I have redefined retirement at age 23. I have a lifestyle where I do the things I like, with the time I have and still get paid for it. I designed my freedom these two decades, traveling to more than 40 countries. I run a successful business doing consulting works as a Corporate Writer, Corporate Emcee, Event Producer and a Workshop Facilitator. I am also a talk-show host on an Internet Radio station with two programs "A Course In Miracles for Work-Life" and "Freedom Speaks". Life is Healthy, Rich & FREE! You can design this lifestyle according to your willingness. I hope mine will inspire you to achieve that freedom too.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Nice, France - nice, just nice...

If Paris is considered the northern part of France, then Nice (pronounced Nis) is definitely can be considered the south. It has a Mediterranean climate, so you can watch people flying kites in winter. It is breezy and very soothing to just walk along the road, watching the soft rolling waves with stories they carried with them those thousands of years. (Our hotel room was just one street behind this beach front.)

After going on the long and winding road to the French Riviera, taking a breather as we stayed a night in Nice was indeed a wonderful choice. It is because when I was in Nice, I needn't do anything, it was just relaxing, soothing, just enjoy, no fuss, breezy, lullaby, yeah, that kind of wanting to just sit and do nothing, or can't even think of anything else to do.

There was practically nothing else to do except to eat and shop. Lafayette is also in Nice, as big if not bigger than the one in Paris. People thronged the 5- (or is it 6-?) storey high shopping mall throughout its opening hours. It was packed. People were everywhere, from the sidewalk stalls selling leather bags to silk scarfs to all sort of wine bottle corkscrew opener. Just amazing how the wine-drinking people really sit down and think of all the ways to pull the cork out of the wine bottle, some creations were astounding.

The sidewalk cafes and the restaurants served lots of seafood. I observed many people eating many types of shellfish over a steaming black pot, they have another smaller black pot for them to dispose of the empty shells. But I guess, if it were here in Asia, we would have lots of variety, maybe we would have cooked it teochew style, or fry them with belachan or dipped the shellfish into our hot chilly sauce. Or maybe because all the seafood here in Nice were fresh, so it was best eaten by just slightly steaming them over hot water. Moreover, it was winter, so I guess a hot soup base seafood can stay hot longer outdoors.

I like walking in the local market to see their local produce. There were rows and rows of flowers, especially Lavender.

Lavender somehow takes on a suppleness as if you were cuddled in a thousand thread satin bedsheet, smooth and sleepy. Yawn yawn yawn......with the lullaby from the sea in Nice, you sleep in perfect lavender sanctuary so safe you will forever have sweet dreams.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

I was just lucky, I guess, to have such a wonderful weather when I was in Hanoi in November last year. Bach told me that they just had a week of flood, over knee-high water covered the whole of Hanoi after a continuous rainfall for days. It took the cityhall almost a week to clear the debris and mud that flooded the city. Cars were damaged and so were properties.

When I arrived, it was just a week of settling down after the flood. Everything seemed normal to me, if I was not told of the flood, I wouldn't have known. I did notice mud on the sidewalks, but that was like some leftover from construction sites. I was surprised when Bach told me about nature's onslaught.

Hanoi seems to be so resilient to a lot of going-ons or had-beens. And yet so humble and hard-working. It was really relaxing sitting beside Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) while watching so many people also sitting around enjoying the peace albeit the noise of traffic around it. Everyone was doing something but I did not feel the busy-ness. Someone will approach me and tried to chat me up asking questions, speaking good English, about where I was from, what do I do, where do I lived, what is it like in Malaysia, and finally asking if I would like to get some of his books and postcards. I often like to talk to these sales people, I like the sincerity in them, I like the way they approach a sales and I also like the way they ask questions. They were so friendly, they were really interested to know about me as I would be interested to know about them too. I will look at the products, if I want to, I will buy but if I do not want them, I will just politely decline. The conversation was always smooth and no hassle. Anyway, I always welcome sales talk, I really like to just listen with an open heart, there is always something I can learn from the person who sits in front of me.

I sat at Hoan Kiem Lake overlooking the Tortoise Tower which has its remnant in the middle of the lake. The weather stayed between a cooling 20℃ to 28℃, a perfect temperature to sit outdoor. They have planted a lot of willow trees all around the lake, some have bent so low, they almost touch the water. The willows take to the flow of the wind and just sway softly along as if that is what they are there to do - all day long, just dance to the mischievous play of the wind.

I just sat beside the lake and read Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage". Looking up occasionally to see people walking past and enjoying tea and having lunch everywhere beside the lake. I was impressed with the way Hanoi has built itself to be like a garden city where their citizens can come out to sit and play in the open. I guess we did not have that here in KL, no wonder the scene of people having food in a group at Hoan Kiem Lake fascinated me so much.

Just walking around the lake will bring you to the island-temple known as Ngoc Son Temple, very picturesque footbridge. I did not go in because I was more captivated with the scenery outside the temple. It was founded in the 14th century.

Bach told me later that the Vietnamese don't actually have a religion. So, I said what are they praying in the temples here in Hanoi. He said they are just praying to the ancestors. So, their ancestors become their "god", and this is passed down through generations. As far as he knows, there has never been a good teachings of Buddhism although Christianity has taken root after the war.

And I also learnt another thing, the people have to pay for education in Vietnam. I told Bach that in Malaysia, education is free from 7 years old onwards until we are 18 if we choose to stay on to study. Aren't we a fortunate lot to be Malaysians?

And then, more Pho for me. This was the first bowl of Pho when I arrived in Hanoi after getting the train ticket to SaPa. I sat down for something to eat. Looking around me, almost everyone ordered the same bowl of noodle. Since I could not communicate, I pointed to the bowl of noodle the person in front of me was eating, and then raised my index finger to show that I wanted 1 bowl. The shopowner nodded his head. A few minutes later, I was served a delicious clear soup Pho with duck meat. I asked the person sitting in front to take a photo of me eating Pho. Hahaha, tried to make friend while eating.

This last photo showed that these are all the "luggage" I had for my 5-day trip to Hanoi, SaPa and BacHa. A small pack and a sling bag. Oh yes, and my Somerset Maugham's engaging read.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

SaPa, Vietnam - I don't know but everything was given

I have so many travel stories to tell, looking through my photos, I sometimes have no idea where to start. Which story to tell first or which photos to show first. By the time I scroll through my photos, the pang of writing has gone.

But today, I told myself I must write something. So, I thought of my Hanoi trip and I want to share with you the way I travel putting all my trust and faith in the power that moves the clouds and stops the rain.

I was given a free ticket from Citibank to travel to 4 places, ie Guangzhou, Hanoi, Krabi and Bangkok. But I can only choose 1 destination. Until today, I still do not know how I got the free ticket from Citibank, I do not hold a Citibank-AirAsia Credit Card so I got no clue how it arrived but I wrote a letter of gratitude to Citibank for the generous offer. Thank you once again!

I chose Hanoi because I have been to all the other 3. 

As you can see already, traveling is Me. I live, breathe, travel. So, after coming back from Bali, after about 2 weeks traversing the length of Bali to Jogja in July, I said to myself last year 2008, that I will perhaps rest for a while before embarking another long journey to USA in January 2009. But as my destiny has it set, a free ticket arrived in the mail in late September for me to take flight again. I said YES, of course, and immediately called to confirm my travel to Hanoi in mid-November. I can do so because I need not apply for leave or wait for my leave to be approved, that's the best part of my life - freedom!

And with freedom, there comes the trust and faith in all things possible.

No itinerary, no plans, don't know where to stay, don't know where to go, don't know what to do, don't even want to find out how to get from the airport to town etc. But when I told friends I had confirmed my trip to Hanoi, most of them kept recommending that I must go to SaPa. 

"Aiyoh, you must go to SaPa, many people, even the locals, told us that it is a very nice place to go." 

"So, did you go there?"

"No-lah, we have not enough time, but I heard verr-ry nice, go-lah! Next time when I go to Hanoi again, I will have more days, then I will go to SaPa."

So, I hear ye, I hear ye. Where is SaPa? Don't know. How to get there? Don't know. Where to stay? Don't know.

I did not even check online or try to find out more details.  I just took the flight ticket, went on board and knew that the pilot will know how to fly the plane to land safely in Noi Bai International Airport.

There I was, arrived safely in Hanoi on a beautiful Friday 14 Nov 2008. Breezy, cool and dry weather, temperature about 20℃, just excellent. I found to my delight there was a local bus direct to town at only VND25,000 (RM6) one-way. 

While I was on the bus, I tried to ask for direction to the train station. I just remembered someone told me that to go to SaPa, I can go by train. But, where is the train station? Don't know. So, I got to find out, but nobody spoke English on the bus, not even the girl who was supposed to be the "Customer Service Officer". She could speak a little English, so little that she did not know the word "train". Somehow, I knew she understood me but she could not verbalize her thoughts, she tried to explain, speaking in Vietnamese, I looked at her, blank. Oh, my lord. Now, I did not even know where to alight. I kept watching for sign. I looked to the rear of the bus and saw some Caucasian backpackers, I thought I will ask them later or where they stopped, I will alight with them too. But I kept watch on the "Train Station" signage, nowhere in sight. The bus kept going......

Finally, the group of backpackers with their inseparable Lonely Planet Guidebook started moving to the front of the bus, the bus stopped and they all started to alight, I quickly straddled forward and alighted the bus with them, thinking that they may be looking for the train station too and I can go with them. The Vietnamese girl waved frantically at me, I looked at her while the bus was about to move away. She kept waving at me and kept muttering in Vietnamese. I sensed something was not right. I just knew that she was trying to tell me that that was not the stop to go to the train station. I was in a dilemma, I looked at the bus inching to move on and I looked at the Caucasian backpackers, I quickly threw them a question whether or not they are looking for the train station, they replied no. I got it, I jumped back onto the bus again. Thanks to the girl!

Wow, that was an adventure by itself. I got down from the bus finally, thanking the young woman who so kindly helped me to stay put in the bus. Even though she did not give me the direction, she had just started off my trip in Hanoi with the most pleasant and sweet charm of her smile. 

I went into a hotel close to where the bus stopped and when I asked for the direction to the train station, I was given a name card with Hanoi city map printed at the back.  The woman at the counter roughly indicated where the railway station is, I used that small name card and found it, after walking for about 1 hour, asking several people on the way there.

I got into Hanoi at 9am, walked to the railway station and got a 9.55pm train ticket to SaPa on the same day.  So, what am I to do for 12 hours? I just walked in the city until I boarded the train that night.

The train stopped at Lao Cai the next morning at 6am, a border town that has a custom check point into China. The train ticket cost VND98,000 (RM26) one-way on a hard-seat coach. After arriving in Lao Cai, I needed to take a van (taxi) to SaPa which is another 40km into the mountainous route leading to the villages of the northern Vietnam minority tribes. I paid VND40,000 (RM10) for the taxi fare. Later, I saw the locals paid only VND30,000 (RM8).

But then, this is where the power that moves clouds and stop rain started to put the pieces together. On the van, I befriended 2 very friendly young Vietnamese men, Bach (pronounced Back) and Ha. As we begin to know each other better, I learnt that Bach means "One Hundred" in Vietnamese and Ha means "The River".  So, suddenly I was sent One Hundred Rivers, it may mean 100 ways to whatever....

It was a miracle to have Bach and Ha coming into the van at 7am, sat beside me and we started to chat. By the way, just think of it, how many people in Vietnam (minus all the travel guides) whom you meet can converse well in English? And who turned up in my life? Bach.

He spoke perfect English and fluent too. Both Bach and Ha were going to SaPa to do photography. They loved to take photographs as a hobby. It was a weekend, so both of them got together for a weekend photo outing to SaPa, and.........I happened to meet with them.

I ended up sharing a room with them, VND160,000 (RM42) for a room, so each paid about VND53,500 (RM13). We became buddies, we walked around SaPa together, I got myself an interpreter too, for Bach is an excellent buddy. And Ha just loves to laugh together.

I had a great time, we had great meals together, I followed them to BacHa, another village-town famous for its Sunday minority tribes market. Now, I don't know BacHa, I have never read about it, but I got to go there because of them.

Bach and Ha came back to Hanoi one day earlier while I stayed on in BacHa. When I got back to Hanoi, I arrived in Hanoi at 6am, I had until 7pm to catch my flight back to Kuala Lumpur. Bach and Ha asked me to call them when I was back in Hanoi. I did. And both of them, each on a motorbike, took me to eat the best original Pho (pronounced as Fer) in Hanoi. They zig-zag through the streets of Hanoi and after about 15 minutes ride, we ordered 3 bowls of large Pho in an old noodle shop I-don't-know-where but with unbeatable taste of Beef Pho!

Pho is usually served with thinly-sliced beef or beef balls in clear soup with rice noodles strips that taste like kuay-teow but much softer. Oh.....best.

And ...... being photographer themselves, they took my picture. Ohhhh......such a great picture of me eating Pho in authentic Vietnamese style.

We had a really extraordinary bond, all 3 of us. Like we had been in each other space before. We talked about so many things, we sipped tea at the roadside like the Vietnamese do while we chat. It was just wonderful.

We kept in touch through email. And here I extend to Bach and Ha my sincere hands clasped in the strength of fath for the most unforgettable bond of friendship!

Now, who could have put all these together for me? Hmmmm.....I wonder.

I don't know...