Tag Archives: wanderlust

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#SETRAVELS: From The North to The South in Vietnam

Vietnam and Cambodia have always been destinations that were on my bucket list. This long, narrow country offers splendid views of the South China Sea and borders China, Laos and Cambodia. Last month, my boyfriend and I planned a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia where we barely scratched the surface. For three weeks, we travelled from the north (Hanoi) to south (Ho Chi Minh City), then made a short trip to Cambodia. Here’s what we did in Vietnam (to read about our Cambodia trip, click here).

After about 20 hours of travel (as there are no direct flights), I landed in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Since I only travel with hand luggage, I packed for the hot weather of the south without paying much attention to the weather of the north. Big mistake. With temperatures in the 5°C mark and only one sweater, to say it was frigid would be an understatement (note to anyone visiting Hanoi: it’s cold, pack accordingly). But despite the weather, we wandered around the town visiting various sites, including their Water Puppet Theatre and even stopped for Vietnamese egg coffee, a specialty in the north where egg yolks are used to substitute milk. After a few days to acclimate to the climate and jet lag, we set off to Halong Bay.

Hanoi by Night Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre Hanoi, Vietnamese Egg CoffeeHalong Bay, meaning “descending dragons”, is known for its thousands of limestone islands, which boast inspiring caves and spectacular floating fishing villages. It was amazing cruising around Halong Bay on a 2 day cruise. Unfortunately, the photos don’t do justice to the beauty of this UNESCO heritage site.

Halong BayHalong BayHalong Bay CavesHalong BayFrom Halong Bay, we took an overnight sleeper train to the imperial city of Hue. We did most of our travels with overnight trains or buses because flights were either unavailable or offered inconvenient timing. When we arrived in the former capital (from 1802-1945), we scoped out the old imperial palace and temples from Vietnam’s past. With much of the country destroyed by the bombing in the Vietnam/American war, seeing these sights in all their glory was simply stunning.

Hue Imperial CityHue, Thien Mu PagodaHue, Minh Mang TempleHue Khai Dinh Temple SoldiersHue, Khai Dinh Temple MosaicHue Khai Dinh TempleOur next stop was Hội An, but before our arrival, we made a quick pit stop in the Marble Mountains, a cluster of mountainous rock of marble and limestone in Da Nang (just north of Hội An).

Da Nang, Marble Mountains Da Nang, Marble Mountains Da Nang Marble MountainsAfter our quick pit stop, we arrived to Hội An, which many travellers referred to as “the Disneyworld of Vietnam”. We quickly understood the reference upon our arrival. The ancient town of Hội An is a mix of Chinese wooden shophouses and temples, ornate Vietnamese houses with lanterns lining the streets. After a day in the ancient town, we cycled around the smaller locales to get a glimpse of local life and dine on local delicacies, including their infamous White Rose dumplings.

Hoi An Ancient TownHoi An LanternsHoi An by NightHoi AnHoi An HamletsHoi An, White Rose dumplingsAfter Hội An, we continued onto Mui Ne, a quiet beach town in Southeast Vietnam. We woke up at an ungodly hour to catch the sunrise in the Vietnamese sand dunes and then wander around the red and white desert before the sand became too hot. Aside from long stretches of sand and sea, Mui Ne is home to an original fishing village where locals still outnumber tourists. During the peak sun hours, we retreated back to our resort and relaxed poolside. After a few days on the go, a quick break was much needed.

Muine Red DunesMuine Fishing VillageMuine Fishing VillageMuine Cliff ResortOur last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Ho Chi Minh was once Prime Minister but more importantly, he was one of the Vietnamese communist revolutionary leaders who fought the colonial forces for the liberation of the Vietnamese people. After the Vietnam War, Saigon was renamed after their leader.

HCMC buildingsHCMC, Post OfficeHCMCOur time in Vietnam was all too short but utterly compelling. I didn’t know what to expect prior to visiting Vietnam but the country offers an interesting past and some breathtaking beauty. If you’re planning to visit South East Asia, don’t skip past Vietnam. For the second part of our trip, read “#SETRAVELS: Sunrise to Sunset in Cambodia”.

– Chenessa Lam

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#SETRAVELS: Prague is a Fairy Tale City that’s a Feast for Your Eyes

When I realized, I had yet to visit Eastern Europe, it was immediately on my list. On the top of that list was Prague. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much about the Czech Republic but knew that there was something intriguing about their capital. With only 72 hours to play with, I booked my flights and made my way to this fairy tale city.

Style Empire, Travel - Prague, Vltava 1

The second I landed, I made my way to my hotel, andel´s hotel Prague. Once unpacked, I took a short (less than 10 minute) tram ride into the city centre and realized that the city is very walkable and offers a great public transit system. With less than 72 hours to go, I knew I had to narrow down the to do list: walk along the River Vltava, cross the Charles Bridge, people watch in Old Town Square and climb up to Prague Castle.

I meandered down the Vltava, the longest river in the Czech Republic, before crossing over into the Old Town. Although much of the city is quite touristy, I managed to find a few quiet spots along the river to soak in the view. Along the Vltava, there are many bridges but the Charles Bridge is the one you want to take. It may be full of tourists, but this stone bridge offers both history and architecture and boasts 16 arches and 30 statues of religious figures along the way.

Style Empire, Travel - Prague, Vltava 2 Style Empire, Travel - PragueStyle Empire, Travel - Prague, Charles BridgeStyle Empire - Travel, Charles Bridge

Once I crossed the Charles Bridge I sauntered over to the Old Town Square, where you could easily people watch for hours – and I’m pretty sure I did. The square takes you back in time. With the Old Town Hall with Astronomical Clock, Gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn and Church of St.Nicholas, you’re surrounded by beautiful history. There are rumours that Walt Disney was inspired by the Our Lady before Tyn Church and created a Disney castle based on the architecture. I’m not sure if there is any truth to this but either way, you really do feel like you’ve wandered into a fairy tale. Style Empire, Travel - Prague, Astronomical ClockStyle Empire, Travel - Prague, Old Town Square 3 Style Empire, Travel - Prague, Old Town SquareStyle Empire, Travel - Prague

Style Empire - Travel, Prague CastleStyle Empire, Travel - Prague, St Vitus CathedralStyle Empire, Travel - Prague, View from Prague Castle

Speaking of fairy tales, Prague also has the largest castle in the world (according to Guinness World Records). Within the castle district we spotted the beautiful St. Georges Basilica and St. Vithus Cathedral, with stunning gothic architecture and incredible stained glass windows. But make sure you bring your walking shoes! It’s a nice (hot and sweaty) walk to the top. But once you get there, the views are definitely worth it.

Did I mention the food? Ohhh the food! Czech food is not exactly what anyone would call dietary – insert eyebrow raise. At dinner one night, I ordered duck with a side of cabbage and baked apple. Here I thought I would get a duck breast, a small side of cabbage and slices of baked apple. WRONG. I apparently ordered a whole duck, dumplings, caramelized cabbage, red cabbage and a whole baked apple sprinkled with cinnamon. I thought I was ordering dinner, but apparently it was a feast for one. Either way, I savoured every moment of it and it was delicious. My taste buds and stomach were happy but my hips, not so much.

Style Empire, Travel - Prague, Duck Dinner Style-Empire-Travel-Prague-Dinner-e1408806188183-739x1024

Unlike many other cities of Europe, Prague emerged from World War II relatively intact. With so much history littered in the streets, you can easily lose yourself for hours just walking around the city. As you wander the cobblestoned streets and look up at the castle, it really does feel as if you’ve been transported into a fairy tale. All I’m missing is the glass slipper.

– Chenessa Lam

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#SETRAVELS: Busy Streets and Breathtaking Sights in Turkey

I’ve been wanting to go to Turkey for a few years now and last month I finally buckled down and booked a ticket. I flew into Istanbul and spent four days there before catching a flight to Cappadocia, a bus to Pamukkale, another bus to Antalya and then flying out. Two weeks later and I hardly scratched the surface but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Style Empire - Istanbul

After landing in Istanbul Ataturk Airport, we caught a taxi to our hotel in the Old Town, Sultanahmet. We spent two nights there and visited a few historical landmarks such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Mosque, Basilica Cistern and even went for a Turkish bath. Everything was very walkable but there is a tram for those who prefer transportation and taxis can be found fairly easily. We sauntered along the streets and were lost more often than not but we found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar before making out way to a few of the mosques.

Style Empire - Istanbul, Basilica Cistern
Style Empire - Istanbul, Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque)Style Empire - Istanbul, Chenessa Lam outside of the Blue Mosque
Style Empire - Istanbul, Sultanahmet Mosque
Style Empire - Istanbul, Grand Bazaar
Style Empire - Istanbul, Spice Bazaar

For our second (and last two) days in Istanbul was spent in Beyoğlu, a district located on the European side of Istanbul. We stayed at the Misafir Suites located right off Istiklal Street, a bustling pedestrian street with plenty of shops, restaurants and cafés. Unlike Sultanahmet, where life calms down once the sun sets, in Beyoğlu, it seems that life lights up once the sun goes down. During the day, there are many sites to see, such as the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Galata tower and the Bosphorus sea. Beyoğlu is basically open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Style Empire - Istanbul Istiklal CaddesiStyle Empire - Istanbul, Galata Tower (Chenessa Lam)Style Empire - Istanbul, Dolmabahçe Palace

There were two other destinations I wanted to visit while in Turkey: Cappadocia, known for its spectacular landscape, and Pamukkale, known for its hot springs and travertines. From Istanbul, I took a flight to Kayseri, the closest airport to Cappadocia and spent one night in Göreme, a city within Cappadocia, in a cave hotel and explored all the area had to offer.

Cappadocia offers a landscape unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. From centuries past, the elements have eroded layers of volcanic ash forming conical rock formations. In the early hours of the day (usually from 5am to 8am) hot air balloons litter the sky and that is a sight in itself. From fairy chimneys and rock churches to underground cities, Cappadocia is bound to take your breath away.

Style Empire - Cappadocia
Style Empire - Cappadocia Zelve
Style Empire - Cappadocia, Hot Air Balloons
Style Empire - Cappadocia Hot Air Balloons

From Cappadocia, I took a 10 hour overnight bus to Pamukkale. There is no other way to get from point A to point B, so I sucked it up and made way way over. Pamukkale, meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, consists of natural hot springs and travertines, terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water. The ancient city of Hierapolis surrounds the travertines and when visiting Pammukale, one must bathe in the calcium infused waters.

My last few days in in Turkey were spent in Pamukkale and it was incredible. Unlike the bustling streets of Istanbul, Pamukkale is much quieter with many family run hotels and restaurants and although tourists flock to see the Cotton Castle, it still remains untainted.

Style Empire - PamukkaleStyle Empire - Pamukkale TravertinesStyle Empire - Pammukale Travertines (Chenessa Lam)

After two weeks, was time to say “Good Bye”. I didn’t want to leave but I had a plane ticket and couldn’t miss my flight. Instead of going back up north to Istanbul, I took another bus (this time only 5 hours long) to Antalya, and parted ways with this beautiful country and everything it had to offer.

What We Ate
– Mezes: Turkish tapas which may be hot or cold and may include beef, lamb, or fish. You’ll also find fresh green beans and cacik (yogurt, cucumber and garlic).
– Pide: Turkish pizza. A thin crust is topped with cheese, egg, meat, chicken or fish and then heated in an oven.
– Kofte: Turkish meatballs. They can be found as street food (often wrapped in a pita) or in restaurants served with rice and salad.
– Kebab: Large skewers of chicken or beef are cooked slowly on a rotating grill. The cook slices strips from the skewer to serve in a wrap or on a plate, usually with lettuce, tomatoes and onions. This is often found as street food but can also be found in restaurants.
– Baklava: Layers of phyllo pastry filled with nuts then covered with honey or syrup. This ought to satisfy any sweet tooth.
– Turkish Delight: A sweet solid jelly (which comes in different flavours) dusted with icing sugar. Another one for the sweet tooth!

Good To Know
– The local currency is the Turkish Lira. Most places take the Lira or Euro but it’s best to have Lira on you for the best exchange rate. In larger cities, you can also use credit cards but in smaller towns, cash is best.
– In Mosques baring shoulders, knees and excessive skin can be offensive. Headscarves must also be worn in the mosques. If you don’t have one, they have ones you can borrow but keep in mind, they have been worn many times before.
– Hotels are plentiful, no matter what your budget. Research the area you want to stay in (Asian side vs European side) and then search online for the best prices. We stayed in a 4* hotel in the Sultanahmet district for just over $100 CAD.
– Getting around is fairly easy. We walked most of the time and when we went from city to city, flights are relatively inexpensive if booked in advance. Busses also run regularly, however they will take up more time.
– Get lost and enjoy the scenery!

– Chenessa Lam

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#SETRAVELS: Lively Temples and Idyllic Beaches in Thailand

With famed beaches, delectable food and grand temples, you can easily understand why Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia. Once you get past the 20 hour flight, you’ll be awarded with rich cultural attractions, great shopping and your fair share of lazing on the beach.

Bangkok is usually the start of most adventures through Thailand, so that’s where we began. From there, we made our way south to Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and then to Phuket. For two weeks, we covered quite a bit of ground, but it wasn’t enough. An encore is definitely necessary in the near future.

As a metropolis, Bangkok offers heat and humidity but also a bustling energy. Bangkok is filled with temples and palaces, complete with intricate and historically significant architecture. The three biggest being: the Grand Palace (the official residences of the kings since 1782), Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn). Not far from the temples, you can find yourself at Khao San Road, a short street in central Bangkok which offers a bounty of fresh coconuts, “massage” parlours, street vendors and budget accommodations. Although, this street is usually a zoo, it isn’t one that should be missed.

About an hour outside of Bangkok you can find yourself in a floating market. The Damnoen Saduak is the most notable, making it a huge tourist attraction. Even so, we had to check it out. With riverside stalls and vendors selling things directly out of their boats, it gives you an idea of what life was like in days past.

Another day trip that shouldn’t be missed is Ayutthaya, a city just 76km north of Bangkok. As the second capital of the Siamese kingdom, the city is now an archaeological ruin complete with magnificent stone temples and palaces. Since the ruins aren’t quite close together, the two best ways to get around are by bicycle or tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw).

Once we had enough of the heat, smog and chaos, we decided it was time to relax and soak up the island life. We made our way to Ko Phi Phi (Phi Phi Island), an island with a laid-back attitude, breathtaking views, not to mention, a divers paradise. This island is quite popular with tourists, so you’ll often find yourself surrounded by more tourists than locals.

If you want a look into real island life, you might want to hop on a ferry from Ko Phi Phi to Ko Lanta. When we arrived on the island, we noticed that the tourists were almost non-existent. We had endless stretches of beaches to ourselves and dined at local establishments where the owners knew us by name and offered us rides back to our hotel when it started to get dark. It was a nice change from the more touristy locales.

Our adventure ended in Phuket, an island off the south west coast of Thailand. If you want beaches and nightlife, this is the place for you. This island boasts an abundance of sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. For some, beach life and partying goes hand in hand. In Phuket, you won’t be disappointed. Along Bangla Road, you can find many foreign animals, partying hot spots, not to mention, plenty of go go clubs, pole dancers and lady boys (think The Hangover 2). On Bangla road, dull moments rarely exist.

What We Ate
I’ll start with this, you can find Pad Thai any and everywhere. Fried noodles and fried rice can be found at restaurants and street vendors – and both are equally delicious. I can’t say that I’m the most adventurous when it comes to food (fried bugs? Hmmm…) but when it comes to travelling, food is great way to get a taste of the local culture, literally. My favourite dish by far was recommended by the owner of a restaurant we dined at, Massaman curry. He explained that it is a muslim origin Thai curry dish, which is flavourful but not spicy. Most Thai dishes are very flavourful with the blends of spices, but many are also quite hot. I learned this the hard way when I tried a dish at another restaurant where I cried and sweat profusely. Note to self: When a Thai woman tells you a dish isn’t spicy, it probably is.

Where We Slept
Accommodations, like almost everything else in Thailand, are relatively inexpensive. You can get a 4* hotel for about $100 a night and anything less is even cheaper. In the bigger cities, we opted for hotels that offered roof top pools, a necessity in the Thai humidity. In the smaller islands, we either stayed at local hotels (where we got to know some of the owners), or in bungalow-style accommodations. No matter what your budget, you’ll find something suitable for you. And a word of advice, for the extra $5, I wouldn’t pass on the air conditioning option.

Good To Know
– The local currency is the Thai Baht and it’s best to have a few on you, although most airports and convenience stores will have ATMS. Most hotels and restaurants will take Visa or Mastercard but some charge a 5% fee. The markets only accept cash.
– The Thai population is a mix of Buddhist and Muslim and even if they aren’t practicing, most are quite spiritual. At the temples, you must cover up your shoulders and knees. If you’ve forgotten long pants or a t-shirt, they do have items for you to borrow (I just can’t say how clean they are).
– Always haggle. They expect you to haggle and if you don’t, it’s your loss. There were times when we haggled down to a quarter of the price. At the end of the day, they are happy they made a sale, and you get to walk home with a bargain.
– Thai people are very friendly. They are alway smiling and more than happy to help you but you should get to know a few of their local customs. For example: shoes are not to be worn in many stores and it is rude to raise your voice.
– It won’t hurt to learn a few Thai greetings while you’re there. You’ll notice that most Thai people will say hello or goodbye with a prayer like pose with the hands and a soft bow of the head. “Sawadeeka” (“hello” in Thai), “kop khun kap” (“thank you” in Thai) and you’re on your way!

– Chenessa Lam

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PHOTO DIARY: All Roads Lead to Rome

A city with over 3000 years of history behind it, no wonder it’s known as the eternal city. What I love about Rome is that you never know what you’ll come across next. You can aimlessly wander the streets and end up at the Trevi Fountain or get lost and find the sun setting behind St. Peter’s Basilica. There is something enchanting about this city. A majestic presence, never more impressive than when illuminated at night.

– Chenessa Lam

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