Contiki Day 11 (Final day: Back to Hanoi

I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE VIETNAM, EVER. Okay, I wouldn’t want to leave ever if all my other favourites could come join me here, to be fair.

But, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Luckily, we had a chance to go to the caves this morning before it had to end. The caves are beautiful, and I highly recommend it – especially if you’ve never been to caves before. It’s pretty cool. We had brunch on the boat, and then made our way back on our mini boat to the bus. Stopped at the silk place/rest stop again, and then back to our hotel in Hanoi.

It’s our last night all together, which is always so sad. It still amazes me how close you can get to people in just a few weeks, but I’m so grateful to have had the chance again to make new friends from all over the world and to have learnt so much from them. Lee gave us a few more tips for things to do around Hanoi if we’re hanging out a couple more days (chocolate buffet, hello…) and we booked tickets for the Water Puppets too.

Our final dinner was to be at Green Mango (like the other one we went to for drinks). The food was really good (I had fresh spring rolls, and seafood noodles), but the venue was a bit dark, and all in all I think everyone was just a bit depro it was all over. The service was also suuuuper slow, and the food is not cheap, but at least we were all together.

After dinner, Lee went off to get her tattoo with the promise that we would say goodbye to her in the morning if we didn’t see her at the bar later.  There were a couple of goodbyes at the restaurant (I’m not gonna lie, I teared up a bit) and then most of us headed off to the Hangover Bar for our last night out. Umm… I can understand why it’s called the Hangover Bar; they were selling fish bowls and all sorts of things. Not feeling 100% I gave drinking a skip, and enjoyed just being with my people, but when more party-crazy people started arriving, my vibe started dying a bit, and I just wasn’t really in the mood for that scene (oh, how things have changed haha) and yeah I really was feeling sad with all the goodbyes.
Luckily, Katie and I did get a chance to run around and make sure we got photos with everyone from the family who was there. Some of us will still be around tomorrow, so we will arrange to have dinner together somewhere then. Everyone’s sort of shifting hotels and stuff, so we’re all over the place, but luckily restaurants stay in the same areas! I took the goodbyes a lot harder this time around than in Europe, but I’m really glad I have Katie with me, and that we still have a few more days to adventure in Vietnam before we have to head home.

Contiki Day 10: Halong Bay

Buffet breakfast time – yes another one, but no pancakes L but there were super amazing mini bread rolls with jam in the middle. Little known fact, as its pretty poorly advertised, but you can order eggs and omelettes. We just need to take overnight bags for the boat, and our normal luggage will stay behind in the hotel. Quick walk to meet the bus – upfront of the pack obvs, to ensure I got a double seat for myself as did almost everyone… We had a bit of a bus trip to get out to Halong Bay, so it was time to get comfy, and enjoy the last of the scenery of Vietnam (and sleep, because busses do that to me).

We stopped at a rest stop for snacks (pringles, hello) and were pleasantly surprised at the beautiful silk art available there, all created by hand by the disabled people who are employed by the centre. I didn’t even bother looking too much at first, other than noticing that they were super pretty, but then Katie found some that were not fully embroidered (they were just silk pictures on a blank background) which actually turned out to be affordable, so I got myself one as a gift for me. Worth a look if you are at all into art and pretty things, or want a special gift for someone at home.

We hopped back on the bus, and a bit of a drive later arrived at our boat for the night – okay, technically we arrived at our small transport boat which is took us to our boat. Life vests and safety first kids…

On board the boat we had time to relax a bit, hand our alcohol in behind the bar (because there’s a special deal made with the boat crew for this) and then had to all be in the dining area for lunch. As lunch is served family style, they don’t start bringing your food to your table until EVERYONE is sitting. Lunch was a seafood feast, complete with freshly steamed prawns (yummy!) I had a Hanoi beer (like Saigon, but from Hanoi). We had time to unpack a bit after lunch, lay around on the deck and start to appreciate the insane beauty that is Halong Bay. I can try to explain it, but I really don’t have the words (even three months later). The pictures don’t do it justice. Everyone should go there.

It was time for kayaking then, which is one of the optionals. I highly recommend this to everyone – even if you’re not a person who does kayaking, or is particularly fond of the water, find a good partner to get on the kayak with and GO. You wear a life vest the entire time (well, you’re supposed to) and as the bay is a national park, you are not allowed to swim in it. This makes the kayaking very peaceful, and we only had one pair that I know of who tipped over. Katie and I got a bit of a rhythm going and found our groove and managed to (fairly successfully) navigate the waters. There is a bit of cave you can go through and then you end up in this lake/grotto surrounded by these islands and it’s just pure magic. We even got to see the wild monkeys! Once some of the group had got bored and headed back, there were only a few of us and our boats left and the complete silence and peace was just indescribable. It was so amazing to have the sun on our bodies, and this still water around us. Not to sound dramatic or anything, but it’s like you can feel there some big secret there and the air just whistles with this knowledge it has, and maybe wants you to find out.
We slowly headed back to the boat, where we relaxed some more. A bit later in the afternoon there was the chance to go with the small boat to the beach. A few of us took this opportunity, and also hiked up the hill there. The view from the top is breathtaking, and well worth the huffing and puffing of the steps to get there (I forgot we’d be climbing to the top at that point and literally only had my bikini on and a towel around me, because, beach). Couple of super happy snaps at the top, a bit of lying around on the sand, and a quick “swim” in the sea – I really only went up to like my knees coz it wasn’t a very big swimming area – and we grudgingly made our way back to the boat. But it was sundowner time, so that sort of made up for it. (PS thanks to the Contiki family for most of these pics, as I didn’t even have my phone with me) 

After sundowners, it was time to get ready for the pirate party, so off we went. A bit of dramatic eyeliner, some makeshift scars (and a bit of time spent making the boys up too) and it was party time. But first it was dinner – more amazing seafood including DEEP FRIED SQUID BALLS which were life. Fun fact – the barmen keep your alcohol for you behind the bar. You write your name/room number on it, and maybe leave a trinket on it to make it easy to spot, and you leave your livers in their hands. Their hands are not capable – their plan is to destroy your liver. Apparently the guys on the boat don’t really agree with mix, so we were basically drinking a single mix with vodka at one point… Oops…
Anyway because we’re pirates, and it was a pirate party, and it’s Contiki I won’t go into too much detail about the evening in an attempt to save some dignity, but I will say the following: I can apparently rap Eminem like a boss; Karaoke is a crazy amount of fun; partying on a boat with your new friends from around the world is probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done; pirate puns are endless; and you may end up lying on the deck chairs wishing you never had to leave and that everyone you love could just join you there …

Contiki Day 9: Hue to Hanoi

This morning we had our final Contiki-organised flight from Hue to Hanoi. Can’t believe we’re down to our last few days – it caught me by surprise again! On landing in Hue, we made our way to our bus and our first stop for the day was the Temple of Literature. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, this is not the correct name for it, and it is in fact a Temple of Confucius (more like confusion if I’ve been calling it the wrong thing all along…)

The temple was built in 1070 and was/is home to the first Vietnamese National university. And it’s pretty. My first thought on walking in was the beautiful entrances once again. The arches and bridges are always so detailed, and the gardens are just lovely and so green! Walking through one of the courtyards, you can see hedges which are shaped like the zodiac animals (some of them took a while to recognise, but to be fair it can’t be easy to make a rat out of a bush), and other pretty trees and lanterns, and towers.

The temple is divided into a few different courtyards, each with some sort of unique focus. The one had a central pond, surrounded by the buildings and their beautiful tiled roofs (I’m a sucker for terracotta tiles). As can be expected, a fake graduation photo ceremony was taking place while we were there, so lots of excitement from the students and balloons. There are sections dedicated to alters of previous scholars and those who have graduated from the university. The one temple is the one found on the 100 000 VND note, so that was cool. As you pass through there are also a lot of different artefacts around, bonsai trees, and it was very interesting to watch people with their rituals for certain statues, such as rubbing the chest of the crane, and the head of the turtle.

From the Temple we went on to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Katie and I plan to come back here in our last few days – apparently it is something you need to do on your visit to Vietnam. It has very specific opening times, rules, and also gets super busy, which I guess is why we don’t go with Contiki? We saw a couple of other parliament buildings and residences, and Dan engaged in a (shirtless, obviously) sit up competition with some random guy – I’m not convinced the guy even knew he was competing. Haha. Then back to the bus, to make our way to our hotel. The streets in the part of town we are staying (and where all the good stuff happens) are pretty narrow, and also super busy, so the bus cannot make its way directly to the hotel. We had to hop off the bus, grab our bags, and make a walk to the hotel itself – only about 10 minutes, and you can see how good we have all gotten at crossing streets (STICKY RICE).

The hotel is in two buildings across the street from each other. Katie and I got a room in the one across from the main foyer, and while the bathroom was pretty nice (especially the shower), the room (while not bas itself) smelled like an ashtray due to the fact that we had a window that opened onto a central opening and presumably the ashtray of the building. But, we took it in our stride as always (little did we know how we would eventually find ourselves wishing for the ashtray room in a few days’ time…) Tonight is a free night, and we had a chance to meet Lee in the foyer for a chat and for suggestions on what to do. We also have a mission for the night which is to stock up on alcohol if we want for the boat for Halong Bay, and snacks, and to get stuff for the pirate party we will be having.
Katie and I decided we wanted to have a fairly quiet night, get our stuff done and find something nice to eat, because we know that the boat party is going to be INSANE. So we started off to do this, bumped into some of the girls, all went along together and then realised we all had slightly different ideas in mind for the evening, so ended up splitting up again. Katie and I looked for some shirts and when we weren’t finding anything in the main shops that wasn’t ridiculously priced (and when I started to get a bit hangry) we made the choice to go find food. Luckily we ended up finding shirts at the flea market for next to nothing, so score one for us! (Helpful tip: consider bringing your own plain white shirt from home on Contiki (any Contiki) because turns out you always need one). Firstly, we wanted to go to the Vietnamese restaurant at the restaurant block (a massive like seven story building filled with restaurants across from the lake) but they were expensive so we decided we would go there our last night. We then decided on Korean BBQ and got as far a sitting down before remembering we would need to cook our own food, and finally giving up, and then finding refuge in the Italian restaurant (ah, pizza and pasta – my safe place). Friend date night (that’s what we were having after all; I was having serious boyfriend withdrawals haha) must involve wine so we had some wine, and each put away a pizza – they were super tasty. The view was beautiful too. We knew we wanted ice cream too (what’s date night without dessert?) but needed to find markers for the party too, so with full stomachs we made that our next mission. Turns out that finding markers is not the easiest thing to do, especially in a country where you need to use a lot of gesturing to explain what you are looking for. Eventually we found the hardware street – have I mentioned that everything in Hanoi is divided into streets basically? Statue street, shoe street, jewellery street – and found ourselves some blue and black markers. It was then time to buy snacks, alcohol (whyyyyy did we forget our bottle in Hoi An) and ice cream and then back to the hotel for the night.

Back at the hotel we found cute pictures online to copy for our shirts, and Katie being the awesome artist that she is set to work on our designs. Things we learnt on date night:

  • It is possible to get accidentally high on permanent marker fumes
  • Number one did happen to us
  • Our shirts turned out super cool
  • Friends that you can have date night with are hard to come by, and when you find them you should hang on tight

HALONG BAY TOMORROW AND I CANNOT WAIT!

Contiki Day 8: Hoi An to Hue

This morning was one of the only coach transfer we had between cities, as we made our way from Hoi An to Hue. We are staying at the Asia Hotel, in the centre of the town with restaurants and bars galore around us. After checking in and welcome juices, we had some free time. Katie and I grabbed something to eat from the hotel restaurant (very average pasta) and hung out at the pool a bit with some of the others. We had a nap in our room, although Katie’s pillow apparently smelled like an old man’s armpit (I think it was at this hotel), and then we made our way downstairs for our cyclo tour (another inclusion – thanks Contiki!)

The Cyclo tour, which is essentially an adult pram powered by a grown Vietnamese man on a bicycle, took us on a pleasant 20 minute trip to the Imperial City. My cyclo cyclist (or whatever their official term is) pointed out things along the way such as the markets, the cinema, and certain bridges. Quick tip: the cyclo tour is already paid for. You can tip if you want but you don’t have to – I took a 10 000 VND out before we left so that I could just give it to him. Some of the others were “harassed” (for want of a better word) for a higher tip.

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We had our group photo in front of the giant flag. Lee asked us to do some yoga poses as this was her last one (for a while, I have a feeling she’ll be back haha). The floor was so hot! Our local guide Singh took us through the Imperial City, and taught us more about the history. Apparently the king who was living there had loads of wives! We had a chance to go in to one of the temples, which is always interesting. The various histories of the various Kings were all detailed inside.

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After some time, we made our way back to the bus and on to the Lady Buddha Pagoda. By this point I was tired and hot and I’d be lying if I tried to tell you anything of significance about the Pagoda. There was a beautiful view of the lake though, as well as a really cool bonsai garden. I even saw some trainee monks!

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Just before dinner there was a local group who did a performance outside the hotel in the street, complete with dragons and drums. We watched that for a bit which was cool.

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For dinner tonight we went to a place down the road from the hotel called Le’s Garden. They had cocktail happy hour, and another extensive menu to choose from. I had caramelised shrimp which was tasty, but a really small portion, especially considering the mojitos… We were given Jenga to play (Brian was a stickler for the rules in our one so we never got very far). It was a really fun dinner of socialising with everyone. Then we went off to a (very dodgy, DropZone-like) bar club thing called Brown Eyes. Don’t waste your money buying cocktails there – they were terrible. The music was pretty cool, but I must say I struggled with the extreme ignoring of personal space by the groups there, and the smell which was your typical drunk hot club smell. Gross. Anyway, that sort of thing isn’t really my scene anymore anyway, so I decided to go home while the night was still good. Sam and I made our way back to the hotel, which was a really funny walk where we discussed how much he was going to irritate his girlfriend when he got back to the room (SORRY SHAYLA!) and I made my way back for a nice shower before bed. Had a huge giggle with Katie when she got back (as per usual) as it turns out she went on a bit of a roundabout route coming back. Sleep time, and then in the morning off to Hanoi and our final few days!

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Contiki Day 7: Hoi An

Hoi An free day and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TASHA!

While it felt like every other person in the hotel was still sleeping, Katie and I woke up early to make our way to Bien Bac – the jeweller Lee had recommended to us. We had decided on a lotus design that we wanted to get made into necklaces, which we would both get as a reminder of our trip. I could have spent all the money in the world in this shop – they had loads of beautiful ring designs, pendants, earrings and all sorts of other amazing jewellery. The gentleman in charge is so friendly and helpful. We showed him our design and he mentioned he already had a template for a lotus which he showed us and we loved! So we decided to get that. I also got a stunning knotted ring, and one with a feather design, as well as a pair of Vietnamese hat earrings for my sister. All in all, my portion came to 120 USD – every item is weighed and priced accordingly. I got my feather ring and earrings straight away but they would resize my other ring and we could fetch it and our necklaces in the evening.

It was a shopping day for us today, so we went around the market and the various stalls, and then stopped in at the cooking class restaurant to have some ice cream (passion sorbet and lemongrass for me, and coconut and green tea for Katie). We got souvenirs, scarves, tshirts, and all sorts of things, and then to escape the heat, decided to go back to the hotel for some swimming and relaxing. Katie got her dress on the way back, and it fitted! Yay!

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Once back at the hotel, we had a chat with Mark and learned that he, Shane and Sam were planning to go to the beach, so we decided to join (after a nap, obviously). The five of us got a taxi (you could bike ride but it was so hot…) and went off to the beach. Now, if you want to sit on the loungers on the sand, you have to pay. Or you can agree to eat at one of the restaurants, and they let you sit for free, so that is what we did. We spent a wonderful few hours just relaxing on loungers, people watching, and learning more about each others countries.

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It was time to head back so that Katie and I could fetch our jewellery, and we could freshen up before family dinner for Tasha’s birthday. Katie bought a beautiful skirt from one the tailors which fit her absolutely perfectly! We went for drinks at the green mango, dinner at another place, and then to another chilled bar for some drinks. I headed home early (on the back of Lee’s bicycle – thanks Lee) and caught up with some people from home, before going to sleep. I was feeling a bit homesick today I think, even though everything was so beautiful and I am having a wonderful time. But it comes with having people you love at home, but also loving what you’re doing at the moment I guess…

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Contiki Day 6: Nha Trang to Hoi An

Super duper early wake up this morning to leave by 4am for the airport and our flight to Hoi An. Because brekkie is included today, but we were obviously up too early for it, we were given take-away breakfast packs. We checked in at the airport and just hung out waiting for the flight which was another quick one. Once we had landed, we got on our bus, and then had to take it to a transfer station to get a smaller shuttle, because the roads are too small in Hoi An for a big bus. Those who didn’t want to come to the temple changed to the shuttle and went to the hotel, while those of us who had signed up for the My Son temple, stayed on the bus and went there.

I wish it hadn’t been so hot (it got to about 42 degrees that day) because I do feel like it sort of impacted everyone’s (mine included) experience of the temples, but they were still fascinating. Built way back when, using a method still not fully known, many of them were bombed during the war so some are gone, some are half standing, and there are bomb craters all over the place. A few are still intact, which is amazing. The attention to detail in the design was really cool to see, and there are so many of them it’s quite interesting to see. Having said that, if you are not interested in history or temples, rather choose not to do it.

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After My Son, it was back onto the bus (aircon, yay!) and to the transfer stop, to make our way to the hotel. The hotel is awesome and we got a pool side room, with a massive super king bed, and a 3/4 bed. Lucky me got the big bed! We had a bit of time to kill before meeting up for the bike ride, so we hung out at the pool, and then went to the convenience store across the way to get waters. Our new local guide, How (sorry I’m not sure of his spelling…) was so kind, and bought those of us with him ice cold cokes to welcome us to Vietnam and thank us for coming. Some of the others had ordered food which was taking forever, so we split into two and agreed to meet at the Banh Mi shop (apparently highly rated by some travel guy as the best sandwiches in Vietnam). We went and got our bikes, and then made our way over there. Now cycling here was slightly different to in the Mekong as it is much busier, but I survived! I had a pulled pork sandwich and oh my soul it was amazing. Everyone was standing around eating their sandwiches with these loving looks in their eyes.

Once the rest of the group had joined and made their way into sandwich heaven, our bike ride took us into the Old Town. It’s so beautiful in the Old Town, and the best part is that during certain times in the day it gets closed to cars and scooters and becomes a walking/cycling town. There’s a lot of Chinese, Japanese and French influence in the town, which makes each section quite unique. We saw some of the old bridges, and then stopped at the old house where we had tea and learnt more about life in Hoi An. As the town is right on the river, it floods sometimes, and the locals have to move all their belongings onto the top floors of their houses for some time. We learnt a bit more about the Chinese Zodiac signs, and our birth years (I am year of the monkey) and what they mean.

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We continued on through the town, to the place everyone was probably looking most forward to – Yaly. This is a dream, and I wish I had thought more (and budgeted more) so that I could have had something made. Basically Yaly is a tailor, with an insane amount of incredibly talented people working there, to get your custom clothing made for you in less than 24 hours. Every person who got something done there was so super impressed with it, and with the service, and I can’t wait to see the pics of them wearing some of their new clothes. 

It was so hot, so Katie and I decided to go back to the hotel and hang out at the pool, and then do our shopping and everything the next day. It was a great plan. We dropped our bikes off, and then stopped to look in at the clothing store owned by the lady who also runs the spa at the hotel. Probably one of the funniest shopping experiences ever, she offered to alter a dress to fit Katie, and showed us just how un-embarrassed the Vietnamese shop owners are at having westerners basically strip down in their store to try stuff on. It was a good laugh.

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We had the ME Time cooking class tonight – also highly recommended! We learnt to make Hoi An pancakes, special spring rolls, BBQ chicken skewers, and papaya salad. It’s the first cooking class I’ve ever done, and it was really fun. We got to eat all the food, and also got the recipes – bonus, because I really want to try make some of it at home.

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Katie and I realised that we had forgotten to go to the silver shop earlier (they make custom jewellery, and this is what we were so excited for and I can’t believe we forgot) so we left dinner to run over there and check if they were still open. They weren’t but we decided to go first thing in the morning – Lee spoke to him so he would be expecting us.

We wandered back to the Old Town to have a look at the night market and take some photos (so so beautiful at night!), and then headed back to the hotel for the night, and a good sleep.

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Contiki Day 5: Nha Trang

HAPPY BIRTHDAY PHOEBE!

Another buffet breakfast (how will I go back to normal boring breakfasts after this??) and this one is by the pool. Today is our ME time optional boat cruise with snorkeling – and if you do no other optionals on this trip, you must do this (okay, you must actually do all of them). Our day was spent on board the Funky Monkey boat, with the best crew ever. Funky Monkey himself is hilarious, and they look after you so well they whole day (although my parents might argue that beer at 9am isn’t looking after us…)

There would be three stops today on the boat. Water and lunch is included, but beers and soft drinks are extra. Good times guaranteed.

So it wouldn’t make sense to start a boat cruise without blaring Lonely Island’s “I’m on a boat” and that is exactly what they did. Followed the rest of the day by a super cool and up-to-date playlist. Our first island stop was our snorkeling stop. You’re allowed to jump off the top of the boat (which I did but I wish someone had a picture of it) and then we were given snorkels and goggles, and could spend our time looking at the fish, the reef, and the Chinese people who were scuba diving with a chaperone underneath us. Once you got tired of snorkeling (or more accurately, of trying to breath through the snorkel) you could request a tube, and even a cold beer, and just float around in the water.

Our next stop was for lunch and entertainment. We had the most massive spread of food to eat, including soup, noodles, rice, spring rolls, and bread (so much leftover) and then the entertainment by the greatest boy band ever to exist began. We were stopped next to two other boats who also joined in for the entertainment section of the day. The Funky Monkey band, complete with bikini-wearing gorilla, sang us a few songs, and then gave each country who was represented a chance to introduce themselves through song. There was Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, UK, USA, Russia (one of my personal favourite performances), China, Vietnam, and us obviously. We had to sing Waka Waka. I would have to give the award for best performance from our group to the USA, mostly as a result of Marks epic Backstreet Boys rendition.

After performance excitement had calmed down, it was happy hour time. But this happy hour is special, because it’s on a floating bar. So basically, everyone grabs a tube, gets in the water, and attempts to hook their feet onto the bar. If you can’t, you hook onto whoever is closest to you. And then they give you petrol (at least, I imagine thats what petrol tastes like). The star phrases of the day came from our barman, who liked to chant things like “up the bum, don’t tell mum”, and the groups favourite “up the bum, no babies”. I will take this moment to say that I have absolutely no idea why this was a thing, or why it was so funny (possibly as a result of the petrol) but either way, a floating bar is something everyone should experience at some point.

Then it was time for our final stop. By now the weather was cooling down a bit, so only some of us braved the water, before heading back up to the deck to chill.

Once back, a few of us went swimming in the hotel pool. Katie and I had a nap (yay, naps!) and then off to the Sailing Club for dinner again. I mean, why mess with a good thing? I had prawn and bacon pasta because, I hate to admit this, I needed a break from Vietnamese food. Then some of us took our chocolate fondants for dessert down to the bean bags, where we enjoyed them because they were really good (and missed our boyfriends because the couple in front of us was too cute). Took a stroll through the market on the way back to the hotel, and then it was an early night for us. Tomorrow morning we are up at 4 to leave for the airport….

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PS: I have no photos from the boat now, but once the others have their photos up I will update (thanks family, by the way).

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