Ha Long Bay: Pants-less Spaniards on our Party Boat!

Ha Long Bay tour started out pretty normal… lunch on the boat while cruising the bay, then you stop for a 15 minute paddle in some decaying kayaks.After, we motored on to Hang Súng Sôt to tour the caves.

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You get to go for a swim in the ocean.

At 4pm we docked at a beach and swam while the sun was going down. If there had been less trash floating around me, it could have been idyllic. This was an issue everywhere we went. Gorgeous views as long as you could ignore the trash on the ground.

But you DON’T get to pick who is on your boat with you… luckily we won the jackpot with a pair of Dutch girls and a trio of crazy Spaniards. The evening started out with some Karaoke. Roxanne, 500 Miles, Let it Be, Mama Mia, Fernando and Troy’s pick, Sexual Healing… of course.Let the dancing commence! Their pole dancing routine was memorable… Well- at least I could remember it.Earlier in the evening, the Spaniards had managed to use a flashlight to call over a little boat- empty except for a case of beer! P1070397Later in the night, they decided it would be fun to jump off the boat. This may or may not have been related to the case of beer.

Ishmael couldn’t get back on the boat by himself but Borja kept insisting, ‘Esta bien!’ He’s fine. Looks like it.The Dutch girls help haul the Spanish boys out of the sea.They kept yelling, “Use your feet!” in Spanish- but it didn’t seem to help.Safely aboard! Whew! PS- none of them recall me taking this photo…After the chaos, I headed off to bed- only to hear the Spaniards noisily roaming the hall- they had lost their room key (because they had misplaced their pants…) and were unsuccessfully trying to get the Dutch girls to let them stay in their room. If that evening had been any more entertaining, someone would have gotten kicked off the ship.

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Do This: Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

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When people heard I was going to Vietnam, I got the same advice over and over, “You HAVE to go to Ha Long Bay! It is amazing!” I did a Google image search and immediately put it on our itinerary but the details were fuzzy.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 2.40.58 PM

Here are some details to help you book a trip to Ha Long Bay.

1) Don’t book before you go. You will get the best price in a face-to-face interaction with a local ‘travel agent’ and book a trip from Hanoi for 3 days/2 nights in HaLong Bay. The first night on the boat and the second on Cat Ba(hotel) or Monkey Island(bungalow). It should cost around $160 US and include all food & transfers. Get ready to bargain!

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Our suite on DuGong cruises.

2) Buy a package tour to Sapa at the same time. The rice terraces of Sapa are another place not to be missed and we loved our homestay experience. We booked both at the same time and had a bit more wiggle room with our final price.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.06.54 PM

3) We heard from other backpackers that whether you pay a bit more for a nicer boat or you go for the backpacker party boat, you will most likely get put on whatever boat has space available. We paid $150 for a 3 day trip with a stop-over in Monkey Bay!

4) Food is included, but you pay for your own drinks, so pack your bag full of liquor or you’ll be buying overpriced, warm beer like this!
P10703585) Pack LIGHT! If you can leave a bag locked at your hotel, do that. Firstly, the dock is 4-hrs from Hanoi and you will be in a totally full bus… with seats that fold down in the aisle.

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When we got picked up at our Hanoi Hotel at 8:45am the bus was mostly full – some of them had been on the bus since 7:30am. We had a few more stops and folded seats down into the aisle for our new friends. Luckily, the A/C worked. Ha Long Bay is about 4 hours outside of Hanoi, so we made a stop 2 hours into our trip. Every ‘rest stop’ that is scheduled into a tour will include a toilet (toliet paper is optional), a place to buy overpriced snacks and a craft workshop where you can watch people carve, lacquer or paint souvenirs.

And secondly… you will transfer on and off boats no less than twice a day with ALL YOUR LUGGAGE and it’s slightly dangerous.*Bonus tip: If you are interested in doing MORE than the 2 day/3 night experience you can look into staying on Cat Ba Island for a few extra nights. The ships come and go with different groups of people, staying different amounts of time, in different places. So, just ask your ‘travel agent’ to catch a boat back a few days later and linger on the lovely island and explore the Nat’l Park.Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.43.28 PM Whatever you decide, try to put aside your expectations and hope for some good company.  We hit the jackpot with a trio of Spaniards. That story comes next!

Do this: Take the Overnight Train from Hue to Hanoi.

10.26.2014 – My travel partner wasn’t feeling well but I could’t stay inside anymore so, off I go- wandering the streets of Hue I find the Citadel, the water puppets show and consult with one of the 139 ‘travel agencies’ in town. On the way back I spot some cute graffiti: I wonder what the ghost is cooking?Photo-20151128233744608.jpg

At the ‘travel agency’ (& after consulting seat61.com) we booked into a 4-berth, ‘soft sleeper’ on the overnight train from Hue to Hanoi for ~$40. The train left at 9:30pm.P1070169

This was our favorite train ride. We went to bed fairly early and the ride was smooth and quiet (with my earplugs in!).P1070171

We woke up, well rested at 10am and had a few hours to journal and relax before arriving in Hanoi just after noon.

P1070175The taxi drivers at the station INSISTED on overcharging us and we ended up walking away from the station until one of them followed us and gave us a price we liked $3US for a 10 min ride. We splurged and stayed at the Crystal Hotel ($19/night) and we were pleased with the location, room and included breakfast.

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We had a great time wandering the streets of Hanoi and taking in the sights.

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Mostly, we got ready to head out to Ha Long Bay the next day. We had spent 1/2 a day in Hué, price-shopping and found DuGong Cruises: $150 for 3 days in Ha Long Bay, meals and transportation from Hanoi. I can’t wait for you to read all about that trip!

Hue: Tour of the Royal Tombs

All settled in at Hong Thien Hotel 1 and their helpful front desk folk sell us a full-day bus tour of the Emperor’s Tombs for $9! (The price doesn’t include entrance fees to the 3 tombs which are $4 each.)P1060975

Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam and 7 of the Nguyen emperors are buried near the city. We visited the ‘Forbidden City’, 3 tombs and Thien Mu Pagoda. Then, we ride back to Hue on a Dragon boat along the Perfume river.

First stop: The Forbidden City

I definitely could have used more than the hour we were given to explore the ‘Forbidden City’.P1060923 (1)The Citadel was off limits to anyone but the Royals.

My favorite part was the museum with enlarged photos of the lives of the emperors and their elaborate lives.

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Imperial Tomb of Minh Mang

This was such a relaxing spot that I wished I had a good book, a few hours and a picnic!

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Emperor Minh Mang searched for this site for 5 years and then had the grounds landscaped to add perfectly Feng Shui’d hills. From the air, the layout of the site resembles a human form with Minh Mang’s tomb in the head.

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Imperial Tomb of Tu Duc: By this time of the day, I was getting hot and poor, so I skipped this one to drink fresh coconut water in a hammock. I hear this site is full of lakes and lovely stonework.

Imperial Tomb of Khai Dinh

The view from Khai Dinh was so lush, it reminded me of the Slovakian countryside.

P1070119There were a LOT of stairs to get up to see this view. This is the first set.P1070134 (1)
Khai Dinh tomb took 11 years (1920-1931) to build and is the tomb of the final emperor.P1070102

The sarcophagus of Emperor is covered with mosaics and the ceiling is painted with dragons.

There were many couples taking their engagement photos here.P1070124 (1)

Thien Mu Pagoda

The ‘Heavenly Lady Pagoda’ is a lovely tower along the Perfume River. P1070020This site also houses a national relic: the car in which the monk Thich Quang Duc rode from his temple to Saigon on June 11, 1963. He stepped out of the car in an intersection, sat down in the lotus position, and burned himself to death in protest against the regime’s violations of religious freedom.P1070033

After exploring the sites, we headed back to Hue on a Dragon boat. It was a great day!

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‘Sea Clouds’: DaNang to Hue via the Hai Van Pass

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The Dragon Bridge in DaNang lights up, shoots FIREBALLS and streams of water, but we didn’t see any of that. Still a rad bridge. Built in 2013 to mark the 38th anniv. of taking back the DaNang port at the end of the Vietnam War.

You may remember that our Vietnam adventure started in HCMC and ended in Hanoi. As we traveled north we met heaps of travelers coming the other direction. We spent many ‘happy hours’ talking to travelers about their favorite experiences and then copying them. That was how we decided to travel overland via the Hai Van Pass (which means ‘Sea Clouds’).P1060866We had a few transportation options:

1- Hire motorbikes (which was the most popular option but the most terrifying for me.) 2- Take the train (If you are at all interested in train travel make sure to check out seat61.com) 3- Hire a driver. This option won out, since we’d have to rent a car to get from Hói An to DaNang to catch the train anyways. We decided to spend a bit more and have the driver take us all the way through! PLUS, we got to stop at Marble Mountain on the way!)

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We passed this moto full of piggies FIVE times! Every time we’d stop for photos, he’d get ahead of us!

 The road was treacherously twisted and around any/every corner there would be some sort of obstacle… a slow/broken vehicle, a cow or a herd of goats. I don’t think I could have handled 3 hours of this on a moto.

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I was SUPER glad that we had decided to drive so I could just relax and enjoy the view. (I later learned that the majority of the traffic has been routed through the tunnel built in 2005, so only motos and tanker trucks (that aren’t allowed in the tunnel) take the pass, making it relatively safe.)

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Passing, our Piggie-friends again!

Finally, we started the decent and ended up at this gorgeous vista.

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Passing through the quaint village of Lang Co takes but a minute, and then you’re on a fairly flat and well maintained ‘high-way’. There have been road improvements that widened the road. There were houses that needed to be torn down to make way for ‘progress’ but the occupants were not offered enough money to relocate so many stayed in protest. And this is what happened.P1060883

They tore off the sides of the houses! We saw MANY houses like these, along this stretch of road. They had gaping holes without windows or doors and families were coming in and out of those houses… because they still live there.

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Widen the road to make way for trucks!

Our voyage ended in Hue, where we were dropped off at the LOVELY Hong Thien Hotel 1 (NOT 2!) that we’d booked on Agoda.com for a pittance. There was a POOL and the staff was very lovely. Check out the view from our balcony!

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The journey over Hai Van Pass has been made ‘famous’ by the wacky British TV show, Top Gear. You can watch them cross the pass starting at minute 3:15.

A Vietnamese Adventure Begins: Saigon (HCMC)

Oh how time flies! A year ago, I was making my way through SE Asia and had just met up with my Aussie friend, Troy to travel through Vietnam together.

P1060447This face says, “How do you eat this Báhn Xêo, which is larger than my torso?” Troy and I met in Ho Chi Minh City and spent the next day on a tour booked from our hotel, exploring the Mekong River.

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The tour was very ‘touristy’ but gave a nice glimpse into the culture of the Mekong and lunch was a vast array of food. Including this giant fried fish.

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HCMC was a big, noisy city full of an intense number of motorbikes. We didn’t enjoy it. In an attempt to ‘tourist’, we went to the War Remenants Museum. It had with a bunch of leftover US tanks/planes and interesting exhibits with graphic images of war. It was from the Communist view but I didn’t feel is was entirely propaganda- just the view from the ‘enemy’ in a controversial war. We were ready to move on pretty quickly.P1060511 The only other entertaining thing we did besides eat a lot of Bahn Mi and gelato was take a walk in the park… where there were groups of high schoolers doing team building activities. Of course Troy inserted himself into the fun and harassed a poor teenager, then tried to put him in the trash can. There were also groups of women doing dance routines.P1060455

We HAD to get out of there. After pricing the train from HCMC to DaNang and then finding a flight for THE SAME amount of money, we began our journey north. That night we stayed at a homestay in the darling town of Hói An.

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Our homestay was really lovely. The house was new and the hostess was a local chef who gave us cooking lessons.

The best part of cooking class was walking through the morning market, buying the ingredients for our dishes. I adore this photo of colorful legumes and rice.

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Everyone in town knew our hostess and she took great care to describe  what we were buying to make spring rolls, Báhn Xéo and Cau Lâo: a pork dish made with yellow noodles made only with water from Hòi An.P1060542

Hói An has a beach, but we never saw it. Partly because Troy lives in Sydney and partly because of the weather. The rain turned the streets into rivers and when cars would pass by, the waves of water would lap up under our table inside the restaurant. Yeah, there was a lot of rain.
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Our favorite hang-out was DK’s hostel, with insanely cheap ‘happy hour’ specials, wi-fi and a pool. We didn’t stay there, but we hung out enough to know that it’s a pretty nice hostel and we booked our onward travel with them. They can hook you up with some great trips. The ‘Top Gear Tour’ to Hue was a popular one- it’s from a popular British TV show with old guys who like cars. I was still determined not to be injured in a motorbike accident so we took the train.10153938_10154757124975788_6209974867733284935_n

One last tidbit: we met Thuy Anh Nguyen, the star of the Indie movie ‘Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere’ which played in Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Of course, Troy was happy to give her an acting lesson.
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Here to There: 5 Transportation Tips I learned the hard way

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I am a solo-budget-traveler who likes to book my long-haul flights to/from home and then leave room in my itinerary for unexpected adventures along the way.  While this gives me the flexibility and freedom I enjoy, it also means that I find myself spending precious time considering all my transporation options.  Here are the top 5 things I learned along the way.

1- Land vs Air = Time vs $$$

P1070686 Let’s say I want to get from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore.  First, I’d look up bus/train time tables and prices.  Next, I’d hit up Skyscanner and find flights for my chosen time frame.  If I could find a flight for under $70, it was almost always worth it since it saved me from sitting in a minivan all day.  In Vietnam, I bought a flight from HCMC to DaNang that was the same price as an overnight train ride.  Later, I rode the train from Hue to Hanoi and really enjoyed the trip.

2- If there is a border crossing: fly

P1060325 Crossing land borders adds 1-2 hours to your trip.  First, you get out and stand in line to get your visa/stamp. Get back in the bus, drive to customs and unload your gear.  Wait in line again.  The best bus companies give you VIP passes that fast-track you through the visa process. The worst make you switch buses at the border.

3- Wait…WHERE is the bus station?!?

wpid-Photo-20141129234323.jpg I noticed that the bus stations were located miles out of town and were only accessible by taxi.  Sometimes, this means you arrive to your ‘destination’ only to find the cab drivers are charging $15 for the 7 mile drive to your hotel. The nine hour bus ride was only $14. Haggling usually works, but these cabbies know you aren’t going to walk to town, so make some new friends and split the fare.

3-Pay for the ‘Luxury’ bus

wpid-Photo-20141103072411.jpg When the option for land travel is minivan, bus or luxury bus; spend the extra $5. I rode five hours in a minivan, with my hands braced against the back of the bench in front of me  It wasn’t bolted down and tipped back, precariously, every time we accelerated.  Luxury buses often give water or a meal as well. We also paid a bit more for our overnight train berths which slept four people instead of six people.

4- Avoid driving a motorcycle/scooter

P1050520 During my pre-trip research I read it over and over again; moto travel is dangerous! I promised myself that I wouldn’t travel by motorcycle while in Asia. Reinforcing my fears, I met numerous travelers with broken bones/terrible road rash and scary stories.  I was NOT going to be one of them! The last week of my trip, I rented a ‘scooter’ from our hostel to explore the low-key island of Koh Lanta. Luckily, nothing happened to me but my scooter wasn’t so lucky. Uneven pavement and a well-placed guardrail resulted in a hefty repair fine that my travel insurance wouldn’t cover.  Lesson learned.  Next time rent a pedal bike.

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5- Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Eventually, I learned that ANY time I changed locations I should just plan on using a full day of travel time.  So, I tried to relax when in transit. I talked to other travelers, binge-listened to my favorite podcasts and watched the world go by outside my window. The journey is part of the adventure and makes the destination sweeter.

One more thing- Ride the SkyTrain from BKK to Bangkok for $3!

A cab can get stuck in traffic for HOURS and cost $27us!  Bypass that hassle and figure out if your destination is near a SkyTrain station.