Tag Archives: travel

A “PEEK” evening

“Pass me that torch, quick, there is something here!”.

It’s pitch black around, apart from our head torches flashing in the darkness. It’s 7pm and I am walking in the Con Dao National Park forest with a group of Vietnamese school kids, their teacher, a couple of parents, and the  guys from Senses Diving Con Dao, a  local diving school.

I am on the left :-)
I am on the left :-)

How did I get here?!

A few days ago I was chatting to Max, one of the owners of Senses Diving Con Dao, as I wanted to learn more about the island, and he told me about Biodiversity PEEK.
The Biodiversity PEEK (Photography Educating & Empowering Kids) educational program is run by the Biodiversity Group and it teaches children about their own environment. In Con Dao the program runs over two months at a time and it involves around six children from a local school per group. Weekly activities – usually run on a Sunday – range from trekking, to snorkeling, diving, clean up days, and are all aimed at teaching the kids about the wildlife on their own doorstep and what impact (good or bad) we have on the environment.

There was no need to ask me if I wanted to get involved in the night trek with the kids: I was already putting my hand up for that!

And so we went.

Local wildlife
Local wildlife

The trek led us into the forest and up the hill, and it was great to see the enthusiasm from the kids! No leaves were left unturned (in the real sense) and every finding was reported to the group with loud cheers. We mainly saw lizards, geckos, and spiders, and heard noises from bats and monkeys in the bush.

Something has been spotted!
Something has been spotted!

Kids had also been given digital cameras to document and report back what they had found.

The day after the trek they gathered at the bar run by Senses Diving for the second part of the activity:  uploading the photos to a website that will assist them with identification of the species found.

Uploading the photographs
Uploading the photographs

This is all part of increasing the kids’ awareness about their environment, which is of crucial importance. Even more so on an island like Con Dao, which is deemed as globally significant because of its marine life, terrestrial habitat and location. Read more about Con Dao biodiversity here.

I feel very privileged to have taken part in one of the Biodiversity PEEK activities in Con Dao! All tourists are welcome to join in, so please pop by if you are in town and ask the guys at Senses Diving Con Dao how you can get involved!

Postcards from Con Dao

For an active person like me, beach life doesn’t always cut it. So this morning I rented a mountain bike and headed off to Ben Dam fishing port, a 12 Km ride from Con Son Town, up and down a hill.

From Con Son Town to Ben Dam port
From Con Son Town to Ben Dam port

The scenery was absolutely fantastic: white sand beaches, blue sea, mountains in the background! Ben Dam fishing port appeared very active (it was 9:15am when I got there), with lots of boats coming and going.

The ride back was a killer, first gear most of the time and the scorching tropical sun above my head. But it was definitely a ride worth all the sweat and effort!

Meet me at the pier

Pier 914 in Con Son Town, Con Dao, takes its name from the estimated number of prisoners who died during its construction. Another reminder of the sad history of this island.

This is where my friendship with Jo and Gez started. All thanks to a freshly caught mackerel and a Vietnamese phrasebook.
We somehow managed to have the mackerel delivered to a local restaurant, where it was then cooked in three different ways. The evening also involved riding a motorbike in three, in true Vietnamese style.

“Meet me at the pier after sunset” has become the refrain at the end of our evenings.

The pier after sunset
The pier after sunset

At the pier we sit with a couple of drinks and listen to the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks. There is no one else there. Only a fisherman or two when it gets crowded. Darkness surrounds us. It is very quiet.

Tonight Jo and Gez did not meet me at the pier. I waited and waited but they never arrived.
Maybe they were tired, maybe they wanted time to themselves.

I will go back to Pier 914 tomorrow after sunset.
Maybe I will see my friends again.

The Lighthouse Award, my first blogger award!

For someone like me, who has only just started travel blogging and whose past  writing experience consists only of research papers and technical documents, being nominated for The Lighthouse Award by a fellow blogger is an immense honour!

So my biggest thanks goes to Travel Chick Diaries (click here to view her blog), who thinks my blog is terrific :-). You have a pretty awesome blog too!

And now in true Lighthouse Award fashion I will recap the rules of the award and then proceed with my nominations.

The criteria for accepting the award are:

• Display the Award Certificate on your blog • Write a post and link back to the blogger that nominated you • Inform your nominees of their award nominations • Share three ways that you like to help others • Nominate as many bloggers as you like

Ways I like to help others:

1. Show people that we have options in life and when we are not happy about something we can either change it or walk away from it

2. Make time to listen to people and give them support

3. Share my skills with them

And my nominees are:

www.adventurouskate.com

blog.kenkaminesky.com

solofriendly.com

www.unbravegirl.com

Welcome to Con Dao!

“Cabin crew, prepare for landing”.
What?! We’ve only just taken off! Not long before reaching its cruising altitude, the 68-seater ATR42 starts its descent towards Con Dao airport. As we land, I notice that the runway is by an amazing beach. Not a bad start, I think.

Getting on board
Getting on board

The Con Dao archipelago, still unspoilt and made of sixteen islands, can be reached by a 14-hour boat ride from Vung Tau or a 45-minute flight from Saigon. What would be your travel choice?

Con Son, the main island, is the only inhabited one and used to be a penal colony during the French occupation. Nowadays it is a very quiet place with amazing scenery, lush tropical forests, and beautiful beaches. Tourist facilities are still limited but this adds to the island’s appeal. Very little English is spoken here, making it challenging at times, yet people are very friendly and always willing to help.

I am about to discover more about Con Dao, so stay tuned!

Impressions of Saigon

First of all let me explain why I insist on using the old name ‘Saigon’ instead of the city’s post-war name of ‘Ho Chi Minh City’. It has nothing to do with its significance in history. It’s just shorter and quicker to say/type. End.

Regardless of how you call it, this incredibly chaotic and buzzing with life metropolis is the most modern and quickly expanding of all cities in Vietnam. It reminds me of Bangkok.
But my very first impression on my first visit here last December was: “Omg, and now how do I cross the road?!”.

And now how do I cross the road?!
And now how do I cross the road?!

It was quite terrifying! Hundreds of scooters, motorbikes and cars swarm around you as you try to make your way to the other side. Traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are ignored in equal measure. Crossing the road becomes a fearless act of faith: if I believe that I will make it safe to the other side of the road, I will! And as you start walking slowly but at steady pace amidst the traffic, you realise that drivers are so used to avoiding pedestrians that the risk of being hit is actually quite low. And what initially seemed some sort of mission impossible easily turns into a mission accomplished.

Being back here after three months since my first visit is strange. The receptionist at the guesthouse still remembers me from my first visit, making me feel at home. Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker area) and the city centre look so familiar. I still managed to get lost a few times while walking around town, but there’s something interesting to see at every turn so it’s not all bad!

Here’s some more photos.

Saigon – Talking with the tourist

It all started with a: “Are you English? Do you have some time to speak with us?”.
This afternoon I was strolling down Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area in Saigon, on my way to Ben Thanh market when I got suddenly surrounded by a group of Vietnamese students, like I was some sort of movie star.
“Why not?” I thought. After my catch up with some Vietnamese friends in the morning I had no real plans for the rest of the day. So I sat on the pavement with the students and for almost an hour I was bombarded with questions about my job, my home country, my opinions of Vietnam. My not-married status, together with my age, (yes, these were some of the questions too) shocked some of the girls but I will survive….

With some of the students who interviewed me
With some of the students I spoke to

Although only a handful of the students around me actually asked me questions, there were at least fifteen of them eagerly listening to everything I had to say. They also showed me photos of Vietnam, told me about their studies and their hometowns.

“Talking with the tourist” – as these University students explained to me – is an initiative that gives students in Vietnam the opportunity to practice their English with tourists.  They even have a website (click here) and a Facebook group!

The Saigon group uses the Pham Ngu Lao park as its area of action. As I looked around while sitting with them I realised that there were at least another 5-6 backpackers in the same situation as me.

These students also hand out a self-made booklet with some Saigon travel tips, from price lists to how to find toilets, how to cross the road, some useful sentences in Vietnamese (which I was unable to pronounce properly…), and a small map of the city centre. And at the end of my ‘interview’ they even gave me a small gift – a handmade bracelet – to thank me for my time.

What a great idea from these kids, and what a nice experience for us foreigners too :-).

So if you are in Saigon and keen on spending some time speaking English with local students, head to Pham Ngu Lao!

Boarding gate

Airports and boarding gates: my favourite places!
This is where all the preparation, the planning and the excitement become real!

Today after a quick bag drop I got stuck in security for what it felt like an eternity. Not the one to miss out on an opportunity for a good argument, I got into a heated conversation with two overzealous security ladies who decided to go through every item in my handbag and backpack. With the highest point being: “Mascara is a liquid, listen to it when you shake the bottle! You should have put it in the little plastic bag”.  Yes m’am. Now let me proceed to my gate please.

So here I am now, staring at the screen displaying my flight number.
We are not ready to board yet so I entertain myself with some people watching. I wonder where everyone else is going. I wonder how many of my fellow passengers will join me on the second leg of this journey. Will I be again the only non-Russian on the second flight, like the last time?
I scan the waiting area to check how many (potentially screaming) babies/children will be on board. Is the flight full? Probably, the seating chart when I checked in online yesterday didn’t seem too promising. Will I be lucky enough to have empty seats around me? At this point I doubt. Are there any interesting characters around?

Why is eBackpackingveryone standing up now?! Uh the screen is flashing, they are calling my flight. Time to board!

Packing nightmare

For someone like me, who prides herself with being the “world’s greatest world traveler” (actually these are the words of my friend Bex), light packing is surprisingly a skill still missing from the list.
I have packed backpacks and suitcases hundreds of times before, but I just never seem to learn!

So today after struggling with carrying luggage from my place to Stella’s, whose place  I am staying at tonight,  I realised that something needed to be done. No chance I could carry this amount going up and down planes/buses/trains/taxis/whatever means of transport that I would be using over the next few weeks :-(

Action is required. Now!

What’s the first thing that can go? Mmm do I really need that heavy travel photography handbook? Yes. But…isn’t there an e-version available? Yes! £10 for the Kindle version, which also means I have to download a Kindle-for-PC converter and sort out some version incompatibility. But now it’s done, and I am a bit lighter (even in my wallet, but better than a broken back). Yay!

What’s next? I need help! Stella!!!! And here’s the two of us sitting on the living room floor with all my suitcase content spread everywhere, lifting one item at a time. “Are you really really gonna need this?” she asks. Yes. Ok, maybe. Not. You win.
Repeat that for half an hour in the same sequence, and here I am 2.5Kg lighter. Mission accomplished!!!

Will I do it better next time? Sadly, probably not.

It’s getting real

Three working days to go, before I leave my office for the very last time.
A few more boxes to pack, before I move all my belongings into storage on Sunday.
Jabs all done. Visa sorted. Camera equipment (almost) sorted too. Key flights booked, with a couple of accommodation bookings thrown in as well.
Suitcase still overflowing with lots of probably-not-so-useful-but-I-may-need-them-at-some-point items. Time for some re-assessment here….
To-do-list getting ticked off quickly at the moment, but some logistics still need to be organised.

Despite the amount of time spent planning and working around issues/challenges over the past 1.5 months (mainly at night!), I feel like there’s still so much to do…
Adrenalin kicking in!