Canada’s largest city swirls together a vibrant mix of music, nature, museums and more

Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, sits on the banks of Lake Ontario. True to Canada’s ideals, it’s a multicultural melting pot where fifty percent of the population can trace their origins to an ethnic minority. The city also has close ties with Vietnam and its people, and since 2006, it has been a Sister City with Ho Chi Minh City. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation, making it an opportune time to visit with many events marking the official milestone.

Because of a 13-hour time zone difference, I was 28 hours into the longest Saturday of my life when my flight finally landed 3pm at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. A friend tipped me off about a big concert at the Air Canada Centre. Last minute tickets, mid-section sold for only CAD50.60. Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd as he prefers to be called, performed for his hometown of Toronto on the Starboy: Legend of the Fall Tour. It was a pretty laid back atmosphere. I sat down to devour a plate of chili fries while catching the opening acts: Belly, Rae Sremmurd, and 6lack. The brother duo of Rae Sremmurd bounced up and down the stage belting out their hit Black Beatles, when one of the brothers, Slim Jxmmi, pulled off his t-shirt to display his six-pack abs while the crowd roared in delight.

The Weeknd

The accompanying light show and trendy graffiti and mural graphics were dazzling and well choreographed. At 9:30pm the crowd stood on their feet and teenage girls screamed wildly as the main act popped up onto the stage. The Weeknd performed his big hits Starboy and I Can’t Feel My Face. His vocals were smooth and strong, and didn’t waver in the slightest delivering the songs. In what was a monumental surprise, Drake joined him on stage, driving the throngs into delirium and eliciting ear-splitting screams from a cadre of young women directly behind me. Drake, another Toronto talent whose shows typically price out at CAD150 or more, showed up to support The Weeknd in their hometown. It was a real bonus to hear him perform. Drake intermittently stopped singing to let the crowd chant the lyrics. Drake finished the concert by congratulating the crowd’s participation, shouting out, “That is why you’ll forever be the greatest city in the mother****in’ world!”

While Toronto has its fair share of musical talent, it will forever be a hockey town. An American friend, who happens to be a faithful supporter of his hometown’s St. Louis Blues, introduced me to NHL hockey. I remember watching the games live, meaning we were up at ridiculously early morning hours in Vietnam to see Blues goalie Brian Elliot’s valiant, albeit unsuccessful, effort minding the nets during the 2016 playoffs. Further cementing Toronto’s love affair with ice hockey is that it’s the home of the Ice Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s a bucket list attraction for both die-hards and those new to the game. Inside its halls are photos, trophies and equipment that once belonged to the game’s titans. Every team’s jerseys, from the NHL to the Asian leagues, are on display. The walls are decorated with plaques honoring the games luminaries, including those that sit atop the pantheon such as The Great One, Wayne Gretzky. The Great Hall’s ornate ceiling is beset with beautiful stained glass that casts a glow upon the NHL’s most sacred treasure—The Stanley Cup. If you aren’t a hockey fan yet, then the Hall of Fame might just make one out of you.

hockey

Sake to Me

There is plenty to do for nature lovers as well because Toronto boasts some spectacular vistas. When cruising Lake Ontario visitors can drink in the skyline with the CN Tower lit up while coasting towards another jewel, Niagara Falls. The pride of Canadians and the envy of Americans, the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario, seems to outshine its New York neighbor, the city of Buffalo. An entire town centered on tourism, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, five-star hotels, and even a few casinos were founded here and now thrive because of the Falls. On the bus to the Falls our tour guide told us how Toronto was home to many Hollywood blockbusters and how in his younger years he was an extra in X-Men and The Corruptor. Although he had only one line in the former, he still receives royalties every year for his role.

Upon arrival at Niagara Falls, we sauntered down the hill and took elevators even further down to board the famous Hornblower ferry. Every visitor receives a bright red rain poncho not unlike those bought in desperation on Saigon sidewalks during rainy season. The brilliant summer sun caused a spectacular rainbow, arching up out of the cascades. The ferry lurched into the mist of North America’s most impressive Falls, which rendered our ponchos as ineffective as those in Saigon during a heavy rain. Everyone retreated in haste to the cover of the lower decks, their clothes and shoes saturated and smelling of river water.

 

Toronto 4

My final day in Toronto found me strolling through the distillery district, built on the site of the legendary Gooderham and Worts distillery. This hip, new area, still under development, already hosts many trendy bars, restaurants, art houses and antique stores. The first stop was the Ontario Spring Water (Izumi) Sake Company with its array of sakes brewed on site. Still enjoying a sake glow, I ambled up and down the cobbled streets browsing a number of antique stores while keeping an eye open for an appealing eatery. I happened upon a trendy Mexican restaurant called El Catrin on Tank Street and sidled up to the bar. Behind it, rows of spirits spanned floor to ceiling necessitating the use of a ladder to reach the tequila on the top shelves. Foregoing the infamous agaves pawned spirits, I settled on fish tacos and a local, craft wheat beer recommended by the waiter.

Something about the fish tacos and a beer put me back in a sporting mood. Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds were in town to take on the hometown Blue Jays at the Roger Centre. My plan was to catch the last few innings, however, I never made it to the game. A mysterious force intervened and lured me into the newly-opened Spirit of York Distillery, Co. A group of young entrepreneurs invested in state-of-the-art equipment from Germany to craft a new series of premium gins.

Toronto 1

Being an enthusiast, I sampled their flavorsome, juniper-infused gins. One in particular was contained in a clear, spiral shaped crystal bottle made by an artisan in Vancouver. It was both unique and flavorful, and soon CAD70 of my hardearned money was parted from me. By this time, it was obvious the baseball game wasn’t an option so I decided to finish the afternoon by returning to the sake bar: Another round of the sake samplers and some green tea ice cream to finish an intoxicating afternoon. What better way to get ready for a trans-continental, trans-pacific flight than to induce a hangover?

The return flight to HCMC was very different from the outbound trip. Instead of gaining a full day, I lost one. Despite the hellish jetlag and the remnants of a sake/gin hangover, Toronto left a memorable impression. It’s a trendy, vibrant city that caters to the world: Whether you fancy big league sports, international cuisine, a trendy nightlife, or awe-inspiring natural beauty, Toronto is a destination that should be near the top of your list.

Images Provided by David Muller