Vietnam 2020 travelogue!

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.

Terrifying

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.

Dinner
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.

Selfies!

Up next: Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon

Ancient Town Lanterns and Ancient-er Ruins

As ridiculously great as the boat trip had been, starting out back to Hanoi reminded me that I was still worried about potential closures. I’d also made the decision to fly south rather than take a sleeper train. Part of that was that you had to book the trains well in advance online but it also took an indordinate amount of time (the trains are not fast) and was only about 5-15 dollars cheaper. I’d also overheard some australians from the other boat say that there were at least 5 more flights today to Da Nang. Given that we were going to back late enough in the day that I couldn’t really get a full day of sights in and that I’d decided to fly to my next stop regardless it seemed more sensible to just turn that day into a full on travel day and bounce straight to the airport. I was sorta torn between the next two hops but flying to Da Nang and taking a cab to Hoi An ended up being the best option and I’d figure out the next hop later.

Even outside of the ancient town there are lanterns and lights, this particular one is left over Tet: lunar new year

After what was assuredly not the world’s safest flight on a discount viet carrier (though I got the exit row to myself!) I arrived in Hoi An and bargained a cabbie down to at least close to what the fare should have been. Hoi An is about 30-45m away from Da Nang but doesn’t have an airport or train station of its own. Thanks to a delay on what was already a late-ish flight I was rolling in pretty late and I guess my cabbie had a hot date to get to or something as he was swerving around even more than normal. The concept of ‘right of way’ isn’t really a thing in Vietnam but boy this particular cabbie get upset if he thought you’d taken away his. At one point a motorbike did an admittedly dumb left turn in front of him and we stopped to scream out the window at this poor kid and his girlfriend. Still, I arrived in one piece, eventually figured out I had to slide open what seemed like a crash barrier to get inside and checked in.

Pretty streets

As an aside, my name is most decidedly not in the native Vientamese speaker wheelhouse and it’s been fun seeing all the different ways it gets pronounced. Likewise I’m doing my best on pronouncing my Vietnamese but the tones are a difficult thing to handle.

Oddly though, this particular reception person acted as if she didn’t have my reservation and I had to bring up the confirmation on my phone to get her to accept that I was expected… yet the moment I went upstairs she was closing down the reception desk so they were clearly waiting for me? After throwing my gear into the room I wandered out into town to see what was still open for food and the answer was… not much. I eventually found a bag of chips and some drinks at a mini mart then thank goodness a banh mi cart near one of the bars actually still open. (For reference I think it was around 9:45, but any place I walked by that was still open said the kitchen was closed.) Exploring the town later I think if I’d headed across the river some of the backpacker joints might have had food but I was tired and sated so I headed back for sleep.

In the morning I discovered why every single person who’d been there said not to miss it. Many years ago Hoi An was one of the primary trading ports of central Vietnam. Chinese and Japanese traders would live there parts of the year and conduct their business and eventually more and more roots were settled. Even after the Japanese withdrew into their bubble the town remained important until the river silted up. The resulting UNESCO world heritage site boasts a large number of ancient shop fronts and chinese community halls seemingly most of which are decorated with paper lanterns at night. The central core of the ‘ancient town’ is supposedly kept vehicle free for most of the day (I’d call this more accurately ‘motorbike light’ but it’s better than nothing.)

One of many tailoring shops

The strict restrictions on modification to the old buildings combine with standardized signage to make navigation somewhat of a challenge at first but it starts to make sense reasonably quickly. Of course, part of the issue is that seemingly 3 out of every 4 shops in Hoi An are tailoring shops. It’s honestly mystifying how they all survive. There are several larger ones, most with multiple locations and a ridiculous number of staff, that seem to have the designations of being the safe ones for quality (and that charge the premium that implies,) but you can definitely get some solid deals if you do some research and walk around. I ended up ordering a blazer and a shirt from a lady called Anna in a small shop and stopped by a couple more times for fittings over my time in Hoi An.

Detail work everywhere

The Chinese and Japanese influences are everywhere. Assembly halls for the various chinese congregations dot the town and most can be visited as part of a ticket. The most noticeable Japanese structure is the japanese covered bridge that actually contains a shrine as well as statues that may (depending on who you ask) represent the years of its construction. It’s all undeniably touristy but in a mostly satisfying way as the town charges admission (though it’s mostly honour system unless you actively enter a hall) to help with the upkeep, and it’s all in celebration of the heritage of th eplace. Hotels are all outside the zone as well though mine was satisfyingly close in order to be able to hop in and out for meals.

The Ancient Town Japanese Bridge

I spent that first day mostly exploring, doing my initial fitting as well as finding a tour for the following day. Lunch was at a neat little restaurant in the ancient town where disadvantaged/homeless youths receive training in cooking and serving. Here I continued my burgeoning tradition of trying every regional noodle specialty with the local Cao Lau. Tradition dictates that the noodles be made from/boiled in water from a specific well in Hoi An and that they be soaked in a solution made from the ash of a certain tree(s) from the islands just off the coast. As such you can’t get ‘true’ Cao Lau anywhere else. This results in really chewy textured noodles which are then served with a porky broth, sliced five spiced pork and fried noodle squares as well as a heap of herbs and lettuce. It’s a delicious combo.

Cao Lau

Moving to Hoi An had been a straight shot south and it’s more or less at the start of ‘south’ vietnam. As such the temperature had shot up from the cooler muggy days in Ha Noi and Ha Long and it was around 30C. This wasn’t quite as much of a brick wall as the trip to Bangkok a few years back but it was still hot for someone still in winter mode. So with everything else done I grabbed some cider at the store, took my laundry into a nice lady down the lane from the hotel and took a quick swim in the hotel’s frigid pool before relaxing with a book.

Around six I headed back out to check out the night market but on the way was absolutely blown away by the sheer number of beautiful lanterns that were now lit. I had obviously seen them during the day but I never expected most of them to be lit up. Adding to the colour explosion were the boats docked along the riverfront absolutely covered in lanterns lit with LEDs. I don’t think the photos really convey the true effect of the explosion of colours but here’s the best I can do:

Lanternboat
Lanterns everywhere

Unfortunately the night market was disappointingly food light. Mostly banh mi and banana pancake carts. I had been hoping for one of the sprung up food court style areas common at the thai night markets. That said it was still entertaining and in the end I grabbed a stool upstairs at one of the restaurants lining the street and listened to a very odd band playing very eclectic cover versions of Creed and Pink Floyd and Coldplay while the crowds wandered by. At one point as I waited for my food it started to drizzle and it was shocking how quickly every vendor pulled out a box of ponchos to sell. I’d brought my raincoat with me but the rain was so light (and basically finished by the time I was walking back) that I didn’t bother.

Streets at night

The action on the other side of the river was definitely a bit more hopping but I had an early morning so I walked back to the hotel as everything was shutting down. One interesting thing to see as I walked back just outside of the ancient town was in just how many of the more modern shophouses the family was sitting down inside the store to eat their evening meal. I suppose it makes sense as that’s their largest room, but it surprised me how many of these places were essentially staying open while they did this. Having this in the back of my head on the other nights in town you could definitely hear people doing the same in some of the closed shops as well.

Ancient Town at night

Day Two in Hoi An started early. A quick stop at the hotel’s excellent (included!) breakfast for some eggs, a croissant and some dumplings. Today’s agenda was a tour out to the local-ish ruins of a sanctuary of the Cham people. The Champa kingdom of the era of these temples were a people with strong ties to India via trade and who adopted hinduism and sanskrit. Their temples are very much in the same vein as Angkor Wat et al and were rediscovered by the French during the colonial era. Unfortunately the area also sheltered a Viet Cong base during the war and was bombed significantly by the USAF. To this day the surrounding jungle remains unsafe due to potentially unexploded ordnance and land mines. Preservation work is also ongoing with various international cooperation projects helping out the Vietnamese government.

Cham Ruins

Touring the site made the previous days heat seem like child’s play though as this was the first day the sun really came out on the trip, though it would dodge in and out of heavy clouds all day. While back in Hoi An this was offset a bit by the occasional hint of a sea breeze from the coast a few km away, an hour inland surrounded by jungle it was just stifling. The site is pleasantly remote and the government has set up a small road to cover the last few kilometers down which you are shuttled on small electric carts along which you’ll see a number of the dogs that roam the site.

One of the bomb craters

The site itself is definitely battered. Most of the largest buildings were destroyed in the bombings and here and there there are some truly massive craters that show the power of what was dropped on the site. What remains is quite impressive however, though there are missing pieces even from what survived. Some of the artifacts which were removed from the site are in the Louvre, others in a museum locally in Da Nang. Our tour guide somewhat hilariously blamed the french for the latter as well calling them ‘stolen’ and while I’m sure some of the Da Nang artifacts were taken there by the French there are numerous plaques on the site denoting some object taken to that museum in the 80s or 90s. The ongoing rebuilding/stabilization efforts are nice to see though, even though it kept us from seeing the ruin of the largest temple which looks like it was truly magnificent before the Americans finished it off.

Faces

I’d sprung for the boat return part of my tour which turned out to be a mistake as it involved doing 3/4 of the trip back on the bus then transfering to a tiny boat to go down a mostly featureless length of river and be given a plate of rice and vegetables + a banana. Unexciting, but at least they dropped us right back at the ancient town. Still hungry after my ‘lunch’ I decided to try out Banh Mi Phuong, energetically recommended in Lonely Planet and a couple other guides to eating Hoi An I’d read. Oh my god… the BBQ Banh Mi here is life changing. Loaded with 4 or 5 variations of pork, veggies and on the crispest outside, softest inside bun. All for like $2 cdn.

BBQ Banh Mi

The next day I hadn’t actually planned to still be in Hoi An but the combination of my clothes not quite being ready and not being able to book my preferred transfer to Hue for another day I decided to have a lazy recharge day. Unfortunately I was let down by my otherwise solid hotel. Most of the hotels I’d been choosing from had offered free bike rentals but I guess I didn’t notice that my final choice didn’t. Whatever, it was like $1.50… unfortunately it was a bike that even my mother might have found a bit short. Their provided map was singularly terrible too being basically only of use to find the ancient town, which to be fair probably serves 90% of their clients well. I should have drawn myself a better one from Google Maps but alas…I trusted them.

Turns out that map doesn’t properly point to the beach and instead (and after having to double back a bunch) I ended up at the very battered ‘beach’ that had been destroyed by development over recent years. While it’s still a pretty view of the ocean it’s from a small patch of sand behind giant sandbags that I gather the long term plan is to slowly rebuild from. The lack of a safe swimming area combined with what I remembered being told were strong currents at this time of year and some really crashing waves that day meant I really just paddled my feet and instead mostly sat on the sand and read a book for a few hours. I’d picked up another BBQ Banh Mi after my fitting and grabbed a can of strongbow so lunch was on the ‘beach’ as well. Getting back to the hotel was easier but in the heat and awkwardly peddling a bike with my limbs folded to fit my day of relaxation was somewhat undercut. In the end I ended up by the ice cold pool again soaking my legs while I read.

Dinner that night was another round of Cao Lau, this time accompanied by White Rose Dumplings, another Hoi An Specialty of steamed rose shaped white rice dumplings stuffed with pork, shrimp and local herbs and topped with fried onions. I took one last tour around the lantern lit old town before heading back to pack… only to have the hotel’s entire city block lose power for an hour just as I started. Thankfully just as I gave up and went to sleep it came back on so I didn’t have to set an alarm for dawn just to be able to get everything just so (adding the new clothes) before my 8am pickup.

Bridge at night

I was surprised at how much I liked Hoi An. Several people had recommended it and I knew I didn’t want to miss it but it was honestly magical. The combination of a distinctly non western identity to most of the town (you won’t see any chain restaurants,) friendly people and truly delicious food made it just right up my alley. If I ever return to Vietnam I hope I can visit again. Heartily recommended, just make sure you stay in Hoi An proper, the bus tours of old folks coming down from the Da Nang beach mega resorts looked like the saddest way to see the town.

Turtle!

2,000 Islands

The day of my cruise dawned just as grey and misty as the previous two but I’d asked Hung (who was from Ha Long) and he said weather was frequently pretty different from Hanoi. I’d sprung for the (slightly overpriced) shuttle to the dock for overall ease and they picked me up directly from the hotel.

The Karst outcroppings start coming into view on the road from Hanoi to Ha Long

This boat trip had been the ‘splurgey’ part of my pre trip planning. Ha Long bay is a beautiful place and I’d wanted to really enjoy things with a 3 day 2 night trip. As I watched the prices before leaving I’d been mildly concerned how open the bookings seemed even with a discounted price. Knowing that things were iffy with the virus/lack of chinese folks I was a bit worried they’d cancel the sailing. I went with what the reviews showed were a pretty top company and hoped for the best.

Midway through my sleep I guess I was just awake enough to hear the buzz of an email hitting my phone and with some trepidation saw that it was from the cruise company. It opened with ‘Dear Elizabeth’ which wasn’t a great start and went on to inform me that my cruise had indeed been cancelled, not due to lack of people but due to the government mandating preventative sanitization. This is where I think going with the fancier company paid off as not only did they swap me to one of their other sailings, I was told I was being given an upgrade though I figured I would believe it when I saw it in person.

The bus snaked out of Hanoi picking people up at various hotels and I was struck again by how ‘small’ a city it feels. It’s an urban area with around 8 million people but very few tall buildings and no ‘downtown’ conglomeration of highrises just the a small number of clusters of taller apartment blocks. We also got to a semi-rural neighbourhood surprisingly quickly as only a few minutes after passing back near my hotel we were shifting it down a semi-paved road with a herd of oxen being drive alongside the road and over some traintracks. Then very quickly we were on a modern and mostly empty expressway (apparently recently opened) heading towards Haiphong.

Of course this was a pretty well worn tourist path so of course there was a built in captive audience ‘rest’ stop one of my absolute least favourite things in the world. This one (a pearl workshop/retailer) was at least interesting in that they had people harvesting some of the pearls out in public where you could watch. The showroom itself was full of ridiculously expensive pearl objects though and was massive. It seemed almost exclusively devoted to tourbus throughput too… I can’t understand the mindset where you’d buy a $20,000 pearl choker at some place your bus happened to stop but perhaps some of the Chinese buses normally go there specifically for the shopping.

Pearl Harvesting

As we approached the bay you could see more and more evidence of the limestone karst islands in the distance. Ha Long bay has almost 2000 individual islands ranging wildly in size but forming a maze of internecine channels and anchorages. You’ve no doubt seen it in a travel show at some point, probably in sunnier weather than I did.

Table for One Canadian

For a fancypants cruise outfit they didn’t seem particularly well organized but eventually we were sitting on the tender and heading out to the ship to be greeted by the waving and smiling crew. She wasn’t particularly large but was beautifully fitted out as we discovered while heading to the dining room for an introductory briefing (While they took our bags to our suites.) They marked our tables with our national flags which was cute (and also a good hint as to who would be the easiest to talk to.) Once the talk had broken up we went to our rooms to settle in before our first stop and… I couldn’t find mine. I mean logic dictated that room 308 was on deck 3 but deck 3 only seemed to have the Royal suite… and oh my god, no it couldn’t be. Felix our cruise director (an extremely young seeming but super friendly and competent guy) saw me looking upstairs and said “you’re upstairs Sir.” Sure enough I climb the stairs and my backpack is sitting outside the Royal Suite. Pessimist that I am I assumed it was just a fancy name (the boat was the Athena Royal after all) to cover the fact that it was actually tiny because most of it was hiding a smoke stack or the freezer or something… then I opened the door and discovered this:

So yeah, this happened.

A huge bed, copious amounts of space and a panoramic view of the limestone islands passing by. Outside was a private deck area for just me that wrapped around the whole thing. The fact that the bathtub was apparently broken (I later found out) was the only blemish but the bathroom also had a massively space wasting shower for an on ship bathroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes or honestly even settle down to enjoy it at first… I flopped on the bed then got up and went outside to my private swing chair, then got back up and stared at the view from the other side. In the end it was only the call that we’d arrived at the floating village and it was kayaking time that sent me scurrying to change and brought me back to reality.

Not so long ago there were a much larger number of floating villages at various points in the bay. Now there are only a couple that mostly serve as a model of what the life was once like for visitors. The official party line appears to be that populations dwindled too much due to people not wanting the life anymore but some folks appear to have been more or less forcibly transfered to a shorebound life as part of government efforts to clean up the bay. They did mention that children are now forced to go to school and as such are away from their parents most of the week. Once upon a time I imagine the appeal was to be out closer to the fishing grounds in the days when you had to row. In the modern era and as part of an effort to clean up what was apparently getting to be a worse and worse situation with plastics and waste…

Fishermen homes
Guard dog!

The remaining village we visited was very simple, the population apparently not what it once was. The people ran a fish farm and some pearl cultivation, as well as dock for the tourism visits. It was 18ish out so every single other pansy person from my ship opted to be rowed around in bamboo boats while I kayaked. This particular town was built in a shallow lagoon in the middle of a cluster of karst outcroppings. There were several clusters of houses and most had at least one dog, usually lazing away the afternoon somewhere on the decking that made up the ‘homestead’ of each home. There were several communal structures but it was mostly just the homes. Kayaking in that setting was beautiful though and even the occasional bit of chatter from the other boats appeared to disappear into the mist at times.

Some form of office for the community
Approaching the arch in my kayak
Kayaker

I’ll be honest, I was in awe of just the whole experience as I got back to the Royal and after a hot shower just curled up on my (MY!) deck and watched island after island slip by.

Private deck(side 1 of 3)

Drinks on the boat weren’t cheap by viet standards, though pretty close to a cocktail at a restaurant back home, so most of us took advantage of two for one happy hour before dinner. There was also very basic cooking lesson but that was more or less immediately swarmed by the half of the boat from taiwan that was just doing one night so I sat and drank Mai Tais and read until Elizabeth and Marcus from Singapore and the two older swedish couples arrived and we all chatted for a bit before dinner, which was a five course varied dinner with lots of fresh seafood with mostly viet flare. One never left the table hungry on this boat.

Fish course night one, Shrimp, Basa and Oysters

Despite the restrictions there were still a fair number of boats out and as we anchored for the night you could see a number of others quite clearly, none of which looked as nice as ours (or particularly full.) Most of us retired quite early and I spent an hour or so finishing off the first blog post, though the wifi was more than a bit shaky out in the bay so it didn’t get posted til I was back on land.

Our sister ship and a tender

Day two was kicked off with a shipwide announcement to the taiwanese as their itinerary included an early cave trip before us three day folk even had to be at breakfast. Annoying, but once I was up and peering out my windows I wasn’t going back to sleep.

We also learned that apparently the main boat just goes back and forth between the harbour and this spot. The one night people would be returning to shore and some new folks arriving… and those of us on the two night (both from our boat and the second athena boat) would transfer to a day boat for the morning/early afternoon. I can see the appeal in the flexibility for the tour company but don’t really love the impact it has on the busyness factor for the places closest to shore. I gather there are some ships that straight up do a longer tour in 3 day chunks… I would probably try to seek one of those out next time for a different/better? experience.

Day Boat

The day boat was a reasonable sized flat bottomed boat with a dining area below and a sun deck above (even if the sun was still resolutely refusing to show its face.) It took us down a maze of smaller islands, occasionally rolling a bit when we hit a gap in the islands, until we hit a semi sheltered area and two men appeared piloting ancient looking wooden boats. And here’s where this lazy cruise weekend became a bit of an adventure.

We putt putted our way through what I guess was a shallower channel in order to get around another island and on to a small beach. Nestled into the cliffs at this spot was a large cave, quite deep but bone dry despite being right near the water level. Our guide showed us around the cave, pointing out some of the geological features including a couple that seemed to be his favourite, clusters that seemed to mimic the forms of sleeping turtles. This hilariously lead to an American fellow from the other boat saying ‘poor little guys, so sad.’ Based on later interactions with him I’m 90% he genuinely thought it was a fossilized real turtle somehow. When we emerged from the cave our guide gave us leave to explore the beautiful, very remote feeling beach and shoreline. We only saw one other boat during this section of the trip and it was definitely the best part of the trip for an actual feeling of nature, though in truth we still only saw a few sea eagles and various shells.

Cave interior
Sandbar and shallows

As we threw our life jackets back on and got on the boat I decided against kayaking as did everyone else (less surprising.) The wind had kicked up a fair bit and I knew at least part of the crossing would be open to it, which combined with a long-ish (45m) paddle felt like a bit much. They had told us we could kayak nearer the day boat if we wanted so I figured I’d just do that, but then the trouble began. Our boat was using the first boat as a boarding path but had wedged his front up on it in the process. Once we were all sitting down he attempted to rock us off the other boat, increasingly violently and doing so without turning his prop off so even when he briefly got us off we’d just spin around on the sandbar. Even I’ve spent enough time on boats to know he was doing it wrong, and sure enough at some point in this process he apparently holed his boat and started taking on water.

The boat that later sank

Twenty minutes later ‘the young ones’ (i.e. everyone under 50) were standing on the beach watching the other boat leave, and only then told we were kayaking. This left us with all our stuff (phones, cameras, extra clothes) on the kayaks with us and more worryingly to me, no support boat. I don’t consider myself an exceptional kayaker but I can hold my own, the Singaporean couple knew what they were doing (he did at least, she mostly took pictures) but the other folks were definitely at ‘I did it once on a glassy lake’ level and our guide wasn’t much better (and was towing the surplus kayak.) I tried to pass on a few lessons at staying more stable while driving into the wind but I was definitely not confident we’d get far without someone tipping (at which point there would be nowhere to easily get them back on board and their stuff would be long gone.) The young American woman kept asking what would happen if we tipped and I said we’d get her back in but truthfully I imagined we might just have to get her to cling to the kayak and keep pulling her away from the rocks/currents until the boat returned.

The potentially doomed set off

Thankfully we managed to get around the first open section and into the semi protected channel, at which point the boat did return and picked up the less able folks, at that point I was already wet though so just passed off my backpack and paddled the rest of the way. At that point we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the paddle more… and what a paddle it was. As gorgeous as the first spot had been, being surrounded by other tourists getting rowed around had robbed it of something… here it was just the two kayaks, the sounds of splashes and the occasional whistle of the wind.

The braver ones of us heading back the rest of the way
Sentinels

The last section back to the dayboat was fully open to a driving wind coming off the open ocean however and I’m fairly certain we’d have tipped one of the novices at this point so I’m glad they came back for them. Back on board, dried off and changed we had yet another delicious meal and headed back to rendezvous with the Royal again where a new crop of one nighters had come on board.

One of the Swedes was having a birthday and the cruise had provided him with a lovely cake which he invited us all to share. Elizabeth noticed the server putting out the new flags and asked to look at them and proceeded to hold each one up of which I knew about 95% thanks to being a vexillogy nerd as a kid. It got to the point where she wanted to arrange a competition then have me on her team. Flag nerd spotted.

Dining Room

The next morning was a super early start. I’d been leaving my biggest window open to wake up to the view so I rarely slept late anyway but this was more or less with dawn. We were visiting one of the previously inhabited caves, this one higher up on one of the islands and with steps and water reservoirs etc carved into it. The stellagtites/mites were beautiful and the cave quite interesting but despite our early early start we only had about 10 minutes alone in the cave before absolute swarms of other people arrived. Once back down at sea level our trusty Felix informed us that there’d once been a restaurant/bar here but that the government had shut it down due to environmental fears. A hopeful sign. I do think an ecological camp/cafe could survive there but you’d have to be very concious of ecology before profit and Vietnam is very much anything for a buck at the present time. I understand where they’re coming from in what was until recently a very poor, very closed off country but hopefully an equilibrium can be reached.

And this is apparently roughly half the normal number of boats out

Unfortunately there’s definitely a feeling that there should be more life here. There are nowhere near the level of sea birds that you’d expect. Apparently there are breeding populations in the islands I’m guessing they’re farther out in the islands. The geometry of the islands also precludes much viewing/knowledge of the animals that might be living on them. I also very rarely saw a fish jump and certainly no sign of anything larger. A lot of agricultural land feeds into the bay as well as a couple ports, the water isn’t particularly clear though what part of that is pollution and what is silt runoff I don’t know. That said, steps already being taken appear to have helped on the garbage from what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen and Ha Long bay is deservedly one of the modern natural wonders of the world. I just hope it stays that way (and hopefully improves.) I think if I came back to Vietnam I might stay in the area and do some side trips in hopes of better understanding… but at the present time again, some of the access on the larger islands are shut down for virus fears.

Row after row of islands (filtered a bit to better show how they keep going)

As people were checking out I got a peek at the more normal cabins and they were quite nice as well, though obviously smaller. I still have no idea why I was the lucky one who got the Royal Suite but I think I made the best use of the private deck as very few of the rest of them spent any time on the public sun deck. I personally wouldn’t call it anything like ‘cold’ but it was definitely persistently breezy and usually around 17-19c so those from warmer climes weren’t about to sit out in the wind. My only regret is that the sun never came out, seriously not even for a moment while we were in the bay. It would have been nice see some warmer colours, but I did love the mysterious misty morning look tons too.

Honestly this was a once in a lifetime experience and I enjoyed every minute, I heartily recommend the cruise to anyone… just practice your kayak stroke first.

Beautiful Bun at the Blue Butterfly

People have asked me why exactly I wanted to come to Vietnam. It was a combination of things really but food was high up there. Given the previous days revelation about the tourist sites I’d done a slight pivot and booked a cooking class recommended in a couple places for the day instead of leaving it until later in the trip as originally planned. After enjoying the ones I’d done in Thailand so much it seemed a no brainer. This one took place right inside the restaurant with the head chef and involved a market trip and four dishes particular (at least these variations) to the Ha Noi area.

It was an early start though, not that that really mattered as I have yet to be able to sleep in here at all even when trying. For whatever reason they insisted on doing hotel pickup even though it was all of two blocks away and I’d walked past it at least 3 times at this point. It turned out my ‘pickup’ was the chef walking over to get me just as I finished my breakfast and we walked back together to the Blue Butterfly, built into a couple levels of a pretty, ancient house.

The Blue Butterfly

His name was Hung, but he informed us that his friends called him ‘Pickle’ because of how he smelled in a sweaty kitchen and that we could call him Hung Pickle if we liked (pause a moment for your childish giggle.) Rounding out our small group were: another Canadian, a young kid from Montreal riding a motorbike from Ho Chi Minh City to the North. An outback station nurse from Australia. And a Brit/French couple now living in Hong Kong who were just over for a few days to get some dental work done (apparently that’s a thing.)

Pho Phixins

Hung Pickle started us off making the broth for Pho Bo (excuse the lack of proper letters any Viet readers as this keyboard is a nightmare for trying) from scratch. Normally this would be left going for much longer but we started it first so it got a few hours before we ate at least. Basically just a stack of bones and a giant tea strainer thing full of herbs and spices including a little bit of ha long bay sea worm as Hung was from Ha Long. I can’t imagine that’s an ingredient I’ll find at home.

Market

Broth bubbling away we headed out to the central Ha Noi food market which Hung said catered to most of the restaurants in the city. It was a fascinating place, much more hectic than the ones I’d visited in Bangkok. Apparently (and I read this in a guide book as well) many of the smaller stall folks are the actual farmers who grow the products and Hung seemed to be trying to buy from these (as much as I could tell.) Along the way he had us try a bunch of produce including some deliciously juicy red dragonfruit as well as a ginger sticky rice chew that felt like it would have been a solid pick me up for a wobbly stomach. We ended up picking up most of our herbs, some veggies, some fresh rice noodles and paper and a big hunk of pork shoulder.

Beans and Bean-adjacent things
Rolls have been rolled

We started by making Ha Noi style spring rolls which were similar to the ones I’ve made at home before, though with the rice paper being so fresh no soaking was necessary which made the whole process more speed friendly. I’d love to say mine were massively better than everyone else’s but it’s been a while since I made them so I will only say they were solid. We fried them up then set them aside for another high temp fry just before eating.

Banana Flower

Next up was Banana flower salad. In many ways this was quite similar to Som Tam in thailand (and indeed he indicated you could make it with green papaya or mango.) The flower is from the outer leaves of the big flower pods sliced thinly so they form springy curls. The dressing is a similar concoction of vinegar and lime and fish sauce and it’s all topped with peanut and (optionally) chicken.

Banana Flower Salad

Lastly was the Bun Cha which is the dish that Obama and Bourdain noshed on in Ha Noi. It’s fairly simple, rice noodles and herbs with a combo of charbroiled pork slices and meatballs served with a dipping sauce but very tasty. Hung put a few of us to work hand mincing the pork for the meatballs then built up a charcoal fire in his cooking station in order to cook the two racks.

Bun Cha Patties and Slices

Once all the work was done we settled down in the restaurant with a beer and devoured our food while having a discussion about medical care, the corona virus hysteria and China in general as the Hong Kong couple had previously lived in Shanghai and was saying how they were pleased to be in HK for this particular crisis. The food was delicious, the Bun Cha in particular.

End Results (not pictures: Pho Bo Tay as we had that after)

That said, overall as an experience it didn’t quite measure up to either of the Thai classes, mostly because this was only about 50% hands on most of which was prep work. Both thai classes had individual cooking stations and we did pretty much 90% of everything. This one was also a bit more expensive but I don’t begrudge that, it was still a bargain. The five of us all sat talking for a while but eventually it became clear that the staff wanted to shut up for the post lunch/pre dinner cleanup/break so we wished each other good travels and headed onward.

Our Crew

After a break back in the room to digest and confirm the times for the boat pickup the next day. I decided to see if the Water Puppet theatre was open as one of the classmates had said it was an interesting production. Given it was all of I think 10 bucks for the best seat in the house I figured why not. You’re seated in this odd auditorium with what looks like a deep pool at the front with unfamiliar musical instruments perched in the wings and a screen in behind. Out comes a band and suddenly odd puppet figures emerge from behind the screen or just directly from other the waves. I found out after that there is an english audio guide to the process but a good portion of them were self explanatory. Intricate puppets, often more animated than you expect are controlled via mechanisms under the water and appear to either swim through it or dance above it depending on the story. Definitely worth the money but I was glad the show was only about 45 minutes as the concept was wearing a bit thin after a while. Ymmv of course and the audio guide might have helped.

water puppets

Much to my frustration I emerged to see people walking across the lake bridge to the Pagoda as the theatre was on the lake front. A quick glance at my phone confirmed that yes everything had reopened earlier that day after being ‘sprayed’ the day before. I would have hopped a cab earlier to check out a few of the closed spots had I known, now I was leaving the next day and when I returned it would be sunday when some of the spots regularly close anyway. ARGH. I’ll be back in Hanoi at the end of the trip as I fly out of here but was hoping to cut it reasonably close and/or use it as a base for a day trip or two.


I actually tried to go check out the Obama/Bourdain bun cha place for dinner after that but it was a longer walk than expected and I arrived just as they were closing. I ended up just taking a long sweaty walk in the muggy weather and finished my night at a place called Chopsticks another classmate had recommended which did updated modern takes on local faves. The place was absolutely packed, by far the busiest I’d seen a restaurant in the old quarter but I managed to scround a place at the bar. I ended up having Bun Cha again anyway as theirs had some flourishes on it including sous vide pork belly in place of the charbroiled pork. The waiter somewhat sheepishly told me that they were out of Chopsticks (at a place called Chopsticks GASP) but the food was excellent and they had a great local cider.

I’m going to leave this a short post as the boat trip is best treated as a whole, thanks for reading and shoot me a note if you have any questions or recommendations as I’m still here two weeks.

Good Morning Vietnam

Winnipeg -> Hanoi

Seven A.M. Flights shouldn’t be a thing. The one saving grace about this one was that the first leg wasn’t international but I still needed to be at the airport at a time in the morning I don’t particularly like admitting actually exists. Add in the fact that my ride was running behind, Air Canada wasn’t letting me check in online and I wasn’t looking forward to the layovers and part of me felt like just going back to bed. The ends justify the means in this case though and eventually I took off on the first hop of my flight to Ha Noi Vietnam.

My flight was Winnipeg -> Vancouver -> Seoul- > Hanoi, thankfully much nicer flight time wise than my Bangkok->Hong Kong-> Toronto-> Winnipeg return last time in asia. Sadly, the layover in Seoul was absolutely killer and thanks to Air Canada’s questionable ticket selling practices I guess I was outside of the window for throughputting properly. This meant that I a) had to collect my bags and enter immigration in Seoul (thank goodness Canadians don’t need a visa) then check back in. Unfortunately I cleared about 5pm local and the flight wasn’t until 8:30 the next morning and I wasn’t able to check my large bag in until the following morning. You know how airport seating outside security tends to be of the spartan variety? It’s worse when you’re trying to sleep on them. Had AC warned me at all I would have booked an airport hotel or something but bleh… It was a grumpy Tristan who got on that final leg 13 hours later.

That said, Seoul did have some good points. Despite it being 7am when I passed security I was still able to find some super fantastic korean fried chicken before boarding. I also really enjoyed the helper robots that roam around to be asked questions, though I have to question the translation work by the person who instead of having it say ‘going to recharge’ made the voice line for this large person sized robot “I AM GOING TO CHARGE! PLEASE CLEAR THE WAY” somewhat disconcerting when you didn’t hear it come up from behind you.

I am going to charge!

As an aside… for those who remember my trip next to Captain Elbows on my last trans-pacific flight I at least avoided that this time. However this time, THREE separate times I went to what should have been an empty washroom and opened on some old woman peeing. How are airplane bathroom locks so difficult for people to understand?


Hanoi’s airport is actually surprisingly small, especially for the volume of planes it receives. Combined with the fact that they had a special portion of the immigration hall fenced off for chinese nationals getting extra attention for corona virus this meant very slow immigration. Still eventually I emerged, got my bag, bemoaned the fact that the freaking Hanoi AIRPORT has a popeye’s but Winnipeg is still only served by one and grabbed a sim card for a ridiculous price. Never believe the telco’s lies about how we pay good prices in Canada when I can get a 10GB one off SIM for ~$20, there’s no reason to ever pay Rogers/Telus/Bell’s roaming fees unless you desperately need your phone number for business purposes.

In doing my research for this trip I’d learned that Northern Vietnam is not particularly warm this time of year (I guess in the abstract I’d been expecting something similar to Chiang Mai) and I emerged into the mid teens and drizzle that I’d seen forecast a few days earlier. Honestly, I can’t say I minded. I’m still convinced that the temperature shock of going from a -30 Winnipeg to a +38 Bangkok the other trip played a role in my minor health issues that trip so this will be a nice introduction to warmer weather before the temp rises as I head south.

The usual SE Asia taxi nonsense was in full effect as I left the terminal. I’d read that there were particular cabbies you could trust but that information must have been out of date as the particular outfit was nowhere to be seen and most of the cabs were trying to talk people into set rates. Even a meter meant a fairly sizable bill however as the airport is a fair bit out of town. To make matters worse the minibuses that were supposed to be 40000Dong were trying to get 350000, I suspect it’s like parts of Thailand where the government cracks down everytime they reach a certain point but as a solo traveller it’s frustrating. I’ve mentioned in this blog before how loathe I am to pay a taxi driver anything when they’re trying to scam me. In the end I confirmed that the city airport express bus was departing from the same location and would cost only 35000, which is only a couple bucks. It was pretty much painless and dropped me all of two blocks from my hotel, though I would happily have hopped a cab from there if I’d needed to.

Street scene near Temple of Literature

At this point it’s fair to say I was running on fumes. I am rarely able to sleep on a plane but had somehow managed to grab a couple fitful hours on the final leg, but at this point I was running on about 5 hours of sleep in the previous 48, most of it awkwardly curled up in a seat or on a bench. My hotel itself was a sparkling clean roughly 15 foot wide building that somehow fit in a breakfast room, small lobby and 15 rooms on 5 guest floors. On either side were a motorcycle repair shop and a small soup shop that appeared to mainly be open for breakfast. Just walking in the door my bag was practically yanked off my shoulder and I was given a seat while they checked me in and plied me with a plate of delicious dragonfruit and a glass of juice. My room had a sizable bathroom with waterfall, a window overlooking an extremely unphotogenic courtyard (but desirable for a bit more quiet facing away from the street) large queen bed, ample storage and a TV with a few english movie channels for unwinding before bed. Not bad at all for 35 CAD a night (w/ breakfast to boot!). The thought of stretching out in any way horizontally was the most delicious thought, though I thought better of it and had a shower first to loosen my muscles and wash travelstink off. Once that was done I set an alarm for 4 hours later to get up and get some food then crashed hard. Later on, awake if not refreshed I took my first real steps out into Hanoi.

With the virus fears and preventatives in place there are apparently significantly lower numbers of chinese tourists in Vietnam at the moment. It was also somewhat low season as I was in between the xmas/lunar new year/tet celebrations and the actual warmer weather. I’m not sure I can fathom how busy the streets must be at full volume there. It feels like a more compact city than Bangkok and more chaotic, but perhaps that’s just a couple years since that experience speaking. No… it’s definitely worse. The sheer volume of two wheeled traffic that completely flouts all traffic control and the need to basically step off the curb and play chicken to cross the street most places in the old quarter is definitely more intense. I think I would find it exhausting after a while but it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it.

Hanoi is of course the former capital of North Vietnam and one-time near constant US bombing target. In ten minutes walking around you can see influences from the very old days, french colonial structures The old quarter is (as one would expect) a close knit warren of tight streets, narrow shop frontages and teeming masses of people. What looks like a ruin on the main floor might have an elaborate french balcony two stories up or a carved dragon grotesque peering down at you. As a city that’s quickly modernizing (given it wasn’t particular accessible to outsides until the 90s) one has to wonder what it will look like in another ten years.

Adventures in Motorcycling

Stepping out of your hotel is an assault on all the senses as a westerner. Everywhere you look there is action from the street vendor pushing a cart, a gaggle of tourists dodging traffic or some delivery man bungee cording a ludicrously large load to a tiny motorcycle. Horns are constant, every motorcyclist seems to think honking their horn gives them immunity from the constraints of physics and every car and truck seem to honk just to say “hey check out my horn.” The smell of it hits you too until you adjust, the aromas of street food everywhere mixing with the scent of sheer masses of humanity. There’s nothing quite like it. As a prairie boy I don’t think I could handle it long term but it’s definitely fun to experience short term.

Once difference from Bangkok was how early things were closing however. I’d read that the government kept a very tight lid on nightlife and it was quickly being proven true as even in this most backpacker friendly part of town things were definitely winding down at 10:30. Not that this was a hardship, I mostly just wanted to stretch my legs and grab a bit of food. A quick (delicious) Banh Mi and a snack stop later and I was back in my room and bedding down to kill off the jet lag and hit the town proper the next day. Mission accomplished on the first point, but the Vietnamese government had some issues with that other one.


For the purposes of archival reading of this blog let me document that as I travelled to Vietnam the coronavirus hysteria was in full swing. Unfortunately what I didn’t realize is that despite a miniscule number of cases in Vietnam the government had decided to take measures that included closing all tourist sites. (It turns out it was only for a day/day and a half but the inital press release I said “until further notice”.) Blissfully unaware of this, I started out by walking south through the old quarter towards Hoan Kiem Lake. The quarter had a different vibe at 8:30 in the morning, the drunken backpackers of the night before are (mostly) still snoring away in their dorm rooms and it’s mostly locals out and about (though with a healthy dose of the 30+ tourist.) Everywhere you looked there were people eating breakfast noodles at small shops that were made up of basically a couple kids plastic picnic tables, a burner and a cash box. Interspersed were the occasional hotel or hostel, restaurants of a more permanent variety and the usual mix of odds and ends shops, bodegas and various tourist focused shops.

Hoan Kien Lake

Walking is in itself an adventure. Even more so than my experience in old Bangkok sidewalks are a place not for walking but for motorbike/scooter parking, merchandise, picnic tables, impenetrable mounds of garbage waiting for pick up and so on. And so you walk on the edge of the road, trusting your life to your deity of choice (personally I’d pick the god of motorcycles) and trying to remember to always shoulder check before stepping around any further obstacles. Crossing a road is merely a matter of picking a lighter spot, keeping your nerve and walking across making sure you’re visible and making the cycles go around you. It quickly becomes “normal” but at least for me is still a bit of a pulse raiser at times.

As I headed south there were a few more signs of western incursion. A kebab shop and ‘NYC Style’ pizza joint gave way to an actual Pizza Hut franchise and down by the lakeshore where some of the fancier small hotels and some of the international banks were you could find a few western shops like Aldo and CURSES another Popeye’s. My first hint of what was to come was seeing tv news crews filming some people in uniforms at the gateway to the bridge out to the mid-lake pagoda keeping anyone from entering, though walking around the lake itself was quite peaceful even as the morning mist decided to turn into a proper drizzle for a few minutes. Large trees hang low over the water, obviously craving the moisture and open sunlight (though not today) and give you a bit of a glimpse at what the area must have once felt like

Heading west now I was straddling the line between the old quarter and the french quarter. Sadly as I had read during my research the french quarter is mostly a combination of run down colonial structures and larger buildings where they’ve already been bulldozed for commercial development. Occasionally there will be a restored larger building that sticks out, perhaps a school or a larger estate turned into new uses. Various historical preservation societies fight to keep some of the character but it seems to be a losing battle. While on the one hand I get that the Vietnamese people probably don’t feel any desperate connection to the colonial era architecture there is something unique about the blend of asian and french influences on many of these buildings that really needs to be preserved. Much in the same vein my next stop at St. Joseph’s cathedral revealed a pretty neo-gothic building that could really use a bit of restoration work. It sits sandwiched between row on row of narrow shophouses and is somewhat surprising as you suddenly stumble upon the tiniest of squares that surrounds it.

St Joseph’s Cathedral

Still walking I reached the remains of Hoa Loa Prison, better known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ of Vietnam War (or ‘American War’ as it’s known here) fame. The prison actually dates from the French Colonial times and was used to house the vietnamese revoltionaries though most of us I imagine know it as the place where pilots like John McCain were imprisoned. Here I found an empty ticket booth and an english notice about it being closed but still walked around one of the walls and read some of the information. In an absurd example of changing times, much of the site is now covered with the largest hotel I’ve yet seen in Hanoi.

Hoa Loa (Hanoi Hilton)

I decided to go check out the Temple of Literature which is a scholastic complex founded around the year 1000 and home to Vietnam’s first university. As you could no doubt see coming this too was closed, completely deserted in fact. At this point I dug out my phone and found the press release mentioning ‘closed until further notice’ and sighed. I hadn’t planned to spend a ton of time in Hanoi and now one of my days was being thoroughly screwed over. In the end I visited a couple shops in the area, grabbed a bowl of Pho Bo Tai and, assuming any of my other targets would also be closed, wandered around further west for a while before starting to make my way back, passing the Flag Tower, Military History Museum and the nearby park with a large statue of Comrade Lenin.

Flag Tower

Along the way I got another unfortunate disappointment as it turns out Railway Street had been severely curtailed. Friends of my parents had told me about their visit to this little street where the buildings are built so close to the railway track that when the train passes your cafe table is basically on board. It looked like a lot of fun, unfortunately when I arrived I discovered it mostly blocked off with a police officer shooing people away. Apparently it became so overtouristed several months ago that a train was forced to divert and the official patience with the whole thing more or less snapped. While you can still go in if you agree to go to one of the cafes directly with a tout, the days of it being swarmed are over. From what I could see vs. previous pictures only some of the cafes are still open. As I dislike being in that kind of captive customer situation I passed and took a couple photos before the cop shooed me away.

Railway Street

I hadn’t originally planned on quite so long a walk on the first day of flight recovery but perhaps it was a good thing. After wandering the old quarter a bit longer and finding a couple ‘maybe’ purchases for later I ended up back at the hotel, grabbed a shower and curled up to read a book for a while. I’d read about a jazz club that played in a small window between 9-12 so figured I’d grab a late dinner and go.

I should warn anyone now that much like my thai blog a big part of my motivation for a vietnam visit was food. If you’re into Viet food, fair warning to not read while hungry.

First night spring rolls

Dinner that night was at a place recommended both by my guidebook and the desk clerk as good ‘local’ food. I surrendered to recommendations by the waitress too and ended up with a plate of four Hanoi Style fried spring rolls, and a plate of what they called Hanoi Old Quarter style beef which was thin juicy strips of charbroiled beef brushed with a honey glaze and served with a tangy hot sauce and rice. The Banh Mi and Pho so far had been lovely but not so massively better than home that I felt blown away… but these dishes. The spring rolls were double fried, crunchy but so incredibly juicy with probably the herbiest tasting filling I have ever had, just phenomenal. The beef was just as succulent. Sweet without being cloying and perfectly tender with crunchy bits, the hot sauce having a solid kickbut also really rounded flavour. I was a happy but very full person as I walked out and started the trek over to the club.

It turned out to be a longer trek than expected as the club itself is a small place in what appears to be a former tobacco shop nestled behind the beautiful and massive Hanoi Opera House (and the actual Hanoi Hilton.) It was a dark and unfortunately smoky place but I’d been warned about that in one of the reviews so I chose a table by the open door, ordered a whisky sour (expensive by hanoi standards, but no cover charge so hey) and sat back to watch a great little trio eventually joined by a singer. A couple sets of standards mixed with occasionally giggle inducing jazz covers of 70s and 80s pop made for a great relaxing end to what had been an occasionally frustrating day.

Binh Minh Jazz Club

Walking back to the hotel I was again struck by just how completely the town had already shut down for the night. Of course just as I was thinking this I rounded a corner and a ‘bar’ was taking up most of a street for the youngest of the backpackers… and by bar I mean two men tapping kegs about a large number of plastic chairs scattered around. I laughed a bit, though briefly of my early 20s then headed back to try and fail to write this blog before bed.

The Final Countdown

The excitement was palpable as I woke the next morning. I grabbed a quick slice of toast and made sure I had everything I needed for my dive… Mom planned a laundry run since this hotel actually had on site laundry. Hopping a cab to the marina I ended up with a driver that (while he didn’t compare to last year’s Thai Steve McQueen) did his best to re-enact the movie Ronin. It’s a good thing I don’t get car sick as showing up at a dive trip already nauseous isn’t the best.

Back on solid ground (temporarily) I made my way down to the actual waterfront at the Marina where it was early enough that most of the cafes hadn’t even opened. I’d even beaten the dive shop staff in which is saying something. Eventually they opened up, I got my final paperwork signed and began gearing up, finding that thankfully they hadn’t been lying and had a wetsuit big enough for my shoulders (though it was cavernous elsewhere.) Both guides weren’t fooling around and had full drysuits (a sealed system suit that keeps the body dry and offers better thermal insulation while also becoming more complex for buoyancy/pressure control. The rest of the dive group was a young pole on his final certification dive, a middle aged german guy who filled out my size of wetsuit a lot more and a young woman, also from Germany, who had a camera rig probably worth around 4k. Unfortunately due to the cert diver we weren’t going anywhere too fancy but were told it was a nice reef with surrounding sandy bottom. I’d had hopes of doing a dive at an artificial reef/sunken navy ship but given it was off season only the one boat was going out.

Heading out to the boat was a new dive experience for me, I’ve never gone for a dive somewhere that had you gear up almost completely in the shop then walk for a fair distance only to unload again on the boat. The gear was top notch with a proper weight vest, almost new BCD and a basic computer provided. The boat itself was a relatively new rigid inflatable with no sunshade, I wouldn’t have been a big fan on a hot summer day but on this particular day it was fine. It was at least well set up for gear and only about half loaded so we flew. Strangely enough it turned out that our dive site was pretty much right off the point of our hotel.

By the beach later on

Geared up for the final drop off the German guy and I buddied up and dropped down the anchor line with our guide/cameralady. Initial impressions weren’t great and weren’t buoyed by the fact that one glance at the water had the leader handing out high beam led flashlights. Vis at the surface was at most 5 feet and hopes that it might get better further under the swells were quickly dashed. IIRC bottom was at around 14 meters and we didn’t even see that until our fins hit which of course doesn’t help much for visibility either. For those of you that don’t dive, when you’re doing this type of guided dive you keep an eye on your buddy and your dive leader basically at all times.  This becomes very difficult when reading your wrist computer or gauges takes a second look and your fingertips are clouded on an outstretched hand. That’s where we were at, at best visibility was 1m and with the sediment frequently less. We managed to see one nudibranch on what was more of a solitary rock than a reef but, even with high beams my buddy and I lost the dive leader until he circled back, then we lost camera girl and while I was clearing my mask my buddy disappeared. The dive leader managed to get us rounded back up, looked around… visibly sighed as much as you can in dive hear and gave the thumbs up (which in dive signals means, let’s go up) unspooling the alert flag.

Credit to him for actually doing the safety stop as though we’d done a full length dive and even then we temporarily lost my buddy again. As we broached the surface he was immediately apologetic but said he was cancelling the dive for safety reasons. We all totally understood even as I was somewhat heartbroken at the complete catastrophe my diving this trip had become. The certifying diver and his instructor stayed down for their full dive but as certification in that situation has you basically locking eyes with the instructor the whole time it was less complex for them. When he was back on board the rest of us told him (backed up by the instructor) that certifying in that mess meant he was definitely ready for diving anywhere.

Resigned to our fate I did my best to enjoy the boat trip back. It was at least a lovely day for that. We assured the dive leader that we understood his decision and he admitted that it had been bad earlier in the week and he’d worried the rain and waves the past bit had made it worse. As we reached shore he admitted he doubted they’d try to go back out again before the following Tuesday (this being Thursday I think.) Apparently in summer the wind patterns work better for sweeping sediment back out to deep ocean but the prevailing wind at the moment was being unhelpful. To their credit they gave us all a full refund, there was non-refundable ‘boat fee’ despite the fact that we’d gone out.

Luckily the café next door was fully open upon our return and a few of us settled in since despite the abbreviated dive we’d still done most of the work and had the usual post dive munchies. A bargain five euro full English with two eggs and double meat hit the spot and despite the aborted dive and cancelled second dive it was actually not super far ahead of when I’d planned that I got back to the room. The laundry excitement was over and we ended up just enjoying the sunny rest of the afternoon.

That night the resort’s Ocean Bar was hosting a low rent trivia night and we decided we should at least attend one resort event. I really enjoy pub quiz/trivia night things but never really get a chance to do them at home given how few of my friends ever leave the house. Unfortunately the clientele factor reared its head here too. A few VERY drunk brits showed up and began screaming (usually wrong) answers and singing badly over the music round. It got so bad that half the room was telling her to “shut the F up” and the poor quizmaster was being as insistent as a hotel service guy can really be. Eventually her husband dragged her off but not before she’d driven off at least one couple who was playing. I still enjoyed it but between her drunken nonsense, other drunken nonsense, a very brit centric question pool (understandably heh but I’m about as anglophile as it gets for tv tastes and some were beyond obscure to me) and the final results showing that everyone playing out on the patio out of the quizmaster’s sight was cheating, things could have been better.

The next morning we finished packing, threw the luggage into storage and went for a last walk into downtown/stroll along the beach. Having an oceanfront meal will probably be my lasting memory of Albufeira, in this case another delicious breakfast. We walked around town a bit more and also grabbed a last Gelato but before long we were back on the train to Lisbon. Usually on a trip I try very hard to avoid retracing my steps exactly but unfortunately with the way our timing worked out it was very much easiest to just take the same train back. As for Albufeira and the Algarve, I’d definitely not stay in Albufeira again as it’s just not my scene but I’d definitely re-visit the Algarve at large (and probably rent a car for my entire time just for the freedom factor.)

We’d hemmed and hawed about where to stay in Lisbon upon our return. Since we were leaving at 6 in the morning our final day we knew we really wouldn’t be sleeping much that final night. At the same time staying out by the airport didn’t really appeal. In the end we ended up back with our friend Luis at his slightly lower end guest house, but, happy to see us back he gave us the ground floor suite (NO STAIRS) which was actually even nicer than our previous room. He invited us over to the B&B wanting to see us for breakfast too which was nice as we got some more information about our final touristy thing of the trip in advance. Seriously, if you’re going to Lisbon consider staying with Luis at one of his Zuzabed locations, he has everything from guesthouse to private suites with courtyards.

Dinner and Cider Al Fresco @ the Night Market

It turns out the night markets we’d visited when last in Lisbon basically ran the exact duration of our mainland stay. We ended up back on the hill to try something new and enjoy the view once again. Give me a bottle of Somersby, a serrano ham and cheese sandwich and a chocolate shot of ginja to finish and I am a happy boy. That being said there was a noticeably less hectic vibe in the Bairro Alto that night vs. the previous week. I guess the previous week had been the height of carnival and tourist visiting. It was still busy but we explored a bit further afield as we had less picking through the crowds to do.

Chiado
Bairro Alto

Ever so shockingly we managed another custard tart but, more interestingly, when Mom went in search of a coffee we ended up in a bookstore café. This turns out to be the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world: Livraria Bertrand. Built into the base of a particularly gorgeously tiled building it’s mix of modern touches and absolutely ancient looking barrel vaulted ceilings. Even with most of the books in Portuguese I could spend a lot of time there, but in the end bought a very nice leather bound Tolkein companion and was delighted when they stamped the flyleaf with a store stamp.

Mural in the Book Store
Livraria Bertrand


The next morning we grabbed our breakfast with (and said our goodbyes to) Luis and got a few of my pre-research decisions confirmed for us for that day’s trip to Sintra. Luis told us he’d get our cab called and ready to pick us up at 4am right in front and not to worry about anything else. We’d gotten a later start than I wanted and lingered longer at breakfast than I expected so, having confirmed that we could bypass the train lines with our already filled travel cards… we arrived at the train station to see none of the lines that we’d walked by the previous weekend. Things were definitely noticeably calmer, it made me wonder just how much shorter the lines at the castle would have been. That said, the train still filled up pretty much to the max and the lines for the palace in Sintra were not short (though not aided by them only having 2 of 5 ticket windows open.)

PAlace of Pena model

Sintra is not far out of Lisbon proper and has long been a retreat for the wealthy and was usually the summer residence of Portugal’s current ruler. The hillier/forested lands apparently trend much cooler in summer and held hunting pleasures not found closer to Lisbon proper. Towards the end of the Portuguese Kingdom it became the home to an explosion of romanticist architecture of which much still remains. One of the main draws is the Palace of Pena. Built on top of (and incorporating chunks of the existing architecture of) a 16th century monastery it has a variety of very diverse architectural elements both inside and outside. Heavy archways are lightened by fanciful carvings and large terraces command fantastic views across the gardens, down into the valley and off to the sea in the distance. It is a gorgeous place well suited for a palace though somewhat blasted by gale force ‘winter’ winds that particular day.

Palace of Pena from below

The place very much has the feel of a toy palace and I wasn’t surprised to discover part of the inspiration was Neuschwanstein despite the very different styles. Despite the playful nature of the architecture there are still a number of heavy defense elements built in. A heavy drawbridge guards a heavily switchbacked road with gunports that eventually emerges into the main courtyard.

Palace of Pena
Interior Courtyard of the Palace
Intricate Ceilngs
Some of the interior furnishings varied wildly in style

The interior is just as eclectic in design elements though this is perhaps accentuated by some of the bizarre choices the curators have made in what items of furniture to leave on display. I’m sure to some extent this is dictated by the state of their collection but there are definitely some rooms that have a bizarre mix of eras/uses that aren’t original. It’s a fun visit. The Palace itself occupies a hilltop and is surrounded by a sprawling garden with extensive up and down that we honestly didn’t see tons of (you could easily spend a day just on the palace and the grounds if you took your time.)

Palace de Pena – Back Courtyard

Ocean Theming

Taking the bus up and down from the castle there were occasional views of various other romantic architecture examples. Many of the noble estates from that era do their best to match the palace in their fanciful natures (if not in scale.) A faux gothic castle at one turn might disappear only to be replaced with an overgrown swiss gingerbread house. It’s really quite something and most are still private residences.

Streets of Sintra
Quinta and Gardens

After a quick meal and exploration of some of the shop streets we realized time was getting short and we set out to explore what Luis had said was his favourite part of Sintra: The Quinta da Regalaira. If the Palace of Pena is fanciful then the Quinta da Regalaira is pure fever dream. Built around the turn of the 20th century the estate is an extensive folly (in the architectural sense: a usually decorative building built to imply that it’s something it isn’t.) The entire estate is meant to evoke his personal beliefs and philosophy and this is conveyed in ways that are… eclectic to say the least. There’s even a large amount of Masonic and Knights Templar imagery.

Quinta Gardens
Folly tower

In one corner of the park lies the Palace which is (relatively) small but impressively decorated in elaborate gothic decoration. Across from it sits a tiny Catholic chapel just as decoratively designed but unfortunately mostly off limits.

The Chapel

The grounds are where things get absolutely ridiculous. The plot of land is (surprise for Portugal!) quite sloped and is roughly formed into terraced areas with winding paths between them. One of the more impressive discoveries is that tunnels are everywhere. Mostly hewn directly into the rock, most meant to look natural the network of caves stretches all over the place as a labyrinth and I suspect we didn’t even see half of them. One tunnel we took brought us up and out behind a waterfall over a grotto with hopping stones to cross the pond. The tunnels also connect to ‘initiation wells’ which are almost like a tower built below ground, spiral staircases and intricate designs meant to convey the appearance of a place for ancient rites.

Towers are everywhere above ground as well, some designed to appear ruined, some evoking Moorish or Portuguese age of exploration architecture. The faux ruin aspect is a bit difficult as a modern visitor because the local government only acquired the estate from private ownership in recent years and is clearly still catching up on some deferred maintenance (Portugal’s austerity spending cuts likely not helping.)  Honestly it’s kind of impossible to really convey the prettiness and the oddness of it, it ended up being probably one of my favourite stops of the trip though due to pure unexpectedness.

Folly Tower with Weirdo on top
Hobbit Hole

Back in Lisbon we sadly started to come to terms with heading home. While in some ways we were ready for a rest and blessed Prairie flatness there’s always still a melancholy that comes over you when it’s time.  We still had to get to the airport early however so we took a last wander about town, grabbed a last meal and tried to grab a few hours sleep. We ended up safely making it to the airport this time other than a blind panic about what to do with the keys for the room as Luis had told us they’d open the stairwell next door to his office to drop them off and they didn’t.  Thankfully he didn’t seem to be screamingly angry at us later.

Quinta Gardens

Hop one of the flight brought us back to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel in the Azores, tiny home base of our island hopping carrier and a 8ish hour layover. I’d been trying here and there to find us some form of tour to kill a few hours of that layover. It seemed a shame to be sitting there that long and not see some of the island. Unfortunately I’d more or less struck out and when we arrived I started calling tour companies on the phone, most of whom either only ran full day tours or simply didn’t answer. In the end I suggested we just go ask a cabbie how much a round trip to Sete Cidades (a set of crater lakes on one of the island would be since from google maps it didn’t seem far.) The answer was a surprisingly not terrible 50 Euro so we took out some cash and went for it.

Rolling Azorean Meadows

It was unfortunately a very cloudy/misty day on the island and I was a little leery of getting to the overlook and seeing nothing due to cloud cover but things thankfully cleared more and more as we drove. Our cab driver’s english was definitely not quite at the level of those in Madeira/Mainland Portugal but he did pretty well and stopped at various viewpoints (or often just on the side of a road) to show us the sights. Vaguely part of the same shelf of volcanic islands as Madeira the Azores are a lot more worn eroded. Long gentle hills separate a few taller peeks and the fertile soil makes for vibrantly green meadows everywhere, most filled with cows.  There were times I was very much reminded of New Zealand and, even more forcefully, of Cornwall as verdant slopes suddenly disappeared into forbidding rocky sea cliffs.

Sete Cidades Lake(s) from Vista do Rei


We wound our way up into the hills on the west end of the island and eventually reached the overlook on Sete Cidades. Sete Cidades is a fairly large stratovolcano that makes up a good chunk of the western half of Sao Miguel and is best known for a number of lakes within its caldera. The Lagoa de Sete Cidades is a twin lake separated by a narrow gap that has noticeably different colours in the two halves. Unfortunately with  the lack of sunlight the colours weren’t as pronounced as they are in some of the photos we’d seen beforehand but it was still a gorgeous sight from the viewpoint above. Back in the eighties someone built a very fancy hotel here but it failed relatively quickly and is now mostly a ruin. Reading online it appears someone recently purchased it and is planning to reopen it but we certainly saw no sign of that. While it does command a gorgeous view in pretty much every direction it was pretty windy up on the viewpoint and our driver said things were much windier in winter proper. From the viewpoint we took the winding road down into the caldera, stopping at a viewpoint over another smaller lake (apparently there are quite a number of crater lakes on this volcano) and eventually reaching the shore. Nestled along it is an isolated little village, picturesque but extremely quiet.

The Abandoned Hotel
The twin lakes and village
Sete Cidades Village Church

We took a slightly different route back to the airport with our driver taking us into what he said was a popular picnic area for the locals set along another mountain top lake. The clouds had by this point mostly retreated, it was still heavily overcast but the vistas of the island had properly opened up. On our way back down from the volcanic massif we came to a spot where we could see down the entire length of the island and from coast to coast. It really isn’t a large place. Honestly as pretty as it is I’d really wonder if there’s enough there to do to keep you busy for very long. Our tour lasted a little over two hours and we drove over a solid ¼ of the island I would guess? Yet as we boarded the plane later we talked to a number of people who had spent an entire week here AND had been before. I could definitely see the appeal in spending some time on Sao Miguel and some time exploring the other islands as well.

Back at the teeny airport we had a bite and settled in to wait for our flight. The final transfer from international to domestic at Pearson was the usual gong show but we eventually made it home more or less on time after what was about 25 hours of real time since we’d woken up that morning. All in all it was a fantastic trip. We definitely had our issues (luggage based and otherwise, in fact as I finish writing this almost a month after we got back we still haven’t gotten our payment from the airline) but overall it was a fantastic trip filled with beautiful sights, friendly people and great food.  I’d happily go back, not just to explore more of the places we went but also to go further afield, Porto and the wine country and more of the interior beckon for one. All in all the trip was a rousing success given it more or less all came about from ‘oh, there’s an RCI on Madeira, that might be interesting.’ One thing that tempts me a bit now that I wouldn’t have expected before would be one of the cruises we saw in Madeira, some of which apparently hit the Azores and the Canaries/Cape Verde as well.

Thanks to all those that followed along as ever and apologies for the lateness of the final post. As I think I mentioned I left for a wedding in California a week after getting back from this trip and have been playing catchup since. If anyone has any questions/wants any info please let me know.

Cheers and see you next time.

Someone was happy to see me home!

Road trip to The Rock

Our Gibraltar trip day dawned in depressing fashion. Sheets of rain could be heard when I first woke but had at least lessened to occasional sprinkles by the time we first threw open the drapes post-shower. Dawn had broken, but not by much on this grey grey day.

We were set for a long drive to Gibraltar partly from pure distance but also from a lack of a coastal highway around Spain directly from the Portuguese border. Heading east from Albufeira we passed all the remaining towns of the Algarve, it honestly would have been nice to explore a few of them even in a tiny way for potential future visits to the area but unfortunately time was too tight and we cruised on towards Sevilla.

Seville is a town I’d love to visit, it has a ton of beautiful architecture and lots of remaining moorish influences. Unfortunately my best route path showed us avoiding most of the city. Cut to a few hours driving later and the expressway taking us closer and closer to downtown Seville and yours truly getting increasingly worried that we’d somehow missed the exit (the signs in Spain being ok but not quite as idiot proof as Portugal.) Eventually I gave in to the worry and chose a likely looking exit for a map check/bathroom stop.

Somewhat hilariously it was the exit for the Seville IKEA and I instantly made a beeline for the parking lot reasoning that a) it would be empty at 9:30am local (we lost an hour crossing into Spain) and b) the restrooms would be sparkling clean and free (a plus in the land of pay toilets almost everywhere.) A quick check of the map had revealed that we had managed to turn off just before the proper exit (trust your nav skills Tristan) so after our pitstop and a coffee/danish refill at the restaurant we got back on the highway and continued our journey. Personally I think it’s silly that we ended up at IKEA but hey, if you’ve been to the IKEA there I think you can say you visited a place!

Being in Spain was a little confusing to the old brain. We’d both finally gotten to the place where we were instinctively saying Obrigado/a for thank you and were now back in the land of gracias. On the upside though I don’t pretend I can speak spanish with any fluency I can read a heck of a lot more of it than I can Portuguese.

Travelling east we seemed to be keeping up and even gaining on the storm with occasional sheets of driving rain forcing me to slow down from my 120kph cruising speed, but as we turned South towards Cadiz and Gibraltar the occasional patch of bright sky gave me hope. I really didn’t want to spend 8 hours driving to get there and have the whole place ringed in rain and fog. Unfortunately as it was we didn’t get the full effect of driving across what I knew was a very pretty stretch of Andalucia.

Moorish Castle Remnants – Gibraltar

I imagine most of you know the whole deal with Gibraltar but I’ll do a quick coles notes version here. It’s current status is that of a British Overseas Territory but the population considers themselves proudly to be ‘Gibraltarian’ and most speak English, Spanish and a quick mutating local creole that was near incomprehensible but for the occasional modern word snuck in in the few snippets of it I heard cab drivers speaking. They resent anyone seeing them as colonists or Spanish. Unsurprisingly I guess as they’ve been here forever other than a brief period during the war when a large chunk of the civilian population was evacuated to Madeira (I believe I mentioned that in an earlier post.)

First seized from Spain by the British in 1704 and ceded ‘in perpetuity’ in 1713, the Rock is territorially quite small. Spain has been trying to get it back ever since but the population is resolute in wanting to remain British. The border with Spain was actually closed for many years (60s to the 80s) and the Spanish Government still purposely creates delays and chaos for people returning to Spain from the Rock whenever they are having a snit with Britain (such as currently with Brexit issues.) The Gibraltarian population voted overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly against Brexit so it will be interesting to see what happens going forward.

The harbour

The ‘city’ portion lies on the West side between the Rock itself and the harbour. Most of it is built along a couple of main streets (one pedestrian only) and an increasingly number of large hotels and condo blocks sit along the water line. I’m a little murky on the tax haven status of the place, I know it was once quite the hq for international gambling firms and other such businesses but apparently the rules have changed a bit. There are still a large number of Spanish who come to buy electronics and other high value items (and Gas hilariously) at lower tax rates. A large portion of the workforce actually commutes from Spain as living on the rock is quite expensive and there are also ferries to Morocco, visible across the straight on a clear day (only 8 miles at the narrowest point.)

Casemates Square

The Spanish bloodymindedness about the place extends to helping anyone get there. Street signs have zero mention of either Gibraltar or the Spanish bordertown until you’re literally at the exit proper. It’s annoyingly petty. Thankfully the weather had cleared enough that as we emerged from a nest of buildings on the freeway I could just say “oh there it is” as the famous profile came into view. Following the guidance of some helpful online folks we got ourselves parked in an underground car park on the Spanish side and walked to the border crossing (also very few signs.) Border control was super casual going in (not even sure the dude could have said what country our passports were) and we walked our way into our third Country (and fourth or fifth territory depending on how you count things) for the trip.

Spain beyond… (the border is more or less that open stretch beyond the runway/airport)

There is only one entrance to Gibraltar. You cross the narrow tidal flats that once made attacking the place such a pain. Now since it’s the only reasonably flat area within their jurisdiction it’s a runway! Imagine sitting at a railroad track waiting to cross except for some reason the police also stretch across tire spikes… then an A321 suddenly blasts by at full throttle taking to the sky. It’s bizarre. With the barriers open there’s a narrow road and narrower footpath that everyone boots it across fairly speedily as getting stuck behind the barrier means a sizable wait.

The Rock itself dominates the skyline rather thoroughly and even from a distance you can pick out some of the caves and gunports that made it an absolute hellmouth to an advancing army. Unfortunately after that first good look the weather closed in again and we huddled under our raincoats as we walked into town proper to Casemates Square. As mentioned earlier Mom had been here before but I was blown away by what a little ‘slice of Britain’ it is.

People hiding from rain in the pub

Obviously a lot of that is catering to tourists but I’m guessing other bits remain due to the place being maintained mostly as a fortress until relatively recently. Many of the fortifications remain in place, the appropriately named Casemates square and area has a number of restaurants and galleries physically built into the defensive walls. Space is at a premium here so narrow alleys run off the main pedestrian street and are lined with tons of shops. Most of the alleys still have their old names as well so looking at the business guide you’ll see a shop advertising their address as 10 Engineer’s Lane or Crutchett’s Ramp. Quintessential British businesses (proper pubs! Marks and Spencer! a Pie shop!) are occasionally dotted with something extremely spanish (Serrano ham mmmmm) but overall if you plunked me down at one of the intersections I would probably guess I was in an old seaside town in Cornwall. We didn’t walk amongst the new hotels so the illusion was mostly maintained and the contrast between the busy Gibraltar and the fairly run down Spanish bordertown with ugly modern buildings was notable.

Fortification remnants everywhere

We’d unfortunately assumed correctly that the cable car to the top would be closed due to the gusting wind, something the cabbies insisted on telling every time we passed one of them. Neither of us was sure it would be worth a trip to the top as the rain was driving and even the pubs were too full to sneak into to wait it out. Miraculously just as we got to the bottom cable car stop (cable car closed today! taxi tour!!!) the rain stopped and we discovered a small cemetary built into a former defensive moat. The stones were mostly quite faded but a nearby plaque revealed that this was Trafalgar Cemetary and contained the remains of many who had fallen in that famous battle. Nelson’s body had of course been repatriated but it was still an interesting bit of history out of nowhere for a nerd like me.

Trafalgar Cemetary

With the skies seemingly clearing we relented to the onslaught of taxi touts and decided to hop one of the tours. Pretty much every taxi in Gibraltar is geared towards giving this tour and they mostly drive 9 seater minibuses to do it. The tour goes when the bus is as full as the driver thinks he can make it, much to the disgust of the french woman sitting next to me who had apparently been under the impression that they were getting it to themselves. Listening to her mutter away not knowing I spoke french was highly entertaining.

Our first stop was an overlook over Europa Point. Though it was still fairly hazy one could quite clearly see the nearest point of the African Continent across the way and to confirm this fact there was a giant brass plaque announcing the rock as one of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ of the ancient era. Honestly one of my regrets for this trip is not managing to squeeze in a quick trip to Marrakesh or something just to get a first hop to Africa off the old bucket list.

The entire top of the rock is a nature reserve, the ticket included in the tour price and only registered vehicles can enter the maze of narrow usually one way roads. One of the things I was most blown away by is the number of actual residences still up here, all of which must command amazing views of the city and Spain across the bay (as well as astronomic maintenance costs.) We followed the switchbacks up farther and farther until the entire harbour was laid out below us (originally all Royal Navy, now a mix of Navy, commercial and cruise terminal) and onto St. Michael’s cave.

St. Michael’s Cave

St. Michael’s Cave is the grandest of the many many maaaaaany caves and tunnels that honeycomb the rock. One of the largest sections was actually enlarged and made livable as a protected hospital for potential WW2 casualties but was never put into use, it has since been converted to a concert hall venue for 400+ people. Most of the extremely impressive formations are still in place however and actually the miniscule reformation of stalagtites since the 40s gives you powerful comparison to just how impressively old the other foundations must be. One of the fallen formations has actually been polished as well the better to see the rings of the formation.

Concert Hall cave
Stalagtites

The cave entrance was also my first close up look at one of the colonies of barbary macacques that roam the rock. Cheeky monkeys (despite lacking tails they ARE monkeys though they’re often referred to as barbary apes) in every sense of the word, one has to keep a close eye on their belongings around these brats. You’re explicitly told to leave any plastic bags behind in the car as they know they often have food and will just rip them apart.

Cheeky Monkey

Our driver took us up as far as you can go by car (a brave hiker on a less slippery day can get a bit higher up) for a more in depth monkey visit as well as one hell of a viewpoint on the spine of the rock, sheer drops in both directions and our first view of the West side of the rock (a small hotel complex and a few beaches.) Here mom had to tell off one of the monkeys as he had the camera bag half unzipped before I could turn it around to stop him.

Sheer drops on either side with the tip of the rock behind

Motoring along that same spine at high speed was a bit unnerving and my french lady was gasping at every quiver of the van. The rest of just concentrated on the view, not like there was anything we could do anyway (though I’m definitely glad they only allow authorized vehicles up there.)

A moment after being caught undoing the camera zip

In addition to the gorgeous St Michael’s and other natural caves there are over 31km of dug out military fortificaitons and tunnels in the rock. Portions of these have been opened to the public at several spots and the ones we visited are known as the Siege Caves as they were first created and used for defences against the great siege laid by the Spanish and French. Gun port after gun port command views of the foot entrance, the harbour approaches and anything else of military importance while larger command posts, radio rooms (in the later eras) and ammo storage line the inner walls. Dioramas with soldiers are set up multiple places but the most impressive thing is the sheer scale knowing that even the vast area we’re allowed to walk down is only a tiny section of the larger whole. The Rock must have been terrifying to approach even with the guns quiet, knowing any instant a wall of flame could erupt raining steel.

Great Siege Tunnels
Vantage point of the siege tunnels

Back in town proper we succumbed to the longings of our blood and had a traditional pub meal (Steak and Ale Pie and Fish and Chips,) hit Marks and Spencer in memory of Granny (mmm bakewell tarts and turkish delight) and somewhat reluctantly began the process of heading back to the car. I was so glad the weather had cleared because I really enjoyed my visit but adding a night or two in Sevilla and doing a day trip from there/exploring the city might have been a better option in retrospect.

Arriving back at the runway we hit a closed barrier and a mob of people leaving work. A few minutes later an Easyjet flight landed right across the pathway, super weird to actually see happen even after having walked across the runway earlier.

Road closed, plane landing

Once back at the car we settled in for the drive back but with the delightful change of wide open skies even as the sun began to set. The Andalusian countryside was suddenly much more open and visible and the golden hour lighting made the rolling hills and valley look like something out of a movie. It looks like such amazing country to go riding in and horses and ranches seem to be everywhere.

As we got back on the main highway towards Sevilla we were stopped at a police checkpoint. I have no idea what they were looking for, I didn’t even roll down my window. They seemed to be pulling people over at random but didn’t seem to be doing booze/drug testing so who knows. They had outriders blocking all the exits as well for anyone trying to avoid the checkpoint. Bizarro. Night fell soon after that and we cruised back through the city and towards the border.

The contrast between the Spanish/Portuguese side of the border is pretty striking in density. There are a few population centers and what appears to be parkland along a big chunk of that coast in Spain, then once one crosses the border the Portuguese side is busy the entire coast. I’m guessing part of that is Spain being way busier on the Costa del Sol Mediterranean side but it’s still kind of odd as you’re driving along. Arriving back in Albufeira late we parked the car and grabbed a late-ish dinner to refuel. Unsurprisingly after 8.5 hours of driving on unfamiliar roads I was pretty done for the night.


The next morning we used our last few hours of car-having to run a few errands. Bought our train tickets for the return to Lisbon, went and made sure they had a wetsuit that fit me at the dive co. etc. Then after dumping off the car we walked back into the old town for lunch and more or less just had a lazy day.

Do you have food?

The End of the ‘World’

Getting out of Lisbon was a piece of cake. We slightly overdid our lead time due to mild concern about how often the metro would be running on a sunday but after a wait we were plunked down on the train and headed south towards the Algarve. One of the best views of the journey came not long after departure as we crossed the river over the massive bridge that’s basically a shorter twin of the Golden Gate. The sunny and breezy morning had the sailboats out en masse and it again brought to mind a shadow of what this harbour would have looked like at the height of Portugal’s golden age of exploration.

Further south after we’d emerged from Lisbon’s suburbs we passed into the more arid sunny region. Most of the journey we spent passing olive groves then later just endless orchards full of oranges. Even in the towns you’d see people with massively prolific orange and lemon trees bursting with fruit. To a Canadian that’s just such a foreign site. Given we were crossing pretty much the entire bottom third of the country the journey was over surprisingly fast and I had to prod Mom awake as we pulled in to the tiny station at Albufeira.

The Algarve area of Portugal is the entire south coast and is incredibly built up with small communities. It relies almost entirely on tourism but is also an increasingly popular retirement destination for people from colder climates. Albufeira itself is one of the more populous small cities but to be honest most of them run into one another so it’s hard to tell where the borders even are. Despite the sprawl there’s still a lot of wild looking coastline here and it’s a very pretty region.

Sunset from our room

A short cab ride later we were back at the oceanside at one of the weirder large resort hotels I’ve ever been to. Mom set about checking us in with the documents while I inspected the lobby. I was more or less instantly laughing at the barrage of rules posted everywhere and (correctly) assumed they were aimed at drunken Brits as everything was in English. There were more usual signs like ‘don’t wear swimwear into the lobby’ and ‘no smoking in the lobby’ but also ‘no feeding the cats,’ ‘do not buy fruit’ and, most ominously ‘We are a family resort and any behaviour like a hen party is not tolerated.’ It was an absolutely sprawling resort and clearly had absorbed several nearby hotels as well.

The place was in off-season mode and clearly understaffed, after finding out they’d ignored our request for two beds we had to have a room change and were told we were getting a ‘free upgrade’ of which we really couldn’t see any sign once we were in the room. It turned out to be a simple room about the size of a large Grand Forks hotel room but with a small kitchenette built into the back wall. It had obviously recently been remodelled, was quite confortable and nice, but was definitely on the small side for one of Dad’s places.

Albufeira looking back towards hotel

Heck, even finding the room took some work as (defying pretty much any resort convention ever in my experience) you accessed the room on the balcony side and the arrows really didn’t make that clear (the rooms near the elevator had normal room doors.) There was also only an elevator on one end of the entire massive block which meant that most of the older elevator crowd for your entire floor was walking past your balcony door… and only window… which you wanted to have open for the view and breeze… so they could pretty much always see in to your whole place. Since it was one of the small rooms there was no couch either so people walking by just looked in to see you lounging on your bed late in the evening. Honest to god just a terrible design. Yet, we could see the waves crashing in to the point, the beach at the foot of the hotel was a lovely sandy cove nestled in between limestone cliffs and the sunset that night was spectacular.

View from the room

Portions of the hotel were clearly run as an all inclusive and the bars and restaurants were quite expensive for an a la carte guest ($25ish Canadian for a very so-so looking buffet) so we never ended up eating at the restaurant. The main pool was supposedly ‘closed for maintenance’ but no one touched it while we were there and it just sat there looking gorgeous and empty. They clearly just didn’t have the staff to watch it, the one open pool was far too small for even the limited number of guests but also wasn’t heated. The ‘don’t feed the cats’ sign was explained when we a sudden swarm of (well fed) ferals on our way to dinner.

Look at all that maintenance underway…

Walking (surprise surprise) up the hill we ran into a group of Albertans who clued us in to the closest good supermarket. We’d actually run into some Nova Scotians on the train as well when I noticed the Blue Bombers shirt he was wearing (a gift from a Winnipegger daughter.) The top of the hill had us arrive at the section of Albufeira known as ‘The Strip’ a multi-block section of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops that seems to be trying to channel old school Niagara Falls or Atlantic City. We quickly discovered (as I feared from some research) that the place was somewhat of a Brit Stag/Hen trip destination and was a bit… trashy. On a sunday afternoon at an off time of year it was fairly tame and large sections of the strip were even totally shut down (in some cases permanently looking, in others renovations were underway) but pretty much all the restaurants open had touts outside trying to get you in.

Reaching the top of the strip we headed down one of the main boulevards and serendipitously found a very nice little bakery (something we seem to have a knack for) and got some bread and morning muffins before walking further down to find the Pingo Doce supermarket. Despite the heavy load of drinks and things we’d bought to stock the hotel room for the week we started walking back and in fact made it most of the way back down the strip before deciding to grab some lunch (after all this time my first Piri Piri of the trip.) We spent the rest of the night settling in, exploring the weirdness of the hotel a bit more, playing cards and enjoying our first english tv in a while as they had our first non-news English channels of the trip.


The next morning we walked the 3km along the coastal road into Albufeira’s old town proper. Along the way we admired a number of vacation homes large and small, many with elaborate flower gardens blooming all about. The coast is a strange mix of ultra developed more modern sections and more run down micro-condos. Overall it’s really quite pleasant and the views from many would be spectacular, especially the couple right at the top of the sea cliff before we walked down the long hill to the main beach.

Fisherman’s Beach

Albufeira’s old town is nestled on and above a wide sandy beach known as Fisherman’s beach though the town’s boat traffic is now in a modern harbour/marina a few clicks east. With Mom’s coffee addiction having her near collapse we settled down into a seaside cafe and enjoyed the breakers rolling in. Weather wise the wind was up and it was probably one of the colder days of the trip. Nothing by our standards of course but the cafes all had wind shelters up and the locals were bundled up like it was -30, we zipped up our hoodies.

This guy kept looking down to keep an eye on everyone

Further back in the maze of streets of the old town you could see what had once been a small fishing village but was now more or less entirely tourist. A spacious and quite pretty main square is surrounded by restaurants and bars. I noticed that one of the gelato places had my favourite (Amerena sour cherry, see Rome post years ago) and instantly bought us each one which we quickly dispatched while roaming the cobbled streets. One end of the town has a tunnel bored through the rock leading to the next small inlet and beach. Wikipedia tells me that this was once the main visitor beach (as fisherman’s was covered in boats) and it would make sense, though on this day it was particularly windswept.

Overall the town proper had a lot more charm than our end of things, though that’s not really surprising. It definitely had a bit of the same bar vibe though.


I’m worried that I’m sounding a bit snooty when I call places trashy but it’s sort of hard to describe if you haven’t travelled to places like this. You have to remember that to Brits going here for a boys or girls weekend is way cheaper than it is for us to go to Vegas and for a certain type of Brit (and to lesser extent French/German/other) they treat it much the same way. The point for them is to maybe get a bit of sun but mostly to pub crawl and get absolutely blasted. As a result many of the bars are just trying to look like British football bars, one site actually told me ‘Albufeira is known for its irish pubs.’ Riot police have even been called in to deal with mobs of them at times.

Honestly the closest analogue I can probably give for most of the people who are reading this and don’t get it is imagine a Daytona Beach gearing up for Spring Break vibe, except it probably hits that every weekend during high season/christmas season. Thankfully at this time of year that wasn’t going to be a problem, but the vibe was still there. Also thankfully, like Daytona the scenery still manages to be beautiful despite the commercial surroundings.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time here, but if I returned to the Algarve I’d try to stay in a different town with a more laid back vibe (and probably have a car the whole time.)


Upon arriving we’d noticed that there were a number of tours further afield and with the sea temperature not really conducive to much swimming (though I was going to dive on Friday) we thought maybe we’d do one of them. Gibraltar sounded appealing as I’d always been kind of fascinated by the place and Mom had been there eons ago with Granny and had found it worth the trip. Unfortunately a bit of research into the tour revealed that you started stupidly early, spent your first 2 hours gathering other people from other hotels, then when you arrived the tour didn’t include going into Gibraltar at all, you had to pay extra or do your own thing. Since we kind of wanted to see a bit more of the coast anyway we decided to rent our own car.

Cape Sagres

So at lunchtime the next day we loaded up our new Citroen estate and headed west to explore the rest of the western Algarve. It was a cloudy day that seemed to be threatening to break into storms at any moment but in the end we never actually saw any rain. Navigating was mostly painless, everything was super well marked and we bopped our way along the coast to Sagres, Portugal’s (and Europe’s) most southwesterly town. Once the final staging base for many voyages around the horn and to the new world it’s now mostly known as a surfing destination.

Surfers

As with the rest of the Algarve it’s small beaches nestled between outcrops of cliff. Yet here the cliffs are even more impressive and the waves crash in much more aggressively as it faces the open Atlantic more directly. The surfing is particularly good as a result I’m guessing, though I think that’s also a factor of the availability of multiple beaches facing different ways off the point so there’s probably a solid beach for almost any wind direction. That said we also saw a couple of looney bins taking some crazy curls right next to a sheer rock wall so it’s not like some surfing types need anything.

One of several Feral Siamese we met

We explored the fortress on the point. It turned out to be more of a fortress wall protecting the entrance to a towering point. It’s the former site of Henry the Navigator’s nautical school though to what extent it existed is the subject of some debate. Henry himself was definitely a driving force in starting Portugal’s age of exploration and helped develop the newly designed caravel that would drive those travels. What exists of the fort at this point is mostly remnants, battery platforms and stupendous views. The caves and holes in the rocks lead to some excellent blowholes as well, one of which they’ve surrounded with a concrete echo chamber to really augment the sound of the surf.

Cape Sagres

We walked the entire perimeter of the fort/point before moving on as we wanted to see the literal end of europe before sunset. Cape St. Vincent is just a couple minutes down the road and is the southwesternmost point in Europe. These days there’s a small lighthouse and gift shop. If anything the cliffs here are even more impressive as they tower over the crashing green waves. It’s a wild place and you can really imagine just how scary it must have been to stand here and look out into the void you were about to cross, particularly as the sun set and the waves grew darker and darker.

Cape St. Vincent

With night fallen we set out home to our hotel and made ourselves a pasta dinner/had a slightly early night before the big trip the next day.

Sunset at the end of Europe
Lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent

Having fun storming the castle…

Editors Note: WordPress has yet again decided to completely revamp the editor so this may not look consistent with the other posts.

Our second morning in Lisbon started with a concrete plan to hop the picturesque old tram and take it up to the Alfama/Castle district to explore.

View from our guest house

Breakfast was a nice get together again with our host and this time with our fellow guests as well. They were a married couple and two coworkers from the Seattle area who’d just been to the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona via Paris/Amsterdam. There was a brief window where I once thought I might get to go to that conference back in my coding days so I admit a bit of jealousy. Luis gave us all various bits of advice before we scattered, telling us the most interesting way to walk up to the flea market before heading onward to the castle.

We started on our way back down to the Baixa taking one of the shortcuts we’d discovered on our previous night’s wandering and decided to take a slightly different route down to the water. In doing so we checked out a nearby church we hadn’t had time to see the night before. It had burned down in the 50s and been rebuilt but keeping much of the fire damage to the original stone, interesting but also quite odd looking. Outside, one of the many Ginja joints that are essentially a tiny closet in a large building and decided that breakfast indulgence would be alright (since it was pushing brunch time anyway.) Gijinha is a liqueur made from a sour cherryish fruit (the ginja) that many Lisboetas seem to drink almost religiously. More or less anywhere you walk in the city you’ll see one of these teeny bars that sell literally only this one thing and locals stopping it for a quick shot with or without fruit. We’d sampled it on Madeira as it’s popular all over Portugal but the omnipresence of it in Lisbon was kind of amazing. The liqueur itself is essentially the same brandy that’s in Poncha with the cherry sugar and some cinnamon infused in it. It’s both strong and smooth and often served in a little edible chocolate cup (one person told me this started in one place in Portugal and has spread.) On this occasion we were given our glass shotglasses and stepped outside, had cheers and sampled, spitting out the pits like the locals.

Reinforced for the day ahead we began walking down to the tram line only to discover (again) that they were just too crammed with people to make getting on (if it was even possible) appealing at all. As previously discussed we were in Portugal over the fairly extended Carnaval period so tourism numbers were probably way up (I definitely got the feeling at times that there were more Portuguese travellers in Lisbon visiting the capital than you might normally expect but forgot to ask Luis if that was the case.) In the end we decided just to walk since Luis had given us what he said was the most interesting route.

Tram Car (very full)

Interesting was code for “Hilly oh my god more steps” in some ways but it was definitely intriguing. The Alfama neighbourhood is pretty much the oldest extant neighbourhood of the city and was at one point (in moorish times) more or less the extent of it. Since it’s more or less all built on the steep hill up to the castle it was spared from most of the tsunami destruction (perhaps firmer bedrock helped with the earthquake too, I’m not sure.) and as such the streets here maintain the old narrow twisted patterns that were originally meant to confuse invaders and work equally well on tourists. Even I was glad for google maps that day. (I love you Luis but your claim there would be signs pointing at the castle everywhere was BS unless you were on the tramcar path.)

Typical “street” in the section of Alfama we walked

As you make your way through these narrow staircase/alleys you can run across almost everything. On one landing there will be a tiny postage stamp sized square with two microscopic bars and a couple of tables set out… on another you’ll see a magnificently tiled old home towering up 3 stories but only about six feet wide. In the Moorish/Medieval days of the City the nobility lived at the top of the hill nearest the castle and you can see this in the expanding size of the homes as you climb higher. Later the the district became home to the poorer citizens (fishermen etc) and there are signs of this in some of the decorative motifs. These days it’s known more as the immigrant area of the city with swaths of construction labourers from Portugal’s former colonies, India etc coming and staying in the neighbourhood during the pre-recession construction boom but with the cooled economy and austerity measures it’s changing once again. Apparently there are numerous public baths and laundries because many of the very old buildings lack any remotely modern conveniences.

You run into these beautifully tiled buildings out of nowhere in the oddest places

Eventually we reached the top and found the aforementioned flea market which was incredibly lively. It’s definitely a proper flea market and not just a tourist thing as vendors are selling everything from vintage clothes, furniture and broken toys to artisan goods and food. I saw a very near old map of Madeira that I was sorely tempted to buy but as it was still early and I knew I’d be carrying it around for six plus more hours at least I didn’t see how it wouldn’t get wrecked. If I’d just been visiting Lisbon the rest of the trip there were definitely some neat furniture things I would have at least examined too but the rest of the trip was so mobile/seat of our pants that I just didn’t want to even look and fall in love with something that would take too long to arrange shipping on. (Plus I’m fairly sure this was around the time that Dad told me my hot water heater had broken so I was feeling extra poor with every euro spent.)

Heading uphill (some more!) from the Flea Market we came to the Church of St. Vincent de Fora which was vast and impressive and is the burial place for a number of Portuguese monarchs. We also discovered that the area near the castle appears to be where some well established ceramic workshops were located. Again I wish in some ways we’d been finishing our stay in Lisbon as I saw a few things I might have picked up had we not been looking at then hauling them around another week+.

The ridiculous altarpiece of the Cathedral of St. Vincent

A fairly long line greeted us as we waited to get in to the Castle grounds proper but it was absolutely worth the wait as the Castle’s ridiculously defensible vantage point gives it and its grounds one hell of a view across the entire city and the River Tagus out to the ocean. As the site has been host to basically every fortification the city has ever built it’s archaelogically/historically kind of a mess as a site to visit, but also interesting for that. The exhibit of artifacts recovered at the site has a ton of things from the Roman era through to the early portuguese state. The inner portion of the castle itself is mostly the fortress built in the moorish era but there are also later walls from era where it became the protected seat of the Governor or King of Portugal depending on the era. Eventually as it became less necessary to always be behind thick walls the royals moved to swankier digs (as in most European countries) I believe originally in the Baixa (the valley below the castle) then as previously discussed out to Belem after the earthquake. From then on the castle was apparently just a military stronghold/storage depot and as such isn’t a particularly well preserved example of castle-tude, but it’s impressively stout and you can see why the legends of a Knight sacrificing himself to hold open a gate during the siege to force out the moors might be true. Not much was getting through or over those walls. Definitely neat to explore given the views it commands and the less safety paranoid approach the Portuguese monument folks take.


Mom with Gnarled Tree
Castle of St George/Sao Jorge
Looking down from one of the turrets

The terrace of the castle gardens is every bit as nice a visit as the castle itself. Gnarled old trees, some so split they’re essentially two trees growing in a helix, dot the grounds everywhere and even on a scorching day I imagine it’s easy to find some shade and look out at the city. The grid pattern of the rebuilt Baixa is very evident from up here and one can imagine the Marques de Pombal standing on that very spot planning his grand scheme. One can also sadly imagine the horror the soldiers standing guard must have felt watching their city tremble, burn and drown below them. We got an interesting dose of Carnaval as we were winding up our visit as well with a giant team of young folks streaming into the castle holding banners and wearing odd costumes. Out in the garden we got performance dancers standing near the walls and on pillars near the exit were crow people squawking at passerby.

In addition to fake crows the castle had Peacocks
Looking back at our guest house from the Castle Mount
Castle Harlequiny carnaval folk

By the time we started making our way back down the hill we were starving (and mom was getting hangry.) Given the time it didn’t make a lot of sense to have a big meal but most of the restaurants nearby had only pricey large dishes at a heavy tourist hotspot markup. Again I don’t mind paying a bit but some of those places definitely had a vibe of mediocre food you’re paying for the view.

Lisbon Cathedral

Luckily Lisbon has transformed many old news kiosks (the round european style ones) into mini cafe ‘qiosques’ that sell sandwiches and cake and ice cream and the like. We ran into one on a cute little square that according to Steves is ‘the best place to get the pulse of the neighbourhood’ and grabbed a cured ham and cheese panini, a couple of ciders and did some peoplewatching. Honestly these are some of my favourite moments when travelling in Europe, you can sit there ages if you like, you can take your beer across the street and sit on a park bench if you want and watch the world go by.

After a bit of a recharge we visited the nearby Lisbon Cathedral. While it’s the oldest in the city it’s also been rebuilt many times due to earthquakes and lies on the site of a former mosque and a roman street with shops and sewer. they are trying to currently redesign the site to make everything visible.

Meandering back towards our guest house through the streets we ran into a few more sardine stores. The Portuguese are super into canned fish (all canned fish not just sardines) and also export large amounts of it. Somewhat hilariously to someone from mostly sardine hating north america this has led to lots of touristy sardine shops. That old tourist spot standby of “have an X from the year you were born” actually gets applied to sardines in Lisbon!

Ferris Wheel o’ Sardines!

We also sampled an afternoon sweet at the Confeteria Nacional which, while it desperately needs a take a number system, served us delicious cakey things picked at random from the display case. It’s been serving sweet treats at this location since 1829 and the interior decor doesn’t look like it’s been updated much in the past century. We may or may not have also grabbed another Ginjinha to fortify us for the climb back up to the guest house.

Dinner that night was an absolutely phenomenal burger and great fries at a little place in Bairro Alto. Everything made from scratch and super tasty. Wandering around after trying to work off dinner we ended up in a weird little ‘half irish pub/half dance club’ called Cheers (with the logo) that had a very talented fiddler/guitarist playing and a small table free. While we were originally just planning to have a quick drink they were so good we ended up lingering til after midnight despite having originally planned an early night to pack for the train the next morning.

Musical duo at ‘Cheers’ playing everything from Erasure to Andrea Bocelli

All in all I felt like we’d crammed in a fair bit for our first visit to Lisbon and we knew we’d be back before the flight out so there was more still to do… for now it was on to the Algarve by train.