Fiafia Night at Return to Paradise

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Fatu at the Kava Ceremony
Fatu at the Kava Ceremony

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Fiafia (Happy Happy) Night is exactly that – a colourful, fun night of singing, dancing, drums and fire put on by the ultra-happy local villagers of Matuautu-uta Lefaga – that makes everyone, well, happy.

Although Shane and I see the show every week, we’re never tired of it as the dancing is so athletic and fun, and they change it up. Kevin just gets a glimpse from the kitchen but sometimes can come and join us.

Fatu, whose name means “heart”, is the leader who welcomes everyone to Return to Paradise with the biggest smile you will ever see.

He and his sister Helen sit cross-legged in front of a large wooden bowl filled with kava, which if you remember my blog about the kava ceremony in Fiji, tastes like dirty bath water.

If Fatu calls out your name preceded by a long tribal yell, you become an honorary matai (chief) for the night. A small wooden bowl is brought to you, and you must pour a little on the ground for the Lord, then down the rest. Those who are wise and have done it before know to pour most of it out first.

Then the drums and music start, with men dancing first, really athletic, and everyone smiling and whooping it up, looking like they are having the time of their lives. The women join them wearing beautiful traditional puletasi (dresses), swaying to the music and delicately moving their arms and hands in a wavy pattern – I’ve tried to copy this, but am completely hopeless.

Throughout the show, you will hear Fatu yell out “Hey, Hey”, and the rest answering “Ho”, a tradition that is done at most Fiafia shows on the island and any other large event.

The Samoan slap dance is one of my faves, with men and women sitting on the floor cross-legged and slapping their knees and clapping, then standing and doing more.

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Then the men pretend to dance like women, swaying their hips and looking feminine. Fatu really hams it up. Cross-dressing is an accepted part of the culture here and in Fiji, where these people are respectfully considered a 3rd gender. Bruce Jenner might want to consider a change of address.
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Then the fire show begins – the fire-eaters put the fire stick to their tongues, take a bite and we watch them blow out fire – fantastic. One of the fire dancers told me afterward that the secret is to breathe in first, then when you exhale the oxygen blows the fire away from your mouth – but even with this inside information I think I would have a black tongue and burnt cheeks.

Next, two boys, aged 10 and 13, show their skills and bravery as they twirl the fire sticks and toss them back and forth to one another. I’m hoping that the youngest one will teach Shane how to do this one day, without the fire of course.

Danger is definitely part of the show. We’ve seen some of the grass “socks” worn by the men light on fire, and you often see them throw the fire stick to the ground if they mishandle it or need a break from the heat.

For the finale, all fire dancers, usually 7 – 10, show all their tricks and it is spectacular, the pictures and video don’t do it justice.


When the drums end, Fatu asks everyone to return to their seats for a song where everyone is invited to come up and dance with the performers. Shane usually runs off during this one, but I look forward to dancing with the young warriors every week. One final song features the Village Queen who steps on the backs of those lying down in front of her, and a pot is laid out for people to give a donation then go up and dance one more time.

The final song is a version of “Edelweiss”, but the words are “When you return to Paradise, we will be waiting to greet you”.

Shane and I look forward to Tuesday Fiafia night, then rush back so Shane can do his homework for the next day.

I haven’t seen a Hula Dance, but I imagine there are some similarities between here and Hawaii, and likely some of the other Polynesian islands. The fire show in Fiji was very similar, and we’ve seen fire dancers doing similar tricks in Koh Phagnan in Thailand. But the Samoan costumes, music and songs, and the beautiful ways of these happy people make it truly unique.

Fiafia Night is definitely a happy way to spend a Tuesday night at Return to Paradise.

Be Prepared to Wave

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Well, we are back in Samoa again, this time for 4 months and staying at the beautiful Return to Paradise Resort and Spa where Kevin is the Executive Chef, I am the resident landscape architect, painter and beach bum, and Shane is an aspiring student at the Robert Louis Stevenson School.

We were happy to go back to Samoa as our 10 days there in October were amazing. People here are ultra-friendly, moreso than anywhere else we have travelled. Plus it is by far one of the most beautiful islands I’ve seen – clean, green, lush, gorgeous rocks, waterfalls, beautiful beaches – and I can’t wait to get to know it more.

The Return to Paradise Resort is on the beautiful south side of Upolu, the more populated of the two largest Samoan islands in the southern hemisphere. The dateline is just to the east so Samoa is one of the first places to see the new day. As we look across the ocean, nothing stands between us and the South Pole.

The resort needed someone with a lot of experience for their busy season, so Kevin has been negotiating with the owners, Rona and Jimmy, over the last two months.

They were nice enough to offer us a 2 bedroom apartment, one of the top-end places right on the beach with a full kitchen and hot tub. We can see the sunset from our kitchen and porch, and hear the crashing waves all night, dreamy.

The sunsets here in Samoa are gorgeous, some of the best I’ve seen anywhere. The Return to Paradise beach also ranks up there with gorgeous turquoise water, golden sand, crashing waves, and a swimmable area good for snorkeling.
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Setting yourself up in a new place is always a challenge, but we now have our feet on the ground. The first week I spent most of my time being chauffeured around the island by a number of different hotel employees as I tried to find cellphones, internet, shop for groceries, clothes, rent a car and look for a school for Shane. I got to know and learn about life here in Samoa from:

Fatu – leader of the Fiafia cultural show – Samoan singing, dancing and fire show

Sina – a former Rugby star in New Zealand – nicknamed Sina China – who has been recovering from a bad knee over the last few years

Avi – another Samoan Rugby star in New Zealand who still plays here in Samoa, now in construction at the resort

On every trip, you must be prepared to wave to almost everyone you drive by outside of Apia. Everyone smiles and waves here, and the most common expression is “Are you OK?”

At first I was a little put off by this as I would think – of course I’m OK, everything’s fine. But I eventually realized that this is the Samoan way of saying “Can I help you with anything?” As Sina told me, helping others is deeply imbedded in the Samoan culture and it shows.

Our home for the next few months
Our home for the next few months

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You almost must be ready to drive off the road 3 or 4 times in the countryside as many on-coming cars do not stay in their own lane. That, plus having to dodge people walking down the middle of the road, pigs and piglets, dogs and chickens makes for an interesting and slow drive into town.

You could now consider us country folk as the drive into Apia is 45 minutes past taro and banana plantations, many small villages with roadside stalls selling coconuts, bok choy, tomatoes and snake beans, and coconut palm forests. Apia is on the north coast so we must drive up and over the highlands every day.

Now a lot of my blogs will be about Samoa for the next few months as we live and work at this beautiful resort and discover the nuances of Polynesian life.

Anyone want to come for a visit?

Two Guys Named Guy

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Growing up in Canada, and being a pseudo-Habs fan, I definitely think of “Guy”, as in Guy LaFleur, when someone tells me their name is Guy.

But in Aussie land, Guy is pronounced “G-eye”, as in just a regular guy in the street.

So imagine my confusion when two g-eyes answer my desperate Ebay search to buy baseball gloves mere hours before leaving for Samoa for four months, and both g-eyes are named Guy.

Coincidence? I think not.

Even more strange was that both guys lived in Wollogong, a southern suburb of Sydney, and both had baseball gloves to sell.

Are you hearing Twilight Zone music yet?

It’s a difficult task to buy a baseball glove in Sydney, unless you order online where there are hundreds to choose from. But if you do it the old fashioned way, buying one in a store, Rebel Sports has a monopoly and the selection is poor, all for kids 8 and under.
So I had to rely on the kindness of strangers, Ebay that is, to fulfill my dream of me and Shane playing catch in Samoa.
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“Meet me at the KFC near the M4 and Cumberland Highway”, Guy Number 1 told me.

With only a GPS in hand and a “can’t find signal” to boot, somehow I found it, God knows how, after cursing and screaming at it at the top of my lungs. I don’t know how the GPS didn’t end up smashed on the side of the road.

Until you actually use a GPS in the suburbs of Sydney, you don’t really notice that the name of each neighbourhood is key to actually finding your way around. If you don’t know if your home is located in Sheridan Homelands or Erin Mills, you will never find the address using the GPS.

Every road changes names countless number of times, and then when you reach downtown, the roads are so close together, with numerous over and under passes that the GPS has no idea what road you are actually on … resulting in numerous 3-point turns, illegal road crossings and AAARRRGGGHH, but I digress.

Guy Number 1 was super-friendly, almost in a creepy way, likely because the glove he showed me was an inch shorter than promised. Ha, ha, ha, I laughed, no matter. I was almost delirious now, still over-whelmed that I’d actually found my way there.

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We’d almost given up on the second guy, also named Guy, until he finally returned my call.
In a stand-offish, slightly arrogant voice, he told me he wouldn’t be home until dinner time that night, even though he knew that I had to pick it up by mid-afternoon at the latest.

I suspected he was actually the guy I had already bought from earlier that morning. Suspiciously, I asked him if he had been to KFC that morning.

I could tell he found my question odd, as in “what-a-stupid-Canadian” type of way, but he assured me he only had been to McDonalds for coffee.

When we finally found his place, Guy Number 2 turned out to be … another superfriendly bloke, only too happy to take my Aussie money. Much as I wanted to curse the guy and label him a fraud, I just couldn’t, and meekly bought the glove.
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With so much happening with both guys, we had little daylight left when we finally got to our hotel that night, right across from the Sydney Opera House. I must say that it is showing its age, and actually looks much better at night with spotlights in all the right places.

The next morning, I snuck up to rooftop at dawn for a sunrise view of the harbour, but was completely disappointed when instead of the Sydney Opera House, all I could see was a 1,000 berth cruise ship, more than 10 times the length of the Opera House.

Oh well, nice guys finish last.

Happy New Year from Vung Tao

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Lunar New Year in Vietnam, aka TET, is the most important holiday of the year, a time for family, a time for cheer … hey, that rhymes, should be part of a greeting card.

Larry’s tradition is to go to Vung Tao, 2 hours by car southeast of Ho Chi Minh, to meet up with Ha’s family, so we took a bus there immediately after returning from the Philippines.
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Vung Tao, like all other cities, towns and villages in Vietnam, was fully decked out with beautiful lighting, flower sculptures of animals, chariots and fish, and garlands draping across the streets. Every night there was Vietnamese music in the town square, a ferris wheel and other amusements along the waterfront.

What’s amazing is that all of these elaborate, beautifully designed decorations are there for only one month, then taken down and replaced by entirely new ones the following year.

All stores, restaurants and business are closed down for a few days – with hotels being the only place you can get a meal. It reminded me of what Sundays used to be like in Canada.
Shane was most excited to do the New Year money exchange. Every person puts a small amount of money, for example, 50,000 dong (one dollar), in a special red envelope and gives it to everyone who is younger in the family.

If you are the second youngest, like Shane, you receive a lot of envelopes. Shane only had to give an envelope to Timi, the youngest in the family, so he cashed out big time.

To receive an envelope, you have to wish the giver a Happy New Year in a unique and special way, good tidings so to speak. If you are not creative enough, you will go empty handed.

The only bad thing about the holidays was that half of Ho Chi Minh clears out and goes to Vung Tao as it is a Vietnamese “resort” town – with several beaches, hotels and amusements.
Normally it is one of my favourite places in Vietnam but at TET the crowds were overwhelming.

We took the cable car up the mountain to the Amusement Park, so Shane and Phil could go on the superfun self-driving roller coaster that Shane remembers from our last trip there.
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However, the crowd was so thick we couldn’t get near it.

So we amused ourselves at the petting zoo instead, fed the emus, and paddled around on the swan boats.

The highlight was the swinging boat ride, similar to what you find in North America. The ride itself seemed pretty safe, a little rusty with the screeching sound of metal on metal as it slowed down, but not dangerous.

We started out fine, sitting at the far end so we would get the best ride, and threw our hands up as we reached the highest point, woo-hoo.
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After a while, I looked down, and noticed that the ride operator had left the booth. No one was looking after it at all. We were just swinging away on the boat ride, la dee da dee da, with no one monitoring it.

Can you imagine this happening at Canada’s Wonderland? Not on your life!
Finally the ride operator came back to the booth with a beer in hand. Next thing we knew, he cranked it up and the boat ride swung precariously up to the max and stayed up there for five minutes or more, the ride operator downing his Singtao and obviously forgetting about us again … only in Vietnam.

Shane and Phil wanted to do it again and again as the ride went on forever.

So on that high note, Happy New Year everyone – year of the sheep – from Vung Tao!

(PS I know Lunar New Year was a month ago, but I’m a little behind in blogging, will try to catch up soon.)

Filipino Style

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After staying a night in Makati, the upscale, hip, ultra-modern uptown in Manila full of Starbucks, The Outback, GAP and every other generic retail outlet imaginable, we drove down to the far south of Northern Luzon in a hired taxi with Larry and Phil, who spent the next week with us in the Philippines.

An hour in a water taxi took us to Puerto Galera, a fishing village of 35,000 on Mindoro Island that now is home to hundreds of low budget hotels and restaurants catering to divers, cheap holiday goers and grey-haired partiers.

The harbour is lined with fishing and tourist boats and the sand is narrow and rocky, so you have to either drive or a take a boat to a nice beach or place to swim and snorkel. But people stay in Puerto Galera mainly for the night life and girlie bars.
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The diving near there was really amazing, much better than the Great Barrier Reef, with a mind-blowing diversity of fish and corals every metre, really nice.

We met up with a bunch of Larry’s friends from Vietnam – Rob, a Canadian expat pool shark from Ottawa – Dave, an American who starts the evenings at midnight – and Lief, a huge Dutch guy who looks like Santa Claus but has the softest, nicest manner of speaking.

A few rotten things happened during this time, such as my friend Grace dying of cancer, so I don’t have a lot of fond memories of Puerto Galera, but despite this, there were a few bright spots, such as:

• Playing pool with Shane and Phil at every hotel
• Walking from one village to the next in the black of night along an uneven dirt path with stairs, and Phil being so sweet to help me along
• Finding a path through the jungle with a fun swing footbridge leading to a really nice resort with a great swimming pool
• Boating through the islands and snorkelling with Larry and Phil

Twice we found ourselves at Extreme Sports for some paintball, which I didn’t play because I’m a wimp and don’t like pain. The muddy, pot-hole filled ATV course was wild and crazy fun for Shane and Phil. A German guy who used to operate a hotel for 20 years opened Extreme Sports just 6 months earlier, and I think it will do well.
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But we didn’t really experience the full extent of the Filipino culture until our motorbike broke down and we had a flat tire.

Kevin was cursing the broken roads and kicking the other tire when a guy pulled over in a motorized tricycle who didn’t speak a word of English.
He got out, had a quick look, pulled a bevy of tools out of the sidecar, gave us a smile, and then took the tire off.
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Next, he took out a Bunsen burner, lit it up, then rigged a metal contraption to hold a tin can over the fire. He put something inside to melt, then looked up at us and smiled, saying …”Filipino Style”.

We waited and watched for close to an hour before it was ready. Then Gustavo pulled the red hot tin can off the fire with bare hands, took out the melted goo and made a patch over the hold in the tire, all without burning his fingers.

He placed a piece of what looked to be waxed paper over it, then a rock on top to add pressure. Looking up at us again, he said, “Vulcanizing”.
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“So that’s what those signs are for”, I said, finally realizing what the numerous signs meant posted every 100 metres or so along most major roads in the Philippines.

Larry remarked that the Vietnamese patch it up in just a few minutes, but I was mesmerized by what was likely an age-old method of patching rubber, handed down from generation to generation, not a quick fix but a strong, trusted way to get the job done – the Filipino Style.



Brrrrr … Extra Sweaters Needed in Banaue

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I did pack a sweater for our 2-week jaunt to the Philippines, knowing it would be cold up in the mountains in Northern Luzon, the main island. But I needed a second, third and fourth layer to make it through the freezing cold nights – they don’t call me Eskimo Jan for nothing.

Who would have thought that a country so close to the equator could be that cold?

No disrespect to those in Canada with -20°C weather – who probably are shaking their heads with a hah-you-think-that’s-cold? look on their faces right now. But studies show that when the weather drops by more than 15°C then it is a brutal transition to make.

Clearview Hotel in Banaue
Clearview Hotel in Banaue

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All the Philippinos were better dressed than us, wearing winter coats, but the so-called hearty Canadians, that’s us, were not well equipped. It didn’t help that it rained most of the time we were there. Kevin bought himself a jacket, I bought a super-warm hoodie, but Shane toughed it out with his long-sleeved Sponge Bob shirt and shorts – amazing that 10-year-olds do not feel the cold like us old farts.

We were lucky to get our first hotel in Banaue, as we arrived close to midnight after a 10-hour drive from Baguio. Everything in the small mountain town was closed, and the only other hotel – a fancy one for the tourist groups – was full.

Our $10 room at the Clearview Hotel was like a cabin that you would rent in Letchworth State Park in New York – particle-board walls, one creaky old bed with a cast-iron frame, and nothing else in the room.
But we woke up to the million-dollar view of the Banaue Rice Terraces – spectacular.
Roadside cemetary every 10 km
Roadside cemetary every 10 km

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Banaue

In between rain showers we drove around and visited the lookouts, the rain holding us back from doing any major hikes. But the up-side was that the clouds and mist snaked through the mountains creating some spectacular views.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are 4,000 years old, and are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But I must say that they fall justa little short of the majesty of the rice terraces in Bali, IMO.

Perhaps it’s because they seemed more like a museum piece, whereas the ones in Bali are filled with farmers working the fields. The Banaue Terraces are in a canyon and are quite steep, sometimes there is a 8 m drop between terraces, whereas the ones in Bali are much smaller in height, making them much more intricate and stimulating to the eye.

Next we drove to Baler, a surfing town on the east coast where the surfing scene from Apocalypse Now was filmed.

Again we took the shortcut, and again the driving was treacherous. We didn’t know until it was too late to turn back that this part of the island was hit by a typhoon in December of last year.

Most of it was night-driving which actually made it easier since you can’t see the 1,000 ft. drop beside you.

But this time we drove past many groups of construction equipment, some with the crew camping out, waiting for the next morning to continue rebuilding the road.
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The road was a pot-hole filled, makeshift, muddy path with the occasional stretch of paved road that had escaped the wrath of the typhoon. Every time we passed a truck or front-end loader, we looked for a signal from a construction worker telling us to turn around as we had no clue if the road actually made it all the way to Baler.

Every hour or so we came across a village of 9 or 10 houses, a few which had electricity. I never felt so alone in my life, even with Kevin and Shane there.

After another epic journey of 8 hours, we took the first hotel we could find along the beach in Baler, quite fancy and a treat to have a nice bed for a change. Tired of traveling at this point, we stayed in the “well-appointed” hotel for 3 days, not willing to spend time looking for another or having the energy to do so.
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The waves were too big at high tide for beginners like us, so we went at low tide with a surfing instructor who pushed us back out, turned us around, and pushed us forward on the crest of the wave. This was brilliant as it allowed Shane and I to get a lot more runs in – and I had a couple of really good ones.

No need for sweaters in Baler, thank God. With the beautiful boardwalk along the beach, the crescent-shaped green hills encircling the shore, many laid-back, funky restaurants, it was my favourite place in the Philippines.

Road Trip Madness

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Baguio - a university mountain town
Baguio – a university mountain town

Driving to the rice terraces in Banaue, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1995, was absolutely terrifying.

Robert Frost recommended “The Road Less Traveled”, but now I’m not so sure.

After a frustrating 10-hour drive to Baguio (which began with 3 hours passing through Manila, 3 hours dodging trucks, pedestrians, dogs, chickens and slow-moving motorbikes with sidecars (called tricycles), some of which were carrying full loads of furniture, baskets, clothing, cereal boxes stacked 30 high, you name it, and then finally finding the empty, lonely highway), we realized we were in the wrong place!

The Banaue Rice Terraces were northeast of us, but we would have to drive back down the mountain, head south for 1.5 hours, then get back on the truck-dog-chicken-tricycle filled road for an hour, then veer off for another hour.

Now I’m usually someone who is absolutely fine with backtracking, if I think it will save me time. But the mountain air must have affected the logical side of my brain, because I convinced everyone to take … the SHORTCUT – which turned out to be the longcut of course.

We should have sensed we were on the longcut when we got lost 3 times just trying to find our way out of Baguio, but it was still early, we were fresh-faced, eager and hopeful.
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Road side store

Sprite in a bag
Sprite in a bag

After finding the right road, we immediately came across the first fork. What the? There’s no fork on Google Maps! But luckily there was a Philippino farmer with a straw hat right there who pointed us in the right direction, phew!

Little did we know that it was the first of many unmapped forks, and most did not have a helpful farmer standing right there. The maps were completely useless, and we only saw people when we came across a small village which were few and far between.

The drive itself was absolutely beautiful through the forest-covered mountains and rivers far below. We would drive up and up the mountain, and then back down another to cross a bridge, and do it all again, just stunning, but never really sure we were going the right way.

We finally got to the final fork, which looked like a half hour drive. By now, after 7 hours, our eager, hopeful demeanors had turned into are-we-there-yet, impatient whines.

Just a short way along we turned a corner and saw a village ahead but the road just ended, there was only a pile of dirt with grass and weeds in front of us with nowhere to go. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a car coming up behind us and smirked, thinking it would be stuck like us.

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But the car veered off the road 10 metres back and took the bumpy, rocky dirt path beside us, with the driver smiling and waving as he drove by.

So that’s what you do, I thought, as I backed up. Little did we know that it was the first of twenty-five times where the paved road would end and we would be on a bumpy, pot-hole filled, dirt path.

The first one or two were fine, but then we saw the first landslide. The road disappeared, as if it had never been there. It was completely covered by a pile of dirt 60 metres high.

“Well, that’s as far as we go”, pronounced Kevin, with an I-told-you-so look on his face.

After getting out to take a picture, we saw a make-shift path that went around the landslide, and foolishly decided to take it.
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“Don’t look down, don’t look down”, I told myself as I bumped along the path – there was a 1,000 ft drop a few feet away from the tires, no guardrail or trees to break your fall.

My knuckles were white hanging onto the steering wheel, trying to keep the car on the road. I wasn’t sure whether to be thankful or mad that there was no power steering.

Shane loved it, more fun than a roller-coaster he said, but I was shaking in my boots and driving at the same time.
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Take the dirt path on the right
Take the dirt path on the right

At this point, Kevin and I were thankful for the first time that the car rental company had run out of smaller SUVs and we had the big, honking Ford Explorer.

The dirt path detour was only 100 ft. long and we made it without careening down the side of the mountain. But then there was another, and another, and another, each one more terrifying than the last, sometimes with the path cantilevered over a terrifying drop.

And there was no possible way of turning around, that would have been certain death.

Just before I started to laugh maniacally and run around like a chicken with its head cut off from the stress, we came to a village where the road was wider than a single lane and we could turn around.

This time, I had no problem turning back. This road was too less-traveled for me.

Robert Frost can eat my shorts – The Road Less Traveled should not include mountain passes in the Philippines that are wiped out by typhoons every year.

Trapped in Manila Market – help!

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We heard the warnings … whatever you do, stay out of Manila, it’s a complete zoo.

So what happened? We ended up driving smack dab through the second largest city in the world, from the airport in the far south to the northern limit and beyond, and straight through the most congested, densely-populated barrio – Chinatown.

Did we have a map to help us? No, the unfriendly people at Avis car rental could only give us verbal instructions to find the one highway in Manila that goes around the city. Note to self – when in Manila, never assume the car rental company will have a map, they don’t.

Were we lost? Absolutely. Hopelessly, utterly lost.

When we asked people for help, we were met with blank stares. It seems all the major roads in Manila go by several names, most of which are not on a printed or electronic map. Note to Google Maps and Mapquest – you need to update your &#?%@* Manila maps !!! and check for ACCURACY !!!

Getting closer to the market
Getting closer to the market

Traffic here is the same as Vietnam – no signals, lanes are irrelevant, cutting people off is the only way to get ahead, you need to head blindly into oncoming traffic and hope for the best – except for here it is all cars instead of motorbikes.

I quickly understood why the car rental people went through the details of the insurance we declined in such detail – I’m sure they were certain we wouldn’t be able to handle it.

But fortunately we had just come from Ho Chi Minh, where crazy driving is the rule, but this time, we actually had to do it ourselves instead of shaking our heads in disbelief in the back of a taxi.
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After half an hour, we gave up on finding the highway and decided to head north as our destination was six hours in that direction.

But when we got to the city centre, at rush hour, I made a last second turn and stupidly drove right into the Chinatown market, the place I was trying to avoid.

We inched our way forward for one short city block in a single row of traffic, with streams of people walking by us on both sides – see video at the end. We watched people get on the back of the bus in front of us, then get off 10 minutes later when it had only moved 20 feet. I haven’t been to New York City, but I imagine it’s like this.

Forty-five minutes later we came to an intersection. Stupidly, I didn’t follow the cars turning left, I went straight ahead because I thought I saw a break in the crowd and a way out … wrong!

We ended up in the pedestrian-only part of Chinatown – with absolutely no chance of turning around. There was a wall of people, 20 wide through which I had to somehow drive through without killing anyone. manilla-4
Kevin got out to direct me past the motorbikes and bicycles parked beside the food stalls, narrowing the roadway even further, but had little success until a really nice Philippino hobo helped out.

“Don’t worry”, he said to Kevin, “I know everyone here”.

Thank God he did, because he quickly got the orange sellers and T-shirt venders to move their stalls out of the way, and settled any disputes when I bumped into low-lying fruit stands or unseen post card racks.

After a few minutes I just burst out laughing. If you see the video at the end of this blog, imagine this amount of people and times it by 20, and that is how crazy it was.
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I kept laughing and laughing, a little out of control, the stress getting to me, for the next hour as we somehow found our way out of the market. At the end, we were only too happy to pay the hobo generously for helping us in our time of need.

Driving can’t get any more stressful than this, I thought, looking back at the market out the rearview mirror.

But little did I know that it could and would get worse a few days later when we again went where no car has gone before.

Fire Breathing Dragons ??

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Yes, it’s true, there’s actually fire breathing dragons in Danang, one of the least visited cities in central Vietnam.

The dragons are made of concrete and steel, but the heat from the blast of fire was enough to make me take a few steps back and feel a sun-burnt glow on my face, and we were more than 50 feet away.

What city in the world can claim they have a bridge that actually spews out fire every Saturday and Sunday night at 9:00 pm, and also a blast of steam, enough for people to wear raincoats so they don’t get drenched? Only in Vietnam.

We first passed over the 300 m long dragon bridge in the daytime on the way to find a hotel close to the beach, and when the taxi driver told us that the bridge actually spits out a blast of fire, we found it hard to believe.

Big Lady Buddah
Big Lady Buddah

Sure, we could see that the golden bridge trusses were made to look like a dragon, including a head and a tail. But it wasn’t until we went there half an hour early, and found 200 other motorbikes parked on the side of the bridge, that we started to believe.

Venders were selling balloons, firecrackers, pho, ice cream bars and deep-fried chicken feet. Thousands of people were gathered on the bridge, or on the riverside promenades, or in the dinner cruise ships anchored in strategic spots to get the best views.
Train ride from Hue to Danang - no roads to these beaches
Train ride from Hue to Danang – no roads to these beaches

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The entire river was alive with rainbow coloured lights reflecting across the water from a giant ferris wheel on one end and several other bridges along the way, each one more spectacular than the last.

And precisely at 9:00 pm traffic was brought to a halt. A hush of excitement filled the air. Everyone, well, mostly a handful of tourists, stood with cameras poised, and finally the dragon’s mouth started to glow a little bit. Then a sudden burst of fire erupted, sending a wave of heat and a burst of light.

Every night the fire-breathing dragon bridge lets out at least a dozen dragon breaths, then it switches over to a blast of steam, well, more like a rainfall.

Wayne and Carol in Ho Anh
Wayne and Carol in Ho Anh

Ho Anh
Ho Anh

The entire display only lasts 10 minutes or so, but it is such a community event, with thousands there every night, that it has become one of my favourite things to do in Vietnam.

It’s too bad most tourists pass by Danang on the way to Hoi Anh, a former backpacker haven that now has a lot of retirees. In fact, we met Wayne and Carol there, a retired chef friend of Kevin’s, who vacation there for 3 months every winter – hi guys! They showed us a really cheap, delicious restaurant a little out of the way, quaint and tasty.

I don’t want to diss Hoi Anh, it had a pleasant, though touristy historic centre, but Danang has a lot to offer – a gorgeous beach with huge waves, restaurants, vendors and parks, every modern convenience in a downtown with only 1/10th of the traffic of Ho Chi Minh, and most of all, the gorgeous river promenades and fire-breathing dragon light show every weekend.

And did I mention that we were successful in actually finding a pack of monkeys on Monkey Mountain, a stunning mountainous peninsula with the largest white Buddah sculpture anyone could imagine overlooking the beach?
Vietnam's landscape design now includes many sculpted plants in the medians
Vietnam’s landscape design now includes many sculpted plants in the medians

Where else can you stay in a gorgeous hotel room, outfitted with furnishings, beds and an ultra-modern bathroom on a par with any Hilton, for only $35 per night?

The room included breakfast of course. Since there are few tourists in Danang, there was only one Western-style breakfast item, an omelet, which turned out to be a sunny-side up egg.

Since we are more of an over-easy family, we had Mi Quang for breakfast instead, the most delicious, flavourful noodle soup in the world.

Mi Quang is such a specialty in Danang, that Larry told us before we left that we had to try it, and there is actually a really cool song about it …

♬Everyday for breakfast, I want to eat Mi Quang … ♬

Nothing like noodle soup to start your day off right.

We ended up having Mi Quang for breakfast every day, and couldn’t stop singing that jingle.

Hue Palace and Hot Springs

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Our time in Hue (pronounced Hway) was like a roller coaster, it had its ups and downs.

We went there to see the Emperor’s Imperial Palace, its top tourist destination. The Imperial Palace was huge, so much so that we took a tour on an open-air electric van so we didn’t have to carry our backpacks around.

OK, I admit, we did it the lazy way, but we had only a couple of hours to kill in Hue.

With no commentary on the tour and few signs in English, we had to guess at the story (and later look it up on Wikipedia) – the palace was built in 1804 for Emporer Nguyen and is surrounded by a wall and moat 10 km long. Only 10 major sites out of 160 remain today due to the Vietnam War, and in some buildings you can see bullet holes.

Unfortunately, only a few structures are restored to their original glory, the rest need a paint job and some upkeep. But perhaps the Forbidden City portion, which can only be visited by the Nguyen family, is in better condition.

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Despite the run-down look, the Imperial Palace is still impressive due to the size and scale, but you must use your imagination to envision how beautiful it must have been a 100 years ago.

Next we took a taxi northwest of Hue into the surrounding hills to stay for a couple of days at a Vietnamese resort and have some good old fashion fun.

By North American standards, the Alba Thanh Tan Hot Springs Resort would probably rate a 3/10 due to its rundown appearance, but on a positive note, it had an interesting mix of aging buildings dispersed among newly constructed restaurants and refurbished pools.

Some things were fantastic, such as the waterslides – again with questionable safety standards which make it more fun. On the straight slide I jammed my foot into the concrete pool floor right after hitting the water, and on the twisty slide I nearly flipped over 3 times in the dark, so I took a break for the rest of the afternoon.

The hot springs were also enjoyable. We started off by sliding down some old-fashioned tin slides right into heated water. We immediately felt tingles on our legs, but they went away after we swam to the end and crossed the first gate to the next pool, two degrees hotter.
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We then followed the serpentine hot spring pool to the next gate and pool, two degrees hotter. We kept going until we were up to 46° C, and couldn’t take it anymore. Believe it or not, there were still four more pools, each hotter than the next. The final one burned my finger when I dipped it in.

Next we did the zipline, the longest one in Vietnam at 500m. Of course a long zipline also involves a steep 200m climb. Luckily they had a small pagoda 2/3 of the way up to take a rest. This zipline was not a tree-canopy style, but instead was open-air, going over fields, streams and forests.

At the end you crash into a pile of sand. I don’t know if this is normal for ziplines, not having any prior experience (except for the short zipline over the crocodile in Cairns), but you end up with sand in your shorts, a little uncomfortable for the long walk back.

We also did the high wire rope courses, four of them, some of which were really tough. We even fell a couple of times, but had a lot of laughs.

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Finally, Shane and I had a massage at the spa. I’ve only had one other massage in Asia, a foot massage in Shanghai, the most painful experience of my life – and parts of this Vietnamese massage were a close second.

But probably the most unsettling aspect of the spa was the walking paths which all had rounded stones embedded into concrete.

I remember designing walkways like this for projects in Shanghai, the intent being that the walkway provides a foot massage and stimulates the senses, but I had never actually tried them.

The few times we were wearing shoes, no problem, it’s like stepping on an uneven sidewalk. But if you are in barefeet, which we were most of the time, it slows you down to a snail’s pace as you try to avoid the protruding stones as much as possible because they hurt your feet.

Note to self – never stay at a place with foot massage pathways unless there are alternative routes, and never have another massage in Asia, they’re torture.

Amazing Grace!

We interrupt this regular blog to pay tribute to my amazing friend, Grace, who passed away a couple of hours ago in Waterloo, Ontario, after a short struggle with aggressive breast cancer.

It was only last August, just before we left on our 1 year travel, that Grace discovered a lump in her breast.

They first said she had Stage 2 cancer … she sent an Email telling me not to worry. A week later it was Stage 3 … still OK she said, I can beat it no problem. Two weeks later it was Stage 4 and no longer treatable.

I was the first she told.

I’ve never heard such a strong, independent, adventurous woman be reduced to sheer hopelessness. She was almost incoherent. Nothing I said offered any comfort at all.

Over the next few months she tried a couple rounds of chemo, but gave up when the doctors said that it would only extend her life by a week or two. Not worth it, she said.

By November she was sent to a hospice, with only a week to live. The cancer had spread to every part of her body.

Somehow, she survived until a few hours ago. She must have had a few good-bye’s to say to the hundreds, maybe thousands of friends she made along the way.

I first met Grace on East C, the female-only residence at Village II at the University of Waterloo.
Those were crazy days, crazier than I would ever want to admit.

Grace stood out, she had more energy than anyone, and there was no one she didn’t want to know. Her sheer vivaciousness and lust for life made her embrace every moment.

Grace did not follow the usual path. Instead she found herself teaching English in Colombia, Kuwait and Canada. Somehow she only missed a few of our May 24th all-female camping weekends in the Finger Lakes.

We danced till we dropped. We partied till dawn. We talked until the cows came home – an obscure reference to her rural Ontario roots.

I can’t imagine being with anyone else as we declared a nude beach on the north shores of Colombia, in the middle of who knows where, after the fishermen Grace had befriended dropped us off. No one was around for miles, and I will never forget the freedom of throwing off our clothes and tackling the pounding waves.

A Morcheba song comes to mind … “Left my soul there, down by the sea … Lost control, living free”.
Never have I felt that alive.

Grace was always there for me, one of the few people I trusted. I’m so saddened that I’m speaking of her in the past tense, and still in shock.

When I first discovered Grace had Stage 4 cancer, my knee-jerk reaction was to outline a novel plot based on her life, a fascinating tale that most would not be able to match.

Who among us has gotten married on the Nile River, has sought wisdom from sha-men in Bogata, started a palm-reading and reiki business, was a stark-raving feminist who taught school in Kuwait, had a 90-year old friend of my father’s with a crush on her, or stayed true to the Rolling Stones over three decades? 

I told 10 year-old Shane about the novel a few days ago, and he asked me if I’d asked Grace’s permission to write it.

The last time I spoke with her was 6 days ago. She sounded great, but tired overall, and ready to meet her fate. Not in a hurry to go, she said, but ready when the time comes. I must have been distracted, the subject never came up.

Now I will never know. But if I do write the novel, it will be the greatest story ever told.

Phong Nha Caves

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“Why don’t you go to the caves?” my brother Larry said when we decided to tour around central Vietnam.

Many people in Vietnam have heard about the Phong Nha caves, including Larry who has lived there for 14 years, but few have been.

Maybe it’s because Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a little off the beaten path, well, completely remote.

Right up against the Cambodian border, it is in the central mountains and the jungle is full of unexploded mines from the Vietnam War, so we knew not to venture off any roads or paths.

We began by flying to Dong Hoi, a small town of 150,000, where tourists do not go. Communication was difficult, but we managed to find a nice, cheap hotel ($25.00 per night with wifi and free breakfast) and eat some rice and curry. We definitely missed Larry, Ha and Phil as knowing “please” and “thank you” in Vietnamese can only take you so far.

We set off by motorbike the next day, enjoying a beautiful country drive through light green rice paddies and villages with the jagged top limestone karst mountains on both sides. Kevin had no problem driving a motorbike here as there were very few vehicles compared to Ho Chi Minh. A game of count-the-chickens-cows-dogs helped pass the time.

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The park entry was easy to spot – huge, white, block letters, reminiscent of the Hollywood sign, were plastered on top of a mountain.

Inside the gate was a long strip of even cheaper hotels, restaurants and stores, definitely a backpacker haven, leading to a landscaped plaza with an assortment of buildings where we could buy tickets to enter the caves.

With the cool weather – I was wearing two sweaters and two T-shirts – we decided not to go to the Dark Caves which involved a zipline in and out, crawling through mud up to your waist, and swimming through long caverns with a flashlight stuck to your head – would love to do this next time in the summer.

Instead, we boarded a motorized long boat operated by two Vietnamese ladies in traditional straw hats for a 45-minute trip up the Phong Nha River passing through small villages with the towering limestone karst mountains on both sides.
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Since we arrived on our own in the early afternoon, we passed by a number of other boats filled with backpackers or German tourists (the most adventurous travellers in the world IMO) on their way back. Although it cost a little more, it was nice to have the boat to ourselves.

Phong Nha caves is one of the largest river-cave systems in the world, consisting of 300 caves and grottoes and the longest underground river in the world. The one we explored had been opened for tourism since the 1980’s, but a recent discovery (2009) of the largest cave in the world, six storeys in height, has re-awakened curiousity in the national park once again.

That one, Paradise Cave, is only open to the public on a limited basis, requiring a full week of hiking to get there, explore the cave and return. With a hefty price tag of $3,000 each, we were happy to stick to our limited-budget and accessible caves.

But the Phong Nha cave was no disappointment. Actually, it was spectacular.

At the mouth of the cave, the two Vietnamese ladies turned the motor off and began rowing and pushing off the river bottom. Although it looked like back-breaking work, I reminded myself that they do this every day and likely enjoy the workout.
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We rowed one km through it, with each corner being more eye-catching than the last, truly amazing.

We stopped at a landing, and walked another half km back to the cave entrance, with the chance to touch and feel the stalagmites and stalactites up close.

We emerged into the natural light near the cave entry and hiked up to a small Buddhist temple to get a view of the Phong Nha river, made more magical by the mist and clouds snaking their way through the mountains.

OK, I must admit that I almost chose not to visit the Phong Nha caves knowing that they would be illuminated with spotlights carefully placed, almost as if you are in a museum. I had wanted another dark cave experience with a flashlight stuck to my head like we did in Fiji.

But then we would have missed the spectacular display of nature in its finest glory, a site to behold.

Crocodile Feeding 101

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It’s hard to imagine Ho Chi Minh as anything other than a congested, crowded, sprawling city of 7.5 million people, but there are a few superfun and thrilling things to do that we don’t quite find in Canada.

One of my faves is the crocodile feeding station at Suoi Tien, a huge park with amusement rides, gardens and a waterpark – one of the most fantastical waterparks I’ve ever seen, and I’ve designed a few.

Giant 5-storey high sculpted dragons with slides coming out of the mouths, a huge wavepool, and many slides, climbing nets and spouts for the young kids are all surrounded by a sculpted landscape of dragons and monsters, really fantastic.

After the waterpark we had to rush to feed the crocodiles before it was closed. My nephew Phil was reluctant to go because he’s done it so many times, and Shane kind of remembered it from last time but was a little nervous about it.

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First we walked through a large pool filled with over 2,000 crocodiles on an elevated boardwalk, most of the crocs just chilling out. Then we arrived at the feeding station where someone hooks a large chunk of raw meat onto a fishing pole. You then take the pole and swing it over the “sleeping” crocodiles and try to tempt them to snap at it.

Now, I’m not much of a fisherman, in fact, I don’t like fishing. Likely because I feel sorry for the fish that are caught, unless they’re thrown back in. I know that anyone who fishes is shaking their heads right now.

But I don’t have any problem feeding the crocodiles. Maybe it’s because it’s actually kinda scary when the croc jumps up and snaps at you. I don’t feel like I’m catching a harmless fish, I feel like I’m the meat and the croc is catching me.

OK, maybe it’s just a cheap thrill, it only costs 25 cents for each baited fishing pole, but it is so fun. Even though there is no way the croc can actually climb over the fence, you still jump back when it leaps up.

We fed over a dozen crocodiles, being careful not to touch the raw meat – can anyone say bacteria haven? Even little Timmy, only 3 and ½, gave it a try, with help from Larry of course.

Another afternoon, we went to Van Thanh with a gorgeous swimming pool and playground surrounded by lawns, gardens and pavilions where people have weddings. This time we couldn’t have lunch in one of the cabanas overlooking the pond filled with giant 4 ft. diameter lily pads because it was so crowded.

giant rice paddies
giant rice paddies

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On another day Larry and Ha took us to Thanh Hoa restaurant where all the seating is in cabanas on stilts in the water. Each cabana comes with a fishing pole, a great activity for the kids. The fish huddled together though with gaping mouths sticking out of the water, just out of reach. We saw someone else catch one and have it fried up for lunch.

We found ourselves at another waterpark, more generic in its design, with all the typical waterslides, a lazy river, wavepool, etc. But safety is not as much of a priority as it is in North America, and we came away with scrapes and bruises from raised ridges on the waterslides and a dangerous drop into and out of the “toilet bowl”.

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We also experienced the first waterslides we’ve ever been on where you lie down face first. After a superfast slide you skirt across the water and hope not to hit the gym-matt style cushions taped over the pool edge at the end face first, really fun.

Shane loved the zip line that drops you into a 10 ft. deep pool.

Other cool kid-oriented things were laser tag, archery (with real bows and arrows) and indoor skating on a plastic surface.

With Larry, Kevin, Phil and Shane playing, it was as close to Hockey Night in Canada as Ho Chi Minh ever gets.

Good Morning Vietnam!

Lunar New Year lights
Lunar New Year lights

Every time I’ve visited my brother Larry in Vietnam, something is completely different. Larry says the Vietnamese put trendy in a whole different atmosphere.

The first time, every man wore a baseball cap, every single one. This was 14 years ago when Vietnam had just opened its door to the West.

A couple of years later, no more baseball caps. This time, every person, from the barber cutting hair on the sidewalk to dignitaries at an art show opening, asked the same four questions, in this precise order:

“Hello”

“How are you?”

“Where are you from?”

“How old are you?”

Over the years, this too has faded. No one bothers much with foreigners now.
Other trends over the years have ranged from every person wearing sunglasses, to everyone wearing a face mask, to all women wearing jeans, to every man wearing a polo shirt. Each trend is replaced by the next.
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3 cousins

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This time, the trend is for women to wear long, wrap-around aprons attached with Velcro and an opening at the back over top of shorts, pants, jeans or skirts while riding a motorbike. The idea is to protect clothing from grit and grime and to protect bare legs from the sun. Once the destination is reached, the skirt is quickly put away.

But one trend that hasn’t disappeared is the sheer insanity of the traffic in Ho Chi Minh. Imagine 20 motorbikes lined up side by side at a red light, with 300 more behind, at all four corners, with a few taxis and trucked mixed in, and this is the norm at every intersection in the city.

The crazy part is that when you have to make a left turn, there are no green arrows. You must simply drive into the oncoming traffic and inch your way through with motorbikes swerving around you on all sides.

While this is terrifying for Westerners, it is the only way to drive in Vietnam, otherwise, you will not make it to your destination.

Larry is an expert at this crazy juggling act. Sitting on the back of Larry’s motorbike, I am astonished that we don’t see more accidents. I’ve only seen a couple over the years.
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Jake the Snake and Larry
Jake the Snake and Larry

A major faux pas is to wear a handbag, backpack or satchel over one of your shoulders because if it’s not over both, Larry says someone will drive by and pull it off your back. He has seen this happen many times, and occasionally the victim is pulled from the motorbike, pretty scary.

Despite the everyday traffic chaos, Ho Chi Minh still has a really cool music scene, which Larry has found his way into of course. From his girlfriend’s soulful cover band to bluegrass and funk, Ho Chi Minh rocks.

With such a busy schedule, Larry doesn’t have time to be in a band himself, but finds his way to open stage nights and plays with some really talented musicians, like Jake the Snake who wails on the flute, and Davis who plays drums, guitar and mandolin, and don’t forget Mario who could rival Jimi Hendrix with his wailing guitar.

While Davis has played in the Wanderlusters for a number of years, the other musicians keep returning to Ho Chi Minh for a few weeks or a few months at a time, and when they all come together, as they did on a few nights, it is magic.

Ho Chi Minh is a city that never sleeps. Too bad most backpackers stay in one small area and don’t check it out. We are lucky to have Larry show us around to some really fun and cool places, that I will blog about next.



Great Barrier Reef +++ More

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As the main jumping off point for the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a full-blown tourist town with something for everyone.

One of our favourite places was Zoom – a combined nature reserve, highwire climbing ropes and zipline over a 12-ft long crocodile.  Once was not enough … we had to go back a second time.

Most of the animals roam free in the biodome, so you have to jockey around flying cockatoos as you navigate the ropes.  A fascinating critter was the betong – a really cute large rat with elongated feet that hops around like a kangaroo – as do many other things in Australia.

Situated on top of the casino, you can get a great view of the city from climbing around the outside of the 6-storey high glass dome.

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The gorgeous tropical botanical gardens became a treasured haunt for me, my favourite stroll being the boardwalk through a natural coconut forest with giant mahogany trees, beautiful.

The main streets were not as picturesque as Toowoomba or Airlie Beach, but there are a lot more tourists here, most waiting to explore the Great Barrier Reef – the only living organism that can be seen from space – a fact that is repeated over and over again by tourist agents, hoteliers, divemasters and tour operators.

We took a 2-hour boat ride out to the reef with Reef Experience, despite the threat of a cyclone, for a 1-night liveaboard and it was a fantastic trip.

Kevin and I have memories of other liveaboards where we squeezed ourselves into 2-ft wide bunkbeds in extremely tight quarters, so we felt like we were living a life of luxury on this dive boat.  Amazingly our room had a full double bed and room for a cot as well as our own private bathroom.  I’m sure it doesn’t match up to a Caribbean cruise berth in terms of luxury, but feeling the boat rock you to sleep was like heaven.

We had the chance to dive or snorkel six times, and basically split it up so we could snorkel as a family a couple of times.

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Beautiful Cairns Botanical Gardens
Beautiful Cairns Botanical Gardens

Visibility at Norman and Hastings reefs was fantastic.  The coral was nice but not spectacular, but the diversity of fish was top notch.  Both Shane and I found Nemo!, but Kevin somehow missed out … probably because clown fish are rather small and tend to hide in the coral.

One of the highlights was the night dive.  For this one we hired a dive master to lead us around, not wanting to get lost in the dark.  We saw oodles of white and black tipped reef sharks, 4-ft long wrasses, and a sleeping parrot fish that hides in the coral inside a large bubble it creates to fend off predators, really cool.

Later that evening Shane and I went out on deck to check out the stars and saw that the boat was surrounded by sharks and huge wrasses, really cool.  Earlier that day Shane and I came within a few feet of Lily, a large rainbow coloured wrass, that every day comes to greet divers as they surface.

The next morning, Shane and I snorkelled while Kevin was diving through a long tunnel, with 30 ft. long streams of bubbles escaping from holes in the coral, really awesome.  When Kevin came out, we all saw the cutest stingray swimming along the bottom just motoring along.

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Shane dove down and took some amazing photos, but we have nothing to show as the underwater camera somehow went missing in Vietnam – again, with the photo-curse.  If it ever turns up, I will repost this blog with some great photos.

I would highly recommend Reef Experience as the accommodations were great, the food fantastic, and crew were friendly, helpful and very professional.  Just be aware that if you want a dive master, you have to hire one, and the flashlights for the night dive are extra too.

If you are not a certified diver, Reef Encounter has introductory diving that you can do. The ocean floor is only 10m below, so it would be difficult to get into trouble. Many people upgraded their snorkelling package to include a few dives just to give it a try.

But honestly, the snorkelling there was almost as good as the diving, so you could save some money and just snorkel.

On the 2-hour boat ride back to Cairns, I was thrilled to see a dolphin jump out in front of the boat, the only one we saw on our two trips to the Great Barrier Reef.

I can’t say the diving was any better than some sites in Thailand and Belize or the wreck dive we did in BVI, but it was an enjoyable trip that we will cherish forever … again with no photos for Australia, Crikey!

OMG! About to start a 1 year family adventure trip … where should we go? what should we bring? how much will it cost?

~ L to the Aura ~

sustainability. compassion. inspiration.

Eastern Sea Star

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