Ho Chi Minh: The City, The Madness & The Cu Chi Tunnels

Days 54-57 in Southeast Asia (Mar 19-22, 2016)

Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City

On Saturday morning our bus left for Ho Chi Minh City from Da Lat at 7:30am, and took about 7.5hrs (arriving at 3pm). It was becoming painfully clear within seconds of getting off of the bus that the farther South we headed, the hotter it was getting. It already felt hot in Da Lat, but this city was even hotter, and felt like absolute chaos with cars and motorbikes. The air pollution definitely added to the muggy sticky heat and the feeling that you needed a shower within 5 minutes of stepping outside. Maddie and I decided to take a taxi from the bus station to our hostel (which was only about a 15-20 minute walk, but saved us about 20L of combined sweat, and the taxis here are really cheap (as long as you insist they use the meter) so I think it was definitely worth it.

Ho Chi Minh City!

We arrived at The Hangout Hostel for our first night in Ho Chi Minh City (181,000VND/$10.55CAD for a dorm that was pretty nice and included breakfast), and settled in quickly before heading out for a walk around our area. We walked down the main street through the public park that was full of various sports and group activities, and we watched the locals do aerobic dance classes for a bit, partly debating joining in (we probably would have if it wasn’t so hot). We didn’t walk around long before we were stopped by a couple of younger Vietnamese gentlemen who asked us if we had some time to talk.

We weren’t really sure what they meant (and naturally assumed they wanted to sell us something) but we said okay anyways. They then proceeded to tell us that they were students at the university nearby and came to the park after school most days to practise their English, and just wanted to sit with us for a little while to enjoy a conversation. I sat with one of the guys and Maddie with the other, and we proceeded to talk to each other about where we were from, what we took in school, where I have travelled, work, home etc. Dit (I think was his name) spoke incredible English considering his age, and told me that he was in school to become a tour guide, taking English courses (for which he was practising) as well as studying Korean, which is pretty impressive as someone who can barely figure out how to pronounce “hello,” “thank you” and “very good” in Vietnamese after several weeks in the country.

I have a lot of respect for people who can speak more than one language, and I think its something I’d really like to pursue once I’m home. I may sign up for online courses if I can make the time for it, or at least buy an audio tape. We proceeded to talk about our lives at home, and he told me about how he had originally gone to a private fashion school for university, but that his parents didn’t like that he was there, and pulled him out of school after a few months fearing that he would “become a lady, or gay”, so he is now in school to become a tour guide. He told me that he sometimes felt that when he was around those people, he felt like a girl and sometimes that when he was around gay people he felt like he was “thinking thoughts like that too”.

The translation was a bit broken, and I didn’t want to ask too many personal questions, but I asked him a bit more about it and about openness towards gay people in Vietnam. He said that traditionally it is not very accepted, and that his parents as well as a lot of old people are not overly accepting and it is often kept secret, though in big cities like Hanoi and Saigon it is very common and open, and generally speaking very accepted. We talked a bit about how important it is to be able to be with people you love no matter where you are, and it was a really beautiful conversation even in broken English.

I loved that I had only met Dit about 25 minutes ago, and now we were sharing a moment of pure love and acceptance towards people’s sexual preferences. It reminded me of why I love travelling so much… moments like this where you connect with someone who at a glance has nothing in common with you and comes from an entirely different world, yet you are able to share feelings of love and acceptance in a way that is completely universal. The world is full of love and beautiful people who are no different in the end than myself, and I’ve never realized that more than when I share a moment like this with a complete stranger.

Ho Chi Minh Pub Crawl

After our walk in the park and grabbing a Banh My sandwich in the street, we went back to our hostel and bought some wristbands for 20,000VND ($1.50CAD) to join the pub crawl that night. We grabbed some beers and before we knew it we were playing a giant game of jenga (with rules written on each block) with a bunch of fellow backpackers. We drank, played cards and jenga, and eventually made our way to the Hideout Bar for some glow paint before we headed out for the pub crawl.

Maddie told me to grab a brush and paint her with the glow paint (everyone else was in line for the girl who worked at the hostel who was painting everyone), but I asked and she said it was fine if I wanted to use the paint too. Within a few minutes, I had a lineup of about 10 people waiting to get glow paint patterns on their arms and chests from me, and the girl who worked at the hostel was laughing and joking that she should just go home because I had a bigger lineup than she did. Over the next hour or so I painted probably about 15 people before finally retiring, after realizing I was getting more drunk (and sloppy with painting), and after people started asking me questions about the hostel and pub crawl, thinking I ACTUALLY worked there. It was pretty funny and I went with it for a bit, but after a while I just wanted to be part of the party again, so I escaped my painting chair.

Maddie and I spent most of the night hanging out with a new friend named Jamie, who was from Montreal, Quebec (A fellow backpacker from Canada!) We chatted and swapped stories about travelling, hospital trips, and life. The pub crawl was fun, though it was a bit dampened by being told every 30 seconds (especially by the guy in charge of the crawl) to watch your purse, as bag snatching and pick pocketing are so common here. We would realize over the next few days that it was common to be told every time we left the hostel, crossed the street, or pulled out our phone (literally anywhere) to look out for our belongings…

I tend to be a very trusting person, knowing that I myself wouldn’t ever steal someone else’s things, and it was hard for me to hear warnings and stories of knives/guns being pulled, and people being dragged by scooters who didn’t let go of (of were attached to) their bags when they got grabbed… It gave the city a feeling of mistrust for me, which was a feeling I’m not used to and I can’t say I particularly enjoyed. Luckily, neither Maddie nor myself had anything stolen in the city (probably because we were so careful), but I don’t think its a place I’d ever want to be long term unfortunately.

The Lunch Lady

The next morning, Maddie and I moved over to The Hideout Hostel (Hangout’s sister hostel, that was about 180,000VND/$10 night), and looked up a few places in the city on our map apps and got ourselves ready for a sweaty day of exploring by foot. As we were heading out, Jamie (the Montreal-er from the night before) invited us to join him for lunch at The Lunch Lady. I had JUST been talking to someone else about it and how I wanted to go, so we jumped on the opportunity to go with company, and the 3 of us hopped on Jamie’s scooter. Another girl from our hostel named Raluca also overheard us and joined in, meeting us there a few minutes after we arrived (she took an Uber).

The Lunch Lady is a lady who owns a soup stand in the city where every day she serves a different type of Vietnamese soup at about 60,000VND ($3.50CAD) each for soup, water and spring rolls. She has run the stand for years in the same spot, and has become such a talked about spot in the city that world famous chefs including Anthony Bourdain and Chef Gordon Ramsay have come personally to check it out. When we got there, we were seated in the typical tiny chairs and tables of Vietnam, and quickly were served our soup (it’s super fast since they only serve one kind per day).

The spring rolls had shrimp in them, and there were shrimp cakes as well to dip in the soup, so I can’t tell you how those tasted (I’m allergic), but the pork and noodle soup was DELICIOUS. I was not disappointed, and even though we were dripping sweat the whole time sitting in the heat eating soup, we loved every second of it. After our soup, Jamie headed off as he was motorbiking North that day, so we said our goodbyes and wished him luck.

Motorbike Helmets & The Jade Emperor Pagoda

Raluca, Maddie and I then walked to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and checked it out quickly, but of course got distracted on the street on our way there by a giant stand of motorbike helmets that were on sale for around 100,000VND ($6CAD). We joked about buying them, and about 20 minutes later of course the 3 of us walked away with new helmets that cost us between 120,000 and 150,000VND each ($7-$9CAD). Mine is white with a red stripe down the middle and a red star on each side, and Maddie got the same helmet but pink with white stripes and stars. We laughed at ourselves as we walked around for the rest of the day with motorbike helmets hanging off of our bags, but in all honesty if there was ever a souvenir that summed up what Vietnam was… it would be something to do with a motorbike.

Saigon Central Post Office & Notre Dame Cathedral

After our irrational and bulky purchase and checking out the temple, the 3 of us headed over to the Saigon Central Post Office, which might sound silly but is actually a highly rated tourist attraction in the city, as it was apparently designed by the same architect as the Eifel Tower in Paris. The post office was beautiful and had some of the best souvenir shops I’ve seen in all of Vietnam, full of paper cards (pop up cut outs, as well as rolled paper), and it was hard for me to limit myself to only grabbing a few.

Outside of the building, a few high school students pulled me aside and asked me to say “Xin Chao Vietnam!” (Hello Vietnam!) On video for a school project. I happily agreed, and asked them about themselves a bit. They took selfies with me and giggled as they shyly asked me about where I was from and how I liked Vietnam. I told them that it was one of my favourite places I’ve ever been, and I wasn’t lying.

Across the road from the post office was the Notre Dame Cathedral, an equally impressive building surrounded by crazy traffic and beautiful parks. We walked around the cathedral through the traffic, I took a photo of a newlywed couple, and we enjoyed the view from the park as the sun was finally setting and we could actually bare the heat more.

Chill Bar (Skybar Overlooking HCMC)

We headed back towards the hostel not long after, and Maddie went inside while Raluca and myself decided to grab a bite to eat. Afterwards, we met back up with Maddie and her friend Jess, who lives in Ho Chi Minh city as an English Teacher. She took us to Chill Bar, a famous sky bar nearby, with a live DJ and BEAUTIFUL view.

Apparently the bartender here won an award for being the best bartender in Asia a  year ago or something, though I can’t really tell you how the house mixed drinks were since I ordered a bottle of Budweiser which was the cheapest thing on the menu and cost me 160,000VND… that’s about $10CAD… almost as much as our accommodation that night.

Sky bars are notorious for having expensive drinks, since you have to buy one most of the time to stay there, but honestly if you only have one it’s not SO terrible. I just try to think of it as an admission fee for an incredible city view rather than the cost of one bottle of beer.

We went out to another bar with normal priced beers afterwards and had a couple more, but called it quits pretty early since Maddie and I had signed up for the Cu Chi Tunnel tour the following morning and didn’t particularly want to do it in this heat with a hangover.

Cu Chi Tunnel Tour!

At 8am, our guide picked us up to take us to the bus to Cu Chi. The total tour cost us each 135,000VND ($8), plus 110,000VND entry fee ($7), and included transportation, a 2 hour guided tour and a stop at the Vietnam Association Benefit For The Enabled Disability, a handmade crafts workshop and store that employs Vietnamese who have disabilities because of Agent Orange, the chemical gas used in the war which resulted in defects for those inhaling it, as well as future generations. They work with egg shell, mother of pearl inlay and stone to make beautiful handicraft boxes, murals and paintings that were as expensive as they were breathtaking, though I wasn’t surprised after we got a peek at the production process which can take weeks to make a single piece because of the hand cut intricate patters inlaid in the stone.

After visiting the shop and talking myself out of spending all of my money on heavy and breakable artwork that was not a smart backpacker buy but that I wanted SO badly… we hopped back on the bus and headed to the tunnels where our tour guide Poe gave us a quick lesson on the  history of the tunnels and the war (The bus was about 1.5hrs each way, so we had plenty of time to hear about it all). Here’s my spark notes version:

In 1948, the VC (Vietnamese Communists) built over 150km of tunnels underground originally to defend themselves against the French, after President Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence. The Gorillas (as they were called), used very little artillery, and primarily had to rely on face to face fighting and remaining hidden from their enemy in order to have an advantage. They chose Cu Chi for building the tunnels because the soil was soft clay, which was strong when it dried but softer to dig, plus it was located in the jungle which was uninhabited and provided good cover. The gorillas built secret entrances to the tunnels that lead to other tunnels, underground bunkers, and villages outside of the tunnels.

In 1954, the Geneva Treaty was signed and Vietnam was free from French occupation, though it separated into Northern Vietnam (the communist capital) and the Southern democratic republic with the support of the USA. The separation of North and South Vietnam at the time resembled the separation between North and South Korea today, and it was during this time that the American War started in Vietnam, because Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam as one country. 16,000 gorillas went to Southern Vietnam at that time and expanded the tunnels to over 250km in total by 1974. The tunnels were used to fight the Americans, and Northern Vietnam won, which is why to this day Vietnam remains a communist country.

One of the interesting things about the tunnels is that the Americans were actually aware of the tunnel system and even knew where some entrances were, but there was very little likelihood of them entering the tunnels because they were both physically and mentally restrained. Physically, the tunnels were dark and narrow, small even for the gorillas, and mentally, a lot of people wouldn’t dare to go in because it was impossible to know if the tunnel was a trap, or if there were gorillas waiting inside, or maybe even reptiles living in the tunnels. This was why the Americans took advantage of the gorillas having trouble getting oxygen into the tunnels. The Americans used Agent Orange to clear vegetation in the area, a chemical gas that cleared out the forest and caused genetic mutations in the VC living inside the tunnels. It didn’t kill them, but it was a tactic that would poison the lives of each individual as they would continue to pass on genetic mutations to future generations for years to come.

Throughout the tour, we got a peek at some of the entrances to the tunnels, and got to see just how tiny they really were (small enough to barely get into, and to have to crawl belly down to get through). We also got to see some of the VC boobie traps that were used throughout the jungle during the time, and were given the opportunity to shoot real guns at the shooting range, though it was fairly expensive and Maddie didn’t want to do it, so it would have cost me double what I hoped to pay  (you have to buy at least 10 rounds, and you’re allowed to share them with someone).

Finally, we went through the tourist version of the tunnel that stretched 100m, and was probably about 3 times the width of the original tunnels. Even so, it was only tall enough to walk through with your back hunched over and knees bent, which was incredibly uncomfortable. After 100m of claustrophobia (and a couple of moments of downright panic when the people in front of me stopped moving, we reached the end of the tunnel absolutely drenched in sweat, with a new appreciation for everything we had just learned about.

After our tour, we hopped back on the bus and headed back to the city. The tour was great and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area, especially if you’re interested in history. Even if you’re not, everything is explained in a very easy to understand way so you don’t need to know anything before getting there in order to appreciate the tour.

Solo Mission To Chinatown

Once we got back to the hostel, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to take me to Chinatown to see a couple of sites that I knew closed soon, and Maddie wasn’t interested in seeing. My first stop was Quan Am Pagoda, a small temple with a beautiful red and gold interior and conical incense spirals hanging from the ceiling in rows. Like most temples, it was great to see, but there’s not exactly a lot to do for visitors other than spend a few minutes appreciating the design, and then leave.

I walked a bit farther down the street and around the corner to Thien Hau Temple, a temple that is located behind another building that you have to walk through first to get to it. I couldn’t see it from the street, so I walked back and forth for about 30 minutes saying “I KNOW it’s here!” Until finally I decided to show a security guard outside of a building the name of the pagoda, to which he nodded, smiled, and pointed to the small doorway behind him… I walked through the building entrance and down a hall and suddenly was in the middle of a giant temple, also with Chinese writing on the walls in gold and red, and incense burning all around. It was really quiet there, and I spent a few minutes just people watching from the side of the room and appreciating where I was.

Going To The Movies

After another motorbike taxi across town to get back to the hostel area, I went to the Art Museum and wandered around for about an hour near the building trying to find the entrance before realizing that it was closed… for absolutely no reason… so I walked back to the hostel slightly disappointed. I got changed quickly and headed back out with Maddie to the movie theatre. We had walked past it the day before with Raluca, and decided that the 3 of us would come back tonight to see “How To Be Single”, the only movie playing in English with Vietnamese subtitles.

The theatre was as big and fancy as any of the ones you’d find back home. We got some snacks, grabbed our seats and enjoyed a couple hours of down time. The movie was really funny and also really cute actually, but my favourite thing about the experience was just having a couple of hours doing something so simple and casual that I would have done back home. It felt good to sit back and just laugh at a movie the same way I would in my living room, but across the world. The movie cost us 75,000VND/$4.50 each, and Raluca met us halfway through (her tour went late), and we actually saw Jess there when we got in, so the 4 of us relaxed and enjoyed the film, and chatted for a bit afterwards before saying our goodbyes and heading off.

New Friends & Scary Stories

Maddie and I went back to our room, packed up our things so we’d be ready to leave in the morning to Cambodia, and chatted with a new friend Nick from England, who was in our room and catching a flight the next morning to head home. We swapped stories, and he told us about how a couple of nights before, he had a gun pulled on him on the same street we were walking on for the pub crawl. A Vietnamese guy had yelled at him from the side, and when he waved his arm out saying “no, no” to whatever he thought he was selling, the guy pulled nick in my the arm and shoved a gun into his ribs. Nick said he could tell that he was much bigger and stronger than the guy, and quickly managed to grab the gun, in the guy’s hand still, and point it at the ground between them, having control over the position.

He said that they had a moment, looking at each other as if to say “okay… let’s just not…” and he let go of the gun, and walked away. It was terrifying to hear of something that scary happening so close to where we were, and we were a little relieved to be leaving the next morning, feeling a bit uneasy about the city now. We continued chatting with Nick until late that night and I honestly wished he was staying longer with us because he was a lot of fun and always seemed to have an awesome story in his back pocket. We said our goodbyes, went to bed, and in the morning he was gone back to England.

Leaving For Phnom Penh, Cambodia

That same morning, Maddie and I were up and ready for 8am to catch our bus that would take us to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We booked the bus through the hostel for 275,000VND ($16.50), and it would take us the whole way across the border (some buses only take you TO the border, and then you switch to another), and they’d help us fill out our forms etc. so that we would move quickly. At 10:30, we reached the border, exited Vietnam, entered Cambodia at Moc Bai (and paid $30USD plus a $5 fee through the bus, taking us a total of about 30mins to get through), and then stopped for lunch about 10 minutes later before continuing on the road. The whole trip was about 6.5hrs, and we arrived in Phnom Penh at 2:30pm.

Welcome to Phnom Penh!

Incase you were curious about the weather here right now, it’s HOT… 35-40 Celsius and basically instant sweat the second you leave a bus or building… welcome to Cambodia. Throw on about 30lbs or so of backpacks, and you’ve got yourself a solid workout. As we grabbed our belongings from the bus, we were approached by tuk tuk drivers from every direction, eager to take advantage of travellers new to Cambodia who didn’t know yet how much a tuk tuk costs. What THEY didn’t know though was that Maddie and I had a map, and knew exactly where we were headed… it was about 1.5km away, but we were prepared to walk after getting told it’d be 40,000KHR ($13) to take us.

After laughing in their face and walking away joking that we’d give them 2 dollars… another tuk tuk driver chased us down and said “ok ok 12,000KHR.” Sold. It seems to be a common theme here, overpriced tuk tuks that you have to really be aggressive when haggling with. Even 12,000KHR was a bit much for the distance, but we were ok with it since it was so damn hot.

Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel & Meeting Back Up With Andrew & Nils!

We arrived at Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel, which cost $25.10USD/4 nights ($8.22CAD/night), and had a pool and a pretty good location. We settled in and relaxed for a few hours as we waited for Andrew and Nils to arrive, who were coming from Siem Reap (they’re the guys who we travelled with for a few weeks in Thailand/Laos, and who were with me during my food poisoning fiasco. When we realized we’d be in Cambodia at the same time as us we made sure to plan some time together).

When the boys arrived, we were ecstatic. It felt like it had been forever (it had been about a month), and when you make friends on the road there’s always that chance that you very well may not ever see them again… which only makes you appreciate it more when you do. We met up with another friend of theirs, Callum from England, and his friend Marie, and the 6 of us went out for dinner to a place in the city where the chef encourages you to try different things on the menu and has a “no questions asked return policy”… if you don’t like it, send it back and order something else at no extra cost. The meal sent back will get packed up and fed to the homeless.

I ordered squid and pepper, and Maddie ordered some mango fish soup. It wasn’t SUPER adventurous, but it was all new to us, and we were not disappointed with our choices. After dinner, we all headed back to our hostel and had some beers, played some games and shared some laughs. I am so happy that the group of us is back together again, and it felt like meeting up with friends we had known our whole lives. I can’t wait for the next few days here in Phnom Penh and to get our first real taste of this hot and beautiful country.

Da Lat: Crazy House, Canyoning & Slices of Home

Days 51-53 in Southeast Asia (March 16-18, 2016)

On The Road To Da Lat

On the second portion of my sleeper bus to Da Lat (a hot, but otherwise fairly nice city bus), we stopped at around 10am for food and washrooms at one of the nicest rest stops I’ve seen in my life where I enjoyed a delicious chicken banh my sandwich (I’m hooked…), and chatted with a few other travellers who I recognized from a hostel we had stayed at previously. The bus arrived in Da Lat at 12pm, 2 hours ahead of schedule (which I was definitely not complaining about). I quickly grabbed my bags, checked out a map at the bus stop to see if I could find the street where my hostel was located, shoved a snickers bar in my face because they’re cheap and I was somehow starving (as I always seem to be when I get off buses), and set off in what I only hoped was the right direction.

Finding Maddie & The Hostel

Sure enough, about 15 minutes later in the blazing heat, with my shoulder purse, 65L backpack, small carry-on bag, and extra drawstring bag with some of my stuff for the bus, I was finally on the right street. Da Lat is located in a very hilly area of the country and the roads are steep and windy throughout town. By the time I reached our hostel’s street I was leaving a trail of dripping sweat behind me, and still wasn’t even sure I was in the right place until Maddie walked out of the hostel down the road and, like a mirage in the desert, appeared ahead of me, welcoming me to Wolf Pack (our new hostel, which she had arrived at from the same journey the night before).

She smiled big as she told me that our place was REALLY nice, with awesome free breakfast, great wifi and gorgeous clean beds and dorm rooms (even better, it cost us each only 136,000VND/$8CAD per night). She wasn’t lying when she said it was nice, and I can’t even tell you how great that shower felt once I finally got settled in.

The Crazy House

Later in the afternoon when it had started to cool down a bit outside, Maddie and I decided to check out the Crazy House in Da Lat, a museum/attraction that I had heard was well worth a visit. We got lost on the way there (because the streets are so winding and it seems like nobody’s gps for their offline maps works very well here and it was really delayed picking up signals). It took us about an hour to walk the 2km from our hostel to the Crazy House, but in the meantime we got a great feel for the city and some exercise, which I hadn’t particularly wanted after the long night of travel but that my legs definitely needed after being cooped up in a tiny little bus seat for so long.

Hang Nga Guesthouse, or “Crazy House” as it is most commonly known, cost 40,000VND/$2.50 to get in, and upon entry we were greeted by a few local guides who worked there. They explained to us a brief history of the house, which was built by Dang Viet Nga, a female architect who completed the project in 1990. Today, she is 75 years old and still lives inside the house (in a portion inaccessible to tourists) with her family. The house is regarded as one of the world’s most bizarre buildings, and looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book combined with a Salvador Dali Painting and a scene from the woods in Alice in Wonderland.

It is hard to explain, even with photos, just how bizarre the house/entire property is, but basically it is a completely abstract design with very little geometric shapes, that is meant to resemble natural forms more than manmade forms, primarily those of giant trees and winding vines around rocks and cave-like tunnels and entranceways. The small, petal-like staircases and ladders wind all throughout the inside of the maze-like house, and even go outside on top of the building, and all around the property. From the top you can see just about the entire city of Da Lat, which was both beautiful and unexpected, as you’re not really aware of how high up you are until you get on the top and can see for miles in every direction.

The house/museum also functions as a hotel if you’re interested, from $20-$80USD/night I believe, and the rooms looked like little cozy caves but beautifully decorated with wood carvings and interior design to match the crazy architecture outside.

After spending sunset at the Crazy House enjoying the view and the weather, Maddie and I went out for a nice sit down dinner (which after over an hour of running around the house and a 1hr walk back to the area near the hostel, tasted like my first meal in years). We spent the evening planning out our next few days as well as a few other upcoming trips we’d have to make, and went to bed.

Elephant Falls By Motorbike

The following morning we slept in a bit and missed our chance to book a day tour we’d been thinking about doing by motorbike through the farmland around Da Lat, and by the coffee fields and greenhouses that go on for miles. We decided that we still wanted to see the fields, and though it wouldn’t be a guided tour, we would still love to go for a motorbike ride. We rented a bike through the hostel for the day for 110,000VND plus 45,000VND for gas, for a total of 77,500VND/$4.50CAD each (Maddie and I shared a bike). We figured it’d be better if we had a particular destination in mind, so we decided to check out the Elephant Waterfall, about 30km outside of Da Lat, with the whole drive passing through farmland and hills.

We got lost (again, our gps wasn’t tracking us very well, and we misread a couple of signs), so we somehow ended up going in the completely wrong direction, but the drive was so beautiful and the weather was so nice for motorbiking I wasn’t even that upset (but I was driving, so naturally I still blame Maddie’s lack of navigational skills entirely for us getting lost). 2 hours later, we reached the waterfall where we paid 20,000VND entry ($1.50) and sat for a quick bite before heading down to the falls. As we sat chatting, I saw out the corner of my eye a girl coming towards us as she started to yell “OH my gosh is that…KRISTA?!” Sure enough, A few screams and “Holy S$!%!”s later, I had found Steph and her boyfriend Sean from back home.

I met Steph about 2 months ago after joining a new yoga studio which she works at back home in Aurora, Ontario. She overheard me asking the studio to hold my membership since I would be travelling for a few months, and quickly jumped in the conversation asking where and when I was going. Not only was she travelling to almost the exact same places for nearly the same amount of time, with her boyfriend Sean, but they were leaving the DAY BEFORE Maddie and I. Their route was a bit different, and they were planning on heading home a few weeks sooner than us, so after seeing them post updates on facebook over the past month and a half I had accepted the unlikelihood of our paths crossing. What I hadn’t thought about though was that they were heading South in Vietnam, and spending less time there than Maddie and I, so even though I had seen posts of them farther North not too long before, they would have to catch up with us eventually in order to make it to Cambodia before heading home before us.

Sure enough, in the mini restaurant outside of a quiet waterfall in Da Lat, there they were. We all explored the waterfall together and took some photos before motorbiking back into Da Lat together, watching the sun set over the hills as we drove back through the gorgeous countryside. I honestly have never loved driving so much as I do in Asia… the views are spectacular the whole way, and I mean it when I say that some of my best memories so far have just been motorbiking through various landscapes, wind in my face and sun in my eyes feeling free as a bird.

Xuan Huong Lake

Once we got back to Da Lat, the 4 of us biked around Xuan Huong Lake in the centre of the city, and stopped at an island bar/cafe that was out on the lake for a drink, and then made our way to a restaurant nearby for some dinner. Maddie felt like heading back after dinner, but we still had a few hours left in the day with the motorbike and I wasn’t ready to stop yet. Sean and Steph agreed, and after dropping Maddie off at our hostel, we biked around the city for about an hour longer in the cold and dark, watching the lights and speeding through the quiet streets by the lake since there were hardly any other cars or bikes around. We stopped at a giant bakery on our way back, shared a monstrous slice of fudge brownie cake, and finally went back to our hostels.

Steph and Sean would leave the following morning, so they wanted to take a quick photo of the 3 of us first, but I told them that we’d take one when we meet up again, which I am positive we will in Cambodia on Koh Rong Island, where we have all planned on being at around the same time. This way we HAD to meet up there, for our photo if nothing else, which I promised we’d make happen one way or another. It was a promise I very much plan on keeping.

I said goodbye and hugged them both, so happy that fate had brought us together for the day, and feeling like I had gotten a little slice of home out here, even just for a day, which felt really good. I honestly miss them already and can’t wait until we meet again.

Canyoning/ Waterfall Repelling at Datanla Waterfalls

The next morning, Maddie and I were up bright and early for Canyoning, which we had arranged the day before through our hostel (but the actual company we went with was called Highland Sport Travel who I’d highly recommend, they were great). We had heard it was one of the top activities to do in Da Lat, and while we were somewhat terrified of the idea of repelling down waterfalls in harnesses, sliding down rapids, and cliff jumping, we decided that we wanted to go for it anyways. The full day activity including lunch and transportation cost us 905,000VND/$55.78CAD each, and would go from 9:45am when the minibus picked us up to take us to Datanla Waterfalls, to around 4:30pm when we’d be back at the hostel.

Once the minibus had picked up all 13 of the people in our group, we were introduced to our tour guides for the day, Ba (who said to yell BABABA if we needed anything), and Can, who said to remember his name Can, like a beer can, because he loves beer! The two Vietnamese guides spoke amazing English and briefed us on the plan for the day, telling us that if we felt scared about any part of the day, “No worry chicken curry!” We would be in good hands, and they would help us through knowing what to do. Maddie and I were feeling a bit nervous, me mostly just because I didn’t want to hurt my knee (it’s been a bit sore lately with all our running around), and also because we had read that a few weeks or so ago a few tourists had actually died at these falls, though it sounded in the story like they were refusing to wear some of the safety gear (lifejackets) and swam to areas with strong currents and whirlpools and got pulled under. Still, hearing that tourists died somewhere that you’re going is never particularly comforting.

When we arrived, we changed into drysuits (over our bathing suits), harnesses, lifejackets, gloves and helmets, and watched Ba as he showed us what to do once we got up there. After a demonstration on a steep hill tied to a tree, we each got to practice the idea of repelling and how to hold the ropes etc. without actually being hanging off a cliff, which was nice.

After we had all practiced, we walked through the forest (which looked like it could have been in Canada oddly enough), and went to the first of three waterfalls. The first was 18m, a dry cliff beside a waterfall, where we repelled ourselves down into the water. I decided to be a bit ballsy though, and when I pushed off of the wall, I gave myself too much slack and when I fell back towards the wall I landed almost completely upside-down and had to pull myself back up. It was still very safe though, even when I messed up, and I never felt scared in any way for my safety, just nervous and excited. While we went through the falls, Ba and Can took photos of us on a GoPro and a DSLR camera, to be uploaded later that day. Every time they were about to take one, they’d stop and say “Hey look look! Phooooooooooooooooo…. Tooo” in a long drawn out voice (and as they said the “to” of “photo” the camera would click). It was a great way to get smiles out of people who were otherwise looking like they might crap themselves.

The second waterfall was 16m, also dry but with a very steep drop, much more so than the  first. Ba told me to try to do big long jumps down, and as I watched everyone else take tons of little jumps, and walk themselves down, I decided that I would try to make him proud and do it well. I was feeling brave. When I got to the bottom in 3 near-perfect jumps I felt like I was walking off of a movie stunt set as I joined the others at the bottom and Maddie told me I was SO good… I felt like a bit of a rockstar, but I also knew that what we were doing wasn’t actually that hard, and I’m just a total adrenaline junkie who can’t help but want to do something bigger/faster/more extreme most of the time… Go big or go huge, right?

After our second cliff, we headed to some rapids over rocks where we were released into the rapids HEAD FIRST down the rocks and into the pool below which swallowed us up at top speed and spit us out seconds later at the bottom (our lifejackets certainly helped the coming up part). It looked painful but honestly the only non-awesome part was getting water up your nose, which happened to most of us, naturally. We went down two slides, falling backwards into the second one, again head first, and it was a blast.

We then headed over to a cliff (which at 7m wasn’t actually as high as I was expecting) to jump down. Maddie was planning on walking down (she’s really not into high jumping and stuff like this), but I told her she had to jump and talked her into it. I asked if we could go at the same time after we watched everyone else go (and survive), and Ba said yes. I told her we’d count down from 5 and then just to go and not think about it… 5 seconds later, ONE of us was in the water… Maddie stopped at the last second and didn’t go. As I fell into the water I was actually pretty mad because there’s nothing worse than thinking you’re in something together and then someone bailing on you.

After plunging underwater, I came flying up, both middle fingers in the air yelling, “OH HELL NO GET IN THE WATER RIGHT NOW!” Maddie looked terrified but I think she realized that I would kill her far more violently than the water would if she didn’t jump, and off she went. I gave her a lot of crap for abandoning me, but was still proud that she did it even though it scared her.

After cliff jumping, we were served an amazing lunch of sandwiches and fresh fruit, with banana cake and coconut cake for desert. I’ve never had so much amazing fruit in my life, mangoes like butter and watermelon so perfectly ripe that you can’t tell if it’s the juice or drool dripping down your face when you bite into it. Once we were fuelled up, we went down our final waterfall (after a bit of a hike through the jungle). The last cliff was only 13m, but was called the “washing machine” since halfway down the cliff, the edge drops off and you have to basically hang and repel down into a waterfall which soaks you and spins you before you finally let go and jump into the rapids below. It sounded fun, but once we were going down, the ropes lowered us so slowly that it almost felt like we were being drowned while hanging in the air as the falls poured down on us.

Maddie and I both had the same issue with the rope not letting us go fast enough and being unable to just drop into the water. It was still fun, but for a few seconds it really was a scary feeling being swallowed into a waterfall and hanging there resisting the water instead of moving with it. Once we hit the water though we were shot out of the falls and over to the guide at the bottom pretty quickly where we all sat and watched as everyone else went. After surviving our third and final cliff, we hiked through the forest and jungle for about 30-45 minutes I’d say, and worked up quite a sweat before finally arriving at the minivan, which picked us up with our clothes and belongings inside, and brought us back to the hostel.

Da Lat Night Market

After a much needed shower and well earned dinner, Maddie and I walked around the night market in Da Lat for a little bit, as it was our last night in the beautiful city, and bought some snacks and fruit for our bus ride at 7am the next morning to take us to our final stop in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is traditionally known).

I actually wished that we had just one more day in Da Lat, as I would’ve loved to have checked out the cable car, and maybe have seen a couple of the other sights nearby, but I was also very excited to see Ho Chi Minh City, and Cambodia after that! Exhausted and excited for the next destination, I slept like a rock that night, proud of myself for trying something new today, even though it scared me a little, and even though it was pretty tough on me physically. At the end of the day it’s just one more thing I can say I’ve done, so cheers to that!

Hoi An: My Son Ruins, Lantern Town & Shopping

Days 46-50 in Southeast Asia (March 11-15, 2016)

Phong Nha to Hoi An

Friday morning at 4:30am, we were up and ready (okay, ready is a strong word…conscious) for our trip from Phong Nha to Hoi An. The open bus ticket stops first at Hue, where a lot of people get off (most of them stay in Hue). The bus arrived in Hue at around 8am taking a total of 3.5 hours, at which point we were dropped off at a restaurant (which seems to be the norm for “bus stops” here) and piled our bags in a corner where they were to stay until the next bus came to pick us up 5 hours later at 1pm to take us to Hoi An. In the meantime, I decided to walk around Hue a bit despite the rainy weather to stretch my legs.

The city actually looked like it would be worth a visit and I can see why a lot of tourists go here, but Maddie and I decided that we’d rather spend more time in fewer cities than add a couple of stops we were interested in (like Hue) and only end up having 1 or 2 nights in half of the other cities because of it, which felt far too rushed especially when you consider how far apart everything is in Vietnam and realize how painful it would be to spend 1-2 nights in a city before getting on another 6-12 hour bus over and over again.

We were really tired for the 5 hours we were stopped in Hue, so other than a brief walk around the area we stayed pretty much in the restaurant, had some food and drinks, and took advantage of the down time for writing e-mails/blogging/chatting with people at home. By the time our bus picked us up at 1 to take us to Hoi An we were excited and ready to get moving, one step closer to being back in a real bed where we could get a good night’s sleep. The bus to Hoi An was a quick 4 hours, and we arrived at 5pm. A quick 20,000VND ($1) taxi ride got us to the Sunflower Hotel where we had booked a private room for the next two nights since the dorm rooms were all fully booked. It cost us 243,000VND each per night, just under $15, which is more than we usually spend but it included breakfast and honestly I was really happy to have a nice comfortable bed and our own washroom and shower after the long trip there.

First Night In Hoi An

Once we got in our room, I mustered up the energy to do some laundry (backpacker style, with a laundry bar in the sink followed by hanging every little thing all over the room to dry), and had a much needed shower afterwards.
After settling in, Maddie and I decided to go out for dinner and go for a walk around the beautiful small city of Hoi An. As we walked down the main road, we smiled and said hi to a couple of passers by, and then another two, who said “hello” in very distinct voices that sounded familiar to me… I whipped my head around and yelled “Hey! It’’s YOU guys!” to the two Czech gentlemen, Roman and Honza, who we had shared a cab ride with when we first arrived in Ninh Binh a few nights before.

We chatted with them for a few minutes and although the conversation included a fair bit of phone translations (mind you, Roman’s English was actually incredible all things considered), the two of them invited us to join them the next morning to visit My Son (Ancient Temple Ruins) by motorbike. They said that the trip was 65km each way (about an hour and a half by bike, and actually was only 45km each way we found out later), which was a bit intimidating, but we were feeling confident enough in our motorbike practice thus far and felt up to the challenge, so we said yes.

We walked for a little bit into town, but were feeling pretty tired and also very excited for the following morning, so we went back to the room and got some sleep.

My Son Ruins By Motorbike!

The next morning we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at Sunflower Hotel, which in itself is reason enough to stay there… The buffet includes an omelet bar, pastas, vegetables, fruit platters, pancakes, toast, cereal and even PEANUT BIUTTER… It was heavenly. We rented our motorbike for the day (which cost us 100,000VND plus 45,000VND for gas, amounting to a total of about 60,000VND each for the day trip ($4 CAD)…well worth it.

I drove us there, and Maddie drove us most of the way back. The roads were definitely a bit bumpy and broken in some areas, but Honza and Roman were always looking back to make sure we were okay, and slowed down or pulled over if we got stuck behind other cars or anything which was really nice of them.

My Son cost us 150,000VND each for entry ($9), which was a bit pricey but definitely well worth a visit. The site is composed of a few large areas separated by walking trails and roads, with temple ruins in each area that were built between 400AD-1400AD. The Hindu temples were built by the kings of Champa, and at one time the complex encompassed over 70 temples. Unfortunately, most of the architecture was destroyed in a single week during the war by US carpet bombs.

The entire area is now a protected UNESCO world heritage site, and several temples have actually been reconstructed to appear as they did before they were destroyed which was pretty cool to see. The original buildings were made using red/orange bricks, without the use of mortar at all, so the walls are incredibly thick with bricks stacked in a way that allowed for ideal weight distribution and stability without even needing the mortar.

In several areas of the ruins we saw huge amounts of spiders as well in funnel-like webs. It was actually an unfathomable amount of spiders and webs, and since we weren’t entirey sure that the spiders weren’t poisonous, we just took our pictures and stayed a few feet back.


My Son Ruins is actually a very large site in comparison to a lot of other sites in Southeast Asia, yet it is incredibly quiet, which was really nice. We walked around for hours just talking and getting to know the guys as we helped Roman out with a bit of his ongoing English lessons. They asked us all about our lives, and told us that we’d have a place to stay if we ever visited Czech Republic, which I just may take them up on someday.

Hoi An Lantern Town At Night

After a beautiful motorbike ride home, Maddie and I went for a walk by the riverside downtown and saw all the lanterns by the water for the first time. It was absolutely beautiful and felt like we were walking through a city at Christmas when all the lights are up, but even better because of the beautiful river with a bridge lit up over top, and boats moving underneath beside little paper candles that you can buy and release in the water. We walked for a little bit and I grabbed some food and went back to the room where I took advantage of the awesome wifi and had a nice phone call home with my Alex before heading to bed.

Tailor-Made In Hoi An

In the morning, Maddie and I packed up our things and moved to a dorm room that was now available downstairs. It cost us each 175,000VND ($10.50) for a bed in an 8 person dorm and luckily it also included the free breakfast (which would easily cost over $10 on its own back home because it included SO MUCH good food).

We had decided that today we were going to walk around town and get some dresses tailor made, which is probably the number one thing to do in Hoi An. The city is known for its incredible shopping, and for many tourists (myself included) it is a great place to pick up souvenirs that are both high quality and extremely well priced. It is known for its quality tailoring for suits, dresses and jackets (and really just about anything else), as well as leather bags and shoes (which come custom made as well if you want). Maddie and I headed off in separate directions and said we’d meet up in a few hours after finding our own tailoring places and figuring out what we wanted.

It was a really neat experience, and honestly I think a big part of it is picking out a spot to have it done. At first, you instinctively want to just ask someone where a “good place” is, or where they got theirs, but then you realize that everyone has things from different places, and that they’re honestly ALL good. The only thing for me was that I wanted to go to a place where I liked the person who owned it. A lot of the ladies running the shops here will stand on the street and yell at you (which is typical for everything in Vietnam) asking if you want to buy something. If you stand somewhere and look at a few dresses on display, you’re suddenly being asked a thousand questions from someone a half a foot away who is yelling really loud most of the time, and it actually just made me want to run as far away as possible.

Then there are the places where the ladies running the shops are less pushy and slightly less forward, which I much prefer. As I walked into Huong Xuan, a lady named Hang approached me and asked if I knew what I was looking for. I said I needed a dress but really didn’t know exactly what I wanted. She turned on the fan, pulled out a chair and said “How about you look through the catalogue and see if you like something, I can make anything you want”… her voice was calm, and almost as inviting as the fan (it was really hot out). She then brought me a box of tissues when she saw I was sniffling (Ive come down with a pretty bad cold here at the moment) which was very sweet.

As I flipped through the catalogue I saw a dress style that looked just like a dress that I used to own, except mine was a $10 clearance item that I wore once before the zipper broke and was really sad because I actually loved it. I pointed to the dress, short with a pleated flowy bottom and thick-ish shoulder straps into a deep V in both the front and back. I chose a colour (ultramarine blue, like the one I broke), and she measured me in what felt like seconds. She asked me questions about where I wanted the dress to sit on my body and I vaguely answered, having faith that she knew what she was doing, and knowing that the worst case scenario was that I came out of the experience with a really ugly dress, which wouldn’t be so horrible. She told me to come back the next morning to try it on (and get any adjustments necessary), and I left feeling nervous and excited and amazed all at once.

The Espresso Place

Maddie and I walked down the street and through a little alley after placing our dress orders, into a little coffee shop called “The Espresso Place”, where Alex had suggested I go to meet the owner, Trung Phan, who Alex had met on his trip to Asia over a year ago. He said that Trung or “King” worked at the hostel and was so nice and friendly to Alex and they became friends. Trung had apparently told Alex that his only dream was to one day own his own coffee shop, and now Trung has made that dream a reality, proudly running a beautiful little shop with all kinds of coffees and teas.

I introduced myself to Trung, and told him how I knew about the place, showing him the picture Alex had sent me of him and Trung over a year ago. He laughed and smiled and said that it was so nice that we came to visit. He brought us out a free banana chocolate chip muffin, and we each ordered an iced chocolate (which was incredible). I made sure to thank him, and we took a photo together outside of his shop in the same position as the photo he had taken with Alex so long ago. It was a really fun experience, and definitely a cool story that Alex and I get to share even though we went on this trip a year apart, which is pretty cute.

Exploring The City

After our afternoon treat, Maddie and I walked all over town to the Japanese Bridge, and the river and island on the other side. We picked up several other souvenirs along the way including ridiculously large “Diva Hats”, straw hats with big floppy rims and giant black bows on the side, strictly for novelty purposes. On the walk back, we actually passed by the shop that I had ordered my dress at and the lady yelled for me to come in. In the 5 hours that we had been walking around she had already had the dress completely finished, and it fit me like a glove. The whole thing cost me 600,000VND ($36CAD), which ain’t bad at all for a custom dress for more formal occasions. I was thrilled walking out of that shop and made sure to thank Hanh and give her a hug.

In the evening, Maddie and I once again decided to walk around the incredibly beautiful Hoi An city at night. I don’t think I could ever get sick of this view…

Last Day Together In Hoi An & A Couple of Days Solo

Monday was Maddie’s final day in Hoi An, as she was heading to Da Lat a day sooner than myself. The trip to Da Lat is in total about 18 hours, so since she was leaving tonght, it meant that I’d be seeing her in two nights. She wasn’t really wanting another night in Hoi An (while I definitely did), and also was looking to get some practice with solo travel days for when I eventually leave her in May, and she goes onto Australia (most likely) on her own.

I think it’s probably for the best, since I’ve already done solo travelling a bit, and am also very organized and usually play the “mom” role while Maddie and I are together, checking that we haven’t forgotten anything, making sure we have our tickets, taking out money from the ATM that I know has the lower fees, stocking up on snacks, toilet paper and water before bus rides, grabbing a map from a hotel or tourist office… all small things but definitely things that are important to get used to doing while travelling, especially alone. Hopefully the two days gives her a bit more confidence in her solo travelling abilities, though I don’t doubt that she’ll be completely fine on her own. If not, well, she has until May to get it together.

Her shuttle from the hotel to the bus station wasn’t set to leave until 5pm, which meant that we had basically the whole day to walk around and see more of the city by foot… and shop. I’m almost wishing I was going with her tonight only out of fear that if I stay I’ll spend all my money here… mind you it would hardly be considered a waste… everything here is beautiful and well made.

Before we left the hotel for the day, I went to the front desk to extend my stay for one night in the dorm room only to find out that they were fully booked for tonight other than private rooms… I went back to the room and browsed online for other hostels but had little luck since it was so last minute, and the only promising place I saw had a very recent review claiming that there were bedbugs, which I can now say with certainty that I had before, and do not plan on having again… I was feeling so sick from my cold still and the last thing I wanted to do was pack up all my things and walk across town, so I bitterly went back to the front desk to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a private room for the night.

As I checked again with the receptionist that the dorm was fully booked, I overheard a young German girl beside me saying, “Fully booked?….only private available? How much is that?”… it appeared as though we had both overheard one another at the same time, and looked at each other for a second before both saying “Do you want to share a room with me!?”… Thank goodness. Natalie and I moved our stuff upstairs, grateful to be splitting the cost rather than paying for a private suite alone. In total it cost us each 270,000VND ($16) for the night which I was not about to complain about for a second.

Once my sleeping arrangements were sorted out, Maddie and I went out to town where she picked up her beautiful new tailored day dress, and we did a bit more shopping. I bought myself a beautiful little purse made of buffalo leather (which is basically all the leather here, more durable and water resistant than cow), and some other small souvenirs for myself and my family. We sat at a rooftop restaurant and had some tea, relaxed, and just enjoyed the quiet peaceful area during the day (which only becomes super hectic in the evening market). Maddie even got a new pair of sandals custom made and delivered right to the hotel for an amazing price (though they were a bit late in the evening so they actually were delivered to me, since she left already).

After Maddie left, I decided that I wanted to get another dress made that would be more of an everyday type dress and not just for fancy occasions, and for the prices here I figured I might as well, plus it was such a fun experience the first time that I really looked forward to doing it again. I once again found a quiet place with a lady who offered me a seat and some water while I looked at the different fabrics in her shop. I ended up ordering a short dark navy blue dress with small white birds on it, in a simple but classic flowy cut with a fitted top and relatively narrow straps. After placing my order, I went for a walk around town in the evening by myself, and eventually made my way back to the hostel where I had a nice quiet night in by myself (Natalie was travelling with some other friends and got back later).

Last Minute Shopping

On my final day in Hoi An, I packed up my things and checked out of the Sunflower, leaving my bags in the front of the hotel until my shuttle to the Bus station would leave at around 5pm. I went out for one last walk in the beautiful small city which I have grown to adore entirely. The night before I had tripped and broken my sandals, so I decided that if I found some that could be made for me for a reasonable price today I’d get a new pair here. I casually walked around for a few hours, mailed a few postcards and window shopped mostly, having spent far too much money on souvenirs already.

I did, however, find a really nice shoe shop with a style of sandals that I liked, and since I was her first customer of the day, the lady running the shop agreed to make the shoes for me for a great price. Plus, she said she liked me and that I was beautiful, which she probably says to everyone but I’m a sucker for a nice compliment. I ordered a custom made pair of red/brown buffalo leather sandals with a stretchy back (instead of a buckle) for 300,000VND/$18CAD, and she told me I could come back in an hour and a half to pick them up since I said I didn’t have much time. At around noon, I went to pick up my dress, which ended up needing a bit of tailoring still to make the top fit right, but when I picked it up a bit later it fit perfectly and I was thrilled. The fully tailored dress cost a total of 400,000VND ($24CAD).

Sending Home A Package

Once I had picked up the dress, I went back to the hotel to try to figure out the process of sending a package home with everything I bought, which I had already decided ahead of time that I was going to do in Hoi An, my ONE place I allowed myself to get souvenirs other than $2 T-shirts. I had checked ahead, and the hotel actually offers a service where they call the post office to come to you at the hotel and do everything there for the same price, (and I checked earlier, it actually WAS the same price) so I was thrilled that I didn’t have to lug my bags across town in the heat.

5 minutes later, a perky little lady from post office arrived on motorbike, scale and packaging in hand, to help me sort out my shipment. After packing up everything into a big box, she placed it on the scale. They charge by the kg here, so it was going to cost me 672,000VND ($40CAD) to ship by seamail (which takes 3 months), or about double that for airmail (which takes 3-4 weeks) plus insurance and custom fees (which are both mandatory at 210,000VND and 150,000VND flat rates either way, regardless of weight)… if you don’t know this about me by now I am not one to throw money around, (unless I’m drunk and just got paid… then sometimes I get generous) so it should come as no surprise that I opted for the seamail option at half the price, knowing that by the time I got home I’d only be waiting another month or so which isn’t too bad really.

In total, it cost me 1,032,000VND or $55CAD to ship home the 4.5kg of stuff including customs and insurance, and it was well worth it to know that my gifts and souvenirs wouldn’t get wrecked in my bag, and that I wouldn’t have to carry them around for the next almost 2 months of travel in my bag which already felt like it was bursting at the seams.

Incase you’re wondering what I bought and sent home, here’s what was in the package: A set of chopsticks (in a wooden box with the little resting plates) for 300,000VND ($18), Two silk lanterns (because I just had to have some they were so pretty) for 60,000VND and 100,000VND ($4 and $6), a couple of scarves which cost me each around 100,000VND ($6), my two dresses at 600,000VND and  427,000VND ($36 and $27), my purse (650,000VND/$39), some silk ties, each between 75,000VND and 125,000VND ($4.50 and $7.50), and a couple of pieces of jewelery for 400,000VND and 350,000VND ($24 and $21).

I kept my hat that I bought, and would be keeping my new sandals with me as well to wear, but I sent back a bag with a couple of shirts and warm clothes that I had bought for Sa Pa, as well as a few other items that I hadn’t used and figured I wouldn’t need for the rest of the trip, just to lighten my bag. While it sounds and certainly felt like I went crazy shopping… I actually only spent a grand total of $248CAD, plus $55 to ship stuff home, which really isn’t so bad considering how much any one of these items would have cost me to get back home.

I was also proud knowing that I had gotten good deals on just about everything I bought and had become quite good at haggling by the end, usually knocking off anywhere from a third to half of the price before agreeing to pay. Looking at each of the items and given my experience shopping in Canada, I’m guessing that if I were to find the same stuff back home it’d probably cost around $500-$600CAD, if not more, so I can’t complain.

Free Rides

After I paid the lady for the package, I asked her if she was heading back to the post office (which was in the same direction as the shoes that I needed to pick up, and I was cutting it close for time). She said yes, and I asked her if she’d mind giving me a ride. She said she would drop off the package at the post office and come back for me… crap. I was thinking that it’d be a free ride just on her way back, but now I was guessing that I had basically just ordered a motorbike taxi into town. She was so nice though, and I figured it’d be fun anyways so I just said okay and waited for her to come back. She drove me right to the street with the shoe shop, and as I got off and reached for my bag she said “okay have a good day!” And waved goodbye… she really was giving me a ride for free. I smiled and waved back and yelled “Cam On!” meaning, “Thank you!” as she drove away.

When I got to the shoe place, the lady apologized and said that my sandals weren’t ready yet. She made a quick call and said she’d be back in 10 minutes, so I went to the cafe next door. As I walked in, I heard her yelling at me from the street, “Do you want to come with me?” I looked at her pedal bicycle… it had a small cushion seat (like a motorbike) that rested just above the back wheel, I’m guessing typically used for bags, not people… but I was by myself and feeling adventurous, so I figured why the heck not… she wasn’t going far, and even if I fell off we would be moving pretty slowly on a petal bike and the worst I’d get would likely be some scrapes and bruises.

I hopped on, feeling like a clown on a unicycle, and laughed as I asked her if I was too heavy. She peddled along smiling and said “No problem miss! This way is faster for your shoes and you will be closer to your hotel!”… two free bike rides in one day with the sweetest ladies I’d met in Vietnam so far, I was smiling ear to ear for the next hour after. When I tried on the shoes, one of the straps was a bit loose. I looked at the time worried as she said “Oh no! Give me 5 minutes!” She ran to the back and sure enough, in 5 minutes had altered the length of the leather straps… these tailors are literally magicians.

Leaving For Da Lat

Sandals in hand, I thanked her for the deal and the free ride, and walked back to sunflower where I got changed for the bus and bought some snacks. The bus to Da Lat left at 6pm and was scheduled to arrive at 6am the following morning in Nha Trang, where another bus would pick me up at 7:30am, and was set to arrive in Da Lat at 2pm. Like all busses here, the driver was reckless and aggressive and the trip felt far longer than it actually was. I used most of the time to write, as I always do on bus rides, and managed to get a wink or two of sleep in as well, in-between the lurching side to side.

I already miss Hoi An, though I am somewhat relieved that I won’t be able to spend any more money on tailor made goodies, and I’m really looking forward to arriving in Da Lat. Today (March 15) also marks my 50th day in Asia and 52nd day since leaving home, which means I’m at the halfway point! It feels like it’s going by so fast, yet at the same time my daily life back home feels like a distant memory. I am counting down the days until I can see my loved ones again, but I know as I always have that the ones who matter most will be there for me when I get back. Mostly I’m excited now to see what’s to come on the second half of this trip for me! Whatever it is, I’m ready.

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Ninh Binh & Phong Nha

Days 43-45 in Southeast Asia (Mar 8-10, 2016)

Solo Mission to Ho Cho Minh’s Mausoleum & Surrounding Sites

On our final morning in Hanoi, after a somewhat late night of keeping Maddie company with her food poisoning, I peeled myself up out of bed before 7am, knowing that it was my last chance to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the surrounding sites before leaving Hanoi. Unfortunately, the mausoleum is only open 8-10:30am, and closed Friday and Monday, so despite my exhaustion and bitterness for leaving it to the last minute, I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go. Maddie was not feeling up to it (understatement of the century), but I gave her some medicine and breakfast and made sure she’d be okay until I got back, and headed out on my own.

By the time I had gotten all my luggage packed and checked into the hostel storage for the day (our bus to Ninh Binh left at 6pm and they store everything for free upstairs at the hostel), it was already after 8am, so I decided to take a taxi to the mausoleum. 15 minutes or so later I had reached the Mausoleum, but as I looked out from the car, it seemed like we were driving around it in circles past the site so I kept saying “okay okay” to tell the driver to stop, but he kept shaking his head and saying “no no one minute”… I figured I was being taken advantage of as a tourist since the taxi was on the meter, and accepted my fate of once again overpaying for something and wasn’t about to start a fight over another dollar… oh well. It wasn’t until I got out of the taxi and somewhat bitterly paid the 65,000VND (about $3.50) that I realized he actually did take me directly there… and that the entrance for the lineup was just SO far away, it was still a 10-15 minute walk from the entrance to the actual mausoleum. Oops.

There is no entry fee to the mausoleum, though there are strict rules regarding cameras and photography, so I had to check my GoPro into storage at the entrance after passing through security. The marked area for the lineup was HUGE, but luckily since it was a rainy day and I was nice and early, I walked through it along with the rest of the crowd without much stopping and waiting. It was still very impressive to see the capacity for the line though, knowing that since the site is such an attraction for both locals and tourists, it must hold several hundred, possibly thousands of people. This might not sound SO ridiculous, but from the time you enter the mausoleum to the time you exit is well under a minute (you can’t stand around), so it is actually pretty crazy to imagine that number of people constantly walking through it 5 days a week for over 2 hours straight each day that it’s open.

Now, for those of you who aren’t totally sure what I’m talking about, or who the heck Ho Chi Minh is, let me tell ya! The mausoleum was built in 1969, and what you actually see inside (for the under a minute walk) is Ho Chi Minh’s body enbalmed (preserved fully in clothes, lying in a bed/coffin inside a temperature-controlled glass box with insanely high security). Guards FILL the area every few feet to make sure no photos are taken and that there is no suspicious or disrespectful behaviour. The reason for all the high security is that Ho Chi Minh is basically the most important man in the entire history of Vietnam, and his face is now printed on every single Vietnamese Dong bill, here’s why…

Ho Chi Minh grew up in French occupied Vietnam, and dedicated his life to seeing Vietnam free from foreign ocupation. Up until then, it hadn’t been free for 1000s of years (from Mongolia, China, France, Japan, France again…). Ho used communism to gain popularity and power but the threat of the Soviet Union and China after WWII brough problems for Vietnam’s independence. France sought to re-colonize Vietnam after the war, resulting in the French-Indochina war. After Ho and the communist forces defeated the French, the American War began because the US feared all of Asia becoming communist and leading to another world war, East vs. West. Ho inspired the Vietnamese in war to use their familiarity with the land to their advantage to resist America.

Throughout the war, Ho always lived humbly, feeling it unfair to live a lavish life while his people suffered from poverty. He continued to fight for his whole life for Vietnamese independence until his death of old age in 1969. The war continued for 6 years after, and in 1975 Vietnam prevailed largely due to Ho’s dedication during his life. While Ho had requested in his will that he receive a quiet burial with only family and friends present, the Vietnamese disobeyed his final wish. They threw him the largest state funeral in history, and built Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in 1975, where both locals and tourists visit today to pay their respects.  The mausoleum was built where Ho first announced in 1945 that Vietnam would no longer accept foreign occupation. Today, Ho remains the face on all Vietnamese currency, which is pretty impressive, even for a National Hero.

After visiting the mausoleum, I made my way over to the Presidential Palace, The House on Stilts, One Pillar Pagoda, and gardens surrounding the area. These sites are all related to the life of Ho Chi Minh, and definitely worth the 40,000VND (under $3) entrance fee for the beautiful walk alone.

Lastly, I visited the Museum behind the mausoleum dedicated to the history of Vietnam. Normally I’ll have to admit I’m not a huge museum-goer, even many art museums (and I’m an artist)… but this one was actually incredibly well built. It cost an additional 40,000VND(under $3) to enter, but I highly recommend it. The museum has a clearly marked path that leads its visitors through each of the different levels and sections of the museum, which each has a ton of information, but it is presented in a very easily-digested way with beautiful photos, sculptures and displays. It is hard to describe a museum in any way other than saying it has “nice displays”… but take my word for it when I say that it is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Hanoi.

Walking Back to the Hostel Through Hanoi

Although it was still a bit rainy outside, I decided that I would challenge myself to get back to the hostel by foot (which is actually a fairly far walk from the museum to the downtown hostel location), to have a final day of walking around the city I had grown so incredibly fond of. I walked back via Diem Bien Phu Street, passing Lenin Park on the way, by Alex’s recommendation (my boyfriend back home). He is also the one who basically taught me everything I know about the history of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh (Thank you Alex!)…so if any of that information above was wrong I am holding him fully accountable.

The walk was actually pretty nice, though a bit challenging as all I had on me was a phone that had died before I got to the museum, and a small pocket map of the city from the hotel, but I eventually found my way back, and even grabbed a delicious Bahn My sandwich on the way (they’re famous in Hanoi, and absolutely AMAZING) with pickled vegetables, grilled chicken and sauces in a perfect baguette… which sounds simple enough but it is just made to perfection. If you’re ever in Hanoi, make sure you grab one at Bahm My P, just down the street from the downtown Vietnam Backpackers hostel… it looks like a tiny little shop but it is always busy, and for good reason.

Leaving on the Bus For Ninh Binh

When I got back to the hostel, Maddie and I hung out in the lobby for a few hours until our bus arrived to take us to Ninh Binh at 6pm.

The sleeper bus was the same as the ones before. Slightly cramped with a tiny but not terrible bathroom, blankets on the beds, and drivers who speak hardly any english so you’re never sure that you actually got on the right bus until they tear your ticket 10 minutes into the trip sometimes, and then they drive like maniacs to beat the ETA on your ticket. It’s all good fun.

Ninh Binh!

We arrived in Ninh Binh 4 hours later at about 10pm, and hopped in a taxi with a couple of guys from the Czech Republic who didn’t have a place to stay and decided to try for the same hostel as us so that we could all split a cab (that still was crazy overpriced at 100,000VND each ($6), but it was late and we didn’t have much choice). We arrived at Hoalu Backpacker Homestay in Trang An (a small village outside of Ninh Binh) in the middle of the jungle, and paid for our stay (150,000VND for the night, about $9 CAD). We went off to bed, ready to rent bikes in the morning and go to Trang An Grottoes for a boat ride on the river.

After doing a bit of research, I had heard that while the famous Tam Coc river boat ride outside of Ninh Binh was spectacular, it was becoming very busy and touristy, and that the very similar Trang An Grottoes were equally beautiful, if not more so, and significantly quieter. Tam Coc is famous for the yellow fields on either side of the river before the karsts jut out of the ground, while Trang an is more green and lush with karsts and mountains surrounding the river on either side, though at this time of year (and because today was a bit cloudy and misty outside), the yellow fields of Tam Coc are green/brown anyways, and after seeing the photos that someone from our hostel took at Tam Coc, I am fairly confident in our decision to see Trang An over Tam Coc.

Renting Bicycles & Heading to Trang An Grottoes

We rented petal bikes for the day to get there from the hostel for 112,000VND ($6 ish CAD)… which was crazy expensive, but with no competition for miles in the middle of the jungle we didn’t really have much choice. We got a bit lost on the way there, but I honestly can’t imagine a more beautiful landscape to wander through, with fields, rivers, farms and karsts for miles around the little broken road we biked along.

It took us about 30 minutes until we reached the river, where we parked our bikes and purchased our boat ride tickets for 150,000VND ($9). Maddie and myself boarded a small paddle boat along with a couple from Portugal and our guide (who spoke no English, but that’s what happens when you go somewhere you hear is “less touristy”). The cave and karst complex around the river is near the Southern margin of the Red River Delta near Hoa Lu (which use to be the capital of Vietnam… way way back).

The woman guide paddled us through the river for miles, stopping along the way at several temples , some of which required an incredible amount of steps for very little reward in terms of the view from the top (we could mostly just see trees), but it was still a great experience.

We also went through 6 or 7 caves that were each several hundred meters long, and in some areas became quite narrow and low. We laughed and yelped as we all laid down in the paddleboat almost completely flat trying to avoid hitting our heads on the stalactites hanging down from above. It was quite a bit of fun, and definitely not something I had anticipated going into the boat ride. We also saw several guides using their feet to paddle the boats which was very impressive.

The entire ride was about 2 hours or so, and as we disembarked the boat at the end I gave the guide 50,000VND ($3), because I had heard that though the guides work very hard, they see very little of the money paid by tourists upon entry, and what was $3, or maybe enough for lunch for me, likely could have doubled that woman’s earnings for the boat ride.

By the time Maddie and I biked back to the hostel it had begun to rain quite hard, and we had to wait around inside for the rest of the day for the taxi to take us to the sleeper bus we had already booked to take us overnight to Phong Nha that evening at 8:30pm.

We hung around at the hostel for a while and had some dinner (which was also really overpriced, but once again the hostel had little competition in the middle of the jungle), before heading back into Ninh Binh to the bus stop, where we were picked up at 8:30pm to head to Phong Nha.

Night Bus to Phong Nha

Despite feeling like our lives were at stake the entire drive (because the driver was going SO fast the whole time, and stopping uncomfortably fast as well), we managed to get some rest before arriving in Phong Nha a full 1.5 hours before our ETA, at 3am.

Luckily, the bus stop was literally right across the street from the hostel we had planned on staying at, Easy Tiger, where we let ourselves into the empty lobby along with around 10 other backpackers in the same boat as us, and claimed a little couch to sleep on until the hostel opened up at around 6am.

Of course our rooms (at 180,000VND each for the night for a 4 person dorm, about $9CAD) wouldn’t be ready until much later in the day, but the hostel allowed us to have a shower, book our cave tour for the day, and store our bags until we would get back in the evening to check in.

Starting Our Cave Tour!

The tour we booked through Easy Tiger was the Park Conservation tour (I think that was the name) and cost us each a pretty penny at 1,350,000VND ($80 CAD). It included a visit to 8 Lady Cave, Paradise Cave and Dark Cave, as well as transportation, lunch and any equipment needed for the day. It also included zip lining and kayaking at Dark Cave, and an English speaking guide for the day. We could have saved ourselves a bit of money by doing the same tour on our own without a guide, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable committing to a 65km trip through the mountains by rented motorbike just yet, especially given how tired we were from our broken and uncomfortable sleep the night before.

Our guide’s name was Hi, and he spoke excellent English, happily answering any questions we had along the way. Our tour began at 8:45am and after picking up the other 12 tourists, we drove past Lipstick River (given its name because of the bright red colour that the water turns in the rainy season from the soil), and through the jungle until we reached 8 Lady Cave, where we couldn’t actually enter, but got to take a look from outside as Hi explained to us the cave and its significance. The cave was named 8 lady cave simply because it used to be only ladies working in the cave, but in 1972 8 people (4 men and 4 women, 18-22 years old) died inside the cave after a bomb went off on the road outside and caused a giant rock to block the entrance to the cave. The 8 people survived for 9 days afterwards before dying inside the cave, as no one was able to unblock the entrance.

Hi told us that of the 300+ caves within Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, only 7 were currently open to the public to explore, including the largest cave known in the world (but not the longest), Song Doon Cave, which is only allowed entry by professional cavers and guides, and takes about 6 days to fully explore, costing $3000USD.

Paradise Cave

After visiting the 8 Lady Cave, we headed to Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in Vietnam at 31.4km, but not the longest in the world (One in Kentucky is over 650km long apparently). The tour only goes about 1km into the cave, though you can book tours to take you up to 7km into the cave where it opens up into the mountains. The cave was found in 2005, and has only been open to the public since 2010, and reaches up to 80m high at its tallest point. Hi explained to us that the stalactites, stalagmites and helactites (growing sideways) take approximately 100 years to grow 1cm… some quick math will tell you that this means that for every 1m you see of beautiful stalactites etc., it took approximately 10,000 years.

Looking up into the caves at tens of meters of pillars formed, it was abundantly clear that this cave was much much older than that. Hi said that the stalactites etc. were up to 5 million years old, but the cave itself was over 300 million years old… which is pretty unfathomable, and truly spectacular to see. We spent about an hour inside the cave, following the platforms and lit up pathways as we stood in awe of the new incredible naturally formed structures to see every step farther into the cave. It was beautiful, and I am certain that my photos won’t do justice to the sheer scale of the cave and the structures within.

The only thing that made it a less-than-perfect experience was a couple of Vietnamese groups of tourists who yelled (and I mean YELLED) as they spoke all at once and laughed loudly, moving through the cave (which echoed making it seem even louder). We tried to get ahead of them/hang back whenever they were around, but honestly it just seemed really rude to be yelling like that in the middle of such a beautiful ecological site, and we weren’t very impressed by it. One of the ladies even climbed out of the marked path to fill her water bottle from the pool of water inside (yes I’m serious), and another man was smoking IN THE CAVE, right beside a NO SMOKING sign which I thought was an unnecessary sign to begin with. They were a very disrespectful group.

Dark Cave & Zip Lining!

After leaving Paradise Cave, we headed to Dark Cave, where we had some lunch before gearing up for zip lining. We watched a quick instructional video which focused less on safety and more on how much the equipment cost to replace if you lost or broke any of it, and went up the tower to the zip line. The 400m line is the longest in Vietnam, and it was a pretty fun experience, even through it was raining already when we went. In all honesty though it wasn’t the COOLEST view in comparison to photos I’ve seen from other zip lining locations throughout Asia. It was still really fun though and just one more thing I can say I’ve done!

Once we got to the bottom, we hopped in the water with our lifejackets and headlamps and swam to the cave entrance (we only brought our waterproof cameras into the cave, and locked all other belongings up where we ate lunch so we wouldn’t lose anything inside). We waded through the entrance into the dark cave, which is, in fact, completely dark other than the lights of our headlamps. We climbed through rocks and small narrow spaces as the ground went from wet to muddy, and muddy to REALLY muddy.

The cave apparently becomes more and more filled with natural mud each year as it washes in during the rainy season and pools inside the cave. By the end, we were chest deep in thick mud that felt comparable to swimming in the dead sea, but thicker. We floated effortlessly and sat up as if in a chair without even touching the ground. It was a really fun, dirty and bizarre experience, and we had a blast for a solid half hour before sliding our way back through the cave and into the water to rinse off.

Once we got out of the cave, we paired up into kayaks where we pushed ourselves down the river over to the water park area, with a smaller zip line above the river that Maddie and I went down a couple of times before calling it quits (it was very cold and rainy by then). We showered off quickly in the change rooms and got dressed, and after gathering our belongings from the lockers we went back to the hostel, arriving at around 5pm, finally able to warm up and dry off.

Back to Easy Tiger, Meeting Old Friends & New

We met our roommates who we had crossed paths with before, Andreas (from Sweden) and Luke (from England) and chatted for a couple of hours before heading down for a bite to eat. As we placed our dinner orders, Maddie started screaming frantically behind me, and it took me a few seconds to realize why… DAVID was here! We had said our goodbyes in Vientiane weeks ago and had not thought we’d be crossing paths with him again. It was such a pleasant surprise, and we sat and talked with him and a few of his friends for an hour or so until his bus came to take him North, where we had just left, to Ninh Binh.

It’s moments like these where you realize just how much you enjoy someone’s company after seeing them unexpectedly weeks after thinking it would be a long time (if ever, in many cases) until you see them again. It was a great, though short lived chat, but we sat and ate and listened to the hostel open mic night until we finally hugged David goodbye again as he headed to his bus. We made plans with his friend Michelle to head to the same hostel the next day in Hoi An, since she was going to be on the same bus as Maddie and I that would leave the next morning at 4:30am. After hanging out a bit longer, we went to bed early, ready for a long day of travel ahead, but excited to once again be in a city that we’d be staying for several nights, without so much crazy travelling for at least a few days.

Halong Bay Castaways Tour & Final Nights in Hanoi

Days 39-42 in Southeast Asia (Mar 4-7, 2016)

Castaways Bound!

At 5:30am Maddie and I crawled out of bed and down to the lobby where we met our fellow Castaways from the hostel. We ate a quick breakfast downstairs, and at about 6:30am we were at the Downtown Hostel location to meet up with the others. In total, about 50 or so of us were then taken to a big bus around the corner to head towards Halong Bay. The bus left at 7:30 and took about 2.5 hours. Next, we took a 40 minute ferry ride, followed by another 20 minute bus ride to Cat Ba, and a FINAL ferry ride to take us to the private island owned by the hostel, which took about another hour to get to.

The ride there itself was actually beautiful once we got on the final ferry and got our first real look at Halong Bay. The bay is famous for its ships and fishing boats, and limestone karsts that jut out of the water in narrow but tall islands.

There are estimated to be about 2000-3000 islands, depending on the tide (which sometimes will cover shorter islands entirely). It was a truly spectacular sight, and I was already loving my castaway experience.

Welcome to Castaways Island!

Once we arrived at the island (where we had a perfect view of the bay all day long), we ate a delicious lunch buffet and met the rest of the people in our group and our tour guides. The island holds about 100 people at full capacity and including the group that would be coming back from the booze cruise today, we’d be just about full for the night. We were then informed about the rules on the island: first, never say “mine” or “ten”, or you will have to do 10 push-ups, and second, don’t jump into the water or swim anywhere other than the end of the dock because there is sharp coral reef all throughout the water. Lastly, if you ring the gong at any point during your castaway experience, it means that you’ll be buying the ENTIRE island a drink (of your choice)… and they take these rules VERY seriously. The guides for our particular group were Steph and Jason, both fairly new to the hostel’s team but they seemed like a ton of fun and by the end of the day already felt more like fellow castaways than workers there (which really, their job by the evening is just to make sure everyone is having an awesome time… not a bad gig).

After checking out the dorm rooms and exploring the small but beautiful island, Maddie and I played a quick round of beer pong with a couple of guys we met (Dan and Rob), before heading out for our tubing experience as a group of 4 (they make as few groups as possible, so most are 4, and all 4 people go tubing at the same time on one big tube). It was a short ride, but definitely a fun thing to do expecially in the middle of Halong Bay, with karsts in every direction as your backdrop. We had wanted to try rock climbing as well, but it cost an additional $40USD, and honestly we just couldn’t justify it this time since the whole experience had already set us back quite a bit. Wakeboarding is also available from the island for an additional $30USD (I think… it might have been more), but Maddie and I both were confident in our inability to be good enough to enjoy the experience, and passed on that as well. In the end, we stayed on the beach with a group of other castaways for the afternoon and played some volleyball instead which was a ton of fun, so I think we made the right call.

Party On The Island & The Bioluminescent Plankton!

By dinner, the group from the booze cruise today had returned to the island absolutely HAMMERED, and ready to party, while the rest of us were still maybe only one or two beers deep, feeling like we were way behind. Before long though, everyone on the island was drinking and dancing and having an awesome night. Maddie and I were challenged to some beer pong against a couple of new friends of ours, Jake (from Australia) and Jacob (from the Netherlands). We lost, but only by a hair, and didn’t even care because we were on a gorgeous beach in Vietnam and life was pretty good.

After beer pong, Maddie had made some other new friends and continued dancing, while Jake and I decided that we wanted to go for a swim to see the bioluminescent plankton here, which remains dark in the water but glows when you move the water quickly at night. I was actually really surprised that no one else wanted to join. The guides on the island told us that the ONLY way to do it right was skinny dipping, so when we got to the dock we asked the group of 7 or 8 people already in the water if they were naked. When they all said yes, we quickly stripped down and hopped in. It was only after we came up from under the water that we realized nobody else had was naked, but it was so dark anyways it was honestly not a big deal either way, and we agreed that it made us WAY more fun than the others anyways.

The water was BEAUTIFUL, and as we swam, it looked like someone was shining light on little flecks of glitter all around us. I actually swam out quite a bit just because I was so amazed… it felt like something out of a Disney movie. It was a really neat experience, and I’m so glad I did it even though I got tricked into doing it nude. After our swim, we threw our clothes back on and re-joined the party for a bit before we all went back to our bunks.

Booze Cruise Day

The next morning at 7:30am, the breakfast gong was rung and we went to the front to eat (last call for breakfast is at 9am, but by then there’s generally no fruit, coffee or tea left). At 9:45, everyone who was in our group of 2 nights on the island met at the dock and were taken to the booze cruise, which went all day until about 5pm. On our cruise, it was TWO guys’ birthdays, and one of them decided to start off our morning by ringing the gong and buying the whole boat a beer to shotgun. It was pretty early, and most of us were very hung over still, but before long, and after another two shotgun beers we were slowly waking up and looking more lively.

The view from the boat was absolutely incredible, and aside from it being a fun “party experience” my favourite part about the whole thing was just being able to look in any direction all day and seeing Halong Bay in all its glory. The only complaint I’d say I have about the experience was the weather, it wasn’t very sunny or hot and it was a bit misty out on the water. It was still absolutely beautiful, but I would have loved to see it in the sun as well (I guess I’ll just have to use this as an excuse to come back to Vietnam! Damn!)

At two different points, the boat stopped in the bay and we were allowed to jump off. Not everyone did because it was decently chilly, but I of course jumped off 3 times (at our first stop) and swam around in the bay for a bit enjoying the view. Afterwards, we all paired up in kayaks and went on a little tour through some caves under the karsts. It was really beautiful and I loved kayaking, but there was a lot of water in the bottom of the boat by the time we finished, which meant that our only set of clothes were soaked through entirely which was a bit unfortunate, and we spent the rest of the day in our bathing suit bottoms.

Maddie and I took it upon ourselves to get the party really going in the afternoon with some drinking games, and since we didn’t have beer pong supplies we got a big group together for some card drinking games which turned out to be a huge hit.

Back to the Island

By 5pm we arrived back at the island, ready for dinner and the party night. Dinner was once again delicious, and was followed by some more beer pong challengers (everyone always wants to play against Canadians it seems!). It was a really fun day and an even better night. I had also stolen a pair of sunglasses from Jason (one of the hostel workers) that looked absolutely hilarious on me (I had Maddie in stitches literally all day), and basically wore them for the rest of the night during the dance party. The gong was rung several times by different crazy people who wanted to buy the island a drink, and at one point they were just giving out free shots from the bottle for fun.

We danced for hours on the tables and benches (they’re super sturdy and literally half of the island ends up jumping on the tables every night. It’s pretty impressive that they’re still standing each morning.) At one point, Maddie slipped on the table and flew forwards, and from across the bar I saw her fall and stopped dead in my tracks thinking “oh my god… Maddie just broke her face”… but Jason somehow managed to grab her as she flew forwards and saved her face completely. We could not believe how lucky she was to walk away with just a scraped up shoulder and shin, and we spent a little more time dancing on ground level after that.

The party went til about 11 or 12 that night, (most people don’t stay up too late simply because everyone starts drinking so early that it feels ike 4am by around 11), and while I enjoyed myself plenty, I was definitely looking forward to heading back to the hostel for a hot shower and some sleep the next day.

Heading Back to Hanoi!

Our final morning on the island was quiet. We took some final pictures of the amazing view, and hung out by the beach playing cards and chatting until noon when the ferry took us back through the bay and away from the island.

At around 5:30pm, we were back at the hostel, absolutely ecstatic to have a hot shower and a bed that wasn’t full of sand (mind you, the sand was our own fault for getting into bed so dirty on the island). One of the guys (Jack) who works at the hostel and is friends with Jason, convinced us all to go out just ONE more night, since he wasn’t with us on the island, and had been telling us that Canadians are his favourite… we didn’t take much convincing. We all partied at the hostel and went out on the pub crawl, but sadly didn’t last too long since we were so tired from the nights before and just didn’t have it in us.

Planning Our Next Stops & Getting Our Open Bus Ticket

The next morning, we slept in a fair bit before spending most of the day figuring out our plan for the next little while. We booked our bus ticket (The open bus ticket included stops in Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat and Ho Chi Minh City, and we added on Ninh Binh and Phong Nha for a bit extra because we knew we wanted to head there first). In Total it cost us 1,375,000VND ($82CAD), which was significantly cheaper than booking tickets separately, and the open bus ticket meant that we could go from one destination to the next at anytime, as long as we called a day in advance to book, and used our tickets within the next 30 days… not a bad deal at all.

We booked with the bus company to take us the next evening to Ninh Binh, booked our hostel there, and finally grabbed some Domino’s Hawaiian pizza (we splurged) from by the lake and met up with Georgie and Jason (both workers at the hostel) for some pizza and movies at the Original Hostel location.

When Maddie Got Sick…

Unfortunately Maddie started feeling really sick and left early. It didn’t take long for her to realize that she had food poisoning from the kebab at lunch (which we think we just went too early for and some of the chicken wasn’t fully cooked… I guess I got lucky), and not long after her, I went back to the hostel to keep her company and hold her hair back for the rest of the night. After my episode in Laos and her fun night here in Hanoi I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to bodily functions, Maddie and I have no more secrets… that’s what friends are for I suppose!

Eventually, we got some sleep and Maddie was only up a couple more times in the night to be sick, which actually wasn’t too bad considering how frequently I was up when I got it. Hopefully this means she’ll be back to normal sooner too, because we’ve got a busy few days ahead of us, and a lot of long bus rides!

Hanoi by Motorbike, and “Getting Ready” for Castaways Island

Days 37-38 in Southeast Asia (Mar 2-3, 2016)

Exploring Hanoi With Joe

Wednesday morning was quiet for Maddie and I, and we spent most of the day walking around town and checking out the markets and streets again (honestly there’s so much to see here just by walking around I could stay in this city for weeks). We sat outside at a cafe for a few hours, talking and people watching, enjoying the perfect weather all day. Later on in the evening Joe met up with us at the hostel again on his motorbike which he had promised to take us out on. The 3 of us piled on (which actually wasn’t too cramped other than the foot space), and we headed out of the old quarter of the city to see the parts of Hanoi that we hadn’t yet. At first, we were thinking it was less than ideal that we had waited until later in the day to go out because it was dark and most of the shops were closed, but as we drove around we quickly realized that it was actually a really beautiful and peaceful time to see the city, and we didn’t have to worry about getting stuck in any traffic.

Joe took us around Hoan Kiem Lake (in the old quarter), West Lake (Tay Ho, the largest lake in Hanoi), and Truc Bac Lake, the small lake that Joe’s apartment sits beautifully alongside with a view that looked nothing short of spectacular. We drove across Long Bien Bridge (the longest in Hanoi, over the Red River), and along the highway, where we noticed the incredible tile work mural that went on for miles and miles. Joe told us that apparently it is the longest mural of its kind in the world, and it was equally beautiful as it was impressive.

Hanoi in general has a very French feel to it, with beautiful tall and narrow houses and apartments lining the water, each in a different bright colour, and tall trees perfectly framing each street with lush green leaves overhead. It’s not hard to see why Joe decided it would be a good place to live for a while. After a few hours of driving around the city, we got back to the hostel at around midnight to head off to bed. We thanked Joe for the tour, and he told us that he’d be happy to meet up with us again the next day to do it again during the day, which we were ecstatic about. It was at this point that I clumsily leaned my leg up against the muffler of his bike, leaving me with a nice burn on my calf… Oops! Lesson learned… 3 hours on a bike = hot muffler. Do not touch.

Free Walking Tour of Hanoi

The following morning, Maddie and I were up nice and early to be ready for the 10am free daily walking tour of the city from our hostel. The tour goes through the old quarter of the city making several stops, and lasts about 2 hours. Our guide Lee very quickly became one of my favourite people I’ve met working at any hostel ever. She was 22 years old and had dreamed of becoming a tour guide since she was a little girl, in the city that she was born and raised, Hanoi. She was perky and smiley like no one I’ve ever met, and she laughed and buried her head in her notes every time anyone took a picture of her.

As we walked, she linked arms with different people in the group and asked them about where they were from, letting out little squeals and laughing anytime they said anything that she found surprising. I’m surely not doing her personality any justice with my written words but just believe me when I say that she was absolutely adorable. Not only that, but she told Maddie and I that she though we were SOOOO beautiful… so how could we NOT love her?!

We walked through the local fresh markets and the streets of Hanoi, stopping at Bia Hoi corner, a location right by our hostel that is famous for 5000VND beers (about $0.30 Canadian… can’t argue with that!) and awesome food (also extremely affordable). We then stopped at Bach Ma Temple, a famous temple in the city where locals make food and paper offerings that are burned ceremonially. Lee explained to us (I think I have this right) that the food was taken home and shared by the monks and people who work at the temple, and that the money (which is often fake at the temples) along with the wrappings of the food, and paper houses or other paper creations are all burned (I think either daily or weekly) as offerings. It looked a bit bizarre, walking into a temple and seeing a stack of choco pies and pop cans, but hey who am I to judge tradition?

After the temple we stopped by the beautiful (and seemingly out of place) Saint Joseph’s Cathedral, and finally made our way over to Hoan Kiem Lake. Here, Lee explained to us the story of Hanoi city, the legend behind the green lake (which I couldn’t hear fully so I won’t try to explain the few parts I caught), and the song about the lake which she decided to sing for us. She laughed and said she was a very bad singer, but honestly it only added to her already loveable character as she giggled and sang the song about her favourite place in the world, Hanoi.

We walked along the Red Bridge over the lake before making our final stop at a small cafe near the lake to try some Hanoi-famous “egg coffee.” Curious about the local specialty, Maddie and I decided to try it out, even though neither of us are coffee drinkers. It was honestly more of a dessert than a coffee though, with an egg-sugar-creamy-whipped topping making up the majority of the cup, and a bitter strong coffee sitting at the bottom which we mixed into the topping a bit but weren’t too crazy about. The top was pretty good though, and I’m always excited about trying new foods in new places, so why not?

After our coffee, we met up with Joe by the lake where he picked us up on his motorbike again and took us out to see the city by day.

Motorbiking Hanoi

We stopped for Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) on the way at a tiny little street stop, where Jo knows the woman and goes regularly ever since he first discovered the best Pho in Hanoi he says he’s had to date. Maddie and I never knew soup could be so damn good! Beef, onion and vegetables on top of rice noodles and broth with plain doughnut-like soft bread sticks that sit on top and soak up the incredible flavours all for under $4 Canadian… We were in heaven.


After lunch we zipped around the city, seeing basically all the same areas as the night before but this time during the beautiful and hectic afternoon. We had tea by the lake, talked for hours, and finally went back to the hostel and said goodbye to Joe.

Switching Hostels & Booking our Castaways Tour!

Back at the hostel, we sadly found out that Vietnam Backpackers Hostel Downtown was booked up for tonight, so when we went to extend our stay they told us that we could switch to the second location in Hanoi (Original Backpackers) for the night, so we did. We also booked at the travel desk to leave the next morning for the Original Castaways Island tour on Halong Bay. The tour is something we had heard about long before leaving for our trip, and while it costs a pretty penny, we heard that it was well worth the expense to spend the 3 days (2 nights) on a private island owned by the Hanoi Hostel, in Halong Bay (a few hours East on the coast).

The total cost was 4,030,000VND ($239 CAD), including both nights accommodation, meals (lunch and dinner on day 1, breakfast, lunch and dinner on day 2, and breakfast and lunch on day 3), transportation to and from the island, as well as tubing, kayaking and a full day booze cruise on day 2 that goes all through Halong Bay. Realistically, for what you’re getting it isn’t a bad price at all (and like I said we planned ahead and included it in our budget) but in Asia anything over $10 feels like a major purchase because most things here are so cheap.

The following morning we were to be up and ready by 6:30am for departure, but Sam and Steph (who we had travelled with for a couple weeks before through Thailand and Laos) showed up at the hostel that day, and when we found out that the next day was Steph’s birthday… our plan for a quiet night of rest went out the window. We went to Bia Hoi corner, shared a bbq platter between the 4 of us, and went back to the hostel to start drinking.

“Preparing” for Castaways

Generally speaking, I’m usually the responsible one who is always setting the alarms, “taking it easy” the day before any travelling, planning out times and making sure I know when to be where and ensuring that myself and everyone around me is ready to go… so Maddie decided that tonight she would set HER alarm, make sure we were ready for the morning, and then get everyone around us to try to get me as drunk as possible. Throw our new friends into the mix, Jack (from Australia) and James (Scotland) who challenged us to beer pong (& yes, my team won every time)… and free shots at the hostel during happy hour which we took full advantage of… and I knew it was going to be a rough morning the next day.

We had an absolute blast, playing games and dancing until the bar closed at the hostel and everyone left for the pub crawl. Luckily, Maddie was kind enough to call it a night before then, and we grabbed a kebab (the best of my life, served just about all day and night right beside the hostel) and called it a night.

 

Sa Pa: Waterfalls, Sleeper Bus to Hanoi & First Day in the City

Days 35-36 in Southeast Asia (Feb 29-Mar 1, 2016)

Sa Pa Sightseeing by Motorbike

After a solid night of rest after our trek, Maddie and I were up nice and early so that we could squeeze in some last minute sightseeing before heading out of Sa Pa and back to Hanoi at 3:30pm. We booked a bus this time after finding out that it was quicker (about 6 hours, rather than 8) and cheaper (250,000VND, rather than 545,000VND) than the train, and it included transportation to the bus station by motorbike taxi, so we really couldn’t ask for a better deal. We booked the bus through our hotel, and checked out of our room before our sightseeing (we were allowed to keep our belongings in the front lobby during the day). We were planning on checking out two waterfalls: Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall), and Thac Tinh Yeu (Love Waterfall). The falls were only about 7/8km away up the winding hills, and only a couple of km from each other, so we had planned on taking a taxi, until we found out that the only taxis in Sa Pa really are motorbike taxis, and they cost an arm and a leg for even the shortest drive. Instead, we decided to rent our own motorbike and brave the roads ourselves.

The motorbike rental here was cheap, at only 100,000VND ($6) for the day, plus about 80,000VND ($5) for gas, and we were sharing a bike which made it even cheaper. Our bike unfortunately reflected the price though. We were sure to take lots of picture of the scratches and dents BEFORE we left, because it was pretty beat up and we didn’t want to be charged for any of the damages that were already there from the start. We soon also found out that the mirrors were holding on by a thread, and the brakes were… well, we stopped eventually.

I was feeling a bit more confident in my driving ability than Maddie to start, so I drove us out of town (traffic and navigation is always the scariest part when you’re not used to motorbikes). It was only about 5 minutes or so after leaving town until we reached the main road that we would take the rest of the way to the falls. From there the drive was easy and beautiful, though I definitely made sure to slow down lots anytime we were near other cars, knowing that we would be completely unable to stop quickly if necessary due to the brakes situation. Honestly though I felt much more comfortable by the time we reached the falls than I have so far on motorbikes, and I think I can finally safely say that I’m not half bad at it.

The Love Waterfall

The Love Waterfall was 45,000VND ($3) to enter, and it took us about 20 minutes or so to walk down the trails to get to the falls, but we were nothing short of impressed when we got there. The falls were high, and the sides of the cliffs under the falls and along the way there were so wet that they had bright green moss and plants growing right off the rocks as water dripped over them, giving the whole area a very Alice-In-Wonderland feel to it. We sat for a few minutes before hiking back to the top, which took a bit longer and was a bit of a workout, but it was cool outside that day, so we didn’t mind too much.

Silver Falls & Heading Back

After the Love Falls, we drove about 10 minutes to the Silver Falls, but could see from the road that it wasn’t as nice as the one we had just seen, so we took a few photos from the road rather than paying to go inside the walking area. From the Silver Falls, Maddie took over driving, knowing that by the time we were in town again she would have warmed up a bit and would be less worried about traffic.

Bus to Hanoi

We arrived back at Pumpkin safe and sound about a half hour later, and I was feeling pretty proud of Maddie and myself for taking initiative and driving ourselves to the falls even though we were both a little nervous going into it. We grabbed a quick bite back near the hotel, and at 3:30 we hopped on our motorbike taxis to take us to the bus station. At 4pm we boarded the bus, which we hadn’t realized was a sleeper bus, and were headed to Hanoi. The bus consisted of 3 rows of VERY narrow bunk beds, with seats that reclined about 90% of the way to fill each little bed cubby. There was a bathroom on board as well which wasn’t anything special but is always nice to have.

My only gripe about the bus (other than the air conditioning blasting the whole way) was that the beds were VERY short. Vietnamese people are so petite, and the beds on the bus were no different (and this is coming from a girl who sat in the front row of nearly every class photo in elementary school). It wasn’t particularly easy to settle in, but eventually I found a position that was semi-comfortable, and I wrote for a bit before taking a nap the rest of the drive.

Hello Hanoi!

We arrived in Hanoi about 7 hours later at 11pm, and were dropped off in the centre of the city. We looked up our hostel location and decided to walk there to save money since it was only around 2km away (but it always feels longer when you have around 30lbs of baggage hanging off of you). At last… we saw the signs, heard the music, and saw the crowd of people in and around Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (Downtown location). It was the busiest of any hostel we’ve stayed in, and it felt like we were walking into a club as we approached the front desk for check-in. It looked like a TON of fun, and I can already tell that we’re going to love this place, but it wasn’t exactly what we had hoped to walk into after sitting on a bus for 7 hours and walking 30 minutes, feeling sweaty and exhausted. We got the keys to our room, headed upstairs and went to bed shortly after.

The next morning, the sore throat the Maddie had the day before had turned into a full-forced head cold. She was stuffed up completely and could hardly breathe through her nose or taste anything. We stayed in our room for a while after breakfast and into the afternoon, resting up (and reading/writing for me), in the hopes that it would help her recover speedily so that we could get out and explore the whole city ASAP. I didn’t mind having a quiet day though, and honestly sometimes it’s nice to have days like this as a backpacker, especially when most of the time you’re either travelling, planning, or doing some sort of activity. It can be pretty exhausting, and sometimes a quiet day is exactly what you need.

Walking Around Hanoi

Later in the afternoon, Maddie and I went out into town to pick up some toiletries we needed, some cold/sinus medication for Maddie, and some snacks and drinks for later on. We walked around for a couple of hours, grabbing lunch along the way, and got a bit of a feel of the city, which is as hectic as it is massive. We dodged motorbikes and cars through the narrow streets and held our breath as we crossed, knowing that we had to walk quickly but also carefully, as the cars and bikes here stop for NO ONE… you literally just look for what could possibly be an opening, and weave across the road between moving traffic. It was terrifying, but definitely an experience, and after crossing a few roads you get used to the idea of having a near death experience every 5 minutes. Welcome to Vietnam!

Back at the hostel, we realized that one of our roommates was a girl we had met briefly in Chiang Mai, Reyonalds, who we chatted with for a while and hung out with during the evening, which was really nice. After parting ways with the boys back in Laos, it was really nice to feel like I was opening back up to meeting people (it actually was so hard parting with them, that for a few days I felt like I never wanted to meet anyone I liked ever again…but where’s the fun in that?)
The hostel here is massive, I’m guessing with about 200 beds or so, and it has great staff and nice big clean rooms and bathrooms that are well maintained. It’s a bit busy for my usual taste, but the rooms themselves are only 10 beds maximum so it doesn’t feel too crowded outside of the lobby area.

At 5pm there was free beer in the lobby (because… that’s just a thing here), and the front desk is available basically all day to book just about any tour, bus or flight for you right from the hostel which is very convenient (but does usually cost a bit more). The lobby is also a full bar and dance floor/club as of about 7pm until 11:30, when the lights come on at the hostel, and the pub crawl starts. The best part… It cost us each only $10 per night (170,000VND) including breakfast… Did I mention I’m in love with Vietnam?

Beer Garden & Out For The Night

After grabbing some street food for dinner, Maddie and I met up with her friend Joe and his friend Jacob who live here in Hanoi where they have been teaching English for almost 2 years, which is pretty cool, but they recently quit, looking for a change in pace. Reyonalds joined us along with a couple other people from our room and we all had some drinks at a beer garden for incredibly cheap, but unfortunately most of them (Reyonalds included) were leaving in the morning on different tours or to different cities, so they left us fairly early which was a bit of a bummer.

At 11:30 we decided to join the hostel pub crawl through the city, which we followed for a couple hours, and then went to a local bar with Joe for another round before heading back to the hostel. It was actually really neat to walk around the city at night from bar to bar through areas we might not have seen otherwise, and it is amazing just how abandoned the city feels after the shops close. Everything gets tucked away into the stores and small pull down garage-door-looking covers block off the entire entranceways. The hustle and bustle of the day is nowhere to be found, and there are hardly any cars or motorbikes on the street at all. It was very different from the day.

Joe and Jacob agreed to meet up with us at some point over the next few days to show us around the city on their motorbikes and give us a tour. I’ve become a bit of a motorbike addict so I was absolutely thrilled at the offer. So far Hanoi has been nothing short of amazing, and I’m so happy that we’ve budgeted for at least a week or so in the area (plus a few days for Halong Bay). I am so looking forward to seeing more of this beautiful city in the days to come!

Sa Pa: Our 2 Day Trek Through The Rice Terraces

Days 33-34 in Southeast Asia (Feb 27-28, 2016)

Starting Our Trek With Sue!

At 9:30am, prompt and perky, our trekking guide Sue showed up at our hotel to pick us up for our 2 day trek through the mountains near Sa Pa. The tour cost us each a total of 660VND, which is about $40CAD, and included accommodation overnight at a home stay, as well as lunch & dinner on the first day, and breakfast & lunch on the second. We took a minivan a couple of kilometres to start, picking up the other people who would complete our group of 11 individuals along the way. It didn’t take long for us to realize though, that of the 11 in our group, Maddie and myself were the only two who had signed up for the 2 day & 1 night home stay trek, and that the others were only going to be with us until the afternoon on the first day. Nevertheless, we made a few new friends and chatted as we started on our way down the first mountain.

After carefully watching the weather over the past couple of days, we knew that it was a bit unpredictable, but that it was supposed to be fairly clear skies and around 10-15 degrees Celsius during the days we’d be trekking which is pretty ideal. Unfortunately, the nights were going to be much colder, at 3-4 degrees, and possibly raining. The night before we left it had rained a bit, which unfortunately meant that for the first half of the day, we had a very muddy trail to walk on. We had thought about getting some rubber boots which honestly would have been a great investment, but we did alright in our running shoes, and just accepted that they were going to get very muddy.

Within the first hour or so, I fell in the mud and got my hand, arm and shoe fairly soaked, but all in all it could have been much worse, and the mud actually dried really quickly on my shoe (and it didn’t get inside my sock) which meant I didn’t have we feet at all, so I wasn’t complaining. The view was spectacular right from the start. As we walked we saw endless rice terraces covering each and every mountain as far as the eye could see. Apparently, the best time of year to go is in June or July, when the rice is growing and the bright green sprouts cover the mountains. August and September are also beautiful as the terraces turn a yellowish colour in the fall, but honestly I wasn’t the least bit disappointed by our view. It was sunny out, the temperature was ideal, and we could still see the thousands of steps covering the mountains in green, brown and even red (from the soil).

What I found most interesting about the terraces though was how they worked, and their purpose. Each family owns their own section of terraces on the land they live on, where they plant (individually) rice grains each year around May, and pick them in the fall, to last their family the next year or so. If they make extra, they often sell it to neighbouring families, but the rice itself rarely leaves the few kilometres or so that it is grown in, which is pretty incredible, especially when you’re looking at what seems like an infinite number of rice patties, and assume at first that it must be enough to feed half of Vietnam, at the very least. Sue explained to us that the water from the mountains and rivers flows down each of the manmade steps, and becomes trapped inside the small pools, allowing each area to hold quite a bit of water for a long period of time, rather than having rain fall down the mountain and merely wetting the plants as it passes.

Learning About Sue And The H’mong People

The areas between the mountains are occupied by different ethnic groups, primarily the H’mong people (like Sue and most other guides in Sa Pa). They live in different villages, which are differentiated between in one way by the colours and patterns on their scarves and clothes. Sue lives in Lao Chai Village, which is where we stopped around noon for lunch. It was our second stop after walking through Y Ling Ho village, and apparently has under 3000 people living there. We passed the schools and shops and admired the incredible backdrop that the H’Mong people have the pleasure of enjoying every day.

I asked Sue a bit about her personal life, and found out that she started doing guided tours at around 14, which is a bit early, but not uncommon for women in the villages (usually they start around 15 or 16, and Sue is now only 18). She spoke incredible English, which she picked up from a young age primarily from helping out with the guided tours, as well as through primary school, where the children are taught English basics from early on.

We noticed that many of the younger children (and older ladies) who follow the groups on treks also spoke quite a bit of English, as they helped us balance through the mud, nearly carrying us up some of the slippery parts at times (these women are not paid, but help out solely in the hopes that you will buy something from them later, which is heartbreaking especially when you know you can’t afford to give them anything close to what they deserve after a day of dragging tourists up and down mountains.) Nevertheless, I made sure to always say thank you (in Vietnamese), and be polite, knowing that if nothing else, kindness is always appreciated.

 

We continued after lunch to Ta Van, where Maddie and I were dropped off at our home stay at around 3pm, and the others and Sue carried on to the next village, where Sue would drop them off to be driven back to Sa Pa, and then return to join us at the home stay overnight with our host.

When we got to our home stay, we put our things in our room and decided to walk around town for a bit. We went down the road for some time before stopping at a little bar/restaurant for a Hanoi Beer, which we hadn’t yet tried. It was nice to sit in such a quiet place as the sun went down, just enjoying a beer after a decently long day of hiking up and down mountains.

The Locals Selling Things…

The only thing that spoiled it a little was the ladies selling things. Scarves, bracelets and purses were pushed in our face as prices and a whisper of “you buy something?” filled our ears. We felt 50% guilty for saying no, painfully aware of the fact that we are privileged white tourists, who at a part time job back home would still make more in a month than these women likely make all year, and they have families to support. The other half of me though just felt angry, because I had no intention of coming across as rude or insensitive, but was forced to, because a polite “no thank you” and a smile aren’t enough to make them leave most of the time. They continue to ask if you want something and push things in your face (literally, like they’re trying to feed you a bracelet), until you basically have no choice but to put out your arm and look at them straight faced and say “NO, NOT BUYING ANYTHING.”…

It breaks my heart to do, and goes against every instinct that I have, because I now feel like I’ve disrespected these women, which is the farthest thing from my intent. Honestly I’d love to sit and have tea with them and ask them about their life, but instead am left with a bitter taste in my mouth. Even worse, as we walked through town we had a whole swarm of women and children following closely behind us, enough that I could feel them touching us a little and making me uncomfortable. I knew that my valuables were all at the bottom of my bag, but I was quite sure that I felt one of the ladies touch my backpack before I heard a giggle and some chatter, at which point Maddie and I walked even faster until we got to the home stay. I checked my bag and sure enough a half-eaten sleeve of cookies had been plucked from the top of my bag and was now gone.

It wasn’t a big deal, and honestly if they asked I would have gladly just given them the cookies, but it really hurt me to think that they would steal something that small, and make me almost not like them for it, after I’ve spent my whole life trying to be honest and respectful of other people’s belongings even if they’re strangers, and even if it’s just cookies. I tried not to let it bug me, because honestly what is the point in hating someone or ruining an experience over a sleeve of cookies (that were honestly pretty dry and just not that great anyways)? I shook it off, put my little lock on my bag zipper for the rest of my trek, and let it go.

Dinner & Night at the Home Stay

At around 5pm we were called into the home stay for dinner, which was a traditional Vietnamese meal of pork, chicken, rice, vegetables, cabbage, spring rolls and tofu, all prepared fresh by the host. It was a delicious meal, and we made sure to tell her that it was “Ngong Kwa” (very good), as we thanked her for all of her hard work.

Maddie and I had planned on heading over to “Bamboo Bar”, a little place around the corner run by a Dutch gentleman (I think) that had lots of desserts and drinks on the menu we were dying to try. Unfortunately, we were a bit cold after dinner (and very full), and we decided to curl up under the covers “just for a minute” to warm up and let our stomachs settle. Naturally, we woke up a couple of hours later at 11pm. The bar closed at 10, and we were a little disappointed that we slept so long and hadn’t done anything fun with our evening. That being said, it was nice to get some rest, so we gladly called it a night knowing we’d be up again bright and early for day 2 of our trek.

Day 2 of our Trek

The second day of trekking was much shorter than the first, and it started with a homemade breakfast of crepes with bananas and honey. It was absolutely delicious, and Maddie and I ate more than our fair share before hitting the road. It had rained again overnight, and the road was insanely muddy. Luckily, 4 little girls and an older lady had decided to follow us on our trek, and helped us balance through the muddy steps. It sounds ridiculous now, but honestly at the time we were basically skating down the hill, and would have definitely fallen at least 10 times had they not been there holding our hands.

One little girl whose name sounded like “Shoe”, though I’m sure it is spelled much more elegantly, helped me for most of the way. She was about 10 years old I’d guess, and was an absolute champion when it came to trekking in the mud. A few times I stopped dead in my tracks, slowly sliding in position, unsure of where to put my foot next, and she just reached out, grabbed my hand, and pulled me (while standing in slippery mud herself) up and out of the mud, onto the next muddy step. It was incredible, and I laughed and thanked her as I flew through the mud in complete shock that my body was being pulled through a jungle obstacle course by a 10 year old girl who never broke a sweat, and smiled all the way. I decided that the reason Vietnamese people are so adorably petite is so that they have better balance and a lower centre of gravity, for just this type of thing… whether or not that’s the truth I’ll never know, but it’s definitely an advantage in the mountains regardless.


We trekked through Giang Ta Chai village and the Bamboo Forest for a few hours before finally reaching our lunch spot. Just before reaching the restaurant, the girls and older woman parted ways with us, but only after first asking us if we wanted to buy something… Out came the bracelets and bags and scarves. We each bought a small bracelet, and I had my eye on a scarf as well (mostly just beause I felt that it was worth AT LEAST a few dollars to have not fallen in he mud 20 times this morning, and it was the least I could do.) Sue explained to me that when we buy something, only that girl selling that item will get the money, so it is better to buy several small things. Instead, I asked if I could get the scarf for cheaper. I Paid 100,000VND ($6) for the scarf, and gave the other girls each 10,000VND (the cost of the bracelets, though I only took one). I gave Shoe an extra 10,0000VND for being such a hero. At the end of it, I had still only spent about $10, which is basically nothing, but a small price to say thank you, and to not fall in the mud.

We ate our lunch, walked around a bit more in town, and went back to Sa Pa in the minivan. Honestly, I was a bit sad that it was over, and a part of me wished that we had booked a 3 or 4 day trek, but I promised myself as we drove away that if I ever really wanted to come back, I’d come and trek for a week or something when the mountains were green and covered in rice sprouts.

When we got back to Sa Pa we said goodbye to Sue and thanked her for a beautiful two days.

I dropped off my laundry and had a much needed shower back at Pumpkin hotel, and Maddie and I shared a pizza for dinner (slightly disappointing though, as I probably could have eaten 2 on my own of the pizza we bought, but this isn’t exactly North America, and these guys have far better portion control… damn it).

We went back to our room, snuggled in under our electric blanket, and called it a night, legs fairly tired from climbing so many steps.

I think that trekking through those mountains might have been my favourite activity so far. It felt real and challenging and beautiful… and I can already say that Vietnam has me wrapped around its little finger. I’m smitten.

Sa Pa: Cold, Rainy & Beautiful

Days 31-32 in Southeast Asia (Feb 25-26, 2016)

Welcome to Sa Pa, Vietnam!

It didn’t take long walking the streets of Sa Pa to find a hotel. The city itself is probably about a 20 minute walk end to end, so we walked down what appeared to be the main busy street and quickly found Graceful Hotel, with a Trip Advisor stamp on the door (they endorse just about everything it seems, but whatever) and free wifi. It was only about 9am when we got there since our train arrived so early, but they let us check in right away and head to our room, which cost us 170,000VND ($10) for the night, including a space heater. It seems that space heaters are just about the only option available here (and sometimes electric blankets), unless you want to pay upwards of $50USD per night for a fancy heated hotel room.

We settled in, dropped off all of our laundry next door (to make sure we were finished with the whole bedbugs thing…which we now have fully accepted was not mosquitoes), and snuggled into our beds for a while before heading out to see the city. Eventually, we left the warmth of our beds and bundled up to go on a mission for warmer clothes. I found a store nearby that sold a ton of cozy hiking and winter clothes (there are stores like this all over Sa Pa), and bought myself a fleece sweater from The North Face, that only cost me about 400,000VND ($24) and some thermal socks for 30,000VND ($2)… I found out later that I actually overpaid, but wasn’t upset at all because it was still a heck of a lot cheaper than it would’ve been to buy back home. We bought some snacks at a mini market, walked around the city a bit, and then retreated back to our room, away from the cold and the rain. It really wasn’t so unbearably cold, but the rain seemed to make everything worse, so we decided to watch some movies and hang out inside for the rest of the evening.

 

The Peeping Tom

I wish I could say that the night was quiet and uneventful, but unfortunately that was not the case. As I was taking a much needed warm shower, I noticed out the corner of my eye some movement, and realized that the vented window of our bathroom lead out to the hall… and up from the bottom of the window (about 6ft up) I saw the corner of a phone, with the camera eye pointing my way… I quickly slammed the shower door (that was partly open because it was broken), and called Maddie into the room. I couldn’t see the phone corner anymore, but quickly covered myself with towels anyways and opened the door to the hallway. Nobody was there, but I was completely shaken up. I didn’t even know what to do other than lock our doors, cover the window and plug all the cracks with a towel and go to bed.

We agreed that we’d switch to a different hotel in the morning, and slept together in the same bed partly for warmth, and partly because I felt traumatized. Anyone who knows me knows I’m very open about my body, and nudity and bodies in general, but to realize that you were being watched in a completely private space without knowing it is a really disturbing feeling, and honestly nobody deserves to feel that way. Worst of all was knowing it might have been someone who worked there, or maybe another guest, but that we wouldn’t ever know. I couldn’t even look anyone in the eye when we checked out the following morning as I quickly paid and got the hell out of that hotel.

We walked around the corner to a place we had looked up online the night before called Pumpkin Hotel, which was a bit more pricey (250,000VND or $15, with a heater), but it was very clean, a bit warmer than Graceful Hotel, and the bathroom didn’t have a window… so I was happy.

Walking Around Town

After settling into our new place, I went out and bought some North Face gloves for 140,000VND ($8), and Maddie and I bundled up and walked around town, able to enjoy it much more once we were properly dressed for the weather. We walked around quite a bit today, checking out a few viewpoints and walking through some of the farm areas for photos. Sa Pa really is beautiful, and unlike anywhere else we’ve been so far. The locals are dressed with unique head scarves and embroidered clothes made by hand, selling beautiful handmade clothing about every 10 feet through the city. It sometimes gets annoying feeling like people are constantly trying to sell us things, but I try to keep my Canadian face on, and say “no thank you” politely, knowing that the minor annoyance for me is the way these people are able to make a living.

As Maddie and I grabbed a bite of street food, a couple of Vietnamese gentlemen who were sitting at the restaurant beside us called us over to sit with them. We chatted for a few minutes with Minh and Teng from Hanoi, and they told us just how much they LOVE Vietnamese wine. They had been drinking it and poured us a shot each. I’ve never had wine that tasted like THAT before, it was more like vodka… but it was a nice gesture, so of course we finished was was poured for us before heading on our way. We sat at a restaurant during happy hour for a free Lao Cai local beer (which wasn’t anything special, but it was free so we had to try), and some soup to warm us up.

After dinner we walked around the market for a bit, bought a bunch of snacks, and went back to our hotel. After checking the weather forecast for the next couple of days, we saw that it was supposed to be rain-free, with a bit of sunshine even at times, so we spoke with the hotel owner and booked a 2 day (1 night) trek through the mountains of Sapa.

The treks here are all fairly similar, about 9:30am-3pm trekking on day 1, followed by a homestay with a local guide, and 9-3ish on the second day as well, followed by a minibus ride back to our hotel. All meals are included, as well as storage at the hotel while you’re gone for whatever you don’t want to bring, and a hot shower at the hotel afterwards. The prices vary slightly from one place to another, but are generally pretty similar. Ours cost us 660,000VND ($40), and we were more than happy with that price, especially after spending some time talking with the owner here at Pumpkin Hotel, and knowing that he was so friendly and accommodating, even offering to lend us rubber boots in the morning if we felt we needed them. He also said he’d keep my insulin refrigerated, and our belongings safe. What more could we ask for, really?

We went back to the room, packed our bags for the trek, and bundled up for bed, excited to climb through the mountains and see the rice terraces in the morning. I’ve been daydreaming about this hike through Sa Pa for months now, and I cannot wait for what I’m sure will be some of the best views of the trip so far.

 

Vientiane (Laos) to Sa Pa (Vietnam)

Days 28-30 in Southeast Asia (Feb 22-24, 2016)

Exploring Vientiane: Wat Sri Suphan

Knowing we only had 2 full days in Vientiane to explore the city (which is plenty of time, because there’s not a ton to do here), we decided to knock a bunch of items off our list right off the bat. It was hot and humid as ever outside, but we decided we were going to see the city by foot anyways, so we set off towards a temple about 1km away called Wat Sri Suphan. It was a nice temple, but nothing super incredible to look at so we didn’t spend too long there.

COPE Visitor Centre & Learning about the UXO

Our next stop was the COPE Visitor Centre, an organization that helps educate both locals and tourists about the UXO (Unexploded Live Ammunition) that cover over a quarter of the country, and have still not blown up since the US bombing during the war. 30% of what was dropped didn’t go off, and there are certain areas of the country now that are almost deserted because of it. Slowly, COPE has been locating these bombs and safely removing them, but it is a tedious chore as one can imagine, and because of the slow process, over 20,000 people have been killed since after the war ended. COPE helps to educate locals and children as well, who often pick up UXO unknowingly thinking it is scrap metal that can be sold for profit, or who build fires in dangerous areas, unaware of the fact that if the ground below the fire has any UXO, it will explode from the heat.

The country has an incredible amount of amputees and disabled individuals because of the problem, and COPE helps improve their lifestyle through prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation. It was shocking to hear just how much of the country is still affected by this since the war, but it was interesting to learn about and definitely reminded us how lucky we are to live somewhere that we’d never worry about accidentally building a campfire over unexploded ammunition. It sometimes takes a little bit of a harsh reality check to realize what a luxury it is to feel so completely safe all the time back home, and it is something we often don’t even think about, simply BECAUSE we are so lucky. I only pray that someday the lovely people of Laos will know that luxury also.

Victory Monument (Patuxai)

After our visit at COPE, we continued walking to the centre of the city to check out Patuxai (Victory Monument), for a view of Vientiane from above. For only 3000LAK (under 50 cents), we were allowed to climb to the top, which made for a great photo of the city, despite the tourist crowds.

That Luang Temple

After, we grabbed a bite to eat at a cafe, and walked a couple more km to That Luang, a beautiful golden temple that was well worth the extra hike away from our hostel. It was surrounded by other temples, and we arrived just as the sun was setting making for a pretty beautiful view. We walked around a bit and enjoyed the peace and quiet (we arrived just afer the inside of the temple had closed for the day, and there were hardly any other tourists), and grabbed a tuk tuk back to the hostel after a long day of walking around the city.

Our Last Night Together in Vientiane

Vientiane is pretty massive compared to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and it shows just in a simple drive across the city centre as you pass tens of car dealerships and shopping malls and billboards, which are nowhere to be found in either of the other cities we just visited. It was a nice city though, and definitely not as unexciting as a lot of people had told us. Mostly there’s just not much of a night life, but I’m completely okay with that being the case, especially for only a few nights, so I didn’t mind.

When we got back to our hostel, we quickly freshened up and headed back out to check out the night market in Vientiane, where we walked for a few minutes before deciding to sit down for some food. We shared some beers and laughs as we watched Nils and Andrew try the “spicy frog” dish, which made them literally cry and sweat until their faces were dripping. I tried a bite for myself and can definitely vouch for the spicy level, but it was still fun to watch them suffer through, especially Nils who insists on eating only the spiciest foods available and then proceeds to cry and sweat for the next hour while the rest of us laugh and take pictures of him.

Back at the hostel, we found out that if you buy a can of pop at the front desk (10,000LAK or $1.70), the gentleman working at the front would give you a free shot of vodka. I told him we would take 2, and he handed me a couple of glasses to pour some shots ourselves. After pouring the two biggest shots of my life, he looked at me, laughed and said “OH just take it all…” so naturally, we took the bottle, still half full, and went back to the room and drank, basically for free. The 5 of us played cards and drank until 2am (which is really late when you know how early everything here shuts down), and we honestly had the best time together.

We had nothing but an empty room, a deck of cards, a bottle of vodka, some Beer Lao and each other’s company, and I can honestly say it was more fun than any night I’ve spent out so far, at any fancy bar or club. It really was the perfect way to spend our last night together (Andrew and Nils had to leave the next night on a bus North, and David the following morning for Cambodia). In total, we will have spent 19 days with Andrew and Nils, and 23 with David. I’ve grown to love each of these guys as individuals and as part of our little family, and they will be missed dearly.

Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan) Before Leaving Vientiane

The next morning, on our final day together, we took a local bus to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park), which only cost us 6000LAK each way, plus 5000LAK entry (17,000LAK or $3 in total), vs. 70,000KLAK or $12 had we booked through our hostel or an agency, and it wasn’t tough to figure out at all. An hour later on bus 14 from the morning market, we had arrived. The park isn’t too big in itself, but there’s a ton to see, including a main sphere with 4 or 5 stories inside to climb up and take pictures from. We spent a couple hours in the park and hopped on the bus back to the city.

Birthdays & Goodbyes

When we got back, Maddie and I ran ahead of the boys and snuck into a little cafe where we grabbed a slice of cake and a candle to bring back to the hostel, and we sang Happy Birthday to Andrew who would be turning 27 in less than a week, and we figured we ought to do a little something special for him since we wouldn’t be with him during his actual birthday. It wasn’t much, but I think he appreciated our efforts which is what matters most at the end of the day.

We hung out by the lobby for the next couple of hours waiting with Andrew and Nils for their minibus out of the city, and after a tearful goodbye, Maddie and I went out for dinner by ourselves, dragging our broken hearts behind us. It wasn’t the same without the boys, but we knew going into this trip that goodbyes were inevitable, I guess the only surprise was just how attached we had become, and how hard it was to say goodbye. I never thought I’d make such incredible friends who would mean so much to me in such a short period of time. They were with me through the worst night of my life in Luang Prabang, and for some of the highlights of the trip so far. We spent all of our time together, from exciting adventures to laying low… and while I know we’ll meet other people along the way who we’ll become friends with, I feel that it’s a rare thing to get as close with just anyone as we did with these guys. Hopefully we’ll bump into them again somewhere along the line, and I told them if we didn’t that they’d better clear a spot on their couch in Alaska for me.

Leaving for Vietnam!

The next morning we said a final goodbye to David, packed our bags, and headed off to the Airport. We booked our tickets online in advance, but I wasn’t totally sure if mine had gone through, because I never received an e-ticket by e-mail, so we made sure we arrived at the airport with plenty of time just incase. Turns out it didn’t go through, and I now had to pay 1.5 times the price Maddie paid, in CASH, meaning I also had to pay ATM fees to withdraw more to pay for the flight last minute, costing me about $190CAD total… I was unimpressed. After running around the airport for a few hours and meeting a couple of British gentlemen who had also been having issues with their tickets and visas, we finally boarded our flight and were off to Hanoi, Vietnam

Honestly, I have loved my time in Laos for a lot of the activities we did and of course the people I was with, but I feel like the food poisoning and now overpaying for a flight kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth. To top it off, we’re pretty sure we had bedbugs in our last hostel, even though I keep telling myself it was just mosquitoes that mauled me on the last night (they’re REALLY bad in Vientiane). My legs from the knee down are absolutely COVERED in bites, as are Maddie’s, and we’re planning a full clothes and bag cleaning once we arrive at our place in Vietnam, just to be safe, but the bites are enough to drive anyone crazy, and it’s very quickly getting from  slightly annoying to pull-out-your-hair-maddening.

Welcome to Vietnam!

The flight was a quick hour, and once we arrived in Vietnam, we payed the $25USD visa fee (after getting our visas approved in advance online), got our 30 Day visas and (fairly quickly) got outside of the Airport, ready to make our way to the Train Station where we’d be hopping on an overnight train to Sa Pa in the evening. We split a minivan into the city with the British gentlemen and some other tourists we met, and chatted as we enjoyed our first real view of the massive (and chilly) city of Hanoi. The streets here are crowded and hectic, buildings stacked on top of each other in endless rows, and scooters EVERYWHERE.

Overnight Train From Hanoi to Sa Pa

At last, we reached the station, booked our 8 hour train for 10pm (arriving at 6am), for 545,000VND ($33), and walked around a bit after sticking our bags in lockers at the station. We enjoyed our first meal of wonton soup and steamed pork buns, and sat in a cafe afterwards for the comfy seats and free wifi. We stayed for a couple of hours until the train left, and hopped on board to our new home for the next 8 hours. Here we met Nadia and Kiren, a couple of British ladies who were assigned as our bunk mates. The sleeper train has 4-berth rooms, which is basically two small bunk beds side by side and a bit of room between them with a table, as well as a washroom down the hall to be shared with the whole train section (it wasn’t pretty). We talked for a bit, had some snacks and went to sleep. Overall, the train was pretty nice (and warm), and other than the bug bites on my legs that were driving me crazy, I was very comfortable while I slept. I actually ran to a pharmacy last minute before boarding the train and grabbed some itch cream, which I used when I was up in the night and it actually seemed to help quite a bit.

At 5:30am, we woke up and got our things together before disembarking the train in Lao Cai, where we grabbed a 30 minute minibus for 50,000VND ($3) each to take us to Sa Pa. It was a rainy and cold morning (about 5 degrees), and we bundled up as we got off of the minibus, with nowhere booked to stay and no idea where to go. There we were, enjoying our first look at Northern Vietnam… we tightened our backpack straps and hit the road, ready to find out what Vietnam had in store for us!