a challenging region to enjoy

Note to self: next time we’re travel planning, in addition to checking TripAdvisor forums and the Canadian government travel advice and advisory website, look up the Air Quality Index (AQI).

It was shocking to land in Hanoi and discover the smog level is so continuously thick that we would rarely see the buildings downtown, just across the river. On the Sunday we were there, the AQI peaked at 365, categorized as “hazardous to everyone” with a caution to avoid physical exertion outdoors. To put that in perspective, the AQI was 26 on that day in Vancouver. It turns out Hanoi is one of the most heavily air-polluted cities in the world, with only a handful of “good” recorded days in 2017. Cough cough!

We have mixed feelings about our experience in Vietnam and Laos. Both are Communist countries with no freedom of expression and many other oppressive laws and practices. A few days after we left Ho Chi Minh City (which locals we talked to still call Saigon), more than 100 people were arrested for protesting government plans to offer foreign investors 99-year leases in special economic zones. However, both economies are already heavily shaped by massive direct investment from Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, although the protesters were particularly concerned about growing Chinese involvement in their economy. The state-run media in Vietnam report that private enterprises now employ more people than the state, and both Vietnam and Laos are in the processing of privatizing public institutions and services.

The Vietnam War looms large over both countries. You can’t visit any museums or historic sites in Vietnam without facing intense propaganda about US aggression and destruction, American soldiers described as “devils who kill women and children”, and graphic descriptions of the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. In Laos, unexploded bombs, including small cluster bombs that look like toys, continue to main and kill civilians. We visited the Mines Advisory Group information centre in Vientiane to learn more about work to clear mines and bombs from fields and communities.

The taxi drivers of Vietnam are the worst we’ve met in the world in terms of rudeness, deceptive practices, even refusing to take us across the Red River in Hanoi. We were staying just across the river from the old quarter; for some reason taxi drivers were reluctant to cross the river and pedestrians are not allowed on the two nearby bridges. We found Vietnam to be the least safe place to walk anyway, drivers pay no attention to pedestrians or traffic signals, and motorcyclists use the sidewalks to pass or go against traffic. No one slows down or stops, they just blare their horns and roar by.

There is trash everywhere. Storekeepers and street venders simply dump their trash in the street, empty lots are used as garbage dumps, streams and rivers are basically open sewers. We saw more rats running around and more men urinating in the streets in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve ever visited.

Okay, so that’s a lot of bad news for countries that claim to offer visitors “Endless Charm” (Vietnam), or a “Simply Beautiful” experience (Laos). It wasn’t all bad! The beaches in Vietnam are wide and sandy, the ancient history is fascinating, and there is an emerging craft beer industry that attracted our keen attention, especially in Saigon. The Heart of Darkness tap room was just 300m from our hotel in Saigon — superb craft beer so dangerously close we dropped by three times over four nights — the Aussie manager confirmed that made us regulars!

The Reunification Palace in Saigon aka Independence Palace.

Inside the palace as it was during the 1960s.

Gruesome photos at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

Once hidden entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels, just north of Saigon.

Our favourite craft beer taproom in Vietnam: Heart of Darkness.

Nha Trang — major beach resort town.

Royal Tomb for the last king of Vietnam.

Statues of mandarins at the Royal Tomb.

Part of the ancient Imperial Palace in Hue, Vietnam.

Arch within the grounds of the Imperial Palace.

The smog in Hanoi.

Massive Patuxai arch in Vientiane, Laos.

Deborah was interviewed by students asking about her experience of Laos — they seemed thrilled she was from Canada.

Quirky Belgium bar in Vientiane celebrates the life of Tintin.

Quirky park outside Vientiane features random statues of Buddha and various Hindu deities.

island hopping and walled cities

As we travel, we usually have some sense of what we expect to see and do in the next city or region we’re heading for. But with Crete and then Rhodes, we were just hoping to soak up some Greek island sun and maybe walk some trails. Little did we know that we would end up hiking down a 16 km gorge, wandering through ancient Minoan ruins and buildings built by an order of Knights, and spending time in not one, but two walled cities.

The Samaria Gorge is promoted as the longest gorge hike in Europe. It begins 1230m above sea level, and after 5-1/2 hours of negotiating steep rocky steps and loose gravel trails, hiking along dry creek beds and hopping on stones to cross streams, we made it down to sea level. We’ve done a few 8 to 10 km walks and hikes over the years, so this is a “personal best” when it comes to completing a very challenging hike. We also spotted several wild Kri Kri, a goat-like animal, although the photo above is a tame one that hangs out at one of the rest stations. Confession: we did need the next 24 hours to recover!

Crete has changed hands many times, but there is an enduring mystery around what happened to the once formidable Minoan empire, based on Crete and for centuries very much in control of trade throughout the region. Sometime after 1300 BC, the Minoans simply disappeared. Some historians suggest the collapse of the Minoan empire was the result of a major volcanic eruption and/or tsunami that destroyed their fleet and therefore means of maintaining their rule — others suggest infighting left them vulnerable to attack.

We visited the sites of two massive Minoan palace complexes. Phaistos is a set of hilltop ruins overlooking the Libyan Sea that were excavated and left as they were found, while Knossos was partially “restored” in the 1930’s by an archeologist who had a vivid imagination — signs describe where his ideas (and construction methods) conflict with current understandings of how the buildings were used and by whom.

We also spent a few days just outside the original part of Hereklion, fortified by the Venetians when they took control of the city in 1204. Most of the wall is intact, along with a small fort that protected the harbour. But other than some very old buildings, the oldest part of the city is not unlike the newer parts with trendy restaurants, flashy chain stores and overstocked souvenir shops.

Time to hop islands! Our ferry to Rhodes left at 6 pm and arrived at 2 am — fortunately our host was willing to pick us up at the terminal and make sure we were safely checked in, just inside the walls. In this case, it was an order of knights who built the walls and many of the surviving buildings inside. Rhodes is a remarkably well-preserved (and restored) medieval city. Indeed, there is an area of restaurants and souvenir shops that fills with tourists when there is a cruise ship in port for the day. But not many venture into the massive hospital built by the knights, walk by the inns they stayed in, or tour the very impressive Palace of the Grand Master.

Recalling our time in the Split and Dubrovnik and their “roles” in Game of Thrones, the new Star Wars, and other films, we asked an attendant if any television series or films were ever shot here, but her answer was no. That’s almost too bad. If you ignore the modern lighting and signage, you can easily drift back 600 years and imagine encountering some Knights of St. John, or the Grand Master himself.

montreal about to turn 375

It’s just a two-hour train ride, but Montreal is a world away from Ottawa. The buildings here are older, the streets and traffic more rumbustious, and it feels like people are simply having more fun here.

The VIA rail line takes you right into the centre of town, but the whole station is underground. No worries, there are more than 30 kms of tunnels connecting you to office buildings, numerous subway stations, and endless shops and restaurants. You can get most of the way across the downtown core without getting wet or cold if the weather is not so good. It’s called RESO, although everyone knows it as the Underground City.

I was staying at the Hostelling International hostel downtown, so checked in and was pleased to find that a walking tour of the old parts of the city was about to get underway. That’s one of the benefits of staying in HI hostels, there are often free tours or other activities to join.

We travelled through parts of the Underground City, but surfaced quite regularly to see major historic buildings — massive churches and banks using architecture to illustrate the power they represented. Our tour guide also talked about the historic conflict between the English and the French in this province, although she felt young people are much less concerned with the politics of separation than their parents.

I was surprised to find a section of the Berlin Wall on display in the atrium of the World Trade Centre — it was a gift to Montreal on the occasion of it’s 350th anniversary. That reminded me that next year the city marks 375 years since a small settlement was established on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. The tour ended with a stroll around the very oldest part of the city, now home to countless restaurants, souvenir shops, art galleries, and offices.

I returned to the original old port area the next day to spend some time at the city museum. The main floor features the story of Montreal as it grew from a mission and trading post into a major industrial port and thriving metropolis. The upstairs temporary exhibition area, however, has a different story to tell. Aptly named “Scandal!” this floor introduces viewers to the seedy underbelly of the city, especially “vice, crime and morality” in the city between 1940 and 1960. Critical of criminal activity and exploitation? Sure. But celebratory in a “wink wink, nudge nudge” sort of way. Scandal! is only around until the end of December, so go see it now if you’re in the area!

img_0761

This is Windsor Station, the original eastern terminus for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

img_0776

A piece of the Berlin Wall gifted to Montreal in 1992.

img_0817

Old office and warehouse buildings in the oldest part of Montreal.

img_0793

An old building is dwarfed by new condos under construction near the hostel.

img_0800

An irreverent peek at the seedy side of Montreal.

New Denver offers history lesson

Imagine being told to grab what you can carry in a suitcase or two and being forced to leave everything else to an unknown fate. The media describes this scenario with alarming regularly in reference to the many war-ravaged parts of the world, but it also happened here along the peaceful coast of British Colombia. However at the time, not everyone had to leave their lives and livelihoods behind, just Canadians of Japanese origin or descent.

The year was 1942, and just weeks following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour the Canadian government, more interested in scoring racist political points than showing humanity, stripped all Japanese-Canadians of their civil rights and possessions, including cars, homes, fishing boats, businesses and investments.

With only 24 hours notice, Japanese Canadians from coastal towns and the Gulf Islands were herded into animal barns at Hastings Park (site of the Pacific National Exhibition) before being dispersed: men to road construction camps, and women, children, and the elderly to a number of internment camps, mostly virtual ghost towns in and around the Slocan Valley of British Columbia. Very little evidence remains of these camps, which at one time housed almost 20,000 Japanese Canadians, but a few of the shacks survived in New Denver and have been brought together with an original meeting hall to remind all visitors of this sad chapter in Canadian history.

The New Denver internment camp was located just outside town and was home to over 1500 people crammed into 200 little wooden shacks erected in rows in an old orchard. There were two families to a shack sharing a cramped kitchen. One outdoor latrine served as many as 12 families.

One of the surviving shacks serves as the office and information centre, the second shows the interior as it would have been at the beginning of the internment – one bedroom with rough beds and blankets, the other showing personal touches added as internees made the best of life in the remote camps. The third shack recalls how some families continued to live in these shacks past the end of the internment in order to stay close to family members living in the nearby TB sanatorium (now gone). The final public building on site is the 1943 Kyowakai community hall, which houses interpretive displays and artifacts from the time. Exhibition photos and text tell the full story, from the first winter spent in canvas tents despite the heavy snowfall and intense cold, through to the long-overdue political redress settlement in 1988.

The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, which just celebrated is twentieth anniversary, is located in New Denver, about 100 KMs north of Castlegar off Highway 6. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially on a one or two day circle tour from Castlegar or Nelson.

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

Entrance to the Nikkei Internment memorial Centre

IMG_9675

Internees were moved from canvas tents to shacks with rough beds and blankets

IMG_9676

Shared kitchen

IMG_9681

View of latrine from one of the shacks

IMG_9700

Personal possessions on display in the hall