Hike to a Sapa Homestay

We did a 4-hour turnaround in Hanoi after our Ha Long Bay experience.

It was a whirlwind but saved us a night in a hotel since we were on the overnight train to Sapa.

P1070662 Unfortunately, it was not the idyllic, restful train ride we were expecting.

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Our ancient, rattly, bumpy train to Sapa.

And too late, we heard that there is a new road from Hanoi and you can take a brand new sleeper bus with Wi-Fi for $15 each way!!!! We paid $45 each way. OOOOOh the agony! We didn’t sleep AND we paid $60 too much. We got there kind of grumpy and had to make a 6am transfer. Our mini-van was there to pick us up but we waited for an hour until the next train came in. Lesson learned. Take the bus.

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Me, hopeful that our train ride to Sapa, Vietnam is as restful as the ride from Hue to Hanoi.

We were pleasantly surprised when we finally arrived at the Hoa Phong Hotel in Sapa.

We took a shower, dropped off our stuff and got ready for our 5-hour hike to our homestay in the rice terraces.

This is how our hike started, tourists, guides and local women- lead by Troy!

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Since the ‘road’ gently sloped downhill, the 5-hour walk wasn’t that strenuous. We were joined by a group of women returning home from the early morning market in Sapa.P1070815

Just as we were starting to get hungry for lunch, we arrived at our destination.

Restaurant.
Yep, the upper balcony of that ramshackle building is our lunch restaurant. There is a pig pen directly below.

We hike another hour or so, through the terraced farmland to our homestay.P1070945

Read my next post to find out about our homestay!

 

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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.

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!

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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My most favorite travel accessory… my iPad!

My iPad/iPhone is my most useful travel equipment. (Even when I don’t have service!)

Natasja & her iPad, in the window of our Prague Hostel, 2013

Last fall, while Natasja & I were trying to connect with my lost (& very jet lagged) parents – my ULMON PRAGUE app saved the day.  Seriously.  Well, my iPad and Saint Ludwila.  I thought my parents were just going to give up and go to Slovakia without me.  (Read the account here.)  That experience cemented my iPad mini at the top of my must-have travel accessories.

Here are the apps that I am taking on my trip.

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Ulmon (for big cities)

This app is perfect for me because (as anyone who has ever driven anywhere with me will know) I am directionally challenged.  Even off-line, I can touch the blue navigation arrow and it will show me where I am on the map as I walk through the city!  It also lists all the most common tourist sights and allows me to search for the locations of temples, restaurants and cat cafes!

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Postagram

Have you ever wished that YOU could be in the photos on the vacation postcards that you send to your friends? Now you can send a REAL POSTCARD & it only costs you $1/each!  Personalized postcards are super fun and since they are printed in the USA, then mailed to your destination, it’s a quick way to get mail to your friends in the States while you are abroad!

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Google Drive

All of my flight info, travel insurance policy, contact info and my travel itinerary are in a file that I can share with the people who need to know where I am at all times. I also did a 8GB photo file download while at a friend’s house in Bangkok to free up another card for my camera!

 

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Blogsy

This is the app WAS my favorite app to use to post my ‘Adventures of a Michigander’ blog since I’m not bringing my laptop.  I did buy an iPad case with a keyboard for the trip. Unfortunately, Blogsy will not have a new update and is no longer compatible with the newest iOS. Now, I just use WordPress.

 

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 TripIt

All of my flight details are gleaned from my confirmation emails without any effort on my part! It’s pretty useful when you frequently buy cheap tickets on Skyscanner b/c they are less than train tickets!

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 SmartTraveler

Safety First!  This is where I check the government travel warnings for the 7 countries I’ll be traveling in.

 

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Trail Wallet

At the end of my trip, I’ll be able to use this app to see charts on my spending.  It will break it down to how much I spent per day & on what.  I’m sure you’re already looking forward to that blogpost.

 

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Instagram

Find me @adventuresofamichigander, to see photos that I don’t post on FB or my blog!

 

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Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 3.56.02 PMHostelBookers/Agoda:

Booking accommodation just got easier!

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 Heads Up!

Ellen DeGeneres designed this app and it’s hilarious to play with groups.  It’s simple, your team tries to get you to say the word on the screen, as you hold the iPad on your forehead.  The best part is the video it takes during the game – this game will make me lots of friends when I get stuck inside during a rainstorm.

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Clue

It’s hard to keep track of the days when you travel so this app warns me when I might be feeling ‘PMSy’ rather than just ‘Hangry’.  It’s very helpful.

 

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ToonCamera or Prisma

I love the way my photos look with this app!

WhatsApp/ FB Messanger

Text your new international friends for free on WhatsApp or use FB to make free video calls!

 

Screen Shot 2014-09-06 at 10.17.28 PMFly Delta

The app is worth downloading simply for the Glass Bottomed Jet feature, where it will show you the places you’re flying over + which FB friends you’re flying over!  Slightly stalker-ish but neat! *I was disappointed by this app and then PANICKED by this app when it sent me flight check-in reminders from the wrong time zone, causing me to think I’d missed my flight. Boo. Deleted.

Also: Kindle, FaceBook, iMessage, GoogleTranslate, plus some games and a 7-min workout app* that I never used.

If you’re still reading, leave your favorite travel apps in the comments, please!

7 countries in 77 days

Here is the outline of my epic journey.

I’ve left room for plenty of detours.

Oh, how I love when a plan starts to come together!  Unemployment has given me adequate time to do some in-depth research.  I’ve been pouring over TripAdvisor forums, loads of blogs and good ol’ travel guides for weeks now and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

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I’ll be flying into the Narita airport, north of Tokyo and connecting with a YMCA Camp Jeweller, Matt Allan, who is stationed in Yokosuka with the US Navy.  I plan on hopping the bullet train to Mt. Fuji Nat’l Park and contenting on to Kyoto and Osaka.  I’m only there 6 days but I intend to live it up!

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Next up, I’ll fly in to Bangkok (the star in the map below) from Tokyo and then start traveling counter-clockwise and then head down the peninsula to Singapore!

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#2-Thailand

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Wat Pho

In Bangkok, I’ll be met by Bryan- a friend I met through a St. Michael’s connection who works for the US Government.  Bryan transferred to the Bangkok branch on August 8th and since he’s new in town, he’s going to be the perfect sightseeing buddy!  After a few days of eating amazing Thai food and wandering through markets & temples, I’ll fly out of Bangkok and into Cambodia.

#3-Cambodia

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I’ll enter the country at Siem Reap, a town made famous by the temples at Angkor Wat.  I’ll buy a 3 day pass in order to take my time & escape the heat when I need to.  Then, I head down to Phnom Penh (PP) to meet up with Meaghan T. (a 20 yr + friend from Camp Gordonwood)!  I am a lucky girl ~ Meaghan is letting m come to her school for a day!

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I’ll cross this boarder by land- after securing a visa in PP and continuing on to Ho Chi Mihn City (HCMC) where I’ll meet up with another Camp Jeweller- Troy Jankowski from Sydney!  We’ll take the train to Hoi An and then to Hanoi.  The rice terraces of Sapa and the rock formations of Halong Bay are on our itinerary.  Hopefully, we’ll find time to take a cooking class too!  (Photos by vietnamtravelsonline.com)

#5-Myanmar (Burma)Burma-COVER

Troy & I will arrive in Yangon for the Festival of Lights!  Then, we’ll travel to Bagan, Inle Lake and fly out of Mandalay at the end of the 2 weeks.  For more photos of Myanmar, check out this book by Scott Stulberg.

There will be another few days in Bangkok as Troy flies home and Laura Johnson flies in from Nashville!

#6-Malasia

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(Photos from parallelperception.com)

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In Malaysia, Laura and I plan to laze around on tropical beaches, wind our way through Kuala Lumpur and end up in the sovereign city-state of Singapore!

#7-Singapore

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(Photos by dogonews.com)

imagesI won’t arrive in Singapore until December, so it I haven’t made many plans.  It’s a big city (and it’s own country!) so I hoping to meet up with fellow Masonite Heather Klepper Roddocker while I’m in town.  This is the last stop in my travel adventure… I’m already feeling nostalgic.

The Traveler’s Catch-22 (or 3 reasons why I should not go on this trip.)

I’ve have a lot of time to think lately.

Much of this time has been spent thinking about vaccines, visas and voltage (say that 3 times fast!)  As I repeatedly recount the story of my next adventure I find myself feeling the need to justifying this trip.

These are the three questions that keep popping into my head when I start overthinking.

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(This photo is of Halong Bay, Vietnam. Taken by Nic (Luckypenguin)

#1: I don’t have any money.

I understand that it is not fiscally responsible for an unemployed person to traipse across the world for three months.  BUT…. Time IS money, people!  And I’m RICH with TIME!  Welcome to what I’ve dubbed the Traveler’s Catch 22: If I wait until I accumulate a stack of cash,  it will be when I have a job again!  If I have a job, then I won’t have 3 months off to travel!  I’ll put as much as I can on a 0% credit card and pay off this trip next year.

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(Photo of Bagan, Myanmar by Raul Cruz Photography)

#2: It is not SAFE for me to travel the world ‘alone’!

Well, safe is a relative word… because LIFE is a risky endeavor!   For my own sanity, I have always tried to stay in that sweet spot between being overly cautious and being blissfully ignorant.  Like Kenny Rogers says, ‘Trust in God, but lock your door!’  (I bought some great travel insurance too.)  ‘Alone’ is also relative, I’m meeting a few old friends along the way and I’m sure to make many new friends too!

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(This photo of a monk in Angkor Wat, Cambodia was taken by Timothy Allen/BBC)

#3: I should be looking for a full-time job or working on adrienneleephoto.com, not going on vacation.

Sure!  That sounds like a good use of my time!   But I consider this a ‘life experience’ trip, not a vacation and I’ve decided that when I’m old, I want to have a collection of stories instead of a collection of fine china to pass down.  I may be broke, but my aim is to be interesting!

Now that you know WHY I’m going, read my next post to find out WHERE I’m going and WHO is coming with me!