A Travellerspoint blog

Hong Kong and Home

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Four years ago we had visited the highlights of Hong Kong, and we saw no reason to take an expensive accessible tour to return to those places, interesting as they were during our one day there on this cruise. We spotted a wetland park that we sounded worth a visit, but it was far from where the cruise ship would be docking. Finally, at the last minute, Hugh found someone at Tours by Locals who would take us there. The guide and I had a quick exchange of e-mails about our abilities and interests, and when he met us at nine in the morning, after we had docked at Hong Kong, he had an excellent itinerary worked out. Wouter was originally from the Netherlands, and during the twelve years he had lived in Hong Kong, he had developed an extensive knowledge of that place. We used taxis and the light rail system efficiently and saw things that we would never have visited on a standard group tour.

The city has grown up around a number of walled villages that have retained their traditional character despite their surroundings, and we visited two of them. Houses line streets that sometimes are sometimes barely wide enough for my little red wheelchair. A few of the buildings are of the same kind of green brick that was used for the village walls; others have more colourful exteriors, sometimes with bright tiles and often with a small red ancestral shrine near the door. Particularly interesting are the small neighbourhood temples. We visited several and felt welcomed by the individual or the small group (mainly women) inside the outer doorway. We then proceeded to the inner area with its highly decorated shrines and statues and burning sticks of incense. And yes, it is a small world. At one temple, someone asked our guide where we were from. When he told her Canada, one woman asked in English what part of Canada. She was excited by our reply, "Near Toronto": she has a daughter living in Toronto though she herself has never visited!

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We had a traditional lunch at a noodle shop in a small shopping mall, and then we went on to the Hong Kong Wetland Park, a 150-acre conservation and education area. We saw first the visitors' centre with its exhibits on wetlands. Then we explored the extensive network of paths and boardwalks that lets visitors observe various aspects of the wetlands. There are blinds for the birdwatchers who flock here (pardon the pun) to see the year-round residents, some migratory birds, and some species that winter here. Particularly popular in the latter category is the endangered black face spoonbill, which will soon be leaving for its breeding grounds. We saw the birds, and we also saw people with huge telephoto lenses. (The spoonbills didn't pose well for my mere 300mm lens, so I am posting a photo of a lotus instead.)

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Remembering Bangkok traffic, I had wondered whether our return trip to the cruise ship might be slow at the end of the afternoon, but Hong Kong has a very efficient road system, and we were soon back on board, ready to eat dinner and then pack and set our suitcases outside our stateroom well before the 11:00 p.m. deadline.

After breakfast the next morning, we disembarked and took a taxi to the downtown airline terminal. There we got our boarding passes and checked our bags. It was earlier than we needed to go to the airport, so we checked our carry-on bags at the "Left Luggage" area, bought tickets, and went up to the 100th storey observation floor, yawning or swallowing several times during the elevator's swift ascent. The air was hazy, but the views were interesting and dramatic anyway.

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We returned to the main floor, retrieved our carry-on bags, and took the light rail train to the airport. There we considered having lunch at a fast food restaurant, but we decided that a busy morning and a 15-hour flight ahead of us warranted something more relaxing, so we enjoyed a tandoori meal with regular restaurant service. Then we went to our gate and, at the appropriated time, boarded our plane. Again as on our westbound trip, flight attendants served three meals during the trip, the final one being breakfast. Window shades were pulled down and cabin lights were dimmed between the meals, and we managed to get some sleep. Landing in Toronto, we discovered that we were to experience what may be the last really cold night of the winter, a real shock to our systems. But the Red Car trip was comfortable, and we found things in good order at home.

On "sea days" aboard the ship, we had attended a series of lectures on Buddhism. In one of them, the lecturer stressed the goal of "Acceptance." When I reflect on my feelings about the ending of our trip, I think that describes them. I can remember hating to have a holiday end, and I know that some people are eager and relieved to get back home. I feel "Acceptance." This was a wonderful adventure that worked out well, and it was a good length. Now I am ready to get back to the "real world." Well, almost ready, since I will spend much of the next few days culling and then editing some of my 955 photos! That will give me ample opportunity to process the amazing experiences - the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes - of our Southeast Asia exploration.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 15:07 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Halong Bay and Hanoi

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Halong Bay . . . Several years ago I began to notice photographs of a strange and beautiful place, and I discovered that it was Halong Bay, in Vietnam. So, when I saw its name on a Celebrity cruise itinerary, that made me pay attention. And when Flying Wheels offered it as a wheelchair-accessible tour, we signed up.

Things don't always work out as planned. Others cancelled their reservations for the tour, so it turned out that Hugh and I are traveling by ourselves, using the shore excursions arranged by Flying Wheels. We are quite happily traveling without a group, especially when the arrangements work out as smoothly as they have on this trip. But I was disappointed when I woke up Wednesday morning to find that the cruise ship was surrounded by fog. We went out on deck at the time that the captain announced we would be entering Halong Bay, but there was not a rock formation to be seen. Eventually we saw one, then another, then another through the mist, but they were so indistinct the the automatic focus of my camera found nothing on which to focus. I tried manual focus, and that was no better. Eventually we left the deck and had an early lunch to prepare us for the afternoon.

When we were ready to leave, we got our tender tickets and waited for our number to be called, for there is no cruise dock in Halong Bay. When our turn came, we boarded one of the Millennium's tenders and made the easy trip to land. There we were met by our tour guide, driver, and helper, and got into the same kind of Toyota van that had served us well on the previous two land excursions. The trip to Hanoi was longer and also slower than those, its speed hampered by much road construction. And the dark, misty afternoon made the towns through which we passed seem more drab than they would have under brighter skies. Our route took us past towns with the very narrow but tall houses that are common here. We also so many people working in their rice fields, and we passed factories making shoes, bricks, and other goods. Most noteworthy was the large Canon plant. We took a break by stopping at a handicrafts centre which provides support for disabled workers, and about four hours after our pick-up at the port, we arrived at our hotel in Hanoi.

Ever since we visited India about ten years ago, we have been amused at how, on tours, we have been booked into more luxurious accommodation than we ever choose for ourselves. Our Hanoi hotel was the Intercontinental Westlake, and in our accessible room we were surrounded by luxury as well as convenience. I had signd up tor the chain's membership program in order for us to get wireless internet connections in our room and not just in public areas, and we discovered that here our membership also gave us a 15% discount on our meal in the hotel's restaurant. We had very good dinners and then enjoyed internet and relaxation in our room. The bath had both a tub with many grab bars and a roll-in shower with a convenient built-in bench, and I had a fine shower.

The breakfast buffet offered many choices, and our guide and his helpers were waiting when we checked out at the appointed time. The weather had not cleared up; in fact the mist had become a misty rain. We went first to the area dominated by the massive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There we saw the long lines waiting to visit the monument; they included many groups of schoolchildren wearing their school uniforms who used their English skills to say "Hello" and sometimes "How are you?" We walked past the monument and continued onto the busy but lovely grounds of the presidential palace and the much smaller "stilt house" in which Ho Chi Minh chose to live while he used the palace only for purposes of state business. While the mausoleum was grey, the palace and smaller buildings were painted a warm yellow shade that almost glowed through the misty atmosphere.

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We reboarded the van and next visited the Temple of Literature, regularly described as the first university of Vietnam. The pathways through the grounds were decorated with many topiary plantings, and red lanterns gave colour along the way. The climax of all this was the Confucian temple at the far end of the grounds, with its large statues and much red and gold, making the visitor forget for the moment the dullness of the day.

After that, the van took us to an old quarter of the city where we had 45-minute cyclo rides. The vehicles were like those in which we had toured earlier, but these had their top canopies in place as roofs, and the driver fastened a sheet of clear plastic from the footrest up to about chin level, so we were surprisingly comfortable despite the misty atmosphere. We rode past hundreds of street vendors and storefront businesses, a much more diverse selection than we had seen previously. Of course there were a great number offering food, clothing, and household goods, but we also saw welders and a blacksmith at work in the more "industrial" area of shops.

Following a brief toilet stop, we started back toward Halong Bay. We had a noodle lunch at the same handicrafts place that we had visited on the outbound trip, and Hugh and I bought one small souvenir, our only shopping on the entire trip. Then we continued to Halong Bay.

As we approached the bay, we saw that, although the sky was still cloudy, the fog had lifted and the nearer rock formations were now clearly visible. Our guide made a suggestion: we could let off our helper, and then for an additional fee, he and the driver would take us to the city of Halong. We agreed. We went over the tall bridge that we had seen from our ship and crossed into the city. There we parked by the dock, if it can be called that, which is near a floating village and which serves as the departure point for water taxis and small fishing boats. In the sea were many of the amazing islands, some nearby and some more distant! We did not see them in their mysterious beauty, but we did see them as part of a fascinating human landscape, or rather seascape, so it turned out to be worth visiting Halong Bay after all. Then we went to the nearby market, especially in order to see the extensive fish market there. A remarkable variety of sea life was offered for sale, some cut up and ready for cooking, much still alive. All in all, this turned out to be a very fine extension to what had been an interesting land excursion with less than optimal weather.

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Finally we returned to the tender dock and to the cruise ship. We freshened up and had another fine dinner. The next morning we discovered that we had been tired enough so that we had gone to bed without noticing in the newsletter that we were supposed to turn our clocks ahead one hour, so we arrived at the the main dining room too late to eat breakfast there. However the ship has options, so we got breakfast at the buffet restaurant. Thus we began our final day at sea.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 06:31 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hoi An

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This morning we arrived at the dining room about the time it opened at 7:00 and ordered the "express breakfast." We received it promptly and were ready to go ashore when when the ship was cleared to begin letting off its passengers at 7:30. We were met promptly by our guide, who led us to a Toyota van similar to the one we had two days earlier. Again, in addition to a guide, we had a driver and a helper, and we set forth toward Danang, passing through a long tunnel on the way. Beyond the centre of the city and saw the odd-shaped "marble mountains" and also some of the statuary that is a specialty of the area. We stopped at a beach from which we could see the tall "lady Buddha" statue and looked at a vast array of boats including the small round boats that are common to the area.

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We went on toward Hoi An, our destination, but we made another stop along the way, this time to tour a large organic vegetable farm. A wide variety of vegetables are grown on small plots and carefully tended by the workers.

Arriving in Hoi An, we left the van and in half a block we entered the UNESCO World Heritage zone of this small city which was a very active trading centre for several centuries. Its buildings are colourful (many of them yellow) and of different architecture and ages. We visited the small museum and two old merchant homes and also one temple, all very interesting. A main feature of the town is the Japanese covered bridge, build in the 16th century or possibly even earlier.

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By the end of the morning, we were not hungry, but we were thirsty, and we told our guide how much we had enjoyed Vietnamese coffee in Saigon. He agreed with the suggestion but recognized that we should go to a "good" restaurant to be sure of the quality of the ice. He led us to one that he trusted, and once more we enjoyed the refreshing beverage. Then we started back toward the ship. He had me speak on his phone to the manager, who wanted to be sure that we really wanted to return early from our excursion. I assured her that we did; we had been very satisfied with our visit, and we did not want to shop though there were certainly many opportunities in Hoi An.

We got back to the Millennium at about two o'clock, still in time to get a light late lunch at the buffet. Then we enjoyed resting before dinner. Hoi An has a population near that of Guelph, though of course the historic district is only a small part of the city. Traffic in the historic section is restricted to pedestrians and motorbikes. It was a refreshing contrast to the large cities that we have visited and will visit on the rest of the cruise, an excellent choice for an excursion.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 08:09 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Saigon

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A pick-up at 7:00 a.m. for our tour of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) seemed early, but our room service breakfast arrived in good time, and we were ready when the ship was cleared for passengers to disembark. Our guide and driver met us with a Toyota van that was the perfect height for me to slip in and out, and we began the hour and a half trip to the city, appreciating the recently built highway that has shortened the travel time. Although this passed much of the same kind of strip commercial development that we had seen on the way into Bangkok, we also saw rice fields and water buffalo. Rice cultivation is done entirely by hand, and several places we saw people harvesting the crop.

Saigon is a city of nine million people and five million motorbikes, and even though it was Sunday, so people were not heading to work, the local traffic was much in evidence. We went first to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a small but complex place of worship where many people were placing long sticks of incense into the holders and otherwise performing acts of devotion.

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Then we went to the War Remnants Museum. On its upper floor was an impressive display of pictures by a wide variety of photojournalists of what is known here as the American War. Below that were displays of the effects of Agent Orange and of war atrocities. Though the message was one-sided, it was none the less sobering. A number of planes and other war equipment stand on the grounds around the museum building.

Next Hugh, our guide, and I boarded cyclos, which are sort of reverse tricycles with two wheels and a passenger seat in front and one wheel and the cyclist in back. We made our way on a remarkable sightseeing tour among the motorbikes and larger vehicles of the city. I held my smaller camera in front of me and, without using the viewfinder, trusted its wide-angle lens as I took pictures of traffic and, much more, of the street vendors whom we passed. The photos worth saving will require straightening and cropping, but I should end up with a good set of pictures of Saigon's street life.

Our cyclo tour ended up near the Notre Dame Cathedral, which we saw from the outsider, and the remarkable Central Post Office, which we were able to visit. Our guide gave us the choice of Western or Vietnamese food for lunch, and we chose to go to a local noodle shop where we had very good soup with chicken and rice noodles.

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We had heard much about Vietnamese coffee, and following lunch, our guide asked whether we would like to try some. We accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm, and he took us to a coffee shop and placed the order. The coffee for him and for our driver arrived ready to drink, but with ours, our driver showed us the process. Coffee is brewed into cups which already have condensed milk in them. Then the mix is stirred and poured into tall glass cups filled with ice. The result is a delicious beverage that was especially refreshing in the heat - for now we understood why our morning pick-up time was seven: it had allowed us to see some of the city at a more comfortable time of day.

The coffee shop was partly around a larger traffic circle from the Ben Thanh market building, and I said that, although I did not want to shop, I would like to look briefly at the busy local market. Boldly our guide led us across the streets that form the spokes of the traffic circle, and Hugh and I spent perhaps ten minutes in the crowded market, quickly replying "No" to one seller after another. We got the flavor of the market very quickly. Then we returned to our van, appreciating its air conditioning as we headed back to the port. Although our ship was not due to set sail until evening, we had enjoyed a sufficient view of Saigon - and had felt enough of its heat.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 08:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Bangkok

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We had been warned. Our reading and the shipboard presentations all told of the traffic in Bangkok, and it is true: expect heavy, wild traffic in Bangkok. We left the ship slightly before the appointed time, and already our guide, "Sam," and our driver were waiting for us with a large Toyota van with a wheelchair lift at the rear. I don't really need a lift, but the steps into the van were high, and the wheelchair had to be lifted into the van anyway, so I accepted the convenience and then transferred into a seat in the van. A new highway into Bangkok had been opened only in January. It takes about half an hour off the trip, so we made our way into the city in about two hours, observing a wide variety of vehicles and commercial establishments along the way. There were cars, trucks large and small, buses, motorcycles, motorscooters, pickup trucks made into small buses, and three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

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We went directly to the Temple of the Golden Buddha. For centuries, the nine-metre-high statue was covered with plaster, and it was only in 1955, when it was being moved, that it was discovered to be made of gold. Its smooth, polished surface now sits serenely in a temple which has an elevator that allows easy access for visitors who have difficulty climbing steps - a welcome accompaniment to the statue which is over 700 years old.

From there, we went to Wan Fah, a riverside restaurant where we had a buffet lunch and then went out onto the veranda to see the active river traffic. Then we went to the President Palace Hotel, where a very comfortable and attractive accessible room awaited us. I accepted the hospitality of the comfortable bed and took a nap.

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At six we met Sam and our van for transport to the Siam Niramit dinner and show. We had experienced Bangkok traffic on our way to the noon restaurant and to the hotel, but that had not prepared us for the evening traffic between our hotel and Siam Niramit. It would have been only a short distance as the pigeon flies, but it took us a good hour and a quarter, giving us plenty of opportunity to watch the way that motorscooter and motorcycle drivers dart in front of stopped vehicles to pass from the narrow space between two lanes of traffic to the space between other lanes. By the time we reached our destination, we saw the elephant that was greeting the guests, but we had no time to see the entertainers or artisans in the "village" there. We went directly to the buffet dinner and from there to our seats in the theatre.

The show itself is spectacular. Its different scenes represent different areas and ages in Thai history, but it is not a history lesson, at least for those who read only English. It is colour and movement and dance and beautiful costumes and special effects. What is at first the part of the stage closest to the audience soon turns to an area of water into which one performer dives and others travel by boat; even when it is not used as water, from our very good wheel-chair accessible seats it provided beautiful reflections of the action farther back on stage. In some scenes, performers drifted through the air, and yes, there were two elephants in the show (as well as several goats and at one point a few chickens). At the end, Sam led us back to the van, and the return trip to our hotel took only about fifteen minutes.

The next morning after breakfast, Sam and the van met us at eight o'clock, and we went to the Grand Palace. What an extraordinary place it is, with the occasional smooth golden surface providing visual relief from an amazing variety of decorative shapes and colours! At the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, I took went in my stocking feet up the first set of steps to have a distant view of the jade image, while Hugh went on up into the main chamber. Otherwise I was content to see the dazzling sights from my wheelchair, and visually (as well as historically) there was entirely too much to process in a single visit. Toward the end of our stay, we went into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, and its serenity was a welcome relief from the sensory overload on most of the palace grounds. Incidentally, Sam had bought bottles of cold water when we entered the site, and the temperature was not as high I had feared. Of course we were wearing our Tilley hats, and we got along more comfortably than I anticipated. By making the visit earlier than specified in the original itinerary, we were on the site before it became as crowded and hot as it would have been a bit later in the day.

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When we left the Grand Palace, another ride through traffic awaited us as we drove to the highest building in Bangkok for lunch at the Baiyok Sky View restaurant, on the 76th storey of the building. We were seated at a table for two by one of the windows, so we had full advantage of the view as we ate our buffet lunch. Then with Sam we made the descent in an elevator with an outside view. Back at ground level, we met our van and driver and headed back to the cruise ship. We looked through the shop area in the terminal building but bought nothing. Then we boarded the ship and returned to our stateroom to decompress after experiencing the stimulation of the busy and exciting city.

Posted by MarilynWhiteley 20:12 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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