Kathmandu/Lumbini!

After the scariest landing I’ve been through yet, we landed in Kathmandu, Nepal!  The process through the airport was pretty easy. It drives me crazy that with all of the airports we have been through they don’t have a more logical process for people getting visas.  When we walk into the airport we get in the line that says “Foreigners”, only to be told once we get to the front that we have to go to this kiosk section in the corner then to another counter to pay, then back to the “Foreigner” line.  They should seriously have more signs or someone directing a bit better. The smog here is probably the densest we have seen. Flying in it was impossible to see the city until we dropped below the smog level, and it is already a dusty city.  I would suggest having a mask if you have any respiratory issues.

When we stepped outside there were numerous taxi drivers boxing us in.  I would personally recommend just getting money from the ATM at the airport since the service fee is the same as any other ATM in the city, and the same for a sim card.  I would not recommend going to a street stall for a sim card because they take a copy of your passport, and I worry that it doesn’t end up in an organized place. Go to a storefront where they will file your important documents away.  The taxi drivers have a billboard set up outside of their prices, so negotiating is a bit tricky here. In Nepal, 100 rupees is equal to roughly 0.86 cents, and 1000 rupees equal to $8.60. There is a tourist district that somehow neither of us had heard of till we arrived and had already booked somewhere else.  This district is Thamel and has quite a lot of cheap shops for anyone planning on trekking or hiking, and has some pretty cheap good foods. We tried a homestay for the first time. The family was so sweet and had one son about 9 years old. The wife taught Walter how to make some dishes and some bomb-ass chili chutney.  It hurt so well. It was pretty cold here and it doesn’t seem like the houses have insulation so I would suggest having a good sweater and sweatpants for the nights. The days were 70 degrees Fahrenheit. We visited Monkey Temple on our first day. There were monkeys everywhere! The monkies don’t just stay at the temple, they actually integrate themselves within the city.  They also seem a bit aggressive, so if they want your food, you should probably just give it to them and save yourself the cost of a rabies shot. On the way up to the temple, a man approached us; we have learned that almost 100% of the time if someone starts with “Where are you from”, it is going to end with them trying to sell us something. After he asked us where we were from he then stated that he didn’t want to sell us anything, and asked if we knew anything about the temple.  We told him that we did not, and we usually research a place after we discover it. In a slightly condescending tone, he almost seemed offended that we were going without knowing about it. He then said if we paid him, he would tell us the history. So we just ascended the many steps without him. At the top, nearly all of the walking area was overtaken by locals selling little trinkets and there were monkeys everywhere! We checked out the Thamel area after and had momos for the first time!  I LOVE MOMOS! YOU MUST TRY MOMOS! There weren’t too many activities to do here. Obviously, there are a few temples, but the entrance fee to most of them is tripled for tourists. If you are wanting to see Mount Everest you can take a helicopter ride, but it will cost you. The ride costs up to $4000 for up to four passengers and gets more expensive with fewer people. We skipped that activity. There is a national park roughly five hours drive from Kathmandu, but the stays there are anywhere from $20-$50.

During dinner that night our host informed us that Shiva holiday was coming up and invited us to celebrate it with their family.  We graciously accepted. We have been wanting to experience this type of cultural setting. Most of Nepal, including our host family, is vegetarian.  She informed us, however, for the Shiva holiday they were allowed to eat horse and partake in drugs. We quickly declined that part. On the day of, all six of us crammed into their little car and set off for their family gathering.  It was a scary hour drive. The drivers/traffic here is worse than anything I’ve seen in Vietnam. It is just chaos here. Potholes everywhere so people are dramatically swerving to miss them. We will quickly go from 60mph to 20mph when they slam on the breaks instead of just driving slowly.  The roads through the mountains are tight fits like they were really only meant for one large vehicle. We saw quite a few accidents, with one happening right next to us. It isn’t like America though, people just put their cars or bikes back together best they can and seemingly go on their way.  We arrived at a partially built structure, but what they regarded as a temple. I was originally excited to experience this, but didn’t take into account we would be the only white people there. It wasn’t a problem, but I couldn’t sink into the background and observe when what seemed like over a hundred people were all stopping to stare at us.  Some Nepali approached us to offer food, but mostly the children were the brave ones. Running up to us and yelling, “NAMASTE!”. We eventually accepted food from them, but what our host said had popped into my head. I quickly asked him, “Is this vegetarian?”. He said yes. Linguistics is everything here people. I then asked, “Is there horse?”.  He said yes. We then just ate our veggies and secretly got rid of the rest. There was also a large vat of liquid at the end that people were drinking by the cup full, pitcher full, or handful. We asked our host what that was and she said that is the drugs. Also, stayed away from there. It was honestly a great experience, I just wish we hadn’t stuck out like a neon sign.  Another part of this holiday is children blocking off the roadways with rope and not allowing cars to pass through until they had been given money. Most complied, some ran their rope over.

Along with the momo’s, the naan bread was delicious!  A staple food in this culture is dal bhat. A mix of veggies with curry spices and a few other things.  We ate this every day at our homestay. After a few days, we said our goodbyes, caught a bus from Kalanki and made our way to Lumbini.  By the way, Kalanki doesn’t seem to be an actual bus station. It’s more like, hope you’re in the right place at the right time. It seems better to catch the bus from Thamel that way there is someone to drive you to the bus.  No matter where you go, it seems that the bus tickets are going to be about 800 rupees. Lumbini is the birthplace of Buddhism so Walter was stoked to finally be exploring this place. The town is quaint with monkeys and cows roaming about.  The curry and naan bread was delicious! Since tourism hasn’t really hit here yet all of the foods were pretty cheap, maybe $1-$2 per person. I would recommend getting money out of the atm in a bigger city. Not a single atm here would accept my card. After like the fifth one, I was getting pretty nervous, but luckily one finally worked for Walter.  Power outages are an everyday occurrence in Nepal. They always seem to happen at the same time. Most people in the towns have started using generators, but when it comes to hot water, I learned the sad way that they use solar power to heat the water.  I imagine everyone is the same on the shower concept. Once you do all the work to get ready for a shower and get naked, you are taking that shower. So even though it was 50 degrees out, I came this far and wasn’t turning back. Directly across from the city are the temples.  Architects from numerous countries came here to build a temple that resembled what they have back in their home. I think there are maybe 20-30 temples here, each from a different country. It takes a few hours to walk around this place, or you can hire a tuk tuk for the day. These guys were pretty relentless and one even went as far as to get out of his tuk tuk and follow us into a temple.  Another strange incident happened when we were talking by ourselves down a side road to get to the next temple, two men on a bike circled back to stop and ask us if they could shake our hands and take a picture. While this weirded me out, it wasn’t the first time it has happened. Near the front gate is the main structure. Rubble from what is left of the original temple when Buddhism was discovered, and they built another building around it to better preserve it.  There is no talking or photography allowed inside the building. We only spent one night here since we were just visiting for the temples, and honestly, one night was enough. If you’re an animal lover like myself, just remember they aren’t pets to this population. I walked away from Walter to go pet a goat until I got closer and saw that his buddy just had his head chopped off, and he was probably next. It was a sobering moment, but I do accept that this is their livelihood.  Once again, another 6 am bus then we are off to Pokhara for our last stop in Nepal!

Chiang Mai

Out of our time traveling, I think I would have to say Khao Soi is the most amazing thing I have tasted!  Khao Soi is a coconut based curry. I haven’t come across this curry in Bangkok or Southern Thailand, so to my knowledge, Northern Thailand is the only place to find it.  Chiang Mai has so many cheap eat spots. A few of the places we tried were the Blue Noodle, the Coconut Shell, Khao Soi, Jok Sompet (porridge and dim sum), and some street foods around the old town.  The Blue Noodle dishes reminded me of Vietnam, something similar to Pho. The Coconut Shell had the usual Thai dishes and most of the curries (yellow, green, coconut, red, Khao Soi). I tried Khao Soi at pretty much every place I could and my absolute favorite is Khao Soi Khun Yai.  It is only open from 10-2 every day. I arrived at noon, waited in line for 20 minutes and another 20 minutes to receive my food. They sold out before 1 pm. There were locals along with tourists at this place so you KNOW it’s gonna be delicious! Walter took a cooking class while we were in Chiang Mai and was given a book with recipes afterward so he gets to make me Khao Soi when we get home!  A slightly more expensive place we ate was The Crazy Noodle. Here you have the option to make your own curry or noodle dish by picking the noodles, sauce, protein and a few more things. Again, so amazing! When it came to a curry place we only spent about 50 baht per person ($1.75). Uuuhhh salivating…..

Phuket/Koh Chang Noi

I think before we even started our adventure, I knew South Thailand was one of the places I was most looking forward to.  I have always loved the ocean ever since the first time I saw it in Florida as a kid. Unfortunately, I was not prepared to be robbed on my way to this paradise destination.  After leaving Chiang Mai, we stayed in Bangkok for two days so Walter could get his tooth fixed. We stayed at Oh Bangkok Hostel near Khao San Road. It was a lovely hostel with beer and kitties located near some stellar street food.  We needed to get from Bangkok to Phuket and the hostel had their own bus services. Something to keep in mind when you’re traveling is if you find something that is way cheaper than the rest of the similar products (like bus lines for instance), there may be a reason it is cheaper.  We have never booked transportation through a hostel before, we have always gone online, which seems to be the safest way to not get scammed. However, we thought we would give it a try. Our first red flag was after we paid in cash, they would not give us a receipt showing that we paid.  They only handed us a piece of paper with Walter’s name on it. When it came time to leave, typically a minivan would take you to the bus station, but instead, a man on a two person scooter showed up and told us he would take us one by one. I went first. He dropped me off at a random curb where three other women were waiting looking just as confused as I was.  Walter showed up ten minutes later. A large bus came to the curb. Typically these buses hold anywhere from 60-100 people and they are ALWAYS full. The man who drove us here took our measly little paper with Walter’s name on it and rode away. The driver immediately asked us for our ticket. Of course we didn’t have one. I already saw how this might go. We told him that the man on the bike kept it and thankfully he let us on.  After driving for about two hours we realized we were going to be the only five people on this bus. Again, super weird and not normal. Aside from our backpacking bags, we carry around a small day bag that has our important stuff like passport, money, computers, my little llama, and this bag NEVER leaves my sight. Another red flag we noticed was that these bus drivers didn’t seem to know how the bus operated, and every now and then along the way they would stop and seemingly visit with friends.  Since this was a night bus, it made things a bit creepier. I think this ride truly showed me how easy it would have been to get caught up in a sex trafficking operation or something similar. We eventually stopped around midnight to eat at a bus stop restaurant. Like usual, I took my small bag with me, bought some snacks, then just headed back to the bus. Once back on the road we all separated into our own row of seats so we could stretch out comfortably. I put my bag on the floor at my feet. Throughout the night I heard the two drivers take turns walking through the aisle to get to the onboard bathroom.  Around 5 am the bus pulled over on the side of an empty street and a man demanded for us to get off. He put us on a mini bus and drove us to a makeshift bus station down the street from a real bus station. A few other travelers there shared their weird stories and we all seemed to agree we thought we were going to be kidnapped somewhere along the way. We finally figured out that the people that had driven us didn’t really work for a bus line. It seems like they maybe bought their own bus and that is why we had to pay cash so it couldn’t be traced. After we arrived at what was definitely a fake bus station we were then picked up by an authentic bus that had extra empty seats.  It was here that again someone demanded for our ticket which we were never given one. We were vigilant in stating that the driver from the last bus kept it we they didn’t make us pay again, but others weren’t so lucky. Some other travelers also were never given a ticket and were forced to pay again. After we boarded the bus we made the last stretch to Phuket. We stopped for lunch and it was there I realized while I was asleep on our overnight bus, someone had taken my little bag, rummaged through it and stole 5000 baht from me (almost $200). I was pretty upset for a while, more so because of the feeling of being violated. I was sleeping away from the three women on the bus so I can only assume when one of the drivers walked by they most likely picked up my bag.  I told Walter this was the last time we were taking a night bus. Moral of the story, don’t put your shit down. If you think you’re going to sleep at all, don’t put it under the seat or in the overhead baggage, just keep it in your lap. I am the one who decided to visit Phuket because so many people had recommended it. That was dumb. There were way too many people there for my liking and everything was hella expensive. Usually a taxi ride that lasts a few kilometers is maybe 100 baht, but here for just one kilometer they were charging 400 baht. Insane. The food was really nothing special. We finally found one good curry place and kind of stuck with that. There were loads of people at the beaches, and to get a boat ride to literally the next bay (maybe half a kilometer) was 1500-2000 baht ($35-$45).  I really would never recommend this city to anyone that is budget traveling. We did find a great rooftop place that sat on the side of a “mountain”. It was Wassa Homemade Bar. We took a taxi to get here. If you talk to the taxi drivers wearing a blue shirt they will definitely give you the best deal. We stayed at Cpak hostel. Veena was super sweet! The rooms were great and had a lot of space! Her bike rental was literally half the price of anyone else we found. After four days here we were ready to get out.

  We at this point are tired of all of the people and overrun beaches and cities.  Walter suggested we try a primitive island. Everyone recommended Koh Phayam, and since it was so highly recommended we decided to NOT go there.  We instead went to its neighbor Koh Chang that no one knew about. The speed boat is cheaper if you buy online, but the bus from Phuket is for sure going to be late so be careful which time you pick.  If you do the morning boat it will drop you off on the beach that you are staying, but if you choose afternoon they will drop you off at the pier and you will have to take a motorbike taxi (150 baht) to get to your destination.  Which was fine because the bike ride across the island was phenomenal. This was by far one of the best experiences we’ve had. We stayed at Mama’s Bungalow on the other side of the island in a bay. There were maybe 10-15 people total staying there.  Everyone was welcoming along with Mama Soi and her family. You never had to leave. Soi and her family cooked every meal (the BEST curry in the south), they had beer, water refills, snorkeling gear for free, free wifi in the common area which made everyone hang out and get to know each other.  There were Great Hornbill birds, hummingbirds, bioluminescent plankton on the beach at night, and so many pups! I would suggest visiting an island like this before it is changed by tourism. You don’t have to worry about people stealing your things, everyone leaves their doors open! I can’t rave enough about this place.  We were sad to leave. Something I always struggle with is no matter how detailed the blog or beautiful the pictures, I’ll never really be able to construe the emotions I hold for these experiences. This time we planned to leave on the first ferry. The boat comes to shore at your bungalow, you waddle out in the water a bit, throw your stuff in and jump in after it.  This post is a bit longer than I planned so I will leave Koh Tao for another blog. There is an Unesco site by Koh Chang, it holds the largest field of Mangroves in the world. We weren’t able to make time for it, but I hear it is beautiful. Not surprising.    

Ho Chi Minh City

We are back in Ho Chi Minh City! We came back to HCMC because we are meeting our friends in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Originally, we wanted to go from HCMC to Hanoi. After we purchased our tickets, our friends told us they can meet us in HCMC, travel to Cambodia, then Thailand. We were very excited to have our friends fly across the globe to meet us and show us around from their experiences. However, things never go as planned. They couldn’t meet us in HCMC because of time constraints so we will meet them in Siem Reap, Cambodia. 

Independence/ Reunification Palace

The appearance of Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant city.  Everyone is ready to get going to their next meeting point, whether it is for business or pleasure.  Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the day, we had the ability to see everything from a bus’s perspective.  The transportation is more organized than Hanoi but still chaotic with motorbikes everywhere driving on the sidewalks.  Backpacker central also known as District 1 is where we spent about 6 nights.  The setup was mainly the same as the Hanoi.  Central markets, numerous vendors, street food are everywhere. But, gigantic 7 floor malls are within skyscrapers. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City in the middle of the Vietnamese New Year (Tet), year of the rat, everyone is preparing for this gigantic celebration.  Tet is the biggest holiday celebration.  Some say that family all over the world flies back home to celebrate Tet with their family.  Unfortunately for us, we missed the celebration by a week.  Preparation for Tet is enormous, they were closing off streets, building structures, choreographing dance, transporting many objects during our arrival.  Even before our arrival some streets were closed off and structures were up for Tet.  Watching them prepare for their annual Tet holiday lead to excitement because of the time and preparation leading up to the new year.

We walked to most of the touristy things in and near District 1, except for the nightlife.  Spending three days downtown going to Independence/Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office. and ventured outside for a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels.  Tourism within the districts of Ho Chi Minh City are devoted to the First Indochina and the American/Vietnam War.  More information was provided in the American/Vietnam War than the First Indochina War.  Significant yet morbid photographs are posted in the War Remnants Museum.  The photographs were intense, The States would omit most of the photos.  The photographs would describe the horrible atrocities of the Americans attempts to help win the war with torture and killing to the use of phosphorus smoke and agent orange. Unfortunately, this lead to The States to use numerous types of gases to draw out the Vietnamese out of the tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels were interesting because they are a vast underground system. But, this method lead to many Vietnamese to asphyxiate inside the tunnels.  

Tour Guide, Lam, standing in a concealed underground door.

Coming to Ho Chi Minh City is enormous with many things to do throughout.  With the amount of time that we had, I am glad we got a different perspective from the war.  If i had to choose again, I would, at minimum, go to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Just those combined would help gain a better insight to the Vietnam/American War efforts from the Vietnamese.  I will admit my knowledge of American History is poor after World War 2 but visiting these sights helped put together a better understanding for myself.

Widened Cu Chi Tunnel for Westerners

HCMC –> Cambodia

Ho Chi Minh City → Cambodia!  The airport in HCMC was a bit weird.  Our flight was leaving at 0820, but the counter to check the luggage was not going to be open until 0630.  If you know anything about me, I like to be there a few hours early so I can sit in the terminal to make sure the plane doesn’t somehow load 200 people and leave without me.  It took about 30 minutes to get to the luggage counter once it opened; luckily we were like 3rd in line. The luggage prices are outrageous! It costs $65 to check luggage here, I was furious, to say the least.  Also, they ONLY take cash. If we had not had the cash I probably would have been throwing a few more “WHAT THE F***s” than I already was. If you don’t have the cash you have to get out of line, find the elevator, go down one floor to get to the ATM, and you better believe when you get back you’re going to the end of the line.  The worst thing about luggage lines here is that people feel like they need to pack their whole damn household. After fuming about all of the above, we make it to the security line which is ridiculously long because some of the counters opened a bit earlier so all of those people were in line. There was a single file line that led to an area with about 8 different lanes.  Someone eventually unhooked the line barrier and everyone just rushed into a line. We hopped over and ended up in a not so long line. It still took about 45 minutes to get through. By this time it was 0815 and our plane was scheduled for the 0820 still. For the people further back in the luggage line I guess you might get screwed? We really weren’t sure if they just leave them or wait.  They drive us out to the tarmac to board an uneventful flight. Our friends were waiting for us in Cambodia to head over to Angkor Wat right away so they hired a Tuk Tuk to pick us up from the airport. I would recommend getting a Tuk Tuk for the entire day of ruin hopping. These ruins are spaced pretty far apart and there are about 20 of them. You could rent a motorbike, but the roads are so full of Tuk Tuks that its easier to hire someone.  It costs around $20 a day to hire someone for the day. Also, use Grab! It’s a great app! We bought the three day ticket (which runs about $60), but we knew we would only be there two days. It was cheaper than buying two one day tickets. The first day we visited a lot of the smaller ruins, and our driver found an amazing place to eat along the way for lunch (unfortunately I do not know what it was). Amok is a must try curry dish there!  (Can find this under Eatables!) Along with the fruit, fish, Cambodian coffee, EVERYTHING!  For the nightlife, I would suggest Pub Street! It looks like straight out of a college town.

Pub Street!

The next day we were up at 0530 and headed to the main Angkor Wat structure to watch the sunrise.  I would suggest going a bit earlier because when we arrived, there were already what seemed like a few hundred people there.  It was amazing though! There are vendors right next to it who unfortunately only see you as a dollar sign. They are aggressive and will follow you for quite a distance.  Walter and I were taking pictures and a guard offered to take a picture of us. He did, then he proceeded to ask for a tip. Don’t accept anything unless you’re willing to pay something for it.  Also, there are young children asking you to buy things from them or give them money, this is illegal! Just keep walking away.

My favorite temple aside from the main one was probably Ta Prohm Temple.  If you love trees, you will absolutely love it here! Our driver took us here last, but I would recommend going as early as you can.  It was already quite overrun when we arrived. You will hardly ever get a picture of something that does not have random people in it, unfortunately, and don’t be one of those assholes who will try to tell two hundred people to stop walking on the path so you can take a picture.  This is the temple that is famous for the tree growing over the temple. While we all know of that one photo, there are actually many trees that are growing over the ruins. It was so amazing to see the force of nature. One of our friends we were traveling with loves food (in a non-obese way) so he recommended we check out a Michelin star restaurant that was in town, Cuisine Wat Damnak).  For $30 a person you get a five course meal. This meal changed my way of thinking. Walter and I never treat ourselves to places like this, but I think when we get home date night will have a new meaning! We only spent two days here this time to accommodate their schedule, but we will be coming back in a few months to explore the rest of the country. Off to Bangkok! Hopefully, the baggage is cheaper! 

Ho Chi Minh City

First off, let’s have a geography lesson.  We have wondered our whole trip why people refer to the city as Saigon and others as Ho Chi Minh City.  When the North and South were divided, it was as a whole referred to as Saigon. After the war, most of the area then became known as Ho Chi Minh City when the areas became reunited.  The name came from the leader who is credited with reuniting everyone. However, within Ho Chi Minh City, there are 24 districts and three of them still refer to themselves as Saigon. In this blog, I will just refer to HMC as a whole.  Honestly, I have been dreading visiting HMC after visiting Hanoi. Hanoi, while beautiful and educational, was quite assaulting. It is easily the loudest city I have ever been in; with the constant construction, honking, yelling, etc. The vendors were more aggressive here and sly.  The air pollution made it a bit difficult to breathe, and the amount of trash everywhere you looked was horrendous. Out of respect, I have decided to not post any pictures of the amount of trash in the cities, but I’m sure you can google it yourself. I imagined to myself that since HMC was easily double in size that it would have all of these things but worse off.  Luckily, I was wrong. The city did not feel so cramped. Things were more spread out, the traffic wasn’t so bad (or I was finally used to it). People obeyed the street signs and traffic lights, and air pollution and trash weren’t nearly as bad as Hanoi. We met so many expatriates (people living outside their native country)! The craziest was when we entered a random bar and ended up sitting right next to a couple from Aurora, Colorado.  Everyone that we had come across had gotten jobs to teach (not always English), and they had nothing but good things to share. We also learned that Asian children had not really heard of playing tic-tac-toe and absolutely loved and evolved it further. Down to business. We ended up staying at SG Capsule hostel. If any travelers are reading this, DO NOT GO THERE! The pictures from the website were mostly fake. They promised free amenities that were a lie.  To get in, you walk down an alley and there is a glass door with SG on the outside. The owner did not answer our calls so we had to bang on the door until someone finally let us in. There is a number padlock on the door that way too many people have the code to. You walk in and there is a row of beds two feet in front of you, and roughly five feet to the left are a few more beds and two feet behind that are the toilets. Whatever you do in that bathroom, we will all hear.  The owner lived in one of the beds along with her friend who kept the place “clean”. However, he would let his friends in at all hours of the night turn on all of the lights which was terrible because the curtains did not completely close around you, and they were insanely loud. There were a few thefts, though we were lucky and it was not our stuff. The only good thing about the hostel is the location, but honestly spend an extra buck or two and go elsewhere. I did learn that after 30 years I have apparently been wearing earbuds wrong my whole life. The nightlife here was incredible.  We found a Central Market outdoor that had easily 30 different stalls to eat from. We ended up drinking enough beer to be brave enough to volunteer in a pinata contest! We won free food and beer! Ten yards down the same street is a large indoor market (Ben Thanh) with a few hundred goods stalls and some food stalls. During the day the clothing and other goods were insanely cheap, and they would haggle for even less. My walk away game is on point. At night these stalls would move their goods out on the streets and hike their prices way up. A dress I looked at during the day was 120,000 dom ($4), and at night that same dress was 900,000 dom (roughly $20).  So don’t buy at night. I bought a banana dress! The food here was quite similar except for a few changes. For example, northern Pho is not served with greens and lime, but southern Vietnam does do this. This city is split between the cheaper side and the wealthy side. The architecture left from the French can be found on the wealthier side, along with some amazing rooftop restaurants and bars. There is also a strip over in this area where the street will be closed down for traditional dance shows and other things.

For tourist attractions, there is the American War museum (as we know it the Vietnam War), the Independence Palace and Cu Chi Tunnels.  There is a Ho Chi Minh Museum, but we visited one in Hanoi so we skipped it. For the Cu Chi Tunnels, I would recommend doing a tour. The drive alone takes about two hours. For the tour, it is $7 with the transportation and English speaking guide included. You do have to pay the entrance fee, but that is only 110,000 dom. This was an amazing experience. They have on display about seven different traps the Vietnamese used, almost all of them containing sharpened metal bars that were somehow hidden in the ground. The most frightening was a five-foot deep dug out hole with sharpened bamboo hidden by a false door that resembled the earth.  Sometimes the Vietnamese would have to live in their tunnels underground for a few days to a few weeks so they built air shafts. They would use bamboo to push through the ground, then cover with dirt mounts leaving the bamboo endings slightly exposed. Their body odor would inevitably allow Americans to find them using dogs so the Vietnamese started putting chilies and spices to mess with the dog’s ability to locate them. However, the chili would cause the dogs to sneeze which the American’s learned was another way to locate a tunnel entrance. The Vietnamese had a tunnel that led under one of the American bases, so they would sneak out at night, steal clothing and cigarette butts from the American base and leave them around their ventilation shafts.  That way when the dogs came near, they would only smell the odors of the Americans. While we are walking through the jungle learning of these traps and tunnels, there is a gun range nearby where visitors can shoot the guns used in the war. To hear the guns going off nearby while hearing the stories of the soldiers made for a realistic vision. We then went to the gun range where Walter shot an M1 and we had a quick lunch. Afterward, it was time for a walk in the tunnels. The tunnels were so small we had to walk in a squat position the entire time. Every 20-40 meters we would come to a bunker where we could do a standing stretch before continuing on. Without our camera lights, the tunnels were absolutely pitch black. No light whatsoever. The guide informed us that the tunnels had actually been widened to accommodate the size of the tourists.  In reality, the tunnels used to only be no taller than 80 centimeters and no wider than 50 centimeters. The Asian population then was quite small. They would have to army crawl through these tunnels to get to the bunkers. Americans could not fit, so they would enlist the help of the Chinese or French (someone smaller) to crawl in a bit and look for signs of life. The soldiers also had to cook without having a smoke so their diet mostly consisted of rice and taro root. The war lasted 20 years. 20 years living like this! We visited the Independence Palace, but it only takes about an hour to do. There isn’t much to learn in the palace itself, but there is an Exhibit building next door that is more educational. The American War museum is a must-see when visiting HMC. I will warn you though, nothing here is censored. When you arrive the entrance fee is 30,000 I believe, and you need to start at the top floor and work your way down.  For this war they allowed more than 200 photographers to be on the front line and capture everything they could. There are pictures of bodies in the aftermath of explosions, shootings, and mass murder events. I had to leave the room a few times. On the next floor, you will find a room for Agent Orange and Phosphorus gas atrocities along with pictures of the aftermath of that current exposure and the next few generations of deformed descendants. Once again, it was quite difficult to take in all at once. The next room is for weapons used in the war and the costs of everything. The lower level is mostly excerpts from Americans that had fought in the war. Once outside you can walk through a mock set up of the imprisonment structures that were used to hold Vietnamese soldiers. Most of these involved barbed wire. This museum has to be the most heart wrenching educational experiences I have ever gone through. I’ve spent time working with a medical examiner performing autopsies, but this visit left me with heavy thoughts and a knotted stomach.  There was a memoir that was seemingly recommended in one of the rooms in the museum, In Retrospect the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam by Robert McNamara.  Overall I enjoyed HMC way more than I thought I would.  Along our journey through Vietnam, more than once I was told that HMC was worse than Hanoi.  People see things so differently these days. I do love receiving advice from fellow travelers, but I don’t think I would ever truly take their words to heart.  If I had listened to what everyone was saying, I would have missed out on some truly memorable experiences.

Pictured above: The shooting range and all of the shells afterwards. An example of getting into a tunnel from above ground. An open area of woods that was the result of a bomb blast. A sharpened bamboo false door trap.

Pictured above: tanks, weapons, and killing devices from the American War museum. LED screen filled with pictures of some missing in action or killed photographers on the front lines.

Pictured above: Meeting and reception halls of the Independence Palace.

The smog is so thick it tones down the sun. (This does not mean you can now stare at the sun)

Da Lat!

So this story starts out quite similar to the others.  I ended paying $2 more than our usual costs for a ride to the next place with Cat Thien Hai..  It was for a “limousine” with recliner chairs and lots of legroom! (See pics for guidance) However, when Walter and I arrived at the loading station for the limousine, every seat was taken so we had to cram in with the driver.  We ended up holding our smaller bags and could not stretch our legs out. I was pretty bummed, but also beginning to learn that hardly anything is going to work out to my expectations so I definitely need to learn to go with the flow.  I did email the company and provide a picture. They refunded me $4; I can’t complain. Halfway through our three-hour drive, we hear a weird noise. Walter immediately proclaims, “well that’s a flat tire”. He was correct. We luckily had a beautiful view along with the comical show.  The driver and his partner tried to lift the van with a jack, but shortly afterward the jack broke. Thankfully, a random kind stranger stopped and happened to own a jack! I think this is a common occurrence because the other three tires on the van were quite bald. Soon we were back on the road!

We stayed at the Redhouse Hostel.  The selling point was free breakfast and water.  At this point, I am tired of paying for water. A first-world privilege I now appreciate thoroughly.  There were five puppies! Which would end up making some uncomfortable situations later. All of the hostels and Airbnb’s we come across, they request to keep our passports for the duration of our stay which is out of the question to me!  We always finagle them back. This hostel wanted a one million dom deposit, which was more than double the cost of our stay, and the first time we have encountered this. Being that this is a mountain town the food was double the price of what we usually paid.  We ate at Thiet 168, Oz burgers, night market food, and Brew and Breakfast. These restaurants will be discussed more thoroughly under “Eatables” on the blog! But damn, I never thought I’d love vegan food so much. We rented a motorbike for one day to see the sights not locally near us.  We drove out to Pongour Falls and then learned that they had highways that motorbikes were not allowed on. We found this out only after we were on the road (the only motorbike on the road) and people were honking even more aggressively at us than usual. The falls were beautiful, and the entrance fee only 40,000 dom per person ($2).  It wasn’t so crowded due to tourists not wanting to travel this far away from the city. Afterward, we headed to the next falls, Datanla. They were beautiful, but the park was overrun with tourists and locals. The entrance fee here was only 30,000 dom (that is just for the falls). We then headed back to the hostel to play with the puppies before heading to the night market for dinner.  When in Dalat you will find that the locals and websites rave of the night market. It definitely isn’t worth the fuss, but I always feel as though travelers should experience all of this once. There were hundreds of people there! We parked our bike in a lot, and the parking guy asked us to keep the steering wheel unlocked, which I thought was sketchy. The market was 85% clothing with only a handful of cheap food options, and overpriced restaurants setting up shop, but not with cheaper prices.  Every now and then I will come across a food I have not yet seen on our travels. The corn balls were awesome! (Check out Eatables!) There were way too many people and with it just being clothing shops we decided to head back to the hostel. When we arrived back at the motorbike parking lot our bike had seemingly disappeared. I was freaking out! Even if it is a bike worth $200, they would charge us $1500 if something happened. After failing to find it for about ten minutes and the guy who parked it was adamant it was there, I decided to chase him down and make him come show me.  A minute later Walter thankfully located it. They had moved it to the other side of the aisle. I still do not know the reasoning for this, I was just so happy to see it.

PUPPIES!  Being surrounded by so many puppies was delightful!  However, the mom had become insanely aggressive, so anytime the puppies went near her teets, she attacked them to the point the puppies would be screaming, and occasionally a member of the owning family would kick her.  To plays devil’s advocate, the puppies’ teeth were quite sharp at this point! Poor teets. It is really hard to watch things like this and not get involved. This is not my culture and Walter and I agreed I cannot inject my beliefs on to them.  I also named one Walter because he loved being around my Walter!

Moving on.  While Walter is fascinated by the many temples of Asia, I on the other hand, want to experience nature and culture.  If you’re ever here definitely do the Countryside Tour. Dalat makes most of its income on flowers. You will see them everywhere, everyday of the year.  There are also a few hundred greenhouses smashed into this little mountain town to grow them all year long. Our first stop was one of these greenhouses to see the many different types of flowers they will grow.  Next was a village where a tribe still resided. I was pretty uncomfortable here. It was one of the poorest villages I had seen in Vietnam yet. The residents slept on a very thin mat on the dirt ground; some had no doors to their home.  The guide told us to take pictures. I did not want to treat these people like they were unknowing strangers on some TV show to entertain us so I found a local cat to play with instead. Next was a surprise. We stopped at a small village that feasted on crickets.  I never thought in my life I would find myself in this situation, but when you get the chance to experience the culture first hand, you simply cannot pick and choose when to participate! So, we ate fried crickets, sans breading, drank rice wine, rice wine brewed in a heaping helping of crickets, and Walter ate a cricket that had been soaked in rice wine.  Yup, that happened. I did not barf though; just spent the next hour getting cricket legs out of my teeth. We then visited a silkworm facility. This is how Vietnam makes their clothing and some for other countries. They literally go through millions of silkworms a year to make clothing! It is insane. One silkworm cocoon makes about one kilometer of silk, and they need anywhere from six to ten kilometers to make a shirt.  This country does not waste anything, so after they open the cocoon and kill the silkworm, they of course eat them. We visited a pagoda that held the tallest statue in Vietnam, standing 70 meters high (I don’t know the conversion either), and the biggest Buddha! We headed next door to Elephant falls which is a MUST see! You can take a super sketchy climb to the bottom of the falls, and go in a cave that is directly under the falls to feel its power.  Across the street we stopped for lunch. GAH! It was a smorgasbord for 100,000 ($4) a piece! For this one I will attach a picture! For our last stop we visited a coffee plantation. Weasels love eating the coffee cherry that holds two coffee beans on the inside. They don’t actually eat the beans, but poop them out. After this defecation the coffee beans are collected, cleaned, and brewed. The plantation has a few coffee brews that can only be found and bought in Vietnam.  They unfortunately keep the weasels locked up in cages and feed them the coffee cherries. One Polish tourist mentioned that this was inhumane and our guide quite sternly told her to accept it because this was their culture. This solidified my decision to not get involved. This marks the end of our tour, but it was the kind of experience I have been looking for!

During our time away for the day we had the hostel do our laundry.  We usually don’t have issues, but they lost two of Walter’s shirts, then the owner said it had to have been our fault.  Okay. We wouldn’t usually mind losing something, but we packed very little, so two shirts were a big part of his shirt cache.  Eventually a house cleaning employee found his shirts! As for me, during my stay I cut off part of my toe, but my bowels have finally calmed down!….to the point where they haven’t worked for five days.  I’ll take my wins where I can get them. We miss everyone back home, and I reallllllly miss Frank’s buffalo sauce, but it has still been an amazing adventure! Til next time!

Da Nang&Nha Trang!

The nightlife of Da Nang!

From Hue, we took our first train ride (2.5 hours) to get to Da Nang!  It was a beautiful ride that allowed us to see the lesser-known countryside.  It’s getting HOTTER! I am quite tempted to mail my winter clothing home at this point!  We mainly stopped to visit here to see the Dragon bridge that on Sundays at 9pm will shoot flames from its mouth then become a giant water cannon.  The thing that I admire most about Vietnam is their love of their culture. This dragon show, for example, it happens every single Sunday at the same time.  I figured the crowd would be made of travelers, but surprisingly it seemed as though half of the city joined. Even though they have probably seen this loads of times they still participate.  The food here is quite similar to Hue, which isn’t a surprise due to us traveling one major city south with the exception of Banh Xeo! It is a crispy pancake with seafood, vegetables and sauce wrapped up inside!  This city is referred to as the Silicon Valley of Vietnam. I myself haven’t been to the Silicon Valley of America, but this city seems to be quite further along in development than the previous cities we have visited.  Although to me, it seems similar to Vegas with a touch of New Orleans. Once the lights go down all of the city buildings light up with multicolored light shows along with Mardi Gras colored boats driving up and down the canal.  During our stay here in Vietnam, I have felt quite safe aside from a single pocket on my bag that always seems to be open after mingling in a crowd. However, I am not an idiot and would never put something in such an accessible location.  When we were in Da Nang Walter noticed a female local following us for roughly over half a mile. We even mimicked the crime shows of making random turns and street crosses, but she never strayed more than 20 feet behind us. We eventually made it to the water canal to linger in a safer location.  She stayed close to us and took a picture. We decided after that we should lose her, go back to the hotel and change clothes. This didn’t advance into a more serious scenario, but it did make me a bit more alert to what is going on behind me. We later attended the dragon show, which has a fire cannon, then sprays the crowd with a seriously powerful water cannon.  We also visited Marble Mountains which are multiple temples and caves carved into a single mountain structure. It was remarkable not only the work that went into this, but even the smallest details carved into these rocks! We got up close with a monkey and some bats! The monkey was just focused on destroying the trashcans and robbing people. We decided to head to Nha Trang next for a few beach bum days.  It is a twelve-hour bus ride so we did the overnighter again. We paid for the usual bus but got upgraded to a stellar sleeper. We were so excited to get a comfortable night’s sleep. Yeah right. The level of comfortability doesn’t rely so much on the bus as it does the driver. While this was the roomiest bus we have had yet, the driver made sure to hit every pothole possible along with beating the horn every few minutes.  Our previous drivers stopped honking after 10pm, but not this guy! He honked as though his life depended on it. We then arrived a bit early to our stop in his haste to get there (4am).  

First sunrise in Nha Trang!

Stepping off the bus at 4 am, at the wrong stop, nonetheless, I was not happy about being rushed by five old men trying to physically take my bag from me to put in their taxi.  I had to use my “work voice” to get them away. We then walked straight to the beach to watch the sunrise. Our Airbnb was actually an apartment to ourselves located in a quiet part of town.  The bus only ran until 6pm for 9,000 Dom so we made sure to be back every night by then so we weren’t forced to pay outrageous taxi fees. We found out the next day early in the morning that there was construction going on next door, of course.  When I said we wanted to be beach bums, I was being quite literal. We paid 100,000 Vietnamese Dom ($4) each to have a squishy chair and umbrella for the whole day, every day. It was nice to have these relaxing days as opposed to walking like ten miles a day exploring all the nooks and crannies.  There were constantly sellers sifting through everyone at the beach, but if you just act like you are sleeping they leave quickly. There was one lady walking the beach in full clothing including gloves and socks selling corn while she was cooking it! Along with the beautiful beaches and sunny weather, my ailments have finally decided to give me a break!  Our last night here we decided to try a hole in the wall bar down the street owned by a few Russians. We once again met and befriended the owner. People (locals and expats) love billiards in Vietnam. So naturally, everyone loves Walter. Once the owner and he hit it off, they invited us to have some shots of their vodka that they brought from Russia. I shit you not, I have never tasted a smoother vodka, I can see how they drink whole bottles so easily.  I tried to refuse but this Russian girl looked into my soul and said, “No, you drink this, and then you eat this sandwich.” I figured it would be impolite to refuse?! While traveling we are trying not to offend anyone since we do not know all of the minute details of their cultures. So when it came time to pay the bill, it was quite a bit more expensive than we expected. We tried to tell the bartender that the shots were supposed to be on the bar, but we decided not to upset any Russians tonight and just take this as a lesson learned.  Next time, I’ll get Walter to refuse for the both of us! It has been quite informative to talk to travelers from many different countries on their views of America/Americans. The only new addition to food choices was the addition of seafood. They like to eat jellyfish in their soups, and anytime shellfish is involved, they literally eat it with the shell on. I can’t live that way so I stuck to the usuals. Next stop, back to the mountains!

Learned Lessons

There have definitely been numerous lessons learned along this journey and it hasn’t even been a complete month yet!  I started researching Southeast Asia well over a year before our arrival date, and yet I still see and learn things I had not read about in my previous searches.  Or I will come across things that I had read of, but it was not entirely correct information. Let’s begin!

When we purchased our tickets, we had just bought “one-way” flights through a third-party website.  They appeared to be the cheapest. Looking back now, I wish I would have bought them directly through an actual airline, and paid a wee bit more for round trip airfare, but with flexible date booking so we could change the date back home for little to no extra cost.  When it comes to our luggage, we each brought a medium-sized bag that would fit America plane standards for carry on so we would never have to pay for checked baggage and a carry on bag. WRONG! Most airlines in Asia allow you to have a single carry on (carry on/personal are the same thing here) that weighed no more than 7 kilograms, and the second bag absolutely has to be checked.  If you only have a single bag all together and it is more than 7 kilograms, you have to check it. Knowing this now, we both wish we would have just brought our backpacking bags we use for camping as our checked luggage bag. Checked luggage here is only a few bucks as opposed to America’s OVERPRICED baggage fees so it isn’t a big deal. Next! Something I had to get used to right away is that personal space is ignored.  No matter where you are, someone will be touching you. I personally do not like to be touched so I try to fart on command, but this doesn’t always seem successful. Just get used to it. One thing I am going to strive to understand is why people cut in line. I will be standing directly behind a person in line, and a stranger will walk right up and stand in front of me. It isn’t a racial issue since I’ve seen people do it to anyone.  I was brave enough to try it one day! I was waiting in line to step on to a bus and a female came and got right in front of me. I calmly stepped out of line and got in front of her, which she then promptly left the line and stood about 10 feet away staring at me. Take that for whatever it means. When I am in line now, I stand so close to the person in front of me I may as well be hugging them, but that keeps the cutters away! One of the most important lessons I have learned is that the Vietnamese do not seem to change the sheets in between people staying in the rooms.  If the sheets look AT ALL disheveled ask for new ones, or better yet, just ask for new ones! When getting on a city bus, you have .03 seconds to get on or they will immediately leave you. You better be waiting on the curb, not the bench when you see that bus a-comin. Also, the drivers here are a bit crazy, but it’s good to know that every time you get on a city bus, you have medical insurance provided to you by the bus company as long as you’re on it. While there are public restrooms everyone, or WC’s as they call them, still carry your own toilet paper. Most toilets just have a bidet, but in scarier situations, I have encountered bathrooms with no bidet and NO TOILET PAPER!  Some of these were in restaurants! What are you people doing to wipe?? I think my favorite thing is free WIFI everywhere! Yeah sometimes it is slow, but it is literally everywhere! Even if it’s locked you just ask for the password, or the will have it taped to the wall. This is going to keep my phone bill so cheap! Come on America, get with it! When it comes to Airbnb’s, the owners either sugarcoat the room and amenities or forget to mention a few things. Like there is construction going on literally next door that starts when the roosters begin singing. We have learned to ask a few extra questions: Is there a curfew? Is there construction? Do you charge for electricity during our stay?  It doesn’t hurt to ask loads of questions! When looking for restaurants or food stalls on Google Maps or just plain Google, don’t trust the location it gives. It seems as though a lot of these places move kind of frequently. This has led to numerous events of us walking around looking for an exact place that just isn’t there anymore. We now use the “Foody” app that is up to date and will save you a lot of heartaches. Well, I think this is enough for now, hopefully, this helps any future travelers steer clear of issues, or at least give you a giggle at our expense! Til next time!   

Sapa!

After a 30-minute bus ride from our Cat Ba Airbnb, a 15 minutes ferry ride (where the driver smashed a panel of our bus getting on the ferry), and an eleven-hour overnight bus ride, we made it to Sapa!  If Greyhound hasn’t upped their standards for traveling through the night, they should rethink their designs because these overnight buses in Vietnam are awesome! You get a fully reclined seat, air conditioner, pillow, blanket, some have toilets, and the prices are insanely low.  Our eleven-hour ride was $10 a person, and they don’t charge extra for baggage. On top of all of this, you either have a smooth ride or one that is a bit crazier. This first time was a bit crazy. You can board this bus after you buy an online ticket, or you can stand anywhere along a road or bridge and hail the bus down to just jump on and pay cash.  Obviously, if there are empty seats the driver will want to make extra cash to fill them. Every bus has a driver and an extra man that stands by the door to make sure people take their shoes off, and when passing potential passengers on the street, this man will open the door slightly and yell quite loudly asking if they need a ride. Our driver, however, wanted to fill every crevice.  Even after every seat on the bus was filled the driver continued to pick up passengers and make them lay in the aisle of the bus. I guess if the riders don’t mind then why should we? Except that when they would stop for pee breaks, you would either have to step around these people somehow, or wake them up every time. We arrived in Sapa around 3 am, but the driver let us sleep on the bus until 6 am.  Probably because hostels do not accept check-ins that early! When we exited the bus it was a chilly 40 degrees with humidity and a torrential downpour of rain. We stayed at Sapa Signature Inn hostel. It had two kitties that lived there so I was happy. The rain would let up in enough incremental measures for us to explore a little at a time when it wasn’t foggy of course. If the fog moved in, you couldn’t see more than 10 yards at a time.  Every town you visit, there will be a type of solicitor coming after you constantly. In Hanoi, it was the donut lady, in Sapa, it was bike renters, and here it is tribal women trying to sell trinkets or offer to be our guide. They were quite persistent. Even if we didn’t make eye contact, they were coming for us. Not taking no for an answer, they would follow us for quite a distance before letting up, and I’m talking like 5 minutes at a time.  We couldn’t hide from them either, they were on every corner, and sadly they had their young children doing the same thing. Some of the kids would even be carrying an infant on their back to gain sympathy. I learned with the kids, I could give them cookies and they would not bother me. The mothers, however, I would just hide behind Walter and throw him to the wolves! Things in Sapa were easily double and triple the price of the bigger cities, I guess that mountain town price increase happens everywhere.  One place tried to charge us $5 for a black coffee, which here, the coffee is so strong they give you maybe a quarter cup of a large size Starbucks. The food was awesome. There was a line of street food where they had raw meat on skewers (most likely not safe), and you would choose what you wanted, then it would be grilled for you. They had a knack for creating new food styles. The bakeries were the best. We had a fresh croissant style bread with pizza makings on top! Yum! A few things Vietnamese people love that I will have to accept are selfies and karaoke.  Every single person you cross is taking a selfie and the public just accepts it! A girl literally stopped traffic on a road just to stand in the middle of the street to take a selfie! At first, I waited to let them take their pictures, but so many of them are doing it all the time, I know just photobomb everyone now. We gots places to see people. Someone is ALWAYS singing karaoke! Luckily a renowned rule is quiet time at 10 pm, but until then, I suffer.  

Alas!  I made it 15 days with no bowel issues!  So at this point, I have a sinus infection, rhinorrhea (love this word), and the intrusive D.  Of course, Walter and I ate all of the same foods, but he is fine. We were able to see some rice terraces, but the high peak season for those is in a few months, and we hiked to the top of a small mountain to see the city view and “cloud garden”.  The French invaded this area many moons ago which in turn left quite a bit of beautiful french architecture. Another common article we would encounter is watching out for rabies from all of the strays. While there are a large number of cats and dogs running around (and goats), they are all super sweet and quite chonky.  So I assume even though they are galavanting around the city, I do believe they are still fed and loved by somebody. After this, we are finally headed to warmer climates! So until next time, off to Hue!

Jamie