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.

Train to Sapa
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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5 tips for ordering tailored clothes in Hói An, Vietnam.

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Troy with his ‘regret’ face, in a jacket that turned out exactly like the picture, but not exactly how he wanted.

My trip through Vietnam last fall was vaguely planned (to leave room for spontaneous fun!) so while I had heard that Hói An was FAMOUS for custom-ordered clothing – I resisted making any plans to get something made until we arrived there. I was happy with the tailor and the experience but I was not happy with my garment. Here is a list so you can learn from my mistakes.

Here are five things to know before ordering custom clothes in Hói An.

1- Find a reputable tailor. Luckily, my friend Amanda had just been to Hói An and had some great advice: “There are like 300 seamstresses of which most are not legit and they will try to “pull you into their places”. Go to Kim Phung, she has a profession store and her “manufacturing” takes place right down the street. She can make your stuff in like 24 hours or so so go there first with your designs or pick something out there and you can most likely pick up next day and take with you – or pay for shipping. I shipped and it arrived three months later.”

Here is my friend Amanda with Kim Phung @ 119 Tran Phu Street, Hói An

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Amanda was well prepared and loved her garments from Kim!

2- Choose your items early.  I had figured that I’d just pick out something from a book that I liked. That is not how it works. Spend some time looking things up online and save a few photos from different angles to show them how you want the garment to fit. I showed the woman 1 photo and she made some notes and showed me a similar photo in a catalog she already had. I ended up choosing a simple black dress that I thought would be ‘timeless’ in silk. It ended up looking like a frumpy dress you’d wear to a funeral.

3- Choose your fabric and know how to recognize silk. Hói An is famous for silk and silk lanterns. Therefore, I thought I’d get a silk dress! I had even read up on how to tell if it’s actually silk… but then when I got there it seemed like too much of a hassle to get the nice woman to pull strings off the fabric and burn them to prove it was actually silk.

4- Haggle for the best price. For many American tourists, haggling is stressful and the falsely inflated prices make it feel like you’re being cheated. Of course the locals overcharge the tourists sometimes but haggling can be fun! Ask the price, then counter-offer with 1/3 that price and hopefully you’ll come to a price that you both can agree on.

5- Plan an extra day for a 2nd fitting. The garment that they make IS based on your exact measurements, but they will cut it a bit larger to make sure that it fits. My garment was frumpy and didn’t do my figure any favors. With another day to cinch in the waist and adjust the darts, it might have been wearable.

Good luck!

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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Smooth Sailing: Crossing the boarder from PP to HCMC

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This unique structure is the gateway from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.

Here I got from PP to HCMC:

1- Get a VISA before you go. When traveling overland from Cambodia to Vietnam, you have to get your visa beforehand. Luckily, I was staying at a fantastic hostel in PP (name it here) and I handed over my Passport and $65 to the front desk. They sent it to Kampot and it was back the next day with my Visa.

2- Book a 6-hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

3- Spend an hour going through customs. (I waited much too long to get my passport back. As I watched the groups behind me get their passports, I began to suspect that the higher-cost tour companies get expedited. When they finally handed my passport back, it seemed to have a RED cover and upon closer inspection, they had given me TWO PASSPORTS folded together. I nearly walked out with the passport of some unfortunate Vietnamese woman.)

4- Arriving in HCMC and try to meet up with your friend. Troy had instructions to meet me at the bus but the drop off location isn’t always the clearly listed on the website. I had given Troy the address of the ticket office- but got dropped-off at the bus terminal. I eventually found the ticket office and contacted Troy with the Wi-Fi there.P1060327

5- Eat Phó! Troy had been staying in HCMC already and we took a cab back to the hotel, then headed out to find some Phó. Success!

 

5 things to do in Phnom Penh

This is me, in front of the royal palace as Kate & I walked to our hostel, ‘Me Mates Villa. (Weird name, great hostel! They organized my Vietnam visa for $65!) I ended up in PP for 4 days longer than expected but there was so much to do! Here are some things I thought were fun. Also, markets and foot massages.

1- Visit Wat Ounalom and chat with the monks. The day we were there, Honda was handing out envelopes of good luck money. The monks wanted to get their photos taken with us.

2- Stroll the river walk down to the Royal Palace in the cool evening.

3- Watch a traditional Cambodia dance performance at the National Museum. The Apsaras were mesmerizing!

4- Eat/shop/get a pedicure or use the Wi-fi at Sister’s Cafe where women learn hospitality skills to become independent. The service at Sister’s isn’t amazing because each of these woman is in training. They are learning! The food is nice, the store is adorable and the women and kind. Give them your money.

5- Have Lucky the elephant paint your t-shirt at Phnom Tamao Zoo. We paid $150 each for a behind-the-scenes tour with Wildlifealliance.com and it was totally worth it to spend time with such amazing animals and their dedicated caregivers. Please carefully research any tourist sites that feature animals as an attraction. Do not take elephant rides or selfies with tigers. Lucky the elephant has recently fallen ill and needs $40K in treatment. Donations can be made at their website.From their website: ‘Lucky was rescued from traders at the tender age of 6 months, and has been at the Center for almost 15 years. Her gentle nature has made her our Elephant Ambassador, and she has since touched the hearts of thousands and helped inspire the next generation of Cambodians to protect this Endangered species. When the injured elephant Chhouk arrived as a baby, she even took him under her wing and provided the orphaned elephant with motherly comfort. Lucky is an incredible animal that continues to inspire us all.’ 

P1060057 (1)(This was our American guide, getting some love from her favorite monkey-friend.)

All these outdoor activities may leave you dehydrated & exhausted. Plan a mid-afternoon smoothie stop then head back to your (hopefully air conditioned) hostel for a nap.

If you’re a local- just nap where you are.

Sister Soiree 2009: An Introvert’s Illness

introvertJessie got sick. It turns out that the sudden transition from non-electric island life to the bustle of San Ignacio (with a gaggle of exhausting extroverts) was a shock to the system of my introvert sister. (In 2009, J was an un-diagnosed introvert. Back then, she was just a girl who took naps with a frequency that rivaled most house cats.) Here we are, 3 siblings, practicing our napping.1077599_10153048570410788_99132229_o

When extra naps didn’t fix the mystery illness, we decided it was time to strike out into the unknown and see what magical cures the Pharmacia had in store. (Here’s me, in our $7.50 hotel room)

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Ooh! Look at all the choices!
1913571_374555335787_6325288_nJessie chooses the one with the best name… Chesty Cough Mixture!

1913571_374555355787_5824364_nHere goes nothing! In this photo, Jessie is experience the ‘Chesty Cough Mixture’s mentholated goodness!

1913571_374555360787_955906_nAnd here is the moment when J decides that she is cured and will never need to take that medicine again!1913571_374555375787_7881754_nCURED!

Just for giggles, here is the EXTROVERT care card. (In case you haven’t met me… I’m a classic extrovert.)extroverts1 (1)

 

 

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.