうちにお会いしましょう - Mata chikaiuchini o ai shimashou

(see you soon)