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!

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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.

Marble Mountain: A must-see between DaNang and Hòi An

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Without multiple travelers’ recommendations, we would have passed over this site as we drove from Hói An to Hue. It turned out to be Troy’s favorite spot in Southern Vietnam and we should have planned 2 hrs to see it all.

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The stairs aren’t terrible going up… going down I did a lot of side-stepping to keep from rolling my ankles. At the top, you are rewarded with lots of wonderful (and varied) places to explore. First, check out this temple.P1060804

Pop over the bridge and say hello to this lovely lady.

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And the view from this gate is pretty great.P1060806

Then, step into the caves! (Hi- Buddha!)P1060824

There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore.

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There are older Vietnamese women selling incense for you to burn for Buddha.

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After we exhausted all the nooks, we climbed up to the top! It was HOT!

P1060838The view was vast and interesting. We paid a guy $1 to take our photo and print it out right there. Money well spent.

Notes: The area is lousy with marble-carvers who try to get you to park for ‘free’ at their shop. Just ignore them and pay to park in the designated area. On our way through, I noticed that many of the statues that they were carving didn’t have faces and our driver explained that the faces would be finished when they were ordered so the facial features can be customized.

My Son Sanctuary: A warm-up to Siem Reap


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On this leg of the SE Asian adventure, Troy and I were always moving, or thinking about where to go next. Once we landed in Hòi An we looked for a good day trip and found a UNESCO site 1-hour away: My Son Sanctuary.

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We booked a van tour through the hostel down the road and headed out to see some ruins. When we arrived, there was a 20 minute cultural dance performance that was fun but pretty ‘touristy’. Then our guide took us to explore the site.P1060641

Unfortunately, the Vietnamese were hiding out here during the war and only 25 of 70 structures survived the carpet bombs. There is quite a bit of walking involved and you have to stick to the paths in case of unexploded munitions.P1060674

The temples are dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Here he is, wearing a snake for a necklace. He looks pretty serene…

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 If I hadn’t been to Angkor Wat a few weeks before, I’m sure this site would have been a bit more enthralling. But the scale pales in comparison to Siem Reap.

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Luckily, Troy is always game to keep things entertaining. Note: The structure behind him was being restored.

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Speaking of entertaining: here’s a photo of me and a linga (the representation of Shiva used for worship… and suggestive tourist pictures.) P1060661

Then we got back in our van and headed down to the river to ride back to Hói An.P1060730

Oh WAIT! The boat has to make a stop for a snack & ‘Cultural Experience’! (Aka- a tourist trap.) Here I am sanding a headboard at a workshop.P1060711

Back in the boat, we enjoy the lovely cruise down the Thu Bon River to Hói An.

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Halloween at a Cambodian International School

My childhood friend Meaghan taught elementary school in Phnom Penh for 3 years. Here’s a peek into her classroom.10676314_10154738753305788_4557158503466191558_n-2The children call her ‘Teacher Meaghan’ and her class is conducted in English. The children also take lessons in Mandarin! And the youngest students take naps… which is absolutely adorable. See for yourself. zzzz

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Meaghan saved all the fun projects for the day that I was there. We made Halloween ghosts with cake plates and register tape! They loved it!P1060181

All around the world, kids are curious and love to laugh and play. Below Huy and Srey Leap demonstrate Rock, paper, scissors- Cambodian style. If you win the 1st round, you put a finger on your opponent’s forehead. When you win the 2nd round, you push their head back with your pointer fingers in victory.

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10603346_10154738752785788_4363736893871246711_nMeaghan’s school has tiny sinks for their tiny students, an enclosed courtyard for playing and yummy lunch options right next door.

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Just like when I was little, sometimes there are schoolyard collisions and the teacher asks you to apologize for hurting someone even when you didn’t mean to… 
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I bought a roll of the Michigan quarter and we did rubbings with crayons.P1060172

I had a lovely time and Meaghan assured me that the kiddos kept asking when ‘Teacher Adrienne’ was coming back to visit. That put a smile on my face.