Category Archives: Vietnam

The Best and Worst of Southeast Asia (and Nepal)

People are always asking what our favorite part of the trip was.  That is an impossible question and I usually follow it up with asking for a category, like best nature, or best cave, or best food.  We’ve seen too many amazing things to narrow it down to one.

We started this list somewhere along the way and have updated it as we go.  There is a story behind every one, many of which are somewhere in our blog.  For the most part, Riki and I agree on these – but I’ve noted where we don’t.  There are a lot of ties.  This is by no means exhaustive as we could find a best and worst of all 275 days, but I’ll spare you.  Here are the highlights, and lowlights:

Best Meal: Hanoi, Vietnam – sautéed pork with thick strips of coconut

Worst Meal: Luang Prabang, Laos – fishy papaya salad

Best sunrise: Poon Hill – over the Himalayas & Bagan – with its hot air balloons

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From Poon Hill – some of the tallest mountains in the world.  Annapurna region, Nepal
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Prayer flags on Poon Hill
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Morning mist in Bagan, Myanmar
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Balloons over Bagan, Myanmar

Best sunset: Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia – from the beach over calm water

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Koh Ta Kiev, Cambodia

Best snack: Fried fish powder & Broad beans

Weirdest food: Wood meat balls in Myanmar, Hue clams in Vietnam & tarantulas

Best coffee: Vietnam

Friendliest locals: Myanmar, but if you want just kids, then Laos                              

Most annoying tourists: Chinese in tour groups

Best outfits: Men – Monks with umbrellas in Laos & Myanmar (longyi – skirts), Women in Vietnam with their day pajamas

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Monks with umbrellas in Laos
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“Formal” Longyi (skirts)
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Tough to ride a bike in a skirt
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Even tougher to work construction in one

Best hairstyles: Men in Vietnam & Myanmar (slick & fashionable), Women in Nepal with dyed red hair

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Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam

Cheapest meal: Pho in Vietnam

Best new vegetable: Morning glory

Best beer: Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Worst tuktuks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia – all just scams

Most painful moment: Sun/wind burn on my hands while motobiking the Thakek Loop in Laos

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Not even ice and beer could dull the pain – I was red for a month

Worst sleep: Train from Sapa, Vietnam with snoring man

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And we were only 7 hours late on the way up to Sapa, Vietnam

Worst road: Motorcycling on the Thakek Loop, Laos

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Miles and miles like this

Worst bus ride: Getting to and from Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Coolest museum: Jakarta’s National Museum

Coolest building: White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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White Temple, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Coolest non-religious building: Marina Bay Sands (Boat Skyscraper), Singapore

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Marina Bay Sands & Lotus inspired museum, Singapore

Coolest Houses: Bajawa, Indonesia & Ubud, Bali

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Bajawa mountain village, Flores, Indonesia
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Ubud house entrance, Bali, Indonesia
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Ubud house courtyard, Bali, Indonesia
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Another courtyard in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Ugliest building: Government view tower in Bagan, Myanmar (so ugly it’s not pictured)

Best attraction: The Himalayas & Orangutans

Best Rice Terraces: Annapurna, Nepal (most impressive) & Ubud, Bali (most beautiful)

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Rice terraces outside Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Friendliest kids: Laos, where they all wave and yell Saibaidee

Worst internet: Myanmar – non-existent in many places

Best caves: Phong Nha, Vietnam

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Phong Nha caves, Vietnam

Best Collection of Buddhas: Sukhothai, Thailand & Mrauk-U, Myanmar

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Sukhothai, Thailand
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90,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar
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80,000 Buddha Temple, Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Worst dogs: Kathmandu’s gangs who bark all night

Most touristy thing we did: Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam & the bamboo train in Battambong, Cambodia

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Canyoning in Dalat, Vietnam
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Bamboo train tracks, Battambong, Cambodia
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Bamboo train, Battambong, Cambodia

Most kitschy: James Bond Island, Thailand

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James Bond Island, Thailand

Best ancient city: Angkor, Cambodia

Best Ancient Structures: Prambanan & Borobudur, Indonesia

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Borodubur, Indonesia
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Prambanan, Indonesia

Best bike ride: Vang Vieng, Laos (though our butts hurt for a week later) & Lonely Planet city tour of Mandalay, Myanmar

Worst bike ride: Julie’s flat tires at Inle Lake, Myanmar (though I got to ride in a dump truck)

Dirtiest place: The river in Kathmandu, Nepal

Cleanest place: Downtown Singapore

Only place with a shopping mall on their currency: Brunei (also the strangest city we’ve been to)

Best skyline: Singapore because its variegated

Best land-based wildlife: Chitwan National Park in Nepal & Sukau in Borneo, Malaysia

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This was one of my all time favorite moments. Rhinos in Chitwan, Nepal
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Scary macaque in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia
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Elephant in Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Best ocean wildlife: Sipadan Island, Borneo, Malaysia

Sipadan (1)
Look left, see Riki
Sipadan (4)
Look right, see me.
Sipadan (3)
Look left again, see (sea) turtle.
Sipadan (2)
Look right again, see shark. Repeat.

Most interesting city: Kathmandu

Coolest school uniforms: Girls’ skirts in Laos (I even got one made for myself)

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School girl in Laos

Best propaganda: Vietnam

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Propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam
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More propaganda in Hanoi, Vietnam

Coolest flag: Nepal

Safest street food: Thailand

Best night markets: Thailand

Best music: Nepal

Best dancing: Pokhara, Nepal during Tihar festival

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Spontaneous street dancing, Pokhara, Nepal
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More dancing, Pokhara, Nepal

Worst laundry: Pokhara, Nepal (sock disaster)

Worst utensils: Laos’ chopsticks would splinter just looking at them

Tallest trees: Angkor, Cambodia

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Not just tall – they grew out of stone

Best public buses: Bangkok (and cheapest)

Biggest mistake: To be determined (though we are out of the incubation period for malaria so not taking those pills long enough is off the list)

Best decision: Halong Bay, Vietnam timing (going in October instead of December)

Biggest regret: Phu Quoc, Vietnam (over-priced)

Best Street Art: Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The world, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Street art, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Best art purchase: Nepalese & Balinese paintings

Most useful purchase: sink stopper for laundry

Most useful item acquired: free wet wipes on buses

Best local quirk: Kissing noise in Myanmar(when ordering at bar/restaurant) & kids waving (all over)

Worst local quirk: Betel nut chewing and spitting noises

Hardest thing to find: sunscreen without whitening

Most used items: Travel pillow & electronics

Best item b(r)ought: Riki pants, tablet, umbrella

Most useless item: umbrella

Wish we had: Swiss army knife & variety of shirts

Best new game/time passer: Jenga & podcasts

Crazy things we are used to now:

trash in streets, long bus rides, motorbikes without helmets, bottled water, using a fork & spoon to eat, being stared at, being generally unclean, carrying tissues, crossing the street amidst hectic scenarios, walking on the left side of the sidewalk/escalator, never understanding the language

Things we missed:

Food – bread with flavor, Clothing – variety, Culture – western toilets & real showers

I still catch myself hesitating before using tap water to brush my teeth.  I am tempted to head left when approaching people, walking up stairs,  and standing on an escalator.  Luckily, we aren’t driving anywhere, so the awkwardness is just that, not dangerous.  I can’t shake the feeling that I should be out walking around all day.  I want to eat chicken and noodles, not sausage and pretzels.  I can’t buy food from a stall and I can’t get anyone to smile back at me on the street.  But Zurich’s not all that bad.  It has all you can drink water in fountains on every block and there’s no chance of finding a critter in the toilet bowl.

Money, money, money…Backpacking Southeast Asia

According to our Travel Map, we’ve traveled over 38,000 miles (61,000+ km) since we left New Orleans.  And while we didn’t actually make it around the world, the circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles (40,000 km), we went pretty far.  We can’t abbreviate it as an ATW (Around the World) trip, which would be disappointing, except that I’ve just finished our budget and discovered we spent almost exactly the maximum we had intended to spend.  Considering we stayed many months longer than we initially intended, this is exciting news.  We were not as organized in our budget as some people, so my numbers are rough and are strictly based on ATM withdrawals in each country and credit card purchases.  I can’t provide daily eating or transportation expenses, but accommodation I tracked throughout the trip. There are a few variables that could swing figures from one country to another, but overall, this is a pretty good guess of our expenditures.  For example, we took some US dollars with us as emergency money in case ATMs weren’t working or our debit card was lost or stolen.  This was a few hundred dollars, and we used most of it in Cambodia and Myanmar, where dollars are accepted.  We also exchanged money from one country to the next, but usually tried to use it up rather than waste it on exchange commissions.  These figures were undocumented, but since we did this almost every time we crossed a border, I am going to say its probably a wash.  The extra Thai Baht we had converted to Singapore dollars we used in Brunei, and it wasn’t very much in the grand scheme of our trip.  We had some very generous gifts of hotel and flight points, which I have excluded from my averages.  For instance, the 5 days we spent at the Hyatt in Danang, Vietnam for Christmas and ate only the free food provided have not been factored into days spent in Vietnam (except for the tailoring we had done in Hoi An at that time, which has to, as its something everyone should do when there).

First, the average accommodation prices.  Keep in mind these are double occupancy.  Dorms tended to be about half what a double room cost.  Check out our Hotels List for specific prices and reviews.

Thailand: $13.89

Vietnam: $15.05

Nepal: $17.14

Laos: $9.96

Cambodia: $13.12

Myanmar: $20.61

Indonesia: $14.33

Malaysia: $15.76

Singapore: $22

Brunei: $26

We often went for the cheapest accommodation we could find that still offered wifi and hot water (we achieved this about 80% of the time), so you could probably spend less than this if your willing to go a bit more rustic.

Street food is often the most economical way to eat in most of these countries.  However, in Nepal and most of Cambodia & Myanmar, we did not partake in the street food as we were very wary of the cleanliness of the vendors we saw.  In Singapore and Brunei, we had trouble finding street food, so we spent considerably more there on food.  Cheap meals could usually be found for $1-2, on the street and in the plastic chaired restaurants.  Our criteria for restaurants was: lots of locals, plastic chairs, and a picture menu.  These three factors pretty much guaranteed a good, cheap meal.  Some of our favorite meals were eating $1 pho for breakfast in Hanoi sitting on tiny plastic chairs at tiny plastic tables, amidst dozens of other people, slurping away at hot soup in the hot air (mostly Riki’s favorite – I prefer soup when its cold and not in the morning).  My new favorite street food became $1 mango and sticky rice, when we crossed into Thailand for the last time.  Why I didn’t discover this earlier is something I still regret.

Indonesia, Nepal and Malaysia topped out our most expensive countries.  This is mostly due to the necessity of flights to get there and in between the islands (Indonesia), as well as some more expensive activities, such as diving and trekking.  Laos was by far the least expensive country, with food being dirt cheap and accommodation far cheaper than any of the other countries.

Some tips for planning:

We started with the cheapest countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia).  These countries are heavily backpacked already and thus are set up for budget-minded travelers.  It is easy to get around, cheaply and mostly efficiently.  Flights are not required unless you have a time constraint, and even these flights can be inexpensive.  We generally paid about $1 per hour for buses and found them long, but manageable (my earlier ramblings may contradict this, but by now the agony of these trips has subsided).  Meals along the banana pancake trail are cheap and can be had for $1-2+.  We had a water purifier that cost about $90 with us.  It paid for itself and we didn’t have to buy an endless supply of plastic water bottles.  For a long trip like this, it was worth it.  For a few weeks or even a few months, it may not be cost effective, but will certainly reduce your waste.

Nepal is a tough one to write.  We were there in October, after a blizzard in the Annapurna region and about 40 people died.  It is a small tragedy compared to what they have more recently gone through, and all of my advice for Nepal is probably obsolete.  However, we are still in touch with our great guide in Pokhara, who is itching for more clients. His name is Raju and he speaks English better than he responds in emails (deuchatri56@hotmail.com).  It would be great if I could get him more business, especially following the earthquake.

In Myanmar, we found the street food, covered in grease, unappetizing and ate more expensively than we would have liked.  The buses were also a lot more than we had anticipated, often twice what we would have paid in Vietnam for half the comfort.  Attractions as well seemed closer to American prices.

Due to thousands of islands, Indonesia was harder to traverse and thus, more expensive.  While we could have taken more boats, we had heard these were not always safe and can take many hours.  We opted for cheap planes to island hop through Indonesia.  Bali is surprisingly affordable, with so much competition, that most of the places we saw were clean and even provided big breakfasts.

As our trip was winding down, we lost the budget-minded sensibility regarding food and went all out in Malaysia.  For this was the place to do it.  By this I mean, we spent $3-4 per meal.  And it was so worth it.  Spectacular arrays of Indian food and piles of noodles, we gorged ourselves during our last month.  You could certainly spend a little less, but its not the cheap eats you find in Vietnam.  Meals were generally at least $2, but you would get a lot of food.

In Singapore and Brunei, the food budget went out the window and we paid western prices for almost everything.  Don’t avoid Singapore because you hear its expensive.  There are still plenty of budget attractions and cheap food can be found in Little India and as always, look for plastic chairs.

MONEY.  Contrary to guides we read, ATMs are available everywhere (even Myanmar).  We opened a checking account before we left with no withdrawal fees and estimate that it saved us hundreds in transaction costs.  Local ATMs generally charge a small fee, but you learn which banks are less and which ones give smaller bills.  Otherwise, we used a credit card with travel rewards.  We never used it in Cambodia or Myanmar, but it was helpful for paying the small service fees for online hostel booking, as well as booking flights and larger purchases (trekking and diving).  Keep in mind, many small businesses still charge a 2-3% fee to use credit cards.  With our credit card, we received 2% back anyway, so for large purchases, it was often cheaper to use the credit card rather than accumulate ATM fees as they usually have low withdrawal maximums.

To sum it all up and to generalize a lot, I will put it simply.  Estimate accommodation according to above numbers.  Spend $3-8 on food per day.  Buses for $4-10 depending on length and excluding outliers like Myanmar.  Planes can cost as little as $8 (Kota Kinabalu to Tawau) and up to about $70 per way – mostly we paid around $40.  We found great last minute deals on AirAsia and were happy with the service.  Walking is the cheapest transportation, but city buses are a great alternative and we found locals to be very helpful in guiding us to the right stop.  For instance, Bangkok has a very confusing bus system, but once we figured it out and got a map, we saved a lot of money rather than hiring a crooked tuktuk or an expensive cab.  Attractions vary a lot, but search online for top free activities in each city and you may come across some great alternatives, like we did.

Talking to other travelers proved to be the best way to research a destination.  They have the inside scoop and can often recommend places that you won’t find on Tripadvisor or in Lonely Planet.  If you must resort to guide books, we found that the places right next door to the ones in the books are often cheaper and better than the listed ones, as they must compete and don’t rest on their laurels as many places in Lonely Planet do.  Although I overflow with more advice, I will quit here.  Some of our best (and worst) memories are just relying on information we received along the way.  Our recommendations will be in the next post.

Final thoughts since they have wifi at the airport….Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

275 days. 10 countries. 15 flights. 7 trains. Countless buses. Over 100 different beds/floors in 92 lodgings (not including night buses). Meals with bugs in them: 1, that we know of.

So overall, a pretty good trip. We think. We certainly didn’t know a year ago what this trip to Asia would entail. We did significantly less research ahead of time than some travelers we met. But we also did a lot more research on the road than many too. We weren’t ones to show up in a new city without an inkling of an idea of where to go. We may not have had a hostel reservation, but we usually had a street or neighborhood in mind when we alighted in a new place. And we were certainly prepared in a toiletries/medicine sense. We had way more Immodium and Benedryl than needed, but the rest of the toiletries we slowly used up and our bag now is a fraction of the size as when we started. FYI – they do have all the necessities in Asia, especially Cambodia, where you can buy almost any medicine over the counter for almost nothing.

Some things we didn’t need, most of which we returned with my parents when we met them in Nepal: full size tripod (replaced with mini tripod in Bangkok), nice flats (flip flops are universal here), extra long sleeve shirt (too warm most of the time), carabiners, extra shoelaces

Some things we lost/broke/replaced along the way: 11 socks (lost), 2 combination locks (lost), sunglasses (broke), running shoes (worn out), rain jacket (turns out it leaked), 2 of Julie’s large backpacks (each knockoff lasted about 3-4 months)

Some things we wished we had: real Swiss army knife, better rain jacket (see above), quality sunscreen (we brought 6 bottles, but had a tough time finding replacements)

Some things we acquired: incredible art from all over SE Asia, custom suit/dresses from Vietnam, friends from all over the world, ability to say “hello” and “thank you” and “chicken” in a number of languages, insight to people and cultures we knew little or nothing about

Some things we will miss (not to say we will never experience these again): access to some of the best food we’ve ever had, abundant amount of friendly & helpful locals (besides New Orleans, we’ve never experienced this outside Asia), frequently meeting new people with incredible stories, the thrill of a new and exotic city, having no set schedule

Some things we will not miss: smell of dried fish, squat and trough toilets (especially for ladies), people throwing trash out windows

The best advice I can give to people attempting something similar to us is not to overplan (and travel light). Some of the best things we did were found through word of mouth. Not having a set schedule gave us a chance to determine once we arrived how long we would spend there. It is a luxury not many people have, but even if you only have a few weeks, it is easy enough to plan a few days at a time, rather than be tied to a strict schedule. For us, because we had so much time, we usually found we were cutting days off of places we didn’t find as exciting, rather than adding days, though we tacked on a rest day when needed. I think the only time we felt really rushed was in Indonesia, when it was more difficult to get around and we only had a 30 day visa. We would have liked to visit more of the islands, but flying more and getting a visa extension would have proved cost prohibitive.

Speaking of costs, we didn’t have an overall budget for this trip. We saved for a number of years and travelled as cheaply as possible, without overly inconveniencing ourselves. Some of the cheap alternatives we took were grueling bus rides and eating street food. We walked everywhere we could, saving money on taxis and public transit. We didn’t buy many souvenirs and we spent very little on added luxuries. We avoided restaurants with table cloths, settling for plastic chairs most of the time, which turned out to have some of the best food anyway. We also stayed in hostels most of the trip, sometimes dorms, but usually double rooms with shared bathrooms were cheaper. We haggled everywhere, when appropriate, and saved a lot of money by being smart about our purchases and hardly partying. It wasn’t easy and sometimes it was very stressful, but having the luxury of no real budget let us experience a lot of things we may have forgone had we been on a strict budget. When we get back to a secure internet connection, I hope to compile our bank statements and figure out how much we spent in each country. It may be more difficult than it sounds, but I think it will be a good precedent for any future trips we take and a helpful thing to share with other backpackers.

We have been incredibly humbled by the generosity we have been privy to over the last few months. So many people have made our trip a truly unique and genuine experience. And while the food and sights were amazing and beautiful, it was ultimately the people we met along the way and the support we got from friends and family that influenced us the most.

It is bittersweet as we are waiting at the airport to leave Asia. We are excited to see familiar faces, but sad to leave behind the fabulous new things we have discovered. So thanks for reading, and sorry there are no pictures this time.

Stay tuned for more post trip conclusions and our struggle with reverse culture shock.

last day packs

Some beach time….Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Fast, reliable internet is a novelty we don’t often enjoy, so I’m a bit behind and will try to catch up while we are staying in one place for a few days.

After our journey through the Mekong Delta to the southwestern coast of Vietnam, we boarded a ferry and arrived on the island of Phu Quoc.  It is the largest island in Vietnam and is right on the border with Cambodia, conveniently for us as that is our next stop.  Phu Quoc is known for its fish sauce and black pepper.  Also, for its white sandy beaches, calm waters and diving.  For us, it is also known for many Russian tourists and very expensive, well, everything.

Despite being on the Vietnamese coast for the last few weeks, we had barely seen the sun and were excited for some beach time, though not too much, as our skin isn’t well suited for it.  Lucky for us, the trees grow really close to the water and we were able to find some shade right along the beach.

The first day we rented a scooter and rode to a few of the beaches in the north.  They were a lot less crowded than the ones near our hostel, in Duong Dong.  We stopped in Mango Bay, commandeered some beach chairs from the resort and enjoyed the calm, warm gulf waters before dipping in their pool.
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I had read about a hostel along a nearby beach that had great food and excellent reviews on Tripadvisor.  We backtracked a bit to find it, parked our scooter at the end of a road along the beach and followed a sign down the water, already starving.  We had to jump over a rocky shore and cut across a fancy resort’s beach, but we made it and had a great view.  That apparently, is the easy way to reach them.  However, when we arrived, the cook was at the market, but would be back soon we were told.  We waited about an hour with a couple of beers and the very pregnant cook/proprietor returned with fresh fish and shrimp.  We had a vague notion before we came that maybe we would end up staying here, as our hostel in town was pretty expensive and this place was supposed to be cheap and great.  After seeing the “rooms” though, that wasn’t much of an option.  There were mosquito nets, but the walls were blue tarps and you could clearly see sunlight through the roof.  Luckily, we decided against it, as it poured that night and I can’t imagine the guests stayed dry.

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After a long, delicious lunch, we visited another northern beach, with even less people, but more trash.  All over Asia, we’ve discovered that people just throw their trash wherever.  Its really sad and only a few places do you actually see trash cans.  And who knows if anyone even empties those.  Mostly, people will just burn small piles along the street.  But anyway, we rode back to town and spent the next two days exploring the nearby beaches.

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We had originally planned to stay until our Vietnamese visa ran out, but the island is pretty expensive and we decided to leave a few days early.  We can’t spend much time in the sun anyway.

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Drying squid covered in huge bees.

 Another crazy bus/boat journey ahead….to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Out of the cold & rain….Southern Vietnam

Another long one….

An eight hour bus from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City arrived only 15 minutes late and we were fortunate enough to have time to meet up with a former travelling companion of mine from Costa Rica for a few beers before he had to catch a train north.  Probably the most punctual we have been so far in Vietnam.  Thrilled to be out of the cold temperatures and rain, we were greeted with thick heat and intense sunshine.

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Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still very often referred to as Saigon.  It is the largest city in Vietnam, by a lot as far as we can tell.  There are over 9 million people and I’m pretty sure they all own motorbikes.  The city is teeming with them.  Having been under French control, there is still some French influence here, most notably for us, in the bakery department.  One morning, while sitting at a bakery (where we went numerous more times), we ran into a Canadian that we bowled with a month prior in Laos.  This has happened to us a few times in the past few months.  It’s a small world, even over here.

We always try to walk as much as possible for a few reasons.  It saves money, keeps us in shape, and most importantly, we see a lot more.  In many cases, we see a lot of strange stuff.  Animals in cages on the backs of motorbikes being no exception.

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Pet chipmunks?

 

We haven’t heard of Vietnamese in the south eating dogs, hopefully that’s just the north because these guys were really cute.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Our first day, we walked across town towards the War Remnants Museum.  It being closed for two hours in the middle of the day caused a bit of delay, but we wandered the neighborhood while we waited for it to re-open. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Everybody naps in the afternoon, even the motorbike drivers.

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Brave lady on a bike in a sea of motorbikes
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Patiently waiting for Riki to take pictures.

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When the War Remnants Museum re-opened, we joined a throng of other tourists to see the exhibit on the war crimes committed against the Vietnamese.   There really should be an identical museum like this in DC.  They displayed the “tiger cages” where the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners.  The small cages would hold 3 people, but they could only lie down.
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It was a sobering exhibit, full of gruesome pictures that make you feel horrible for the people who endured such tragedy.  The Agent Orange room is particularly depressing, as some of the photos are recent of people with disabilities related to their parents being exposed to herbicidal warfare by the Americans.

Despite the atrocities they have been through by the Americans, the Vietnamese people we have encountered have been so friendly and helpful.  It wasn’t something I expected and many people, from home and who we have met here, are curious as to how we have been treated.  And I guess it all comes down to, well, they won.  And communism didn’t destroy the world.  But there is a lot of propaganda here still – not that we know what most of it says.

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We have been travelling for over four months now, which has flown by.  However, it has taken a toll on us, specifically my backpack.  Riki’s 30 year old bag, a loaner from my parents, is doing well – no rips, tears or even noticeable stains.  Mine on the other hand (a $30 Hong Kong buy from my parents’ last visit) has been on its last legs for about a month.  After repairing seams a second time, I decided to trade in (but not up).  We visited quite a few markets around HCMC and I finally settled on a $20 knockoff which appears bus-worthy.  Well, the zipper for the raincover broke on its first outing, but if I get three months out of it, I’ll call it even.  Oh, and its green!

Our last morning, we checked out of our 3 room guesthouse down a narrow alley and hit the streets to kill an afternoon before our night bus to the coast.  We encountered more sleeping in strange positions, animals on the back of motorbikes (goldfish & a chicken on a leash attached to a motorbike) and a cool sport played by all ages in the parks.  The name of this game is unknown, including to the locals we spoke to (students trying to practice their English) but we now own a unique looking shuttlecock with feathers and plastic noise makers.  Someday we will be pros.

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Unfortunately, during our outing, Riki slipped on some garbage goo in the street and was coated foot to thigh in stinky black liquid.  And we had stored our bags at the travel agency already.  But we hiked back to our stuff and got him cleaned up a bit in the tiniest, smelliest toilet ever.  That should have been an omen about the rest of our journey to come.

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I snuck a picture while I was entrusted to hold the camera during the garbage incident.

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After watching a few hours of people practicing this unknown sport, we went back to the travel agent to retrieve our bags.  They piled us into a taxi and dropped us off at the bus company’s office.  We waiting almost an hour there and then we were summoned to put our bags in a minivan.  Well, the minivan had no more seats, so a Vietnamese lady, Riki and I were put in a car without our bags (a first class no-no in Asia).  But through hand gestures, we were told it was fine and we would follow the minivan.  Well, we did, but not right away and the fear that comes as you watch your bag slowly disappear into the night is not something I’d like to experience again.  With the bags long gone, we discovered our driver was only just learning how to drive (a car that is we think, everyone drives motorbikes).  The other man from the bus company in the passenger’s seat kept pointing at the mirrors and yanking on the steering wheel, while the driver made his way slowly through the city.  But he only stalled once and we didn’t hit anything, so let’s call it a win.  It was a snail’s pace, but we finally made it to the bus station, where we found our bags waiting for us.

Six hours later, at 4 am we were dropped in the middle of nowhere at a gas station.  We were the only Westerners told to get off, which was disconcerting, as we knew everyone was headed to the same island, Phu Quoc.  But we got in the waiting shuttle and the driver left us at the ferry terminal to wait for three hours at an outdoor cafe until the boat left.  We played cards and drank thick, sweet coffee until it was time to board.  None of this was communicated to us when we bought the tickets.

 Next stop, Phu Quoc, for white sand beaches and the best fish sauce in Vietnam.

Hue to Da Lat, Christmas & New Years….Central Vietnam

I have been negligent with the posting, due to the holidays I guess, so this is a long one.  Sorry.

We arrived in Hue during a heavy downpour.  Having put all our things in dry bags and donning our rain covers, we headed toward the hostels.  However, Riki discovered his rain jacket no longer functions in the arms and we were pretty wet by the time we arrived at the hostel.

Hue is an old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty until 1945 and thus has an impressive citadel.  Or it used to.  Hue was heavily damaged in the 1960s by bombings and much of the city was damaged.  The citadel, which we visited the next day is under reconstruction.  There are a few buildings left, but also many ruins.  We ate some incredible food (all recommended by our hotel), including pork cooked on lemongrass sticks wrapped in greens and rice paper dipped in peanut sauce (has a shorter name but I don’t recall it), clams with rice, and beef pho.  We also shopped around for a new raincoat for Riki, but the only options are knock-off North Faces with questionable seams or knock-off North Faces of shoddy material.

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The next day, we hopped on a bus to Da Nang, where we were treated by Riki’s dad to 5 nights at the Hyatt on the beach for Christmas.  The bus trip seemed to be going well and speedy despite the bumpy roads.  But after descending a small mountain, we started crawling along with people honking and passing us left and right (buses left, motorbikes right).  After ten minutes of this, we pulled over into a large gas station, where we all disembarked to discover the front wheel well of the bus noticeably lower than the back.  While the passengers proceeded to use the facilities (trough toilets for both men and women), the driver’s helper got behind the wheel well with a screw driver and jacked the bus back up to a normal level.

All was well and we were conveniently dropped off in front of the Hyatt, right on the beach.  We checked-in and took the hotel’s shuttle back to Da Nang for provisions and sightseeing.  Sightseeing included a museum on Cham sculpture and a walk along their waterfront to see the dragon bridge.  Da Nang is a large port city, not a very common stop for tourists.  We returned to the Hyatt to discover an incredible smorgasbord provided during the free cocktail hour(s).  This turned out to be our dinner for almost every night of our stay.

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The next day, Christmas Eve, we took the shuttle 20 minutes south to Hoi An.  We located a tailor recommended to us and proceeded to order a full suit for Riki, including vest and two dresses for me.  Hoi An is a UNESCO site and is charmingly preserved.  Small streets with limited traffic reminded us of New Orleans and at night, colorful lanterns hang from every structure.  As a former bustling port, Hoi An has been influenced by trade all over Asia and even the Middle East.  When the river began to become clogged with mud, major trade was moved to Da Nang, abandoning Hoi An and enabling it to be well preserved in its historic context.

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We spent Christmas Eve with the Hyatt’s complimentary food and drinks.  And then we watched Frozen. Yes, I know we are late to the game.  And Riki has been singing the song ever since (except he interchanges the words randomly, ie “Let it Snow, Let it Flow, etc).

We spent the next few days walking on the beach (despite the rain) and enjoying the amenities that come with a real hotel, like hot water, bathtubs, toilets that don’t get wet when you shower, AND free food and drinks (I could go on and on – the Hyatt is on the opposite end of the spectrum of every place we have stayed thus far).  Surprisingly, or not, we did not meet anyone there doing what we are doing.  Lots of families though.

We ventured back to Hoi An again for another tailor fitting and to wander the little streets.  The weather was less than desirable, but there were tons of tourists poking around the many shops and restaurants.

On our last day, we soaked up as much luxury as we could, took all the little soaps they gave us and headed back down to Hoi An to pick up our new clothes and catch the overnight bus to Nha Trang.

We arrived at 8 am in the small beach town of Nha Trang.  I slept a few hours between the honking and bumpy roads, but Riki didn’t.  We took advantage of a morning without rain though and wandered  the neighborhoods before taking a nap.  That evening, we discovered that Nha Trang is swarming with Russian tourists.  Everything in the tourist area is written in Cyrillic and we were spoken to in Russian a number of times, by locals and Russians themselves. We weren’t terribly impressed with the city, but did walk all the way up the beach to Po Nagar towers.  This Cham temple complex is from 781 situated on a small hill overlooking the water.

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We walked back through little neighborhoods and even found Riki a place to grill his own seafood.  Unfortunately, the beach was crowded with tourists and the water was very rough, so we opted to skip that, even though the sun came out for a few hours.

New Year’s Eve we took a morning bus to Dalat.  We had heard there was a celebration and everyone we asked said there would be music and fireworks that night.  But the city appeared pretty dead.  So we booked a canyoning tour for the next day and wandered through the city and the market.

That night, we went out to the center of town and found a stage set up with music playing.  People began dancing on the stage and locals gathered in the street to watch (no clapping though after each set).  At 10:15 pm, the music abruptly stopped and everyone scattered.  We were thoroughly confused and sat on some steps with our cozies of Tiger Beer hoping something else would happen.  When it was obvious the locals were all going home and there would be no fireworks, we walked to a bar where we found about 15 Westerners hanging out and playing pool.  At midnight, Riki had to remind everyone what time it was and we cheers-ed and continued chatting with a Dutch guy we have run into three times as we have headed down Vietnam.

I have one word for the next day, terrifying.  We went canyoning or abseiling or rappelling – a controlled descent down a rock.  Except some of the rocks we descended were actually waterfalls.  The dry ones were fine, but the wet ones, where you can’t see from above what you are about to do, well, I didn’t find that as entertaining.  I think Riki disagrees and had a great time, despite his “fear of heights.”

We were lucky as the sun came out a few times.  Otherwise, the water was pretty chilly, but when you are too busy concentrating on not losing your footing, you don’t notice the temperature.  Not until you get down and out. It was pretty exhausting and the walk at the end was very steep and conveniently included walking up the trail that was being used as the barrier for a controlled burn.  Very tough to breath as it was without all the smoke.

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When we got back to town, the place was swarming with Vietnamese tourists.  Apparently, they get four days off for the holiday, but nobody arrived until sometime on the first.

We spent our last day at a flower garden packed with people, shopping at the handicraft stores, and visiting our favorite bakery.  Dalat is called the city of eternal spring, as it is warm or cool during the day and colder at night.  The weather was pretty dreary our last day and it got very cold at night.  The Vietnamese were decked out in down jackets, hats, gloves, scarves, etc.  We had our thin fleeces and were fine.

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The cold never bothered me anyway. (Frozen is everywhere)

Next stop – Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon

Phong Nha Cavernous Caves….Vietnam

Warning: There are lots of pictures of rocks. Lots. But they are pretty cool.

We crossed into Vietnam via Cha Lo, which is not a common tourist crossing we found out.  Our bus was full of 20-something Vietnamese guys presumably returning from working in Laos or Thailand, as their wallets were stuffed full of cash.  40 guys with stinky feet and me, and absolutely no English.  It took us 2 hours to get through the border, which was full of hand gestures, confusion and shuffling bags back and forth between inspections and the bus.  The whole time, we had a glimmer of hope that they could drop us off in Phong Nha (our destination) as it was in the direct path between Thakhek and Dong Hoi.  So we kept saying Phong Nha to the driver and the ticket guy and the other guy who was in charge of something.  Eventually they started calling us Phong Nha.

But we didn’t stop in Phong Nha, though we got within 20 km or so.  We got dropped off in Dong Hoi and found out the last bus to Phong Nha had already departed and we could take a taxi for an exorbitant amount, or wait til the next morning to catch the local bus at just over $1.  So we found a nice guesthouse along the ocean and ate some delicious beef soup.

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The next morning we woke up early and went out on the main street, hoping to find a bus marked with our destination.  After 20 nerve-racking minutes, we spotted one, got on and discovered other tourists headed the same way.

We spent that afternoon researching and talking to people coming back from the caves.  The national park here has the world’s largest cave and it was only discovered in the last few years.  Hence, tourism has just started to pick up and people are flocking to the area to see the caves.  The largest cave is $3000 to visit and has a waiting list, so that was out.  We opted for a few of the other, also spectacular ones instead.
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The next morning the power was out (something we would come to discover happens quite a lot).  There are tour companies in Phong Nha who offer day trips to see multiple attractions.  We asked around, thought $60+ was too much and decided to do two caves on our own.  The roads are good and the scenery is gorgeous, so we rented a motorbike for the hour drive to Paradise Cave.

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The ride up the cave was beautiful, more karsts, little towns and lush, green foliage.  It rains quite a lot at this time of year.  We parked the motorbike and climbed about a kilometer up a mountain to reach the entrance to the cave.  This cave has been open to the public for awhile and they have sunk a lot of money into the infrastructure here.  Everything outside is paved and the whole walkway inside the cave is wooden and appears sturdy.  I was pretty impressed.  For being so remote, this cave was really well taken care of and tastefully lit up.

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We spent about two hours at Paradise Cave, walking the 1 kilometer path and back.  The stalactites and stalagmites were massive and had such character.  You could see where some had fallen thousands of years ago and more had formed on top of them.  We arrived at lunchtime and all the tour groups were gone so we were able to enjoy a few minutes of complete silence in the cave (besides the dripping water).  The pictures don’t really do it justice.  It was hard to capture the scale of the cavern with the camera.

Next stop, the Dark Cave.  This is more of an adventure cave, not as big and has no lights.  This cave is more expensive, but includes all necessary gear – headlamp, hard hat, life vest and safety harness.  We were strapped into our harnesses and ziplined across the river to the mouth of the cave.  From there, we swam into the cave, waded through chilly water and mud.  We removed our lifejackets, flipped on our headlamps and trod through mud toward our destination, slipping all the way.  By the time we reached the end of the trail, we were all covered in mud and having a grand time.  I had a mudstache – courtesy of our guide.

The finale of the tour is sitting in a thick pool of mud in complete darkness.  The mud is so thick that you can float on it, but still swim.  It was much warmer deep in the cave and the mud felt great on my skin.  We headed back the way we came, rinsed off and kayaked back to the start, where they have two small ziplines dropping you into the water.  Despite the chill of the water, this turned out to be my favorite thing in Phong Nha.  It helps that they serve you hot soup, tea and rum by a fire at the end.

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We dried off and headed back to town in time for sunset.  Driving at night is dangerous, as there are no streetlights and when we got back to the hostel, there still wasn’t any power.  So no hot showers for us, which was disappointing.  Apparently, they are working on the electric lines all the time, probably updating them to accommodate the huge influx of tourism in the area in the last few years.  It would be interesting to see the development that happens in this area in the next ten years.  The caves are really incredible and its no wonder why people are already flocking here.

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The following day we met in the lobby of our hostel to join a bunch of people to visit the cave that is closest to town.  Ten of us split the cost of a boat and we headed for Phong Nha and Tien Son caves.  The little dragon boat took us down the river about half an hour to the entrance of the caves, leaking all the way.  our wooden boat had seen better days.  At the entrance to Phong Nha cave, the boat driver switched off the motor and he and his helper removed the top of the boat, so we could look directly above our heads.  They pulled out their paddles and we spent the next hour or so moving silently through the cave.

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The dragon boat returned us to the entrance of the cave and we disembarked for the walk up to the next cave, Tien Son.  We walked up some very steep steps, with ladies selling ice cream all the way up.  In my opinion, this cave was better than Phong Nha cave.   There is wooden loop way down into the cave, lots more steps.  More beautiful formations and tasteful lighting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We took the dragon boat back to town, where the power was out again.  Saw some interesting boat uses along the way.

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The next day we took the local bus back to Dong Hoi, where we were dropped at an intersection and told to wait for the next bus to Hue (no time table).  Luckily, one arrived about half an hour later, we flagged it down and headed south on the dustiest and bumpiest  bus/road we have encountered thus far.

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Colonel Mustard and Mr. Tabasco are a long way from home.

Wrapping up N. Vietnam….Back to BKK, Thailand

We spent a couple of days back in Hanoi.  The first day back happened to be the 60th anniversary of kicking the French out of the city.  We had seen the preparations for this for over a week.  There were lanterns all along the streets and lights up everywhere.  And there were flags.  Lots of flags.  And you know how much Riki likes flags?  I’m guessing there are 100 pictures of flags.  I will spare you most of them.  That evening, we wandered down to Hoan Kiem lake just in time for a parade (of course we found a parade).  There were dancing dragons, colorful ladies and lots of music.  We hung around the lake for a few hours and were joined by perhaps the entire population of Hanoi.  The fireworks, which Riki had read were going to be modest because they were being paid for by the city, were the best ones I’ve ever seen.  Lots of huge, loud ones and incredible shapes.

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The next day we checked out the National History Museum and Revolution Museum.  The Revolution Museum was a lot like Cuba’s in that there was not much explanation, but lots of artifacts.  For instance, the cup so and so drank from that time he ate at this place.  And the jacket he wore that other time he went to this other place.  See how much I learned?  We did some research after we went to fill in the blanks.  The History Museum had a lot of really cool old artifacts, metal pieces, old tools, etc.

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The following day we headed for Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house.  He refused to live in the palace and had a traditional house built out back for himself.  The people really like that.  On our way we got a bit lost, but found a lake and this guy giving haircuts along a main road.IMG_0522.JPG

We found a few places with balconies overlooking the hectic streets.  I think these were Riki’s favorites.IMG_0521.JPG

 Our last day in Hanoi we did some shopping (or just browsing really) and went to our new favorite restaurant to eat our new favorite dish, Highway 4 with carmelized coconut and pork.  Pricey for Hanoi, but our meal was still under $15.

We had a quick flight back to Bangkok on Air Asia.  Our flights were only $60 each way.  Definitely worth the trip to Northern Vietnam to catch the good weather.

Back in BKK, we strolled down this canal to the Golden Mount, a free view of the city, with lots of bells.

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I may look awkward, but these monks on mobile devices were too funny.

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Sometimes I get ahold of the camera and bad things happen.

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Flower pictures, as requested.

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We really like taking the ferries down the river.  They are fast, cheap and cleaner than the buses.

Next stop, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital.

 

Deep thoughts by Riki….Vietnam

What cops are probably saying @ roadblocks to motorbikes/scooters: “sorry guys, road is closed, use the sidewalk.”

I’ve heard the Vietnamese national anthem so often here that I probably know the hymn better than the Swiss one…

American Aussie @ Bia Hoi place: “Hanoi is Bangkok 20 years ago and Myanmar is like what Hanoi was 20 years ago.” Conversation was about why we should definitely go to Myanmar.

Hanoi has the best tasting coffee I have ever had, honestly, just the simple Vietnamese coffee with milk (which is condensed and you don’t know it’s in there until you start stirring your coffee, then voila…) and it’s only 20,000 VND (just under $1).

Observation while eating at street food stalls: Vietnam may be the communist country, but they don’t use toilet paper for napkins like they do in Bangkok (they don’t always, but this place we really like does)…

Yes, there is a lot of propaganda, but mostly on billboards in the countryside/along the highways (in Hanoi, most were for the 60th anniversary celebration of kicking out the French) and they are all very positive (pro worker, school teachers & pupils, peace, and “Uncle Ho” is on almost all of them), quite cool looking, and less ubiquitous than other adverts.

Their chickens (in the city) and pigs, buffalos, goats (in the countryside) just roam around everywhere – free range for sure… Just hanging out on the curb, most likely aware of the crazy traffic (cause if they weren’t, they would go on about it so nonchalantly).

Wedding and graduation pictures are huge here. Always very professional, great attire, and everywhere all the time.

Two young schoolgirls from the country side practiced their English with me at the temple of literature, we talked about Hanoi, New Orleans, and what they were studying. The students here do this all the time, they just go to the popular tourist destinations, approach foreigners, ask if they know English and if they can practice for a short conversation, it’s great and they must do it a lot, because their English is quite good.

Families just hang out on the sidewalks, in front of their houses (like the whole family, three generations), especially if they sell stuff out of their homes. It’s all very communal, but with all the motorbikes on the sidewalks, you usually just end up walking in the street.

It seems like when they advertise meat here (cooked and ready to eat):
– Chicken – no head
– Pig – head is there, just not attached
– Duck – whole thing, including the beak, just hanging from a hook in its neck

It’s amazing how inventive/ingenious the sidewalk kitchens (or motorcycle repair shops) can be with so little space, and so few materials.

The kids (especially in the countryside/outside the busiest parts of the cities) are sooo cute. They wave and say “hello” to every foreigner that happens to pass by (the babies are taught early by their moms, helping them wave and pointing out the foreigners), and if it’s only you, they say hello as often as they can until you are out of sight. Of course, the teenagers say it ironically and giggle with their friends.

The Vietnamese are none to pleased with the Chinese right now.  China built an oil rig in their waters (which China says is theirs cause….). There’s even an exhibit in the revolution museum about it, showing old maps and stuff (from China) to discredit their claim. (It’s all very political and there are some other territorial water disputes in the region, involving China…, you should read up on it).

The ladies working in the train station, and the airport too apparently, have these great white and blue dresses/outfits on (Julie could describe them better I’m sure) but they look great.

The haze, from the smoke, from the rice harvest… makes strobe lights and fireworks look amazing at night.

Sales pitch @ every market or outdoor seller (not sure who it works with) – “buy something from me” or “you buy something from me” sometimes proceeded by “where you from” or “thank you”. There was a lady at a restaurant (I think she owned it) in Sapa making fun of them, “you buy from me not from her…” Wasn’t very nice cause they didn’t speak much English and were only trying to earn some money, but it seams like there is a bit of a rivalry up there with the ethnic minorities, who sell mostly handmade things and still live quite simply, and the Viet who have moved up there more recently to make money off the tourists.

Bikes of burden, let me tell you…. Actually, you can see it in a couple of pictures, but it’s amazing what they can fit on these bikes (there’s already a photo book with them… And we thought we were so clever when we came up with the idea).

 

Karsts in the Haze….Tam Coc & Trang An, Vietnam

Wednesday we took a 6 am train to Ninh Binh.  Just 2 hours south of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is a popular tourist destination for its karst formations.  The area is often called the Ha Long Bay of land.  We walked from the train station to our hotel and rented two one speed bikes for about $2.  The hotel gave us a map and we headed off toward Tam Coc to see the rocks by boat.  Once again, the map was pretty terrible, but we only got lost once.  On the way, we stopped at Hang Mua, a great viewpoint of the area.  We climbed 500 pretty steep and crumbling steps to reach a pagoda at the top.  The view was fabulous and we could see the boats far below.

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We descended the stairs, much faster than we ascended, and rode our bikes further south to Tam Coc.  We hired a boat, with a lady who rowed with her feet and took a 2 hour trip out into the limestone karsts.  We had heard some complaints that this is very touristy and you get hassled by your lady to buy her handicrafts and by other boats to buy drinks and snacks, but we had a pleasant experience.  It was the late afternoon and our driver must have been tired because we went slow and were only hassled a little at the turn around point by the other boats.  There were lots of ducks and we saw some kingfishers (?) and mountain goats, which is a local specialty.

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On the ride back, we encountered some interesting practices.  It appears that every evening, right before sunset, the excess part of the rice plant is piled up and burnt.  This makes an incredible amount of smoke and could probably be one of the reasons it’s so hazy here, just a thought.  We biked back to the hotel, arriving just before the sunset, luckily, since there are not many street lights and the road was pretty bumpy in parts.

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They use every available flat space to dry the rice.

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The next day, we rented bikes again and rode to Hua Lu, an ancient capital to the north, nestled in the karsts.  We climbed another 250 steps here for a view of a few temples and what is left of the city.

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Then we rode to Trang An, the less visited version of Tam Coc.  We were told this would be less touristy and cheaper, but in reality, we found it to be more touristy and only $4 cheaper for both of us.  And we had to share a boat with 3 very loud tourists.  So we liked Tam Coc better, though the caves in Trang An were pretty impressive, though very tight.  We had to duck on multiple occasions to get through.

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IMG_0460.JPGWe rode back to Ninh Binh in time to catch our train back to Hanoi that evening.