Vietnam 2020 travelogue!

He sees sea snakes by the sea shore…

Quick preamble: Apologies for the lateness of this particular post. I came back from work and immediately got slammed with work to the point where I just wanted to be off the computer in the evenings so this has taken about 2 weeks longer than planned. Whoops.

Dawn was just breaking over the hillside as I woke to finish packing and head to the airport for an early flight. It was already warm but mist was still hanging around the garden and lightly coating the flowers in dew. Somewhat oddly (I doubt her boss would have been thrilled) the caretaker/hostess of the place we stayed invited herself to share our cab as she had to be in town. I didn’t care as I felt like it made sure we’d actually be picked up on time. In reality though I probably could have been there five minutes before the flight and still made it on. As you saw in the last post security was pretty non-existent so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that I walked on with half a bottle of soda without comment.

Arriving in the capital was an interesting experience the tarmac security was just as bad as the other airports, only the fact that one of the folks on the plane clearly flew the route a lot gave us someone to follow to the exit area. At which point we waited next to this:

Carousel really working hard

Kind of hilariously I was checking messages afterwards as we waited for baggage. I turned around and the other 2 people waiting for bags had just grabbed theirs from the cart as it arrived. But yep, they threw my bag on the silly micro carousel and I waited for it to come around feeling rather silly.

I regret not having a spare day or two to poke around Suva as it’s apparently a much more interesting town than Nadi with historical/colonial architecture and some museums but instead I hopped in a cab. Suva will have to wait til next time.

Off to maroon myself

My destination was Crusoe’s Retreat (on Man Friday road no less) which was more or less halfway between Suva and Nadi on the southern coast road (the Queen’s Road.) It turns out that a) this was farther than it looked from the town of Pacific Harbour which was the general area I’d been trying to stay and b) cab prices had increased a fair bit from my slightly out of date guidebook. That said on the way out it was still nice to have a bit of a look around at everyday life on the fringes of the town.

The Ginormous traditional kava bowl at the entrance – With the guest numbers they never filled it.

A wild ride…

I think I’ve mentioned it before but Fijian drivers definitely consider the center divider a suggestion at best and not a particularly attractive one. To be fair to them the edges of the road are sometimes catastrophically potholed (though the Queen’s road was much better than places I’d been elsewhere.) This led to an occasional white knuckled grip of the handrest as we cut a blind corner or did a questionable overtake. We would often power down a hill then suddenly arrive at a 2 foot tall speed bump and slam on the brakes to hump over. The road was good enough that I’d be reasonably comfortable renting a car and exploring the main island a bit next trip, but of course this is (or at least feels) much pricier as a solo traveler. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it elsewhere in Fiji from my brief glimpses of the outer islands, definitely believe what my guidebook said in that an off-road vehicle is best.

My driver started out very chatty but had no idea where the hotel was. It turned out to be much further past Pacific Harbour than expected and he started repeatedly asking me whether we were there yet as I watched the GPS. Eventually we found the turn off and headed onto a small gravel road that looked like it went to nowhere. We dove deep into lush seaside jungle but oddly started climbing towards the top of a seaside mount. I kept having to encourage the driver to go on, to be fair to him at one point we saw a sign saying “Crusoe’s Retreat: 1km” and then continued on climbing higher which was starting to worry me too. It was at least three kilometers later that we hit a blind corner and suddenly saw the sea burst into view below. The road immediately started doing quick switchbacks and dove a couple hundred feet down to a tiny courtyard at the main entrance. I wish I’d gotten him to stop and let me take a photo but he was worried enough as it was.

Unfortunately less pleasant was the fact that the cab ride ended up being FJD$190, about cad$120. In the grand scheme of things not a big deal but my guidebook had suggested more like $60 at most so it was lucky I had enough cash on me given the nearest atm was 30km back along the road. I hadn’t been expecting to be this quite so isolated and remote again at this stay. Still the resort itself was lovely and quickly made me feel welcome with a tasty drink and a trip down to my bungalow by the ocean.

My bitchin’ hammock chair

The resort had the feel of a slightly aging place that was popular say 25 years ago but well maintained and gorgeous views off the coast. There was a large central restaurant/bar area partly up on the cliff face with steps up to ‘gardenview’ bures on the cliff up above (nothing here was without a sea view) and then two rows of 6 bures down at the sea front half facing the sea, half facing the well-kept gardens. My particular digs were the third one in from the ocean and had a spacious porch with a large lounging space and a hanging hammock ‘chair in the air’ that was incredibly comfy. Thankfully it also had air conditioning as the temps had ramped up and things were muggy as hell.

Sucker punch

Unfortunately this was also the most disappointing part of the trip. Turns out the reason I was in Bure 3 was that I was the 3rd person to arrive at this resort at the moment and that was emblematic of just how ‘low season’ this area was. This had been a factor everywhere of course but I guess these more remote resorts that dot the southern coral coast of Viti Levu suffer a bit more during these slow months

View from the Volleyball court

After talking to my divemaster at the last stop I’d reached out to his recommended place on this coast to do a world-famous shark lagoon dive. They got back to me fairly quickly but told me they were about to change hands and the new owners were CC’d and would get back to me. While I shot off another email I did want to go with the recommended company if possible because the vibe at the Savusavu dive with Colin was perfect and he’d suggested it would be a similar feel with the Coral Coast folks. Big Mistake as it turns out. The new people turned out to be incompetent, only finally getting back to me (as is a theme with this trip it seems) when I got to the new hotel and asked the tour lady to call on my behalf. Suddenly there was an email in my box as well saying oh sorry we aren’t going out the day you asked after all but we can take you on (Date 8 days later.) How they ever thought that was acceptable as a ‘compromise’ (I doubt anyone spends more than 7 days here) I really don’t know.

The view while drowning my sorrows at the bar.

Unfortunately, the disappointment continued. The lady who ran the tour desk out of the resort called several other places on my behalf and not only was no one doing the shark dive, no one was doing dives at all! She kept getting offers to take me out on Friday but unfortunately I was flying out late that night and for those not aware it’s not safe to fly within that interval of being in the deep. Frustratingly they did the shark dive the day I arrived at the new resort and honestly had that asshole company told me that was my only chance to go I would have moved heaven and earth over to hop a flight the night before to get to the Coral Coast earlier. Even typing this out now makes me angry.

Despite being somewhat shattered I arranged with the tour lady Rachai to go on a jungle tour up to a village then a raft/float back down the river to the sea. By the time we signed up for this it was later in the morning so I was set for the following day. Despite that, I was just settling into my bedroom and about to have an shower when I heard a knock on the door. Given how things had been going I had a sinking feeling… and sure enough it was Rachai telling me she’d had an email and they weren’t going out tomorrow due to low numbers. (Why they couldn’t have said to her when she registered me ‘hey we don’t have anyone else going so this is maybe/maybe not’ I don’t know.) She was genuinely upset to have to tell me this and kept asking me if I wanted to do something else. She tried calling around but I was clearly completely out of luck and in the end as the only other thing she could really offer me was the chance to rent a car and go into town for some shopping I decided just to stay around the resort and snorkel.

I was pretty bummed by all this; I’m not going to lie. The Beqa shark dive was pretty much the only thing I’d firmly had in my ‘must dos’ before I left. Still, it’s a reason to go back I suppose.

The grounds

So despite all that… This was a lovely stay in a beautiful spot. I think I would have enjoyed it a bit more with a few more people here (for instance almost all my resorts had a volleyball court but never saw a game running.) That said, I did do some kayaking out over the reef enjoying the views both above and below. It was solidly 33+ and 100% humidity my entire stay though so I spent most of my daytime around the water. The staff outnumbered the guests at least 10 to one during the day but most of them were clearly renovating some of the bures (or at least prepping them for high season.)

Reading with a drink post-snorkel

Natural Wonders

The snorkeling here was glorious, honestly not quite as good as the previous place but basically nowhere would be. The one positive about my timing here was that perfect tides were around the heat of the day for the duration of my stay. The was a long mostly sandy shelf leading out to the barrier reef here with countless stone outcroppings covered in hard and soft corals and most delightfully a massive crop of anemones scattered all over. It was a surprisingly frequent occurrence to float over a clump of stone and find yourself face to face with a clownfish coming out to challenge you. (The ‘dad’ comes out of the anemone to challenge the intruder with the ‘mom’ hanging out on the fringes of it and the baby sometimes visible if the fronds parted enough.) I saw both black and orange varieties. It was fun to dive down with my fins and get a closer look as they flitted in and out of the waving anemone. Again, regretting my stupid underwater camera refusing to charge…

…especially when I saw this guy. A banded sea krait. The one I saw was I’d guess at least 8 feet long and undulating in that bizarre way that snakes swim. I vaguely recalled that these were poisonous so I kept my distance but figured correctly that the general rule of ‘don’t bother them and they won’t bother you’ would apply. After getting out of the water I checked and yes they’re one of the more venomous things out there, venom 10x more potent than a rattlesnake! Absolutely gorgeous though and a rare treat to see.

A banded sea krait – sadly not my photo

Also in the venomous department were a couple lionfish which as pretty and neat as they are getting to be a nuisance some areas of the world. Still gorgeous to see it hovering around amidst clouds of other things.

I’m still amazed at how much time I spent in the water this trip, but this final step was definitely a high point for that with all the heat and humidity. I probably spent 4 hours a day at least on or in the water. The resort actually had a hot tub as well but I can’t imagine spending any time in it when it was still 30ish at 11pm.

In the evenings the grounds would suddenly be strewn with large toads that wouldn’t move until you were almost stepping on them, despite the fact that it was still quite warm I guess the slightly cooler breezes off the sea had enough moisture that they came out to enjoy them. There were so many of them that it was basically reverse Frogger trying to get up to dinner.


My other exciting nature moment was meeting a mongoose who I think lived under my hut. He was very cute and I felt extra safe from cobras.

No cobras here nosiree

That’s a wrap

The food was less exciting at this stop. Prices were fairly high but quality varied a ton. To be fair I’m not really sure if this was due to low staffing or just the fact that they didn’t have many people to cook for and weren’t doing their better options. Again though, it would have been at minimum a $50 cab ride round trip to go anywhere else so it’s not like I had a ton of options.

Before long the final day had arrived and it was time to head back to the airport. I’d discussed the bus option with the front desk staff and sure enough one could take a cab ride to the main road and hail the cross-island air conditioned bus. Combined it cost about 15 bucks and to be honest a better view of the coast from the higher seats. The wind was up a bit this particular day and I got a few gorgeous views as the waves crashed into the barrier reef. The only downside was that our road ended just down a fairly large hill so one had to pay attention as it didn’t take long for vehicles to go from ‘appearing in the distance’ to ‘past and around the bend’ and I had to manually flag the bus.

It was supposed to absolutely pour right about as I was waiting for the bus but thankfully waited for an hour or so.

Further along the coast from my resort were a number of more traditional looking modern resorts and smaller rentals and hotels. Most of them looked just as deserted as my digs so I guess it’s not surprising I had issues. Thinking back now I think perhaps the reason the initial spots were busier was that they’re an easier ‘layover’ trip. I definitely met more than a few people who were sneaking in a 5 day layover going to/from Australia/NZ, some were even just there for two days and jetted out to the islands for a getaway.

Eventually I arrived back in Nadi with the bus thankfully going straight to the airport where I dumped my bag in left luggage and went off to properly explore Nadi itself a bit more/do a little souvenir and gift shopping. To be honestly my original impression of Nadi wasn’t changed much, it’s a fairly unexciting town and I’m glad I made the decision to get out of it quickly the first time. It’s a couple of shop lined streets with a mix of tourist and local focused things and not much else other than an elaborate Hindu temple.

I browsed the handicraft market a bit which was mostly uninspired Chinese-made junk. I bought a few small items and a few small gifts of Fiji Rugby shirts and other such things. I never really bring a ton back from my trips though I generally try to get a small piece of art which this time ended up being a small map of the islands.

And… sadly that was it. Really the only thing of note was that perhaps I got some recompense for the bad luck earlier but on my flight home I got a pair of seats to myself after paying for a bulkhead seat. Hilariously I’d gotten an email from the airline a few days earlier asking if I wanted to pay extra for a bubble of seats and had been moderately tempted due to what wasn’t the worst price. In the end I ended up on my own and also off the plane and through customs first from the economy folks. Honestly having a seat next to you open for a 12 hour flight is an absolute jackpot.

Much love to my Uncle Robin for hosting me for a couple days before and after the Fiji portion. It was nice to have a visit and a bit of an adjustment step back time wise as well as a snuggle with his pup Bailey.

That’s a wrap

Farewell from Paradise

Thanks for following along with me on this journey. I know it was probably not quite as exciting as my previous travels from a ‘read about it’ point of view since there was a lot less pure excitement/discovery. That being said, I adored my time in Fiji and I’d heartily recommend to my Canadian friends and family to take advantage of the direct flight from Vancouver. I’d love to see them keep offering the route.

I’ve never been to Hawaii, everything I’ve read about it of late says it’s super pricey and moving around is much more difficult due to the issues w/ rental cars due to the pandemic issues. Fiji honestly seemed every bit as beautiful, much more laid back and with a less commercial focus. Obviously I was here at low season and if you’re there at peak Aussie visiting time it’ll be much busier but even then I can’t imagine. I can’t pretend it was a cheap cheap trip, but it seemed great value. I’ve seen people I know spend more than I did on a Florida/Mexican trip and see/experience nothing near as glorious. You might be surprised at how accessible a trip to Fiji is!*

*Admittedly I got a great flight deal 😉

The scenery was phenomenal, the water divine and the people warm and welcoming. Pretty much every Fijian I met was genuinely curious if you were loving their homeland as much as they seemed to. It’s the rare trip I’ve done where I’d do the exact same itinerary, I might just change the month I went a bit. September is supposedly a great time to visit as you’re after the Aus/NZ winter rush but still in the best weather. You’d lose the joy of escaping Winnipeg at -30 in my case of course. As I’ve mentioned throughout this travelogue there are also other places I’d try to visit though. Some of the more remote offshore island groups are apparently worth a visit though there’s a time/money investment component to get there that means you probably wouldn’t do too many of them on one visit however.

At least someone missed me

As ever, if you have any questions about any of my travels hit me up. I’ve helped a few people do some Thai trip planning already this year.

Thanks for reading.

Stop! Hammer Time!

It was another rainy day the next morning as I repacked things more tightly for a flight on a small plane to Vanua Levu. I’d booked a flight direct to Savusavu and had been warned that it was a tiny airport reached by a tiny plane. Unfortunately internal fiji flights have a lower weight allowance so I was more than a bit worried about just how much it would cost me as the airline’s excess baggage page was a convoluted mess. Thankfully it turned out to be a realtively minor $42ish FJD of overage. Entertainingly I was also asked to step on the scale with my carryon which turned out to be a hint to just how tiny the plane was.

I actually didn’t realize myself as when I was sent out onto the tarmac unescorted all the lady said was ‘turn left.’ I was almost at the door of the first plane to the left when someone shouted at me. Turns out another plane had arrived since the door lady had been outside I guess and I walked around the wing of the larger plane to find myself boarding a little twin otter. We were all told to sit in our assigned seats as the weight distribution had been set up appropriately for the load. In the end there were only 7 of us on the plane as it taxied and took off.

Just one of thousands of beautiful structures just under the surface that you can see from the plane.

The view once we were up was spectacular. Fiji is just ridiculously full of reefs and lagoons and sandbars and from above with the sun shining down they were on display. I’m not usually one to take photos from an airplane window but come on.


savusavu airport
Security is uh… shall we say… a less intense process at this airport.

Savusavu itself turned out to be a tiny town covering the south rim of an old volcanic crater. The airport was barely more than a shack and some tarmac though and I was thankful when a former local visiting from Sydney let me tag along in his cab to town as despite this being one of only two flights no taxis had come to the airport. I’d regret not buying some more supplies at the time but I didn’t yet have a grasp of just how far from town my lodge was or what I had for kitchen supplies. I stocked up with water regardless and some other drinks and snacks and hopped back in the cab for the Vosa Ni Ua Lodge.

My digs for this stay, not the super odd hotplate/toaster oven combo.

The lodge was less a lodge than a small collection of Bures on a hill not far from a gorgeous crystal green bay just hitting low tide as I arrived. My room was a fairly large space with a small kitchenette along one wall with a very odd combination hot plate/toaster oven. Sadly the tide meant there wasn’t any hope of snorkeling that afternoon.

One of the other Vasa Ni Ua bures looking out across the garden towards the sea.

The caretaker of the property realized that I happened to have arrived on the one night of the week that a local garden restaurant was open roughly a 20 minute walk down the road. I gather in the higher season it’s a bit more raucous of an affair but there was a lively crowd of expats that live along the ‘Hibiscus Highway’ east of Savusavu and the pizza was phenomenal. It was a motely collection of Brits, Kiwis/Aussies a few Germans and several other Canadians. I gathered roughly half the folks lived here on a seasonal basis and a few of them were shorter stays. Luckily I’d thought to bring a flashlight as it was beyond pitch black the entire walk back home.

The Friday Night Pizza crowd.

Vosa Ni Ua seemed to be the last of the accomodations on this section of the highway and it was very much on the fringe of cell range, I’d tried to call my chosen dive folks but had to resort to email. Thankfully this operator was on the ball and actually got back to me at six the next morning when I was woken by the sun streaming through the louvres I hadn’t closed. I’d been warned that EVERYTHING in most towns in fiji closed on sundays so I happily agreed to go out for a few dives on sunday.

Saturday then was spent heading into town on the coastal bus and exploring Savusavu/provisioning some foodstuffs. It’s an odd little town. Based on what I saw in my guidebook I’d guess it suffered a bit from covid as a number of the restaurants and such seemed to have closed. It’s one of the only places you can legally enter the country with a yacht and has a bit of that vibe with two small marinas and a new large one being built just offshore. There are a couple yacht club/bars that I gather are filled with salty boaty types in the evenings during the busier months.

Fish and Chips by the Harbour

Savusavu bay is actually a volcanic crater and at several points along the beach steam rises from subsurface pools. There are a few hot spa pools available as well but I didn’t partake as it was 32 or so every day I was in the area.

If you look very closely you can see the beach steaming here from the volcanic forces

Hammerhead House

The next morning I was picked up by my divemaster bright and early and taken about halfway back to town to their home base at the Savisi Island resort. To my delight our proposed itinerary included two of the sites I’d most wanted to visit from earlier research. The wind was up a bit but by the time we got to the ‘dreamhouse’ site it had fallen enough that the divemaster’s scouting report revealed good vis and a helpful current. The big draw of this site is that it’s known to have frequent visits from hammerhead sharks… and to my absolute delight we saw not one but SIX of them during the course of the dive. Their weird silhouettes emerged from the gloom and set my heart pumping a bit, these aren’t little reef sharks after all though they’ll generally leave humans alone unless you’re trying to piss them off.

Happy tired dive man

Much to my disgust when we got back above water I got confirmation that one of our divers had seen a manta as well but I only caught the vaguest of shapes and didn’t get a good look. The hammers were amazing though and something I’m very happy to check off my diver’s SEEN IT list. As we surfaced and did our safety stop we were surrounded by an absolute cloud of batfish to the point where if you suddenly turned your head there’d be an eye staring into your mask until it startled away, it’s not uncommon to have a curious school check you out but it hasn’t happened for me with anything that size before.

After a surface interval with some of the tastiest pineapple I’ve ever put in my mouth (that the divemaster apparently grows in his garden the lucky jerk) we set out for another nearby dive site called Dungeons and Dragons. It’s absurd how close most of these are to shore and in fact dreamhouse was literally right off the outer reef by our lodge. Were the waves calm you could have kayaked out to it.

Beach across the road from my lodge, beautiful snorkeling lagoon in foreground, dungeons and dragons dive site just out beyond the barrier reef.

This site was a labyrinth of outcroppings, hard and soft coral and long swimthroughs. Swimming highlights were a couple of weird endangered wrasse I forget the specific name of, lots of clownfish and angel/damselfish. I wasn’t quite careful enough in one swimthrough and managed to yank my regulator out of my mouth snagging it on a rock but I was happy to find I was super calm about it and followed the recovery procedure without needing any help.

One of the coolest spots on the dive was a small trough filled with colour changing coral that is sensitive to pressure changes and will change hues if you get close. All in all these two dives were the highlight of the trip so far just from sheer variety.

Pro Tier Snorkeling

Energized by the morning’s dives and revitalized by some food and a short half-nap/half musical interlude I took advantage of the tide finally aligning better and went down and across the road to snorkel. The caretaker had told me the night before that some young teen had stayed there the year before and drawn a map of the lagoon’s corals/swimthroughs. It turned out to be quite a great little map and I spent the rest of my time in Savusavu snorkeling around the lagoon.

There was a reef superstructure with a few large rocks and caves, coral outcroppings and sudden drops into deep tunnels and pits. I’m not a good enough free diver to really mess with the swimthroughs without a tank but I still dove down to play peekaboo with some of the larger specimins hiding just out of sight.

The truly spectacular thing about the snorkeling was that at high tide you could very easily get over the edge of the reef and swim right over the 25/30 meter drop. The barrier between two environments is where you often see the neatest stuff and the visibility was just astounding. When the sun was out you could clearly see the life on the bottom and a fair ways out into the deeper lagoon, all while still protected by the outer reef. While my other stops on this trip have all had amazing snorkeling just offshore, this was a spot that the owner of the lodge called some of the best snorkeling in Fiji and I agree with him. A snorkel in that bay is easily on par for variety of sea life and sheer beauty with a good portion of the full scuba dives I’ve ever done.

There was so much life hidden under the placid waters of the lagoon (here mid-ish tide)

While I have many other places in Fiji I would want to add on if I come back I would seriously consider going back there just for a snorkel. The fact that there are still a ton of dive sites there, a marine park that begs for a special trip and another nearby island that’s supposed to be amazing (though rainy enough at this time of year that I didn’t visit this time) just means I’ll need to come back

I’m just now realizing I forgot to mention one of the coolest non-aquatic parts of this stop. Every night at dusk I sat out front of my bure and watched squadrons of bats turning around the sky hunting the evening bugs. None of these guys were small and a few were of a size that they’re probably in the flying fox category. They dove and swooped all over the valley down to the sea and it was wild just how many there were every night. I find bats absolutely fascinating and while I may not have made it over to the more rainforesty island of Taveuni this trip where the rarest of them lives but I’m glad I got such a display. Sadly none of my pictures came out though, not surprising given light conditions alas.

Imagine bats swooping all around the trees here a bit later that night…

In any case, after one last meal back in town and a stressed sleep (I kept worrying that my alarm wouldn’t go off in time and I was waiting for snorkel gear to dry overnight and pack at 6am) I caught a very early morning, equally tiny flight back to Viti Levu and went in search of the last stop of my Fiji journey.

But that’s the next post…

Beautiful Blue Lagoon

It turns out I was the only one leaving the island heading north on this particular day so I got the full force of half the staff singing the farewell song to me. It was delightful, endearing and incredibly awkward for someone of my personality, especially when almost everyone insisted on giving me a big hug afterwards. I still loved it though and will miss all those cheerful personalities. That said it was just as well I hadn’t tried to squeeze an extra dive in as the northward boat was fairly early (it seems to vary a reasonable amount depending on specific drop offs.)

Once back onboard the Yasawa Flyer (this time a different one called the Panther) we headed northward, this time with MUCH nicer weather and a proper view of the scenery. It continued to make excellent time as the boat was nearly empty and based on my brochure seemed to be skipping roughly half the stops. It still took a while though as my next stop was at the end of the chain at the Blue Lagoon beach resort.

The eponymous blue lagoon is actually the water between a number of islands up at the north end of the chain and is indeed the blue lagoon where most of both versions of the film were shot. It seemed as if the catamaran was taking a fairly circuitous route through the lagoon but as my travels over the coming days would show it’s a fairly shallow lagoon with lots of reefs and rock formations lurking. The resort itself was obviously a bit more of a traditional resort than my last digs and came out with a ~20 passenger excursion boat to pick us up. A fairly sizable group of us were disembarking and again as we came to shore a welcome part of the staff were singing a welcome and smiling ear to ear. This time however there was a delicious pineapple and berry smoothie in a champagne flute to add to the experience.

Low Tide at the Blue Lagoon

Side note on the film track of things, the island from Castaway is also in the chain and has a resort as well. How sick of Wilson jokes do you think they are?

My guidebook wasn’t wrong, the beachfront villas at the BLBR were indeed spectacular. Sadly I wasn’t in one of those. Because I’d gone a bit upmarket at this stop I was in the ‘lodge’ area which was essentially groups of side by side rooms which reminded me a bit of some of the old cabin motels you see in the backwoods of Wisconsin/Michigan etc. They were spotless, had small patios with a bench to relax on and a pretty garden area. The bathroom was shared with the two small dorms (male/female) but it was large and had extremely good water pressure for the showers. It was perfectly pleasant, just not as magical as the Barefoot Manta experience had been. Were I to return with someone I’d probably spring for at least one of the non-beach villas.

The food however… good lord… While I still maintain the first few nights food was tasty, the Blue Lagoon’s culinary team was top notch. After settling in the newcomers all straggled in to the beachfront restaurant and I found myself with a table overlooking the beach at mid tide. The lunch menu was a choice of about 10 different items, all of which sounded delicious but wanting to go for something very different than the previous nights I had a chicken schnitzel, which honestly turned out to be something that made me assume the chef had trained in the us at one point because while it was delicious and lightly fried… it was served with a peppery gravy very reminiscent of something you’d have with chicken fried chicken. There was always a pie of the day at lunch too which was always popular with the aussies/kiwis. Breakfasts were a full continental as well as your choice of various hot breakfasts including eggs benedict, pancakes in the usual or the asian way, full english breakfast and so on. All of this was great; however…

Dinners were at another level. I would have loved to experience the full cycle they no doubt have in place but while I was there we had a curry night where the tables of four got what seemed like half an east india company buffet dropped off at the their table. My solo dinner was a giant tray with 4 kinds of curry, naan, salad, fruit and pickle, and that was AFTER one of the best dal soups I’ve ever had. Another night was just a six course meal with multiple choice for each course because why not.

Smoothie time after some hard diving

The vibe at this place was a strange but pleasant one. You definitely got a sense that some of the guests were high roller-ish, but at the same time they’re rubbing shoulders with backpackers (though admittedly not the absolute low budget backpackers.) There was also a more sizable Canadian contingent during my stay, half made up of one large extended family with three generations there. I’ll also admit to feeling like I stuck out a bit more at this resort as a solo traveller around 40. While I’m still happy to have a good chat with the backpacking crowd there’s definitely more of a gulf there than when I was doing my grand travels a decade ago. Anyway, after that first lunch I quickly went and changed into swim gear, grabbed my ebook and found a spot on the edge of the beach. It was a very hot afternoon that I spent in and out of the water, soaking up some rays and marvelling at the fact that I could see ten feet down in the water from well on shore. It’s really hard to convey just how magical the water is here… pictures are startling but still don’t do it justice.

Day two dawned early as I was catching the first dive boat out to a site that I’d heard was phenomenal. The dive shop at the BLBR actually serves a number of the surrounding resorts and I was buddied up with an older lady who was staying at the Turtle Island resort nearby. I remembered reading in my guidebook that it was the ultimate of fancy pants and also where a lot of blue lagoon stuff was filmed and she confirmed that it was completely over the top but her husband liked to travel fancy. Looking it up later I found that their smallest villa costs per night what my entire 7 day island trip cost… must be nice.

The dive site (BONZAI!) was surprisingly far out west given that there’s not much in that direction but Australia. I guess the shelf continues out a fair way because when we went under the surface I discovered a beautiful reef face, coral everywhere and an abundance of Anenomefish poking their noses out to fend off us intruders. It was a beautiful spot but honestly that first section of the reef was the highlight, especially with the lovely visibility. The others on the boat had been diving all week (this resort has a ‘dive all you can for a week’ package available that I am sorely tempted to return and do as it’s a ridiculous bargain) and had been dealing with less than great viz the previous few days due to all the rain so I guess my timing was good. My only annoyance was that my breath control wasn’t great on this particular dive and I had to surface a bit early but my companions assured me I’d caught the best of the views. I decided to skip the second dive that day and just snorkel as there were some other (paid) activities I wanted to catch as well during the trip so pacing my diving was best. Thinking back now I’m also glad I hadn’t chosen to do both when my breath control was bad on the first one just in case it was an asthma thing I wasn’t noticing and would have been as bad again.

Sunset on the beach

One thing I haven’t mentioned about the place is the sheer volume of crabs everywhere. There are various types of fiddler crabs almost everywhere you look and spots where they’ve burrowed everywhere else. Tiny little white almost ghostly crabs are near impossible to see but scurry everywhere around the beach. Peak crab happened to me at dinner that night when as I was eating my seafood curry I noticed a little boy looking at my feet most intently but before I could look under the table something pointy scuttled across my foot and I jumped before I saw him cruise over to another table. The following night there was a shriek from the restaurant restroom and a woman ran out and said there were four of them around the ladies toilet snapping their claws. A bunch of them even ended up in the swimming pool one night until one of the staff pulled them out… I didn’t notice if they were set free or taken to the kitchen 😉

The following morning was another early start as the trip to the Saw-I-Lau caves set out from the dive shop at around 8:30 and I needed some Eggs Benedict first. I wasn’t the only one. Originally I’d been glad I signed up for the cave early but I guess interest was such that they decided to take two boats. We set out north to Sawa-I-Lau island and in the process got a view of Yasawa Island itself which is the northernmost in the chain and has a couple actual settlements, some roads and a tiny airport. The cave island is owned by the local tribes and visits are controlled, most of the caves are off limits but the spectacular flooded cave we visited is not.

The caves are tall and echoing limestone caverns filled with a mix of salt and fresh water. Formed underwater and thrust aboveground by tectonic movement they’re beyond picturesque though annoyingly my waterproof camera was acting up. We disembarked at a small beach and splashed through some absolutely gorgeous warm waves to reach a small staircase. I was honestly expecting a more substantial climb but the cave entrance was only about 30 feet up followed by an immediate drop down and some very low rocks over the steps. Leaving our sandals (and phones for most) behind we splashed down into the deep clear cave into water that while not at all cold by home standards was a bit of a shock after the warm seas we’d just left.

The first cavern is about 1/3 open to the sky but far far above which combined with the foliage makes for almost mystical streams of light descending to the water’s surface. There is something almost alien about the scene, the pitted and smooth rock walls shimmer in the reflections off the water and the sounds of human visitors echoing strangely over and over. The other neat part of the adventure came after as our guides showed us a swimthrough that the braver among us ducked under and swam 10 feet or so towards a waving flashlight and surfaced in a new dark section of the caves.

As we collected those brave enough to do the swim-through we eventually got to venture deeper into the blackness until we found the one spot of light, a narrow well apparently called the spitting cave because a drop of water from it will apparently echo throughout the cave. I can believe it after spending half an hour in the inky blackness and it was incredibly neat.

Saw-I-Lau Cave, sadly not my photo

Less fun was the fact that it really felt like the guides should have been more forceful about making people who needed them wear life jackets. We were warned that you’d need to be comfortable treading water for quite a while but they weren’t what I’d call forceful about it. And while they eventually brought a pvc pipe floaty handhold thing through for people in the dark cave, there were a few people who were clinging to it with a forcefulness that kept submerging it. Several of the backpackers girls were very much not comfortable with the dark cave in general and probably should have just immediately returned to the light. One father there with his two kids was particularly moronic, not even being good enough at treading water to consistently keep his chin out of the water. Meanwhile myself and one of my diving companions from the day before alternated treading water or just floating on our backs and whistling for echoes.

Despite the iffy safety issues and my concern for the dumber folks it was a very neat little adventure, though I wish I’d been able to go with a smaller group. Once we’d returned to the bright side of the swim through we found the other guides had been climbing the cave walls and cliff diving for the other guests. Once of these guys was basically spiderman and had climbed almost to the roof of the cave before jackknifing down so far that it took him an absurdly long time to resurface. Eventually though we all started to get cold and made our way back to the steps where at least two people wanged their head badly on the low ceiling. At least getting warm again was as easy as throwing yourself back in the waves outside as the temps in the shallow bay were essentially bathwater.

Refueled by a tasty lunch I headed out on an afternoon dive and snorkel trip and had another gorgeous time. I saw a stingway literally the moment I put my head under the water. A massive collection of clownfish guarded one end of the reef and as we were finishing up a shark sleeping far below was startled by us and whooshed up for a closer look before high tailing it out of there. Breath control was better this time but it was also a shallower dive.

The trip ended with us killing some time snorkeling near one of the private beaches used by the cruising arm of the company that owns our resort where our guide fed some of the fish. This is ethically not the best 🙁 but honestly I think the fish in that area probably eat a ton of scraps off the boats that moor in the area anyway. There were swarms of Sergeant Majors and a whole bunch of Needlefish that arrived after and scared the former off. I’m fairly sure it was one of the latter that decided my right earlobe was a hunk of bread and repeatedly bit me until I was actually bleeding, a new experience for me. I’m going to go ahead and hope that’s the last time I’m fish food this trip.

Coincidentally my last night on the island was also the beach bbq and survivor night. The staff cooked up copious amounts of ribs, chicken, fish and beef skewers on a pit bbq on the beach. The guests mostly sat at larger tables and met new neighbours, I horrified some Brits and Australians by checking the weather back at home and finding a -45 windchill warning. As the night wound down we played survivor, which could more accurately be called ‘Fiji trivia.’ I did my best and probably personally kept us tied but the in the end it came down to drawing lots to break a tie with the other leaders and they won the free bottle of champagne. Alas… Still, as I sat on the beach watching one of the staff members spray gas onto the bonfire to get the damp logs started I looked back on my stay with incredible fondness.

The next morning was checkout time though thankfully once I got everything packed up I managed to have a little bit of snorkeling off the beach and a nice long read on the beach before the boat arrived. As previously mentioned we were at the end of the Yasawa Flyer route so we were the last stop before it turned around and headed back. The trip was mostly uneventful except for the fact that they decided to do a pickup for the day trippers at the first island rather than use their own boat as I imagine they do at busier times so they catamaran was absolutely packed to the gills for the last 20 mins of the trip. The only downside of a lovely trip otherwise.

I’d booked back into the same B&B for my one night stay back in Nadi before flying to my next destination the following morning. Unfortunately my excitement that evening was limited to finally doing laundry for the first time and grabbing one of my fave Aussie sodas from the corner store for a treat.

I am extremely thankful the weather turned for me, while the islands would have been beautiful whatever the weather the fact that the sun came out and made them the gorgeous turquoise paradise of the brochures took things to the next level. I can say without doubt that I’ll be back there some day.

Up next: Onto fiji’s other large island of Vanua Levu and Savusavu Town for more diving.

The water clarity is beyond amazing

In which paradise is found

Diving and divine digs in the Yasawa Islands

The islands/region

(again, more pics to come once better internet)

The weather was wild for the first day or so on Drawaqa Island. As previously mentioned it’s more or less one fairly steep hill with a narrow spit of sand jutting off and surrounded by a sizable reef. My bure faced the windward side which on the day I arrived meant sizable waves pounding in and a heavy breeze into the front ‘door.’ Bure can apparently mean very different things at different resorts but at the barefoot manta it was a solid roof with thatched top and side enclosed by canvas very similar to the Manitoba parks yurts. My ensuite was more an ‘outsuite’ with a screen door at the back of the bure leading to an open air shower with trees growing through it and a toilet with a hint of a roof.

View from the bure

After being welcomed and given the brief intro I wandered the resort for a bit and found the dive shop where I made some provisional plans based on the weather and got the lay of the land for snorkeling. I decided to just borrow equipment as mine was still packed up and quickly threw on a suit and got in the water. The leeward side of the island was amazingly calm for being roughly 200 feet away from where I’d been before and even with a heavily overcast sky and not much sun the visibility was amazing. This resort is particularly focused on marine conservation and in between the existing reef you could see their various projects for reef extension and stabilization and a couple cages where they were trying to get giant clams re-established.

The reef itself was fantastic and teeming with life, tons of hard corals… bright yellow and transluscent gar, parrotfish, angelfish, a large wrasse, trevalley and a whole bunch of things I hadn’t seen since my days diving the great barrier reef. I’m reasonably certain I caught a hint of a small reef shark as well but it was right at the fringe of visibility so I can’t say for sure. The reef is so huge and protected that you can actually snorkel right around the point and come back in on the northward facing beach if you want making for a really nice long and mostly leisurely snorkel. I don’t think it’s really possible to convey just how much this put me into my ‘happy place’ but as I flopped down in my private hammock on my private beach access (la-di-da) I was more relaxed that I’ve been in years.

My personal bure on the beachfront

Unfortunately we were still getting the same system that was pounding the mainland so the wind was wild the rest of the day. Rain occasionally reared for a few minutes and the staff ended up closing a couple the shutters as we ate dinner. I admit despite the fact that I’d had a lovely snorkel I was starting to worry that the weather would be like this my whole stay and would curtail diving partially/completely. Overnight was worse. I’d left just the screen door shut on my bure wanting to watch the waves come in but got a rude awakening around 3 am when I realized my feet felt damp and the downpour I’d heard earlier had really been splashing inward to the point where the blanket on the edge of the bed had gotten rather soaked (along with some of my gear.) So after a frantic scurry and some reorg I managed to get back to sleep and thankfully the crashing downpour didn’t return and force me to actually close the canvas flap because…

waterlogged but relaxed…

I woke to glorious sunshine! It was still heckin’ windy but the sun was flitting in and out of clouds and the water was shining that crystal green blue that you normally only see in postcards. Getting out of bed and walking the ten steps or so to the beach I could easily see fish flitting in and out of the rocks and coral and then was startled to see a school of flying fish launch themselves repeatedly out of the water running from some form of predator. On the beach itself there were a few lizards playing and as I looked closer a number of hermit crabs emerging as well. It was a fantastic start to the day.

Unfortunately it was also still too windy for diving at any of the good sites. The dive shop woman flat out told me that the one place they could safely dive that day was basically a glorified snorkel and that there were marine warnings out that the wind could get much worse so they couldn’t safely do anything. Thankfully the forecast for the next day looked better and I still had two more nights before moving to the next island so I filled my morning and afternoon with another snorkel, a long read in my hammock and a long walk around the most accessible parts of the island. They’d unfortunately warned us that while they normally did a cliff walk/hike for sunrise/sunset they’d cancelled it for the time being as the rain had made it a bit dangerous.

Why yes, I have already read 6 books this holiday.

The food at the Barefoot Manta was quite good. It’s an enforced meal plan thing which I’m normally never a fan of but with the restort being the only thing on the island it’s not like you can pop down to a mom and pop place instead. Meals varied between a buffet with a wide variety of choices or more often a selection of 4-5 dishes, usually a curry or stirfry, seafood and a couple vegetarian/vegan options. Portions were sizable especially for me as I’ve gone back into my usually walk around a bunch, don’t have a massive appetite travel mode that I really wish I could trigger back at home.

The end of that night was my first exposure to the Fijian kava ceremony. Once the domain of chiefs alone the sharing of kava is now a ceremony by which you’re welcomed to a village if you visit and politeness dictates that you quaff at least one bowl (usually a coco shell) though it keeps going around and around until all gone. The drink itself is created by soaking the pounded root of the plant and has numbing/sedative qualities. It has started to be exported and you can find kava bars/extracts elsewhere around the world now, but apparently the local stuff has more of an effect. After the first bowl my tongue had definitely numbed a bit… after the four or five more ‘high-tide’ bowls I was handed most of my mouth was tingly. I’m guessing it also had something to do with the fact that when I retired to my bure at about 8:30 as it had started raining again I failed spectacularly at staying awake to watch the show I fired up on my laptop. Based on life thus far I’m guessing early wakeups and dozy nights are going to be the norm though. I have yet to sleep past 7 or even need my alarm.

When the next morning dawned something seemed different as I opened my eyes. It took me a few moments to realize that the rhythmic pounding of the waves was now more of a gentle lapping. Ninety minutes later two young Swedish ladies had joined me and our crew was skimming us across the waves to my first ever wreck dive. The sea and sky were meeting in a union of just about every shade of blue you can imagine and steep coasted islands poked up here and there covered in lush greenery. You find yourself hoping you can trust in the encyclopedic reef knowledge of the staff that pilot the boats because as you sit there flying along you can very clearly see how narrow a channel you’re sometimes passing through. The whole archipelago is a maze of reefs and shelves with the occasional deep blue gap.

Once we arrived at the buoy about 300m offshore we started prepping then eventually rolled into the water. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough weight at first to get me down and while we were solving that problem the two ladies and the second staff member were not paying attention and drifted off with the current. Honestly it wasn’t a great job by the staff member there as there was clearly a mooring line to follow down but based on a subsequent dive he was probably more concerned with one of the two women who was not especially mobile underwater due to a disability. Still, after we patrolled for a bit looking for them we went back up and the dive lead had me wait while he searched for them where he thought the current had carried them. By the time they came back up they’d used their entire air supply circling around in a deep channel. At that point I assumed my dive curse had continued on from Portugal/Vietnam but nope, once he changed out his tank we went down alone together.

The wreck itself was an old fishing boat, sunk purposely to form the base of a new reef. This was only about ten years ago so while marine life is abundant it was still very clearly a wreck even from a distance. Known as ‘Glory Wreck’ it’s base was at about 25m (~80feet) in that tide and we started by swimming around the perimeter with Lai my divemaster showing me where it was moored down and how there were mantis shrmp all around the base. These ridiculous tiny shrimp can scoot around at high speed and wallop things with their claws with the force of a handgun bullet. At the same time we saw the slowly building clusters of marine life on the hull. A few clusters of fan coral, sea cucumbers moving along the edge and school after school of various small fish running about to and fro.

Swimming upward we snuck onto the deck amidships and started a number of large trevally feeding on something clinging to the base. The wreck was definitely already a fish garden and was amazing to explore, especially as we swam inside the upper deck and were surrounded by clouds of thousands and thousands of tiny fish (blanking on name.) It’s always been a bucket list item to do a wreck dive and while this was on the simpler side I’m definitely going to get my wreck diving certification some day and do one of the really cool ones like the scuttled WW2 ships or the like.

Once back on surface we scooted back to the resort on the windward side, the waves had risen a bit but we seemed to be within an outer barrier and outside the inner reef. My Swedish companions were heading out on that day’s south-ward departure but were sneaking in another dive (or a first real one I guess) before that departure. I was mildly torn. I wanted to do another dive that day but wasn’t super enthused about getting stuck with them if they were in trouble again my wreck dive having already been a few minutes longer than it should be. However the shop couldn’t tell me what exactly the 3pm dive was going to be and as they were a couple people certifying that day I worried I’d get stuck on a new certified (or about to be) person’s first real dive with the accompanying super fast air usage.

I should explain though. At most places you’d just stay out and do the two dives but here all the resorts seem to have only a couple boats they use for everything. That means a dive trip goes out at 9, makes sure it’s back at 11 so the boat can then be used to run out and ferry folks in from the catamaran that comes from the port as it does the northbound swing. Then we take another trip out and the boat is back for 2pm when the boat is coming back southbound. There’s only one boat a day so if you miss it you’re in trouble.

The divemaster for the lodge happened to have returned on the boat from his days off and was going to run the second dive so I stuck with the devil I knew. (The staff member who’d gotten lost with the girls was nowhere to be seen and I imagine was in trouble since he probably should have surfaced with them after getting detached from us)

The dive itself was gorgeous and trouble was at a minimum though the lady in question still ended up slower and Lai stayed with her alone while the dive master lead the rest of us. A pinnacle in somewhat more open water this time it was a spur of coral covered rock almost reaching the surface at the ebbing tide. Soft golden fan coral everywhere gave it the name golden gate as further down the pinnacle there was a gorgeous swimthrough with fans everywhere. Unfortunately we didn’t see any of the bigger species he’d suggested we might see but it was still a superb dive for the ground life.

If you’ve never done a dive but you’re one of those people that gets famished after swimming… let me just say that diving is 3x worse. Thankfully the kitchen still had some lunch left when we got back and I treated myself to a strawberry coconut smoothie in celebration. It had been 6? years since my last good dive and here I’d had two great ones in a day with most of my trip left to go.

The rest of the day passed in somewhat of a blur. I chatted with an Aussie doing his dive certification and was kinda shocked when I found out he was from Brisbane. I know Fiji is closer but man you have such good places to do it so close by. He was an interesting dude though, an engineer by trade now studying to be a science teacher and with a firm opinion on everything and everyone. I hope the weather holds for him and he gets to do some real dives after the boring certification go down/come up stuff. The rest of the time I spent either sitting by the beach or just enjoying some hammock time with my latest book.

This was an amazing three days but I was ready to check out my next home further north in the Yasawa chain where more diving and a cave adventure beckoned.

Paradise (Sunset Beach)

On the road again…

Finally giving in to the lure of travel once more and heading to the fabled south seas.

(note, pictures to follow once I get on some non terribad internet)

Well, here we are… I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever write another one of these. While I’ve taken a few mini trips since that last one left off on a cliffhanger they haven’t been of this sort. (side note, I need to go back and write the last post of that) I’ve missed traveling like you wouldn’t believe but wondered when I’d feel comfortable doing this sort of thing again. While I was probably more stressed out in the planning stage of this trip than any previous one that was more a factor of other life events, inept companies and this turning out to be a different style of trip than my previous adventures. More on that to follow of course as I discover Fiji.

Fair warning as well, it’s been an unfortunate amount of time since I’ve done any writing at all so please bear with me if the first couple posts are rusty and rambly, hopefully we’ll get back to normal quickly.

It was sometime in July last year that I stumbled across a thread on the red flag deals forums announcing ‘Fiji Airways new direct flights from vancouver, introductory deals’ or something of the sort. Having almost stopped in fiji on my trip to New Zealand and Australia about a decade (sob) ago I was intrigued… and when I clicked through and saw ‘Starting at $600’ I knew that this might put me over the edge to travel again. Sadly I didn’t snag one of those but I still locked in a great deal and got my seat for about $900 RT after some seat reservation fees. Coupled with a cheap Swoop flight grabbed a few months later to Abbotsford and some very much appreciated chauffeuring from my uncle Robin and I was going to be arriving in Nadi (pronounced Nandi) Fiji pale from winter and ready to relax. I had learned from the past and gave myself a 3 day cushion on the swoop flight heading out but thankfully their only change was to push it later in the evening and actually make it more convenient, a rare win.

Kind of hilariously in the days leading up to my flight Fiji Airways sent me emails inviting me to ‘bid on business upgrade’ (I took a look and the minimum bid one way was almost double the cost of my return flight) and later on offering me the chance to have a ‘bubble row’ to myself for a slightly more tempting $600. Once on the plane I wondered why they’d offered though as there seemed to be very few empty seats and I didn’t really see how that’d have been possible. However thinking about it now I remember now that the Auckland bound Air New Zealand flight had been cancelled that evening (likely due to the cyclone) so I’m guessing a few folks were transferred to our flight as a two hopper to NZ given roughly ¼ of the flight appeared to immediately head to the transfer desk on arrival in Nadi.

The flight itself was a bit of a nightmare, starting at 9:40pm and landing at 5:30am+1day. I couldn’t help but joke that as an eternally single person I’d found a way to skip valentine’s day by flying west across the date line on the 13th and not really experiencing the 14th as we landed the following morning. As I waited for the flight to board I became increasingly dismayed by the large number of people with very small children that kept arriving. Don’t get me wrong I love kids and I’m sure a couple of them were going home but man, maybe for the couple years while your kids are under 3 you could pick vacation destinations that don’t require a 12 hour flight? My usual recent luck for transcontinental flights held and I ended up beside another broad shouldered person and in a seat that didn’t recline at all. And yep, one or more of those toddlers caterwauled all through the flight.

For those that haven’t tried it, let me tell you, the cure for mild whiplash from a car accident a few weeks ago is not a 12 hour flight in economy.

I’ll admit I really only knew the absolute basics about Fiji before prepping for this trip. Tropical place, influences from a number of cultures, strong Indian influences in particular, very at threat from global warming. What I really didn’t know was just how small it was, a population around the same size of Manitoba strewn across a large number of islands (though with most of the ‘mainland’ of Viti Levu.) For the most part the population speaks Fijian, English and a Fijian Hindi dialect and thus far communication hasn’t been an issue. More to come on all that I’m sure.

I arrived at the hotel sometime around 7am, hoping against hope that they’d have some luggage storage so I could ditch my bags and go walk around a bit before check in time. Thankfully it turned out that my room was already free and a very grateful zombie stumbled up the road to the B&B offshoot of the main hotel, obviously a converted vacation home. Shown to a lovely clean (if spartan) room, I promptly dumped my gear, showered the smell of travel off myself and crawled between the sheets for a 2 hour power nap. I knew from experience that I couldn’t sleep for long if I wanted to beat the jetlag but I definitely needed something.

The B&B itself was nice, especially for the fairly bargain price (I’m splurging most of the rest of this trip so I kept the initial landing spot on the cheap end without doing the hostel dorm thing.) I’m guessing the hotel’s manager or owner lives in what was once the guest house and this main house now has 5 small guest rooms and a large living room/kitchen. 3 rooms share a bathroom/shower and two have ensuite. The bed was comfy and the place was spotless and that’s all that mattered at this moment.

A few hours later and brighter eyed if not bushy tailed I threw a few things in my daypack and went back to the main hotel to ask them to call and confirm my offshore stay. A couple weeks before I left I’d zeroed in on a multi hop trip up some of the offshore islands, had booked my reservation and gotten early confirmation… but had not had any final confirmation on the individual resorts I’d requested or any of my other questions. What was at first a minor annoyance became increasingly stressful as the trip approached and finally as I left for the islands not knowing if I had a place to stay beyond day 2. I gather I wasn’t the first with this problem as she told me to just go sit and she’d let me know what they said. Needless to say I blissfully complied, ordered a pineapple juice and proceeded to spend 3 hours reading on the shore as rain thankfully kept missing our end of the bay and I just watched the waves crash on the minimal beach. To say it was exactly what I needed was an understatement and the relaxation was increased by finally getting confirmation of my pickup for the boat even if they’d still neglected to finally confirm my hotels, something that would take 3 more emails. Still, at least I knew I was getting picked up

The combination of that relief, fatigue from lack of sleep and the overall stress of the last few months bleeding from me meant that bed was already calling again but I knew I had to last a couple more hours. As a result as inviting as the pool back at the b&b looked, I knew the post swim sleepies would do me in for the night so I followed the instructions of the hostess and found the minimart up the street. Amidst a couple snacks, some water bottles and a premixed gin and tonic I found my holy grail. A delicious bundaberg soda from Australia, not my personal fave blood orange variety but the still awesome peach soda. Annoyingly I’ve never found these in North America though Adam Savage is occasionally drinking one in his videos so someone must import them to california at least. Honestly if you ever have the chance… delicious on their own, delicious with gin/vodka/rum depending on the flavour. I polished that off very quickly back at the b&b while chatting with the new hostess Cecimaria. I’ve gotten better with the Fijian accent/lilt since that night but I was definitely in smile and nod territory a few times with this very bubbly young lady.

Between our chat and some angry emailing I managed to stay awake a bit longer but eventually gave in, had an early curry dinner back by the shore and raced back home through the rain to collapse sometime around 6pm local/10pm Vancouver/midnight Winnipeg with my body clock somewhere messed up between the three. Between my various efforts I’d managed to conk out until 6:45 the following morning and given I’d be up early the next morning anyway that seemed as close to a normal sleep schedule as I needed.

The Floods…

So I knew this was going to be the rainy season in Fiji. As the day of departure arrived I watched with increasing worry as the forecast shifted from a fair bit of rain to ’90-100% chance of thunderstorms every day I was scheduled to be here.’ It could have been worse of course given the NZ cyclone but still as I sat there eating my breakfast with a german couple who seemed to be youtubers the downpour increased to a dense tropical rain the likes of which I’ve probably only seen in Thailand. It came and went all day which I mostly spent reading and making sure I’d prepared everything else (fingers crossed.) A new guest arrived around lunchtime, his name was Jim and he didn’t talk much but I enjoyed him plucking away at his ukelele most of the afternoon under the thatched poolside shelter as we watched the water rise and rise. I’ll hand it to the local infrastructure though, the street flooding was fairly minimal until we’d reached a full 12 hours of this but by the time I went out for dinner manhole covers were overflowing on the main road and when they taxi brought me back I stepped out into lake roughly a foot deep. The next morning on the way to my pickup I had to wade through multiple troughs of calf deep water. I don’t think my poor sandals are ever going to be dry this trip.

The taxi drivers were hilarious in other ways as well. Pretty much everyone I talk to here at some point asks me if I’m travelling alone. When I reply yes some of them say something along the lines of ‘oh that’s the way to do it, others something like ‘you bring the wife next time?’ My driver on the way out to dinner that night had his own take. When told I was indeed travelling alone he considered that for a moment and said: You be careful… Fijian women very… INTELLIGENT.

Of course, the weather was worrying me for other obvious reasons as I had a 3-4 hour boat trip early the next morning. The rain was scheduled to continue and the islands I was going to had a ‘high winds/possible tidal flooding’ warning in place which didn’t sound hopeful. I kept waking up throughout the night as the heavens either opened up or quieted and checking my phone for note of cancellation (Why sleepy me thought they’d be that proactive is beyond me.) In fact when the shuttle bus showed up that morning they informed a few disappointed people that the day trip was cancelled due to weather (unsurprising given there’d be nothing to do really once at the island) but that those of us transfering to resorts were a go.

(since I wrote this things have apparently gotten much worse to the point where I may need to adjust end days plans if I’m not going to be able to safely get back along one of the roads, time will tell.)

The Boat:

I’m realizing that I haven’t really described Nadi much and I guess honestly that’s because there isn’t much to describe. It’s a relatively small city spread out in a couple directions. I didn’t see much of downtown given I was mostly dodging rain but didn’t see anything to really convince me I missed much in the city proper though I’ll be back my last bit of the trip and may try to explore more.

The port itself is a short trip from Nadi proper on an island/peninsula. This is where the fancier resorts close to Nadi are, a lot of places that from brief glimpses look like your usual all inclusives in Mexico (and indeed from talking to folks that’s basically what they are for Aussies/Kiwis.) Nestled in between all of them is a small but busy Marina which is home to a number of tour companies including the Yasawa Flyer, a high speed catamaran that runs out to a number of resorts on the offshore island chains.

I had chosen to do what’s called an ‘Awesome Pass’ which for a mildly exorbidant fee gives you unlimited boat rides, a number of nights accomodation (in my case 6) and bundled food. Normally I’m not down with the bundled food options on this sort of thing but on most of these islands the resort is literally the only thing there so it’s not like you can swing out to a mom and pop operation with a bit of a walk. That said, I’m writing this on night one of the islands and the food today was both fantastic and local.

I chose to spend three nights each at two different resorts (there are a large number to choose from) deeper in the island chain and more focused on snorkeling/diving. This meant a fairly lengthy trip as the first was about halfway through the catamaran journey. The big boat essentially runs a daily route up the two archipelagos and meets tender boats from various places which run passengers and luggage to and fro shore. Unfortunately for those who suffer from sea sickness the wind warning wasn’t a lie and she was rolling and hanging in the troughs a fair bit. As a couple of Aussies behind me kept saying, more than a few people had to ‘Chunder.’ Thankfully my seeming imperviousness to seasickness continues to be a thing and I enjoyed the ride until the stop was called.

The Islands

As much as I do hope to see these islands in their sun-drenched glory before the week is up there was something special about seeing the lush green hills appear out of the mist. The first island (and the target of many day trips) is called South Sea Island and seems to be little more than a sandbar with a few dorms and bures (huts) on it. Later islands have impressive craggy cliffs, lush vegitation and hidden sandy beaches where a small cluster of huts will suddenly appear. None of these resorts are huge, many (most?) are eco-travel focused and as sustainable as possible.

After about 3 hours I ended up on a narrow shoreboat speeding across a large bay and driving into shore at a welcoming crowd of singing staff and a hearty BULA (meaning health, a seemingly universal greeting hereabouts.) Between the musical welcome, the sand, the palms and the water… I felt at peace for the first time in months.

This only increased that feeling as I settled in to my bure, enjoyed my private view of ‘sunset beach’ and then went to enjoy a tasty lunch with my fellow new arrivals and those already enjoying the place.

The resort is small, I’d guess roughly 20-25 Bures with a couple of them being backpacker dorms with bunks and some like mine having an ‘ensuite’ which is open to the sky. They surround a larger ‘main bure’ which is basically a meal area/kitchen/lounge and a couple smaller bures which house other services. The whole thing is on a spit of land off one of the hilly islands and we’re surrounded by three beaches: my aforementioned sunset beach (though we didn’t see one tonight) a larger bay with a reef further out, and two (sunrise and ?) others seperated by a narrow point that share a large coral reef just offshore that offers fantastic snorkeling with absolute minimum effort.

You’d better believe I was in that water more or less as soon as I could be though I also set up some diving for the coming days, but more on that in the next post.

Temple Run

(Note: Thanks to uh… current events I’m writing this post nearly 3 weeks after leaving Asia. Can’t be helped but hopefully my recollections are clear.)

It wasn’t until I was back in Hanoi a couple days later and I went back to seeing the wizened old ladies running a vegetable stand or a couple of old men playing cards by the lake that it finally struck me what had seemed mildly weird when I was in Cambodia… The sheer youth of the population. I guess it’s something I subconciously noticed but didn’t quite process until the comparison was stark. Intellectually of course I knew Cambodia’s population was one of the youngest in the world, that’s what happens when a madman does his best to kill off an entire generation of a country, but it still took a while to really hit me. Between the Americans, the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian people have been through hell the past fifty years which makes their open friendliness all the more enjoyable. Unfortunately even today their government is among the most corrupt in the world with a strong authoritarian streak. As a traveller on a more grassroots level I try to take heart in the fact that most of my money is going directly to small businesses and people themselves.

Temple Kit

Day two started early (but not pre-dawn early) as I joined my trusty tuk tuk friend to head out to some of the further temple and wow, travelling out into the more rural area was a different experience. Most of the cars you see are relatively new (it’s only been in recent years that importing cars for personal use has been a thing again) and even motorbikes don’t reach anywhere close to Vietnam levels. Dangerously overloaded miniature trucks are definitely a thing though… like the minicab I saw carrying a twenty foot by twenty food cube of plastic barrels down the road and crowding everything else. The further you get out of town the more you see the odd cart/tractor combos as well. Most of these are essentially a hay wagon style cart of varying sizes connected via a long yoke to the front wheel and engine of a tractor. Thankfully these are mostly slow because they seem very unwieldy to control.

The homes and countryside itself reminded me much more of Thailand than of my recent times in Vietnam as well. More buddhist style architecture, lots of gates of the thai style and once again having a mostly indecipherable alphabet to a western eye all contribute to that. It’s also noticeably waiting for the rainy season to green up a bit, much as when I was in south of Thailand. At the same time it’s nowhere near as modern looking as Thailand anywhere. The occasional newly built house sticks out along these rural roads especially as the modern Cambodian appears to be moving back to the cities, yet there are also some modern (often western built and signed) schools as well. At points this contrast becomes very pronounced, nowhere more so than the multiple gas stations we passed with an awning and sign that wouldn’t be out of place on a corner here but sheltering pumps as old as I am and a payment shack made of salvaged lumber and plastic. Low quality scooter/bike gas is available almost everywhere roadside in water bottles and jugs, probably a good thing given how many bikes I saw there completely missing fuel gauges. Travelling fairly early in the morning we passed a number of families sharing one motorcycle, frequently getting a smiling little boy giving me a wave as he sat sandwiched between his sister and mom behind dad.

Carved Lintels and Pediments are everywhere

The first actual stop for the day was Banteay Srei which means Citadel of Women and was supposedly so named because the carvings were so intricate they showed the hand of women in their creation. It’s fairly different from the main complexes for a couple of reasons. First it was built not by a King but by a senior civil servant/philanthropist and secondly it’s build primarily of a red sandstone that makes it look starkly different. The carvings themselves are absolutely beautiful. The pediments and doorway lintels are particularly breathtaking with intricate designs still beautifully preserved. The site is fairly small (perhaps not surprising given it wasn’t royally built) but was one of my favourite visits of the trip.

Banteay Srei

On the way back to the main site my driver asked me if I wanted to stop at the Cambodian Landmine Museum, I decided to not subject myself to the depression (in fact I’d already made a donation to a landmine charity) and spend more time at the temples given my limited time in Cambodia but it’s supposedly a well done exhibit.

Elephant Guardian @ East Mebon

Once back at the main park we proceeded to do the ‘outer circuit’ of very slightly less visited temples including East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, Prasat Kro Ko and Preah Khan.

Some of the temples they do just enough to keep nature from completely reclaiming the site

Ta Som had the same sort of ‘only barely cleared’ vibe as Ta Prohm the day before. Strangler vines and tall trees were everywhere. It was blessedly cooler as a result after baking in the sun at East Mebon earlier.

Ta Som

Preah Neak Poan was one of the more different sites of my visit. It was apparently originally a healing site with a central tower in a pool surrounded by four smaller pools, each one having the power of one of the base elements..

Preah Khan Temple

Surrounded by a moat and reached by floating bridge Preah Khan is the largest complex on the outer circuit and one of the largest of the whole park. It’s also where I got, for lack of a better word, abducted by a tourist police officer. Don’t get me wrong, he was a very nice man but his insistence that I take a photo from all of his favourite spots as he showed me through Preah Khan was beyond intense. No sooner had I taken a shot that he’d grab my elbow and pull me over three more feet to show me how the tree looked at this new angle. At times he’d practically snatch the camera out of my hands to make sure I was taking the photo he wanted. He did provide some great information though and when he unsurprisingly asked for a ‘donation’ when I said goodbye I was happy to oblige. By the time I escaped his clutches my camera was actually almost out of power.

As gorgeous and awe inspiring as Angkor is, I admit between the heat and the volume I was getting kind of templed out. After I crossed back over the moat and braved the varying groups of sellers we made a couple more stops at smaller sites but it was with a fairly satisfied heart that I made my way back to the hotel again for a shower. There are further outer temples and some really interesting sounding sites that would draw me back again for sure, but I was ready for a change of pace for sure.

Unfortunately I’d also somewhat cheaped out and had not sprung for a phone sim for Cambodia. Originally I’d tried to buy one in the airport that (based on an internet post from a year ago) should have worked for Cambodia as well but hadn’t noticed until a day or so later that he’d sold me the one for a competing company. It didn’t matter a whole ton except for the fact that it was only as I got back to the hotel around 2 that I got the message that my cooking class choice was full after all and could I come Tuesday… since I was leaving monday afternoon, not so much. Shower forgotten I went back to my research from the night before and dashed off a bunch of messages and emails, somewhat resigning myself to either missing out or having to get up first thing the next morning to check out then rushing off to do one hurriedly before my flight. When I’d originally tried to book the night before I’d been more picky, several of the classes were only doing things that were very close to the thai/viet classes I’d done and I was hoping to do things more unique to Khmer cuisine but at this point it was try to get whatever I could.

When I got no response I gave up and had a shower. After relaxing and watching something for a while I got a delayed email alert on my phone that said “yes we have a spot for 5pm, you are booked” and as I checked the time I saw: 4:52. I threw on some clothes, got out the door and hopped on the tuk tuk only to get to the end of the alley and find it blocked by a delivery truck. Some truculent honking later I managed to get to the class restaurant at only 5 after and they were thankfully waiting for one other person so I didn’t look like the only asshole (especially when he/she never showed.)

I enjoyed the class at the Paper Tiger but it was probably the worst of the trip cooking classes I’ve taken so far, that said it was also the cheapest. They didn’t have the recipes printed (and in fact this reminds me that I have to email them to remind them to send them) so you couldn’t easily follow along and the chef/teacher woman had a tendency to either give you too little or too much information. Given I was really looking forward to it this was a bit disappointing but it was still a fun time making some tasty dishes with a couple from France. If I went back I’d for sure try to book with the class I’d originally tried to take, my fault for not booking further ahead, I just didn’t expect it to be an issue with the current lack of tourist traffic.

Salad rolls, Papaya salad, Khmer Curry and Amok Fish
Dessert: Deep Fried Cambodian Banana in honey and coconut

My new French friends and I devoured our creations afterwards along with several $0.50 cent beers before they excused themselves as they were doing the 4AM wakeup call the next morning. I transferred a bit further down the street and had a couple ciders while listening a fairly terrible trio of women singing cover songs and just enjoyed the people watching. In the end I was pretty beat from the heat and the climbing and headed back to the guesthouse where I watched soccer with the desk manager and a brit guy for about an hour before turning in.

The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely sleep in to 8:30AM (oh the decadence,) packed, checked out and spent most of the day walking around and discovering the city in the daytime for the first time really. I checked out some craft markets, bought myself a pretty woven blanket and a few gifts and had another phenomenal meal at a place called Cafe Pou. It was Deboned fried chicken wings with spicy sauce, salt & pepper lime sauce, minced prohok, turmeric rice. Just a fantastic meal packed with flavour and a great way to say goodbye to Cambodia.

Sadly it was indeed time to say goodbye, I was glad I’d made the choice to spend the extra day in Siem Reap and I would definitely happily return someday. There was lots more to see out of town, investigating some of the upper mekong would have been interesting as well. Please friends, if one of you goes in the coming years I’d be really interested in knowing how things have changed.

In any case that just about does it for this adventure, I’m just going to write a brief tale of my return to Hanoi and the ridiculous journey home in a burgeoning pandemic, but that will have to wait for next time.

Pre Rup (I think?) The last temple I visited.


Angkor Sunrise

Those of you who are CJS grads of my era will remember an incredibly frustrating project in Core “English” class called your life list. For those that aren’t basically it was a bucket list of (I think) one hundred things you wanted to do before you die. It was an incredibly stupid project that we spent a ludicrous amount of time on in senior year. Now don’t get me wrong, I think getting kids of that age to at least pay some cursory attention to that sort of concept isn’t a bad idea but:

This project required 100 ‘Meaningful’ things you wanted to do in your life AND was going to be posted in public in high school, I don’t know about you but that meant nothing EXTREMELY personal was going on there. As with most of my friends I was grasping at straws after a few dozen… by 70-100 I was straight up making crap up. No 17/18 year old has or even should have 100 goals yet, we’re still discovering who we’re going to be as an adult.

The thing for me is that a big portion of the project involved displaying your 100 things in some meaningful way, some of us just did a poster with some sort of random hook to it (mine was a trombone and my items were on music notes I think?) and some people went ridiculously overboard. I forget how much this project was worth but I recall it being a not insignificant mark in a required ‘english’ course that was essentially being given out for how meaningful my dreams were and my skill at elementary school arts and crafts.

Yes I am still bitter about this (and other things about that class, never got my credits for gunther!) 20+ years later. Sure glad I spent that time on that instead of you know… my real english class that taught me how to write well for university… or Physics! It may not surprise you to note that I believe my parents talked to this teacher at PTIs and were told something like “Tristan does not hide his disdain well and needs to stop rolling his eyes.”

That said… this giant rant serves as a preamble to the fact that one of my legit number one things on that stupid list was “See the sun rise at Angkor Wat” and by god I checked it off. You’re welcome 17 year old me!

Let’s back up a bit though. My mostly nice stay at the Bamboo ended on a bit of a sour note as I realized the maids had thrown out or taken my packing bags. Thankfully I wasn’t so overpacked that it was an issue. As previously discussed in the blog I’d sprung for some air travel to pack as much as possible into the last week and a half. So while it’s theoretically possible to go directly to cambodia from the Phu Quoc area, it involves a fair bit of time on a bus, extended border transition times and then transfering in Phnom Penh to get to where I wanted to be in Siem Reap. It just made more sense to fly there via a quick hop back to HCMC then onward to Siem Reap, then direct from Siem Reap back to Hanoi for my flight home. Thankfully the flights lined up quite well and I was delay free and ended up touching down in Cambodia around 4pm.

First off, Siem Reap has an adorable airport that seemed very new. The other main reason for making sure I got to Cambodia this trip was that I’d sprung for the extra money for a multiple entry Vietnam visa. The Cambodian visa on the other hand was pay on arrival in USD. After getting extorted with a $5 fee at an atm for some yankeebux (I’d spent my reserve the week before paying Dr. Phu.) I stood in the brief line with the other foreigners to pay (most of the plane had been full of locals and Vietnamese who don’t require a visa) I waited for my name to be called. Despite being warned that they have trouble with western names and to pay attention it still took me 3 calls before I realized that Arz-ee was me. Turnabout is fair play and all with how I no doubt butchered the names of everything I tried 😉 Somewhat hilariously the dude asked if I wanted to skip the line, I remembered reading in my guidebook that five bucks can usually get you ahead, but turning around at a mostly empty customs hall I told him I’d take my chances and was in fact through in about 3 minutes. I suppose that scam works better when there are planeloads of chinese tour groups but about a quarter of the arrivals board was cancelled flights that day.

I’d booked in at an eco-guesthouse that offered free airport pickup and the very smiley Mr. Thon was waiting for me with a sign. Stuffing me and my bag onto his Cambodian style tuktuk (essentially a regular motorcycle with a permanent trailer) he took me into the city proper with a running commentary that I could hear about 50% of over the rush of the wind. He told me it was a shame I was here this week instead of next as the new Angkor Eye (a large ferris wheel in the vein of a smaller London Eye) was opening the following week. As we got closer to our destination I wondered if he was taking me somewhere to be killed as we zigzagged across bridges and through lanes until finally turning down a dead end path that…. surprisingly was lined with guest houses out of nowhere.

My place was called the Babel Guesthouse and is run as sustainably as possible by a Norwegian Couple. The lobby contains a shop full of various Hippie home and beauty products, the idea being to refill rather than buy more plastic. This extended to water bottle which is an ethos I can get behind to a point… except that their public refill bottle was just under a thin cloth cover. If you’re going to want me to not buy water it needs to be at least somewhere in the zip code of cold. I’d been places in Thailand that did the same and they had ceramic jackets they could put over the bottles with a bit of ice to keep the water significantly colder. Other than that it was a fairly nice place with a small courtyard bar where you could watch soccer and get a drink/food. The breakfast was apparently nice but I never partook as it wasn’t free and I was usually out of there too early anyway.

After checking in and arranging my (gulp) sunrise excusion to Angkor Wat the next day I set out to explore the town and get some food. Siem Reap is not a particularly large city, somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100k people though of course usually swollen with tourists. While it was busy enough, I walked past several large hotels that looked mostly empty and even one that appeared to be shut down. Crossing over the canal that bisects the city I by chance spotted a restaurant called Chorney Tree that was highly rated in my guidebook and pulled up a chair and I was absolutely famished after skipping lunch.

Last year when I was in Berkeley for a wedding with my food friends we went to a cambodian place for dinner one night and we were all blown away by the flavours. In a trip I knew would be filled with a ton of great food I was probably looking forward to Cambodia the most. That first meal was phenomenal. Beef loc lac (tender thin pieces of marinated beef served with a bright tasting lime and black pepper sauce, crispy fried egg, rice and veggies) and a steamed egg and pork bao. Even later in the evening it was still very hot so relaxing with a great meal under a whirling fan was lovely, especially washing it down with a beer and a fruit smoothie as well as some crispy banana chips made with those amazingly sweet se asian bananas.

Walking a bit further after dinner I discovered the main Siem Reap night market and pub street which is basically tourist central after dark. There is a proper market but it’s surrounded by all sorts of restaurants, numerous upper floor bars blaring at each other across narrow alleys and even a kickboxing/wrestling ‘arena’ (there is apparently a full sized kickboxing arena in town as well that has more traditional events.) I had a quick look around but as I’d arranged to leave for the temples at 4:30 the next morning I went to bed basically the moment I thought there was a chance of sleeping.

Man four A.M. is early, especially when you’re in vacation mode. I mean I’d mostly been getting up at a reasonable hour this trip due to none of the hotels having blackout curtains or being particularly well soundproofed… but 4 is another matter entirely. Up, showered and (quasi) awake I made my way out front where my driver was waiting with a similar tuk tuk to the one I’d taken the day before. Bleary eyed as I was I didn’t actually make note of any of its identifying features which was an issue later. By 4:45 we’d arrived at the Angkor ticket office for the national park which contains the temples. Nominally it opens at 5am but I guess they start a bit early, unfortunately I didn’t notice the small sign that said the 1 and 3 day passes were different lines and only just managed to change lines before the first of the tourbuses arrived and started disgorging more hordes behind me. One can only imagine how much busier it would have been with another 10 buses with Chinese folks. Tickets are fairly pricey, but one can imagine they’re the main way the conservation is funded so I’m a-ok with that. It was $62 us for a three day pass so I grabbed one despite not being sure if I’d be doing that much time.

Cleaning the moat of weeds

It was still pitch black as he ran me down the road towards the park entrance and it was with fairly vague directions that I was pointed at Angkor Wat itself but even ahead of the main crowd there was a trickle of visitors confirming I was heading the right way and eventualy I found myself at the edge of the moat water. February is firmly in Cambodia’s hot and dry season and space at the water’s edge was at a bit of a premium but I was still kind of shocked at how many people were trying to cram around the water in hopes of grabbing a reflection shot of the sunrise. It was a fairly long wait and as dawn approached swarms more people arrived and people started demanding those in front get down. Unfortunately I was standing in mud but managed to find a dry spot because there was no way my knees were going to handly crouching for 45 minutes. Occasionally people up front stood to stretch or take a shot and some loudmouth Australian who had just arrived kept yelling out crap about ‘sit down, do you think you’re special’ or the like. I mean I get it, let’s try and let as many people enjoy the best view possible but give people a break. Eventually he yelled ‘Your mother would be ashamed of you’ and I yelled back something in the vein of “my mother taught me to be places on time” and got a few claps and cheers from folks at the front.

Detail Starts to become visible

Sunrise itself was slow in coming but absolutely magical. For the most part people kept their yaps shut once it arrived and you just heard the occasional hushed whisper or whirr of a camera shutter. I can’t really described it but those ancient towers slowly coming into view in front of the growing dawn light made it easy to imagine you’d been transported through time.

Once dawn had well and truly arrived I gave in to my aches (should have done this when you were younger T) and got up and walked around the moat towards the main temple. Angkor Wat is the only one of the temples in the region to have been continually used since being built (in the 12th century originally as a Hindu temple) and is thus the best preserved. It’s also the largest single religious monument in the world.

Relief Carvings

I’d actually walked in complete darkness over the floating bridge that is replacing the causeway during repairs and through the 5km long outer wall but now that daylight was here the galleries and inner area were opened and I could explore in earnest. The pure symetry of the place is what strikes you first after you start to comprehend the sheer scale.

Tower and Terrace

In addition to the spires and long raised galleries Angkor Wat is famous for the intricate bas-reliefs that adorn the walls. The most famous of these is the ‘churning of the ocean of milk’ a representation of the reinvigoration of the universe comprising dozens of painstakingly carved asuras and devas.

Churning of the Milk

Interestingly a lot of the modern restoration work has focused on cleaning out or reimplementing the original drainage and cleaning systems from construction as earlier restoration efforts caused as much damage as they fixed. Other efforts involve keeping plant life at bay, more on that later.


I spent what felt like ages exploring the place but it was still quite early when I made my way back towards the floating bridge and discovered that while I had a vague idea of what my driver looked like I had zero idea which of a probably fifty tuktuks was mine. Eventually I spotted a dude in a red shirt in the distance which turned out to be my driver Tam. This time I made sure I looked at the ad on the back of the seat to better spot it later.

A couple KM north lies the south gate of Angkor Thom, once the capital of the Khmer empire until it was later sacked by the Ayuthaya kingdom of Siam/Thailand. Unlike Angkor Wat this was an actual townsite and large number of people lived here before it was abandoned, though most of the later buildings were not stone and don’t survive today. What remains is gorgeous though, a number of temples and terraces in noticeably different styles.

Bridge View

The main temple of Bayon, probably the second most famous after Angkor Wat itself had a number of monkeys hanging around outside. They were surprisingly unpushy though there were a few warnings around about being careful. Though in much poorer shape than some other temples (and currently undergoing a major restoration effort of the upper levels) there’s still a vast maze of passages to discover. The towers carved with massive faces are very impressive.

Bayon Towers
Bayon – Center of Angkor Thom
Some guy on a bridge

From there I snaked through and walked the long causeway to the Baphuon temple which was one of the few you could climb to the top (up some absolutely mentally steep wooden stairs that covered the originals for preservation purposes.)

View from top of Baphuon back down the Causeway
Causeway to Baphuon in Angkor Thom

Phimeanakas was just to the north of there and was apparently the royal palace area for much of the era of the city. It’s guarded by the terrace of the elephants from which one could once see the royal processions from the victory gate.


A quick stop for lunch and a giant bottle of water helped me recharge a bit as the full heat of the day had arrived and it was probably pushing 35c with not much of a breeze to speak of. I was glad I’d had some time to adjust to the heat before getting here.

Some of the more sheltered carvings have been well preserved

Our next stop was Ta Prohm, known as the Tomb Raider temple due to being used to film several sequences in the original Jolie film adapatation of the game. This is one of the temples where the conservation work has focused on maintaining the balance between invading nature and keeping the temples whole. Large trees and vines grown around, through and actually on the temple buildings and walls and if you catch a courtyard at a deserted moment it’s easy to imagine you’ve just emerged from the jungle to find a forgotten ruin.

Ta Promh with a tree growing on top of (not through) the temple
Ta Promh the Tomb Raider temple

We Finished the first day’s exploration at Banteay Kdei and Sra Srang. Banteay Kdei was a monastery but is in poor repair now, apparently due to using lower quality stone than many of the other monuments. Sra Srang is a large resevoir with terraces which was used as a bathing area for the royal family and every time I went by it on this trip there were a number of kids swimming.

My driver offered to drop me off at pub street and I agreed thinking a drink and a snack might be nice, but when he forgot and took me back to the hotel I sucumbed to the lure of a shower and a nap. I must admit it was nice that the guesthouse had their own crew of trusted drivers, they make a point of paying them a solid wage (it probably cost about 30% more than if I’d hired a random person) but the guys did a good job at steering you around properly, dropping you at the right place and time to avoid as much of the crowds as possible and chimed in with the occasional fact that added some context.

Khmer spiced chicken and spring rolls

Once I’d recharged I walked back over to the night market and explored more thoroughly before eventually ending up down a side street at a tiny place that smelled amazing when I stopped to look at the menu. The resulting meal was almost as good as the night before, Khmer Spiced chicken skewers and ultra crispy spring rolls. Walking back I noticed a movie theatre which just like the ones in Vietnam was essentially a giant chaotic motorbike garage under the teeniest of lobbies and a couple screening rooms. I finished the night in a random bar along the pub street having a couple drinks and just people watching now that it had cooled down a bit.

Pub Street

I’m pretty sure I was out the moment I hit the pillow though with the nap I did manage to stay awake until a reasonable hour, thankfully day two was going to start a bit later.

Island Getaway

Sunset Fisherman

Phu Quoc is an island in the extreme south west tip of Vietnam, and sits in the gulf of Thailand. It’s so far west in fact that looking at it on a map it looks like it should belong to Cambodia. It’s a small island, only about 50km long but is actually Vietnam’s largest offshore posession. As of a couple years ago it doesn’t even require a Visa so there are now a number of flights direct here from overseas and it’s exploding as a beach getaway destination for (based on what I saw) lots of russians and expats. In addition to being an international destination it’s all of a 45min flight from Saigon so a weekend getaway destination for those with means as well. My purpose here was to get a bit of scuba diving in and actually spend a bit of time relaxing as this has been a pretty active trip so far.

It’s a pretty place as you land, still mostly forested unlike a lot of Vietnam. Most of the island is the one coastal road with mostly small narrow tracts of land down to the beach with hotels (at least on this section, other areas are wilder.) There are a number of mega resorts further from town though and from what I understand at least 5 more under construction. Personally I’d chosen a small cheap-ish resort near-ish the town of Duong Dong since I still had a bit of heavier spending ahead but if I was going back I’d spend a tiny bit more and be closer to the beach or perhaps one of the remote ones in the north or east of the island. That said it was a cute little hotel with a small but nice swimming pool.

Bamboo Resort

The beach stretching south of Duong Dong town is called Long Beach. As mentioned the side closest the ocean is unsurprisingly hotels, the other side snakes against the hills and is mostly shops and restaurants with the occasional narrow lane snaking upwards with smaller guest houses and homes. My little resort was on one of these just off the road, thankfully quiet from the main road-ish.

Jackfruit Tree by my room

Unfortunately for the realities of life my absolute first priority was laundry as I was out of even vaguely clean clothing. I forget if I’ve mentioned on this before but in this part of the world you usually get your laundry done by the kilo, taking it in and picking it up washed, dried and folded a day later at worst. On Phu Quoc this cost me the grand total of ~$1usd a kilo. I know, the pure excitement of this travelogue.

Laundry sorted I headed north and started scouting food for my stay as well as making the most unfortunate mistake of stopping in at my dive shop and arranging my pickup in person. My resort was called Bamboo Resort or some such but there was also Bamboo Cottages and Bamboo something else. The french guy who seemed to be one of the senior dive folks got it in his head that I was at one of the other ones and told me my pickup site would be at hotel X in the morning. When I got back to the area of my hotel and didn’t see the place I looked it up and it was a 35m walk in the opposite direction, it would be closer to walk to the actual shop at 7 in the morning. This began a 4 hour email chain with the shop that ended with them giving me a list of stops that were all closer to my hotel (I was 90% sure) but insisting that the original one was closest despite me twice providing them with an actual address to look up. At this point they had closed and I was screwed. Looking back I wish I’d just cancelled and gone with a less obtuse operator but these guys were the top rated for the island and I had a reserved spot.

While this had been going on I’d been doing more pleasant things at least. I’d changed into my new shorts/fake swim trunks and found the nearest path down to the beach. Since it obligingly faced west I was treated to a gorgeous sunset over rippling waves. The water was quite clear and the beach not too bad, certainly better than the one near Hoi An. The water was also like 29c and like stepping into a heated pool. In fact, after I walked back up to the hotel and got all warm again I hopped into the pool and it was significantly colder (though refreshing.)

Dinner that night was indulging the want for north american style meat that had been so cruelly quashed the night before. Right next door to my hotel was a burger joint run by an American ex-pat named Winston. My hotel had told me it was tasty (which I’m always leery about when it’s just next door) but it actually showed up in Lonely Planet as well. I had a delicious bacon burger made with some juicy aussie beef, a plate of tasty wedges and a couple beers. Expensive by Viet standards but sometimes you just have a craving.

The next morning I sucked it up and walked down to my super handy pickup point which took fully 10 minutes longer than the google estimate (normally I can beat the est. by about 15%) to find the van waiting and the same french dude reappearing from somewhere saying ‘I went to your hotel.’ I said, no you didn’t.. blah blah blah.. and he completely ignored me because it was my fault we were running late… yeah right. Sure enough we picked up two people at closer stops to my hotel, one all of a 5m walk away. Assholes.

By 8 we were all on the dive boat regardless and began cruising to the north of the island for our dive sites. Along the way we stopped a couple times at the more remote resorts and the little shore boat we were towing went in to pick up people from the beach. It took us about two hours to reach the north end of the island (she was not a fast boat since even with the stops that was at most a 20km journey.) I had to laugh at the type A American business consultant woman who I heard comment multiple times about how she didn’t expect so much of the time just to be travelling etc. You come to a place like this to relax lady, you’re on a boat trip along a beautiful tropical island. Chill.

Fishing Boats (many of which fish at night)

I spent most of the trip talking to a dutch couple who were just planning to snorkel. I’d actually read a few posts about the diving that said that the snorkeling was just as good or better, but having been screwed over on the last trip I wanted to get under for a bit. I know I’ve said it before but a good dive boat is the best of the human race. People from all over the world managing to communicate and have a good time mostly talking about their love of the sea.

For our actual dive I was paired up with a swiss german named Peter and lead by Simon a man from Saint-Tropez with a French father and a Vietnamese mother. After convincing him that no I absolutely did NOT need a wetsuit in 29c water and would be fine in a rashguard. We dropped under and went down about an 8m average to skim around the reef. Visibility wasn’t superb, 3-5m depending on the current where we were. The warm water coral was quite pretty but life wise the variety was unfortunately minimal. As is unfortunately a running theme on this travelogue the vietnamese have a serious problem with overfishing and anything of any size whatsoever is sitting in a tank at the night market. Combined with the fact that the new mega resorts have already closed two of their previous dive sites and one wonders about the future of the passtime on Phu Quoc.

Dive Site – Turtle Island surrounded by reef

Dive two was a bit shallower on the other side of the same reef but visibility was better. Saw a few more things but the highlight was probably a single pretty anenome no one had poached yet with a couple anenomefish darting in and out. Once we started the slow journey back our deckhand/chef brought out lunch: a simple but tasty vietnamese buffet of rice, chicken, tofu, morning glory and noodles. I’ll say this for them, on the boat they were a good crew of dive leaders. Back on land however, the asshat told the driver to take me back to the pickup point, I mean I’d literally pointed out the hotel as we drove by. In the end I’d planned to just hop off at one of the other drop off points but we he got held up by a garbage truck near-ish my laundry place I just insisted that they let me off there. It was such an unnecessary trial to deal with.

Grabbing a couple ciders at the minimart I took everything back to the hotel and hopped in the pool with a book, leaning on the edge and reading for probably an hour and a half before grabbing a very nice curry dinner and heading to bed early-ish where I wrote a blog post and struggle to last past 9 (as is usual on diving days.)

Beach Time

The next day was pure relaxation. Slept in as long as I could (8:30 when the dude cleaning the pool was right outside my window.) Had a relaxed breakfast. Spent most of the day walking the beach and occasionally taking a swim. Eventually wound up back at the hotel and read a book and drank a few drinks by the pool. Rubbed the tummy of the hotel dog a bit. I wandered down to the night market which was a large number of seafood restaurants, many selling exotic stuff and I just couldn’t patronize them given what I’d seen the previous day. Had a tasty vietnamese dinner further back up the road then hung out in a weird courtyard bar where they played 90s/early oughts alterna-rock while playing chaplin films on a projector. It was a nice bit of a recharge.

Phu Quoc Night Market

Thinking back to it now it feels like it may be on its way to being Vietnam’s Phuket (Russians and all.) I enjoyed it a lot, the main beach is kept clean at least though again there’s the garbage and plastic problem everywhere. From reading things ahead of time some of the other beaches are less clean. The authorities are also letting the new resorts build restaurants out on tiny islands and blocking off the snorkeling sites as a result. Here’s hoping they settle down a bit soon on the big hotels, expand the marine reserves and actually enforce them.

Fingers crossed…

Sunset face

On to Saigon

District 1 at Night (near hotel alley)

I’m flying around a bit more this trip but that’s a factor of Vietnam’s relatively slow trains/buses vs. cheap flights. I’m guessing between the wars and the proliferation of motorbike culture since the country opened up there hasn’t been much priority on upgrading what was originally built by the french in the late 1800s. There’s certainly no high speed passenger portions of the track that I can see and the route frequently hugs the coast making for beautiful views… and 18 hours to cover 500km distances.. Unfortunately while I had some interest in the areas between the central coast and Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon it became a question of priorities and unfortunately with having to take a train bus combo part of those options it was just going to take up too much of my remaining time. Still, it doesn’t hurt to have things you’d like to come back and do next time.

I did take one train trip however, the previously discussed hop back down the coast from Hue to Danang. This was a short one but flights were significantly cheaper out of danang on the day in question and the train ticket was $4. I had hoped I had a window seat for the lovely coast but unfortunately the jokers at Vietnam national railways flipped the orientation from what was shown on the booking site.

The Vietnamese train experience was an odd contrast to the Thai one, simultaneously more advanced and more backwards. The one positive was that booking online gave you an e-ticket that was perfectly valid to board the train, the negative being you can’t pay for anything on the actual site with a foreign credit card and thus have to pay a commission to a broker. I ended up doing the same in Thailand of course but it was worse there as you then had to go to the broker’s office near the train station in order to pick up your actual ticket. The trains themselves were nicer in Thailand too, though quality depends on the specific train of course. I was in second class soft with AC which is pretty standard backpacker travel, the sleepers are apparently a bit nicer in terms of accommodation but also aren’t as good for the daytime travel. The Vietnam trains often include private first class cars bolted on the end as well so if you’re travelling as a group that can be fun getting a slightly swankier experience… though depending on where you’re going you’re likely paying more than a flight. Still, I’ll give a sleeper a try next time I’m in Vietnam I think.

The Train Line from above a couple days earlier

Despite being on the wrong side facing backwards the views were still great, I just didn’t want to be that guy getting up to lean over and take a photo. That same azur blue sea sparkling beneath the steep drop I’d seen from above on the bike. It took us a couple hours to roll into Danang at which point I transfered straight to the airport and on to Saigon.

Saigon is definitely more like what I expected Hanoi to be. The motorbikes are even more insane, everything is denser and the air quality is not great. Simultaneously it’s also more old fashioned and noticeably more french. Wide boulevards with large pedestrian paths are much more common and the architecture has noticeably brutalist soviet style presences. Riding downtown from the airport one got a definite feel of a more cosmopolitan city, whatever pretensions Hanoi has to being more cultured, though perhaps I’d feel differently if I lived in both places a while.) The bus ride into the city even had the curious diversion of a short stop for what appeared to be young ladies from the health department in cheerleader outfits handing out facemasks as part of the coronavirus measures. Unfortunately this stop turned out to be my first mild stinker of a hotel. Nothing major, it was clean and ‘ok’ just a tiny windowless box, the only benefit of which was quiet and a location close to most of the sights in District 1.

Large Pedestrian Boulevards actually exist here!

District 1 is basically the center of town and contains (or is near) the backpacker/budget hotel district… The fancier wannabe champs elysee area with the high end hotels and the swankier restaurants… And the ‘diplomatic’ area with a bunch of the consulates and the former presidential palace/now museum. It’s also close to the Ben Thanh night market which I decided to check out the first night. It turned out to unsurprisingly be mostly the same old tourist tat but nearby was another area marked as specifically the Ben Thanh Street Food market and that was delightful. Far too cramped as it’s crammed into a tiny lot rather than in a park setting but at least it had a second level of seating. After browsing around a bit I got a pork and shrimp banh xeo (vietnamese fried pancake/omelette thing) and a lemongrass chicken skewer with a peanuty sauce. The band pictured below were quite energetic. Sated and somewhat wiped from all the travel I tried my best to watch a soccer game and have a beer or two back closer to the hotel but I didn’t last long and retreated to my cave.

Ben Thanh Street Food Market

After a bit of a sleep in (the first time it’s been quiet enough to do so) I set out to explore a bit more of Saigon. First stop was the Reunification Palace which is the former presidential palace and site of South Vietnam’s official surrender to the NVA. The original home on the site was that of the Governor General of the region under the french occupation before becoming the presidential palace during Diem’s regime.

View from the Palace

Being the swell guy he was Diem’s own airforce decided to try and kill him and flattened the original building. This replacement was built during the war years, Diem getting killed in another coup attempt before it was finished. After the NVA tanks broke through to raise the flag it wasn’t used for much until being opened as a museum so it’s a pretty great time capsule of 60s architecture and design.

Reuinfication Palace
President’s Receiving Office

My map let me know that one of the restaurants that had sounded interesting was nearby on one of those wide european looking boulevards. Called Propaganda it did fancier versions of street food from around Vietnam in a trendy bistro lined with old propaganda posters and murals based on them. Really tasty and with some amazing (though overpriced imo) fresh fruit smoothies. It was interesting but honestly felt like someplace in the Bay Area or Vancouver.

Notre Dame Saigon Style
Notre Dame

Next up was the latest stop in the disappointing asian churches tour! I joke, I joke, but turns out that Notre Dame in Saigon is getting the TLC that St. Joseph’s in Hanoi so desperately needs. Unfortunately that meant it was covered in scaffolding and closed to visitors. The nearby late 1800s french built post office was fascinating though with historical maps on the wall and Eiffel reminiscent ironwork.

The Post Office
Vintage Maps on the wall

Unfortunately it was a baking hot day and the air quality was not great so I wasn’t feeling amazing by the time I’d walked the couple km to my next destination. That combined with the coronavirus notices everywhere made the pagoda somewhat of a disappointment. I’m sure it’s much more atmospheric when not covered in ugly printed notices and everyone wearing masks.

Jade Emperor Pagoda (one of the few shots I could get without a billboard)

All things considered this called for a drink and it so happened that I wandered near one of Vietnam’s explosion of craft breweries, this one called Heart of Darkness. I tried their delicious Kumquat Pale Ale first before trying a Mango cider from Hanoi out of their limited range. Both were phenomenal and left me feel much cooler, though sitting under a fan in their courtyard reading a book for a while as I drank helped too.

Street Scene

The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets of HCMC and just admiring the architecture, occasionally grabbing a seat and people watching and just generally trying to absorb some of the vibe of the city.

A Junk Restaurant on the riverfront
Uncle Ho & City Hall

Dinner was at another beautiful courtyard restaurant, but this time the solo traveller next to me from Japan massively overordered and kept offering me some of his food so I got to try almost triple the dishes including some amazing duck, an absolutely flaming hot shrimp dish and a fried salt chicken wing. By the time I got back to the hotel around 11 I was stuffed and positively roasted.

Quite an atmospheric restaurant

On the Mekong

The Mekong Delta evokes different images to different people I’ve spoken to. For some it’s that quintessential vietnamese image of rice paddies and flat bottomed boats, for others it’s the Vietnam War movie scene of an American patrol boat out looking for VC down a muddy brown river. Even on a quick one day tour out of the city to the region I got a brief taste of just what a labyrinth of rivers the region is made up of. Islands are everywhere, most only accessibly by water, and most devoted to agriculture. Over half of Vietnam’s rice is grown here, though ‘here’ is a pretty vast region made up of multiple provinces. We also got glimpses of small scale fish farms, coconut and fruit plantations and village level industry like coconut wood production, candy making and other things. Our guide told us that many of the vendors in Saigon drive out every morning to buy things from the villagers in order to resell in the city.

Mekong village gathering space

This being somewhat of a basic tour we were given many opportunities to buy lots of different things, but it was still an interesting window. Based on what I’ve read what we saw was not disimilar from what the rest of the delta is like, just that life gets even simpler the farther you get from HCMC or from the other major city in the delta area.

Angry Lunch – Elephant Ear Fish I believe

We did get an absolutely wonderful lunch and entertainment in the form of the young korean guy on our crew who was obviously terrified of dogs and who’d jump and run from the table when the most harmless looking little puppy got within 10 feet of him. This continued the rest of the day with the kid acting like any dog in distance was a cobra and backing into walls to avoid getting closer.


Overall the tour was so-so. It basically just whet my appetite to go back and do a more extensive one at some point as there are more involved tours that let you go out to the floating markets at convergence points in the delta as well as staying overnight in some of the outlying towns. Unfortunately for everyone who makes a living on the delta it’s a really delicate ecosystem that is probably going to get absolutely slammed in the next decade or two. The entire area is barely above sea level and will get inundated if climate change predictions are even close to correct. Even if things turn out better than expected pretty much every country upstream of vietnam on this vast life giving river is planning some sort of hydroelectric project that is going to mess with the water table. Reading online it looks as though Cambodias giant waxing and waning lake that feeds half the country and Vietnam’s ricebowl are both in serious danger as the hydrodynamics are very finely balanced.

Back in HCMC a couple hours later I found myself craving something not Vietnamese so sought out what was supposedly an American bbq joint run by expats… only to find that it was closed for renos after a 30m walk, another 30m walk led to discovering the next place had closed permanently at which point it started to absolutely pour and I dove into the first place I saw that had a roof and tasty looking things (this of course being the first night I’d gone out without my backpack and raincoat.) Dinner was lovely but man had I been craving that brisket from the restaurant’s website (you think you’d mention one of your two locations was closed for 3 months on your website but nope :p ) Thankfully there was a break in the rain about an hour later and I managed to scurry back to the area around my hotel and listen to a band for a while before bed.

The next morning I said goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon and headed off to Phu Quoc Island to get a bit of beach time and some diving done.

Top Gear Pass and Imperial Walker

Looking down the pass

Those of you who are old version Top Gear fans may have watched the Vietnam special they did many years ago now. The middle section of the special has them having (silly) suits made then driving their bikes over the Hai Van pass between Hoi An/Danang and Hue. This is the point where if I recall correct Jeremy briefly starts liking biking and all three guys are in awe of the view. Originally I’d planned to do this journey too but in the opposite direction, but the flight issues I mentioned in the last post made it easier to do it this way then fly out of Hue or (as eventually happened) just backtracking on a short leg of the train. In doing some research I’d found a good small company that took you across on motorbikes for all of $40usd which sounded tons more appealing than a tourbus.

The headland beyond the pass

One last great breakfast at the Hotel Hai Au (as always I also use this blog as a reminder for myself 😉 ) then out front to meet ‘Dr. Phu’ who plastic wrapped my pack then loaded it all up on the bike before we set off. I’d fully expected this to be a pretty direct trip with a few photo stops but Dr. Phu was intent on showing off his country as best he could entirely to my delight. We exited Hoi An by zig zagging through the rice paddies surrounding the town (some of which I’d wrong turned by on the way to the beach the day before) then moved on past shrimp farms and the ‘vegetable village’ that apparently grows much of the produce for the restaurants in town. I was amazed at how many small guesthouses were even out here but the ‘homestay’ concept is popular with some visitors here, though I imagine you’d want your own bike staying some of these places. It was probably an hour before we actually hit the road back towards Da Nang.

Marble Mountains

Our first actual stop and chance to rest my poor still not fully healed (c’mon already) tailbone was the Marble Mountains. These are five marble monoliths on the outskirts of Da Nang which are named for the elements and have pagodas and shrines dotting them. Surrounding the bases are marble carvers though the villagers now import chinese marble rather than further mining from their tourist attractions. Again, if you watched the top gear special this is where James’ present came from.

Marble Mountains – Thuy Son

The major one of these Marble Mountains is Thuy Son or the Water Mountain. A quick trip up in the world’s hottest elevator revealed a gorgeous garden of sorts, paths carved everywhere between Pagodas and natural caves housing shrines. The one downer was of course that a mega hotel is being constructed between the mountain and the ocean, spoiling the view completely.

Thuy Son Cave Shrine

Back on the road we snaked through the busy streets of Da Nang, crossed the Dragon Bridge, (An arched bridge with dragon heads added as though it were a sea monster) and started heading up the coast. A tunnel was completed somewhere around a decade ago which thankfully cuts the traffic down though fuel trucks and others still have to use the pass. Dr. Phu stopped us just up the first couple switchbacks where there was a superb view of the beach already far below and a glimpse of the train track I’d return on in a few days time. What a phenomenal view, especially on probably the best day I’d had weatherwise thus far.

The Hai Van Pass

We stopped several more times in the pass for photos. Not so long ago this region was the extreme north of South Vietnam and the pass was an important military site. The former DMZ lies just north of Hue but even here at the top of the pass there are the ruins of a former lookout station/bunker and bullet holes still clearly visible everywhere. The view in both directions is phenomenal, winding tarmac zigzagging down to the sea in both direction, unfortunately the all too everpresent garbage problem in Vietnam is pretty bad as well.

Fort at the top of the pass riddled with bullets
On the way down

Now at the bottom of the pass we arrived at a fishing village called Lang Co. There’s a series of lagoons along the coast here with semi salt water and a large number of oyster farms. Phu showed me in his words the ‘fancy fancy’ restaurants then took me to a place he said locals eat. I suspect it’s more likely ‘place he gets a small commission’ but there were definitely a good mix of locals and tourists and I got a lounge chair under a palapa staring out at breaking waves and eating some reasonable food. At his insistence I tried some local scallops done in chili and peanut, scallops are not usually my thing but these were delicious. I also had a cider and some shrimp noodles and just enjoyed the view and the breeze for what felt like a couple hours. Dr. Phu was actually from Hue so he was in no great hurry.

Lang Co

As we moved onward eventually he continued to take us along the road less travelled hitting a couple of minor passes rather than taking tunnels and eventually winding up at a local swimming spot called Elephant Springs. I wasn’t expecting this (nor did he really explain) so I wasn’t wearing my suit but in the end no regrets. Reading the reviews of this place afterwards I gather it’s a mega scam in busy season. Basically a rushing crystal clear river that forms a series of natural pools as it drops down there are bamboo huts with mats along the edge all the way down. I gather if you’re here on your own motorbike as a tourist you get charged the admittance fee then someone tries to charge you to swim, to sit in a hut etc etc etc with trash everywhere. I think because of the time of year mostly what we saw was locals rebuilding the huts. Apparently it floods quite severely in the rainy season and washes everything away… They should take the hint. The reviews on TripAdvisor make it sound awful with people putting up tarps and whatnot to make extra pools and basically just messing with what was probably originally a very naturally gorgeous place. The fact that we were off season and the place was just setting up again saved us from the worst of it and it was nice to cool off by dipping my feet in the water but still kind of sad. I hate to keep comparing the two countries but when I was at the falls in Kanchanaburi in Thailand there were such strict controls about bringing any plastic in and everything stayed pristine as a result.

Elephant Springs

As we made our final run in to the old imperial capital of Hue it was some mildly exciting highway driving with a couple minor stops for photos. I was glad to get off before it was fully dark but overall it had been a spectacular (and much fuller than expected) day on the bike. With a thank you and a hefty tip I sent Dr. Phu home to his family, checked in to a hotel room with a bathtub!!! (that I later found out wouldn’t hold water) and headed out to explore the cuisine of Hue.

Dr. Phu and Some Guy

I’d seen the same recommendation three different places and boy did it not disappoint. 130000 Dong ($7.50) five course set menu to try a bunch of ‘royal’ Hue specialties. It all came at once and the tiny woman who brought it all showed me how to eat the things I’d never seen before. Little Banh Beo steamed rice dumplings with shrimp and green onion that you poured a bit of sauce on then shot almost like an oyster. Banh khoai which are like an extra fried banh xeo just encrusted with shrimp. Fried spring rolls and fresh rice wrapped charbroiled pork, the juiciest things with peanut sauce. And Nem Lui, lemongrass pork grilled on a skewer of lemongrass that you then wrap with veggies in rice paper and go to town on with more sauce. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far meal wise.

The DMZ bar

The big attraction in Hue is the Imperial Citadel which was the seat of the monarchy in the 1800s up until the end of the dynasty in 1945. Most of the other side of the Perfume River is encircled with massively thick stone walls with narrow archways constantly flooded with traffic. Things could definitely be set up better but eventually you arrive at the inner citadel/enclosure and buy your ticket. As with seemingly every other cultural site in central Vietnam the Americans did a number on this one too, though the French went to town as well. According to my guidebook only 20 of 148 buildings survived. Soon after entering you can see a well done video where a South Korean university has done graphical reconstructions of some of the areas. Restoration work is ongoing however and some of the remaining structures are breathtaking.

The Perfume River
The outer wall… yes that is the path to get in squeezing next to bikes and cabs

It was a baking hot day for exploring and despite buying some extra water on the way over there was definitely some extended breaks when I found a particularly shady and breezy spot. Highlights of the enclosure were probably the front gate and the main audience hall as well as some of the surrounding temples. The detail work in some of the tiling is just breathtaking and I loved the lanterns.

I loved the detailing of the lamps with porcelain screens
The Ngo Mon Gate (1833)

A solid bird will be flipped to Lonely Planet for recommending doing it counter clockwise when you can’t actually exit back through the front but have to go out the side which meant a fairly massive detour to get back to where you originally came in. Something’s probably changed since this edition of the guidebook came out but it makes absolutely no sense how they’ve arranged things. You think they’d want to make things easy on pedestrians. Still, it was 100% worth the visit. I finished off the afternoon with a late lunch of a bowl of the other Hue specialty: Bun Bo Hue, a beef noodle soup to die for. Despite that fact that I love it, despite the fact that I was starving, a small bowl at this recommended place absolutely destroyed me and I barely finished it before sloshing back to the hotel for a shower.

One of the restored buildings

In order to make my flight the next morning out of Da Nang I was having to take a fairly early train, so I spent my evening having a few drinks and some appetizers at an odd little bar in the tourist zone listing to a band play surf-y covers of pop songs until I figured it was bedtime. I wouldn’t have minded spending another day in Hue and heading out to some of the surrounding stuff but in order to have time to see Saigon and still go diving I figured this was the best plan. There’s always next time.

Boss Hogg

This was a really great section of the trip, if you’re in the area I can’t recommend Dr. Phu and HueToGoTours enough. I would imagine you can hire him for other tours as well but the Hai Van pass was definitely a fun thing to check off my list. I really appreciated seeing more of the countryside and getting to stop and look around places without a busload of other people right on my heels.


Up next: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon