Crossing into Cambodia via the Mekong Delta

Taking a boat through the Mekong Delta

Taking a boat through the Mekong Delta

With a few days left before our Vietnam visas ran out, we wanted to figure out how to see some of the Mekong Delta while also getting ourselves across the Cambodian border and to Phnom Penh, our next stop. Planning all of this from Ho Chi Minh City during the end of Tet proved to make traveling a little more difficult than it normally would have been. After weighing our limited options we settled on a 2 day/1 night tour from HCMC through the Mekong Delta region that ended in Phnom Penh.
First boat en route from Chau Doc to Cambodian border.

First boat en route from Chau Doc, Vietnam, to a Cambodian border crossing.


Woman-powered boat ride

Woman-powered boat ride


John samples tea with natural honey on a bee farm.

John samples tea with natural honey on a bee farm.

This tour got mixed reviews on TripAdvisor and was pretty cheap for what it offered, but we figured as long as it got us from point A to point B it would be ok. The first day we felt a little beat up after being herded like cattle from one tourist stop to another. We were taken on tours of a coconut candy making operation, a rice crispy making operation, and a bee/honey farm, among others – with lots of touristy shopping options along the way.

After spending the night in one of the creepiest 1 star hotel rooms we’d had, and having several questionable meals, we were about to call the tour a complete bust. Then, on the final morning we began a series of boat rides from Chau Doc in Vietnam north along the Mekong river which would be our transportation for the last few hours to our designated border crossing into Cambodia. It was peaceful and beautiful and also felt like a great way to see a slice of real life along the Mekong. The boat trips more than made up for the previous day.

House in a floating village on the Mekong.

House in a floating village on the Mekong.


A tomato boat in a "floating market" on the Mekong

A tomato boat in a “floating market” on the Mekong

On a bamboo walkway we took to see a Muslim village and mosque in southern Vietnam.

On a bamboo walkway we took to see a Muslim village and mosque in southern Vietnam.


Mosque in southern Vietnam

Mosque in southern Vietnam


We passed these boys setting off a float for Tet.

We passed these boys releasing a float for Tet.

Built-up dirt path from the river to the first check point.

Built-up dirt path from the river to the first border check point.


Later on the (now-paved) path to the first check point.

Later on the (now-paved) path to the first border check point.

When we got off of the last boat, we were in Cambodia, and it was our most interesting border crossing of the trip. The extreme heat and more primitive physical conditions of this crossing made if feel like our most adventurous entry into a country.

We had to walk quite a ways on foot from the river to the first check point. Of course, we were snapping photos which quickly brought several guards running toward us forcefully screaming “no photo! no photo!” So we put the camera away and went through a second check point where our tour van and guide were waiting on the other side. How did it get there without us while we had to walk? We had no idea. At the second check point, one guard very slowly and meticulously approved the visas for each of us in our group of 7 while we patiently stood by with sweat running off of us in small rivers. Behind our guard, two officers were openly playing computer games. I’d like to think they were on a lunch break.

It was a long two days, but after our successful border crossing we were pretty happy to get into an air conditioned minivan for the final couple of hours to Phnom Penh.

At the first check point, before we were told to stop taking photos.

At the first border check point, right before we were told to stop taking photos.

This is one of the first sights we saw upon arriving in Phnom Penh.

And, this is one of the first sights we saw upon arriving in Phnom Penh.

Hot in Ho Chi Minh City

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

View of HCMC from our balcony at dusk.

Even during the lead up to Tet – a holiday wherein cities emptied out – Ho Chi Minh’s [aka Saigon's] streets flowed with scooter traffic. We were parked in a part of town that allowed easy access to both historical monuments and cramped alleyways stuffed with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, barbers, card players, pho eaters, hawkers, and tourists.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.

Street view of HCMC during Tet.


And it was hot. Over the space of 3 weeks, we had travelled almost 1,000 miles North to South. Nearly freezing temperatures in Sa Pa had become steaming hot in Saigon. And we had the 6th floor room in a 7 story walk up. We were happy for the small balcony which we spent quality time on in the evening.

The recent history between Vietnam and the US seemed to hover around many of our interactions and experiences. In Ho Chi Minh City, we would spend time exploring this, visiting some of Saigon’s historical buildings and heading outside the metropolitain area to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an area in Southern Vietnam where anti-American VietCong attacked Saigon, the capital in the South, from a network of small tunnels that finally ended up stretching 400km.

View of HCMC skyline

View of HCMC skyline


Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.

Common to see a whole family on a motorbike.


One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake). One of the many flower and snake displays for Tet (2013 is the year of the snake).


One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.

One of the restaurants we visited had an open kitchen across the alley from the front door.


At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

At the Vietnamese Reunification Palace.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual ones used during the Vietnam War.

A guide at Cu Chi tunnels showing the size of the actual tunnels used during the Vietnam War. The entire Cu Chi tourist area was thick with jungle vegetation and a shooting range on site gave tourists the opportunity to fire machine guns (for ~$1.75/bullet); the noise from the firing range combined with the intense heat and jungle setting offered an additional sensory experience to the history lesson.


And the tunnels the widened for tourists to go into.

And the tunnels they widened for tourists to visit. You could walk up to 100 meters in the tunnels but there were exits every 20 meters, and we found 20 meters was enough to give us the idea.

Buddhist Shrines and Hindu Grottoes

_DSC0716We rented motorbikes to get to Marble Mountain and at peppy speeds nearing 50kph (or 30 miles an hour) flew north up a four-lane highway that connected Hoi An to Da Nang. Offerings to ancestors littered the road as part of Tet. Fake paper cash, chocolate coins, glittering confetti, and other symbols of prosperity being ‘sent’ to the afterlife crept out into our lane. Most of it looked dangerous. Some of it was burning.

A karst formed of marble and limestone, Marble Mountain is twenty miles from Hoi An and topped with caves and tunnels filled with Buddhist sanctuaries, Hindu grottoes, and a Japanese pagoda or two. We were worried it would be too kitschy given the name but we ignored the hundreds of marble shops selling carvings of anything you could imagine and were pleasantly surprised. A long climb to the top rewarded us with odd paths leading to beautiful hidden treasures that our photos do a much better time of describing then these words do …

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

This is the view of several of the surrounding Marble Mountains from the one that is open to the public. There are five total.

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain

First set of stairs leading up to Marble Mountain. Stairs in Asia are almost never even or the same size.


Large Buddha on Marble Mountain

Large Buddha on Marble Mountain. Don’t be fooled by the perspective; John’s head is not bigger than the Buddha’s.

Tiled dragon

Tiled dragon

Another view from Marble Mountain (this is also the site of 'China Beach' from the Vietnam War)

Another view from Marble Mountain (below is ‘China Beach’ well known from the late 80s TV show ‘China Beach’, also the Vietnam War)


Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave.

Even larger Buddha inside of a partial cave. (No, behind John.)


This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it.

This large cave with a hole in the top had several shrines and even a little structure built into it. No Well of Souls but we had left behind our Staff of Ra.


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View of the centerpiece of the large cavern above.

Above us the centerpiece of the large cavern.

Sunrise Over Cham Ruins

_DSC0513 I’ve always been a big fan of visiting ruins from former civilizations, and taking a trip to see the Vietnamese equivalent of Ankgor Wat or Chichen Itza did not disappoint. The indigenous ‘Cham’ people controlled a large part of now-central Vietnam until 1832. Mỹ Sơn (pronounced Me Son in English), near Hoi An, is the largest site of Cham ruins and was considered to be the religious center of the Champa Dynasty. The ruins date back to the 4th through the 14th Century and Mỹ Sơn is an homage to the Hindu god, Shiva. Interestingly, Buddhism was adopted as the official religion for a few centuries in the middle, and by the end of their reign most Cham people had converted to Islam.

'My Son' Cham Ruins

‘My Son’ Cham Ruins

Shiva. Looters always seemed to destroy or steal the heads from all of the ruins we visited.

A bust of the god, Shiva. Looters always seemed to destroy or steal the heads from all of the ruins we visited.

We grudgingly awoke at 4:30 am to get to the ruins by sunrise. There were only two other people on our tour, and the four of us were the only people at the ruins.

The chill in the air, the mist hovering over the ground, a trickling brook, and the long forest path took us centuries away from the large parking lot. We arrived in the ruins to find them hugged, almost reclaimed by the lush jungle they were carved into many years ago. We listened to the guide’s short talk and then he allowed us to explore on our own. Being there for the morning crescendo of chirping birds and buzzing bugs while the sun rose over the intricate and crumbling ruins was peaceful and thrilling at the same time. For me, it was spiritual.

My favorite building. Of course it was the library.

My favorite building. Of course it was the library.

At sunrise

At sunrise

Our guide, no doubt laughing at one of his own jokes. He was a good guide, but I think there were a few things lost in translation.

Our guide, no doubt laughing at one of his own jokes. He was a good guide, but I think some of the humor was lost in translation.

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More detail on the side of the library

More detail on the side of the library

Some of the ruins are still being excavated (left); and the big hole at the bottom of the photo is a crater from a US carpet bomb.

Some of the ruins are still being restored (left); and the big hole at the bottom of the photo is a crater from a US bomb. We dropped many bombs on this site because the Vietcong used it as a headquarters.


Even the path getting to and from the ruins was spectacular. It was a very long walkway bordered by rows of towering trees, giving it a sort of fairytale feeling.

Even the path getting to and from the ruins was spectacular. It was a very long walkway bordered by rows of towering trees, giving it a sort of fairytale feeling.

Catching Our Breath in Hoi An

DSC03992Maybe it was because we were at the halfway point of our trip, or maybe it was because we’d finally gotten adjusted to being on the road, or simply because Hoi An was just that great. For whatever the many reasons, I really loved Hoi An and while we were there I felt like things finally clicked. Lots of things came together that allowed us to finally feel relaxed and more in the moment.

Thu Bon River

Thu Bon River


Hoi An has a lot going for it. This town of a little over 120,000 people is in the center of Vietnam, and sits on the eastern coast between a river and the ocean. While we were there, the weather was perfect, our hotel was both awesome and cheap (and at 8 days, it marked our longest stay in one hotel), we were near a really quaint riverfront, and we were also a few minute bike ride from the beach. Not to mention the food was really good and there was lots of good shopping.

on the riverfront

on the riverfront


Once a major SE Asian trading port town, Hoi An has a very well-preserved historic town center because the river’s connection to the sea silted up a couple hundred years ago, essentially freezing it in time. Today, strict preservation rules keep it from being changed too much and it’s a really beautiful town. I loved that it was just bustling enough to feel exciting and not boring, yet small enough to get around on foot or bicycles. Maybe it was the pleasant sunny weather, or my frame of mind while we were there, or the fact that most locals there are considerably more wealthy than the average Vietnamese person, but everyone seemed really friendly and happy. I loved biking around the town, seeing street after street filled with atmostpheric hanging lanterns, and row upon row of beautiful flowers for the new year. It would’ve been really difficult not to love this town.

Here I'm wearing the skirt I had made, with a hand-painted design.

Here I’m wearing the skirt I had made, with a hand-painted design. I had everything else mailed home.

Hoi An is also world famous for its tailors, who can sew up anything you desire in about 24 hours. There are over six hundred tailor’s shops around the town. I had a few things made that ended up fitting me like a glove and turned out well, but at the end of the day it was a mixed experience. Shipping the clothes turned out to be more expensive than I was led to believe it would be (the cost kept going up the closer and closer I got to handing over my credit card). My tailor turned out to be a bit shady, and I had to threaten to leave a bad review for her on TripAdvisor in order to end the negotiating and get her to agree to mail my stuff home. It was more disappointing than anything, given that I thought we’d developed a friendly rapport over the 3 or 4 days that I came in and out for fittings, but I think she saw an opening and tried to take advantage of my friendliness. At the end of the day I got some cute clothes that were handmade to fit me perfectly, but I did pay for the experience.

We also happened to be in Hoi An for the first few days of Tết, or the Vietnamese New Year. This made it an especially festive time to be in Vietnam, and Hoi An in particular. They had a lantern festival on the river, a special large bonsai tree display, and the whole town was just filled to the brim with flowers the whole time we were there.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!


We stayed in Hoi An for a little over a week. We relaxed at the pool, swam at the beach, took a few lovely bicycle rides through beautiful rice paddies, planned out our next few weeks, and took a couple of cool day trips to see some ancient Hindu ruins and Buddhist temples, more on those in another post.
New friends! Hanging out with Chris and Kate, from S. Africa

New friends! Hanging out with Chris and Kate from S. Africa, who we met on our Ha Long Bay boat cruise


John went into these rice paddies to take photos of the women in the fields, and then this farmer talked him into donning the traditional hat. He was a character; he kept touching John's goatee and chest hair, and then even slapped his butt - all while laughing hysterically. Of course he then wanted money, but he settled for taking our half empty bottle of water. I hope he gave it to one of those women doing the work.

John went into these rice paddies to take photos of the women in the fields, and then this farmer talked him into donning the traditional hat. He was a character; he kept touching John's goatee and chest hair, and then even slapped his butt – all while laughing hysterically. Of course he then wanted money, but he settled for taking our half empty bottle of water. I hope he gave it to one of those women doing the work.

Bridge over the river at night

Bridge over the river at night


Every night women and kids would sell these floating lanterns for making New Years' wish.

Every night women and kids would sell these floating lanterns for sending out on the water and making New Years’ wishes.


2013 is the year of the snake

2013 is the year of the snake


Another of the many interesting lanterns in the lantern festival

Another of the many interesting lanterns in the lantern festival


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At the beach. It was a really beautiful and oddly unpopulated spot. There were lots of fishermen and this one in particular was struggling to get his boat in - we couldn't believe he was doing it on his own.

At the beach. It was a really beautiful and oddly unpopulated spot. There were lots of fishermen and this one in particular was struggling to get his boat in – we couldn’t believe he was doing it on his own.

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Cruising Ha Long Bay

DSC03874One of the things we knew we had to do in Northern Vietnam was see Ha Long Bay. We bought a tour from the same company we used for Sa Pa, which included transportion from Hanoi (4 hours in a minibus) and a cruise lasting about 24 hours on a restored Chinese Junk boat through Ha Long Bay. Our cruise actually continued onto the less touristy and less crowded Ban Tu Bay, where we docked for the night before heading back. It is really hard to describe how amazing it was to glide through the emerald green waters of these bays through the 2,000 limestone karsts and islands rising out of them. It was a pretty surreal experience for us and well worth the cost.

DSC03881The karsts in the bay have been formed by the elements for over 500 million years, but the name “ha long” means “descending dragon” and legend has it that the bays were formed when Vietnam was a nascent country and the gods sent dragons to protect it. The dragons are said to have spit out jewels and jade along the coast, which made the karsts and islets that dot the harbor and stopped many ships from attacking. Over 1,500 people live throughout the bay in fishing villages, and we got to visit one out in Bai Tu Long Bay on our second day. It has to be a hard life out there on the water, especially during storms. We learned that teachers come in from the mainland to teach in the small school, and if there are medical emergencies, speedboats can get to them from the mainland in about a 1/2 hour to take patients to a hospital.

Small boat taking us to the bigger boat.

Small boat taking us to the bigger boat.

Aside from the excitement of getting to see this amazing place, we had a great time on our cruise because of the people we met. Kate and Chris from South Africa were on a similar trip route so we ended up spending an evening in Hanoi with them because we were all taking the night train down the coast the next day. We had so much fun with them that we also hung out a couple times in Hoi An. (If you’re reading – hope you had a great rest of your trip!) We also met some of our first Americans on the trip and really hit it off with Holly and Elena, two awesome moms who were traveling together for a short vacation. The six of us had dinner together before our train in Hanoi, and Holly and Elena generously bought dinner for the backpackers on a budget. It was a fun night and it turns out Holly lives near John’s hometown so we hope our paths will cross again. There were lots of other fun folks on that trip, and as we’ve learned along the way – the people you meet can really make an experience so much more fun than when it is just a sightseeing trip.

The Treasure Junk, our home for about 24 hours.

The Treasure Junk, our home for about 24 hours.

limestone karsts in Ha Long Bay Ha Long Bay

On the deck of the Treasure Junk

On the deck of the Treasure Junk


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kayaking among the karsts

kayaking among the karsts

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We stopped at an islet with a beach. John was one of the few people who braved the cold water and took a swim.

We stopped at an islet with a beach. John was one of the few people who braved the cold water and took a swim.


Kayaking back to our boat

Kayaking back to our boat


He also jumped in again once we were back on board the boat.

He also jumped in again once we were back on board the boat.

From the boat

From the top of the boat

Boats we took to visit the fishing village in the bay.

Boats we took to visit the fishing village in the bay.


Nearing the village

Nearing the village


House in the fishing village

House in the fishing village

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Trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam

View from our hotel.

View from our hotel.

From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Sa Pa, near the Chinese border. The town looks like a ski town in the spring. At 5,200 feet above sea level, it has beautiful mountains and plenty of fog that provide breathtaking views. Back when the French controlled Vietnam, some used to vacation here during summers and they dubbed it “the Tonkinese Alps.” Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam and the Indochina peninsula, is also here. In addition to the beautiful landscape, Sa Pa is well-known for its concentration of ethnic minorities, of which the largest are the Black Hmong and the Red Dao.

DSC03778Once off the overnight train, we left our stuff at the hotel, put on as many layers as we could, and headed out with our tour guide, Won. This was the coldest place we’d been so far, and our wardrobes weren’t quite prepared for it. I wore my rain jacket over my fleece, over two long sleeved shirts, over a t-shirt, and I still never really got warm!

We were lucky and ended up on a tour with just us and Won, and we also never saw any other tour groups because his company tries to take their customers further off the beaten path for a better experience.

John with our trek guide, Won

John with our trek guide, Won

We were accompanied on our hike, however, by May, a local Red Dao (pronounced Zhao) woman who makes handicrafts and sells them for a living. She was very friendly, spoke quite well in English, and pretty much stuck by my side and chatted me up the whole hike. I learned all about her husband’s health, the fact that she was raising her grandchildren, and that sadly one of her daughter’s had kind of left her when she got married. I knew I was being sucked into her game and that she would want me to buy something, but I really liked her and it would’ve been difficult not to talk to her given we were the only people there. And, since she was walking right beside me, she also kept me from falling on slippery rocks a few times. I did think it was odd how she was interacting (or not interacting, as it were) with our guide, and John and I were both a bit confused as to whether this was part of the ‘tour,’ or what was going on …

Me and May by my side

Me and May by my side

Briefly explaining his views on her presence, our guide stopped abruptly at one point with May beside us to tell us how annoying he and the tourists found the fact that the local tribeswomen did this, because, as he explained, they were just trying to sell you stuff and would push you to buy something at the end. Awkward! He told us if we didn’t want anything we shouldn’t feel we had to buy something. I have to hand it to May, she kept a completely straight face during this whole explanation and didn’t show embarrassment or any sign that this was uncomfortable for her, nor did she walk away or leave us alone. Knowing this was all part of her livelihood, and already feeling a bit of a bond with May since we’d spent several hours with her, I on the other hand was feeling really uncomfortable. I was mentally gearing up for when she started her hard sell. I was really hoping she would have something in that basket that I liked at the right price, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of this situation without buying something from May.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch. The Red Dao women traditionally shave the front of their hair and their eyebrows, which is considered a sign of beauty.

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Wearing the scarf I bought from May.

I ended up buying the scarf I’m wearing here from May. It worked out because I really liked it, and I was freezing so I could further justify purchasing it. Our guide later told me that at $12, I paid double what I should’ve, but he also said that it was good I bought something because I was helping her out by buying it. To be sure, I haggled hard with her and she really wouldn’t come down anymore, so it wasn’t like I didn’t try. And really, it seemed an ok amount to spend, especially given the amount of time she’d invested in us (even if it was unsolicited). And since the scarf wasn’t something she made (the traditional weaving of the Red Dao took months to complete so those items were super expensive) she also gave both of us a ‘friendship’ bracelet with a Red Dao pattern on it, which we’ve been wearing ever since.

In the end, we trekked through lots of mud, over many rocky paths, all in the midst of amazingly beautiful terraced rice fields on the hills. The lines of the terraced rows seemed to curve endlessly and made such beautiful geometric-looking fields. It was pretty stunning.

terraced rice fields

terraced rice fields


On the trek

On the trek


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more terraced rice fields

more terraced rice fields


hill tribe kids playing hopskotch

we passed these hill tribe kids playing hopskotch on our hike


and some more ...

and some more rice fields …

We had signed up for a tour that included two days of “light trekking” around the mountains and into the villages. By mid-afternoon on our first day, we had hiked about 10 miles in the misty rain, and over muddy, hilly and rocky terrain, all after sleeping less than normal on the overnight train the night before. After getting us back to our hotel, Won asked us if we wanted to meet at 9am again tomorrow — and John and I looked at each other and knew one day of light trekking was enough for us. It was great, but my knees needed a break and we both also wanted to just enjoy the cute little town of Sa Pa since we had to leave on the night train out the next evening. So Won got the day off and John and I relaxed in the little town. Of course, it was gorgeous and sunny the second day we were there, but it made for a great day in the town.
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The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

Vietnamese chalet

Vietnamese chalet

Watching the fog roll into town.

Watching the fog roll into town.

Experiencing Hanoi

If our leisurely slow boat on the Mekong River into Laos was an appropriate foreshadowing for the sleepy feel of that country, then our frantic-feeling Hanoi Airport taxi pick-up was about the right introduction to Vietnam.

Taking a great city tour in an open air electric bus.

Taking a great city tour in an open air electric bus.


After arriving late Sunday night, we awoke on Monday morning to a voice blaring from the many loudspeakers lining the streets. We stepped out onto our balcony in the drizzling rain and wondered if something was happening that we should know. But no one seemed to be paying any attention and we later learned from a guide that these were government announcements to the citizens; a way they could pass on “helpful news.” We didn’t quite get used to these loudspeakers, but we tried to ignore them like everyone else.

All of the motorbikes get parked on the sidewalks, which makes walking on them a bit more challenging.

All of the motorbikes get parked on the sidewalks, which makes walking on them a bit more challenging.

The eerie big brother speaker system nor the coldest weather on our trip so far could dampen our excitement to be in Vietnam, so we put on all the layers we had and set out to explore. We didn’t plan to stay in Hanoi long, so we wanted to get a feel for it while also figuring out how to get out to see Ha Long Bay and decide whether there was anywhere else we should go in the north before heading south.

It is hard to describe it any other way: Hanoi is the most intense city I’ve ever experienced. All the motorbikes and bicycles and pedestrians whizzing by are enough to make your head spin, then add incessant honking of horns and you can barely walk or think straight. As John described it, imagine a mix of NYC’s Chinatown with New Orleans’ French Quarter, then add thousands of people on bikes and motor scooters. We absolutely loved it.

The frenetic pace actually can be pretty fun. As long as you have your head in the game when you walk around and cross the streets, it all goes surprisingly smoothly. There aren’t any stoplights, or well, traffic rules, but you are supposed to just slowly step out into the street and cross at a steady pace, and the traffic will just go around you. One of the more amazing and surreal experiences I’ve had in my life was that of stepping out into oncoming traffic and watching the motorbikes and bicycles just flow around me like a school of fish swimming around a rock. That is just how it is done, and it works out because there are very few cars. It goes against everything we’ve been taught about crossing the street, but you just have to walk in and keep a steady pace. The first few times of stepping out into oncoming traffic can be pretty daunting. Well, who am I kidding, it was always a little nerve-wracking, but you get used to it going well so it gets easier.

Notre Dame Cathedral (in Hanoi)

Notre Dame Cathedral (in Hanoi)

While it is very high energy and loud, the city is also very beautiful and has a mystical feel to it. I’m sure the misty fog added to that, but there are lovely old vine-covered trees everywhere as well as ancient stone statues and pagodas mixed in with all the modern buildings. Also, I kept having weird deja vu moments of Paris, because of all the French influence.

It turned out that having some planning to do gave us a good excuse to stop every few hours and have food or drinks and just watch the city go by. We also had fun trying some new cuisine and really enjoyed the noodle dishes (Pho), and also had some amazing spring rolls, which were different in Vietnam than those we’d had so far. Aside from the piece of glass that ended up in John’s omelet one morning (and which he luckily found in his mouth before it went too far or did any damage), we liked the food a lot more than in Laos. One thing we noticed right away was how much richer it was than the Lao or Thai food, and we guessed it was from more butter. But we’re not sure. Not really much spice, but that was ok with me.

We didn’t venture too far outside of the Old Quarter in Hanoi, and we stayed about three days total after leaving and coming back twice on trips out to Ha Long Bay and up to Sa Pa in the north. We had a great time, and given how intense Hanoi is, seeing it in a few short doses seemed just right.

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Pagoda (Turtle Tower) in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Pagoda (Turtle Tower) in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Huc Bridge to Jade Island in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Huc Bridge to Jade Island in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake.

Having a cappuccino lakeside.

Having a beer and a cappuccino lakeside.


Another stop at an outdoor cafe.

Another stop at an outdoor cafe.


And of course, trying the local brew.

And of course, trying the local brew.

Old Quarter street

Old Quarter street

Typical nighttime scene of folks eating Pho (noodle soup) at one of the many sidewalk eateries.

Typical nighttime scene of folks eating Pho (noodle soup) at one of the many sidewalk eateries.

One of the many kitchens that open right out on the street in Hanoi

One of the many kitchens that open right out on the street in Hanoi

We were really impressed with the sheer quantity of things the Vietnamese loaded onto bicycles and motorbikes.

We were really impressed with the sheer quantity of things the Vietnamese loaded onto bicycles and motorbikes.


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A Delicate Balance

Hanoi traffic

Hanoi traffic


In order to get to Vietnam, we decided to forego what sounded like a 30+ hour bus ride and a difficult border crossing and took a one hour flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam.

We’d also read a lot and even heard firsthand stories about Hanoi taxi scams (especially at the airport), so we arranged for a taxi pick-up through our hotel. After waiting about an hour for our driver we were worried he was not going to show. Another nice taxi driver noticed our anxiety and walked up to help us. Using charades and props, he pointed to his phone and we showed him the number of our hotel and our names. He presumably called our hotel and confirmed that a taxi was on the way.

Shortly after that, a taxi driver came running up to the guy who made the phone call and then came over to us. I have to say I was very unsure whether he was really our driver or if this “helpful” guy had called a friend to either help us out and get the fare, or, to scam us. Anything seemed like a possibility. So, we had a very unclear conversation (still no common language) with the new taxi driver, but we didn’t really know what else to do so we followed him.

Not really even waiting on us to decide what to do, he quickly grabbed my back pack and put both straps on and took off walking very quickly outside the airport. It didn’t necessarily feel like he was trying to lose us, but he certainly wasn’t paying attention to whether we were still behind him and we actually had to run to keep up with him. We wouldn’t have thought it so weird if it was a short walk and we weren’t already nervous something wasn’t right. We were really going quite far from the airport and we kept yelling to get his attention and ask him to confirm he was from our hotel, but he ignored us and just kept fast-walking away from the airport and passed all the cars lined up outside. It is fair to say that my suspicions are escalating at this point.

Hanoi Old Quarter.

Finally, we got to a taxi where someone else was idling behind the wheel, and I immediately worried that he was going to throw my bag in and speed off without us. So, naturally, I aggressively grabbed my pack from him and made sure that didn’t happen. Once in the taxi, we took some deep breaths. Of course, we’re still not sure this guy is the one we arranged, but at least we’re in the same taxi as our bags.

After a short drive, we did a quick U-turn at an opening of some concrete barriers in the middle of the road. This was confusing, but again we have no idea where we are and which direction we should be heading. We then drove back past the airport and where he picked us up and started to pull over into a dark, empty, gravel parking lot with a closed fence around it. At this point, I’m mentally freaking out with visions racing through my head of being mugged and stranded deep in this empty parking lot. The car stopped at the gate and in a flash of activity the driver hopped out and ran across the street, our guy crawled over to the driver’s seat, turned the car around, and we were driving off in the other direction again.

Ok, that could’ve gone so much worse and now we’re breathing more calmly. I’m happy to report that nothing else happened and we made it to the hotel just fine. To summarize what actually happened here: the ‘helpful’ taxi driver who made the phone call for us at the airport was, in fact, helpful. Our taxi driver was really late to get us, so he had a friend of his who works at the airport sit in his car in an ‘illegal’ parking spot so he could run in and find us. But then he couldn’t drop him off in the correct spot without backtracking because of the concrete dividers in the middle of the road. Really not a complicated scenario at all, unless you are arriving after dark, tired, unable to speak a word of the language, and on guard against nefarious taxi drivers from the beginning because your head is full of stories of scams. To be fair to us, there was a lot of weird and confusing stuff that happened here, and I’m sure there truly are some terrible taxi scams. I’m not sure we could’ve or should’ve done anything any differently in this situation, aside from learning Vietnamese (though I was certainly embarrassed about the mistrustful way I grabbed my pack from him). It turned out that no one was trying to hurt us or even scam us. In fact, everyone in this story was helping us get where we wanted to go.

DSC03720This is probably one of my least favorite parts of traveling – the art of finding the right mix of being smart and cautious in the face of seemingly endless stories of theft and scams, while also trying to maintain a little trust in humanity and not approach every person or situation with suspicion. It is a delicate balance. We’ve been extremely lucky so far and have met so many wonderful and helpful people, yet we try to always remember to keep our wits about us. The Hanoi airport taxi pickup was probably one of dozens of examples we have on our trip of how something so simple can be downright unnerving when there is no communication and we don’t understand what is happening.

I think this taxi experience was also one of many reminders we’ve had (see also our Shanghai airport layover experience) that things usually work out in the end because most people are genuinely trying to help us get where we want to go. When you’re traveling around on foreign soil and unable to speak the language at all, things are bound to feel confusing and downright scary sometimes. It is all part of the experience.

Exploring in Vang Vieng, Laos

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

Heading to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang

It’s about 100 miles from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. Most of it is through rugged mountains, looping back and forth along high ridge lines and around immense limestone karsts. So the 100 miles takes about 6 hours.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

View along the route from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. This was probably our most harrowing bus ride yet.

bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Bathroom break on our bus ride from LP to VV

Vang Vieng sits on the Nam Song river, a beautiful stretch of clean, cool water that flows at the feet of large karst mountains. Rock climbing is becoming a major business and there are quite a number of caves to explore. It also has a reputation for being a party town. If you’ve heard of bars where episodes of Friends or Family Guy play on endless loops and dazed backpackers stare on inebriated – this is that town. Or at least it was. Over the last decade tubing down the Nam Song river has become one of the main draws of the backpacker set. Run by a collective representing each of the towns in the area, a good deal of the money actually goes back to locals. It starts about 7km outside of town and up until this summer, most of the route was lined with bars, dancing platforms, rickety zip lines, rope swings, and “water” slides. Mix in a liberal drug policy and you can see why one of the largest concrete slides was nicknamed, “the slide of death.” But after 20 deaths in under a year (and perhaps the untimely death of an official’s niece), in September 2012 the government came in and literally tore down all the bars along the river.

The town’s reputation was enough to keep it off our list but after talking with some fellow travelers and hearing about the changes, we decided to give it a try. Tubing down the river on our first day was the perfect combination of laziness and sightseeing. On our second day, we decided to go slightly farther afield and rented motor bikes to go explore the caves dotting the surrounding area.

sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

Sunset over the Nam Song river the night we arrived

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One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

One of the bridges on the Nam Song river crossing over to a small island that had a few bungalows/guest houses

Getting ready to go tubing down the river on old tractor inner tubes

Getting ready to go tubing down the the Nam Song river on old tractor tire inner tubes

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

 getting ready to climb lots of steps to see the Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

Getting ready to climb lots of steps to see Xang Cave, just on the edge of town

view from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

View from the top of the steps at Xang Cave

area at the  base of the stairs to Xang cave

At the base of the stairs to Xang cave

in the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave, Tham Phoukam

In the middle of a MUCH more strenuous climb to the second cave outside of town, Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

At the mouth of Tham Phoukam

decked out in the headlamp

Decked out in the headlamp

inside Tham Phoukam

Inside Tham Phoukam

large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

Large Buddha altar inside Tham Phoukam

taking a break on our motorbike ride back into town

Taking a photo break on our motorbike ride back into town

 Sharing the road.

Sharing the road

Don't worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

Don’t worry Mom, I was very careful when taking photos while driving!

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

A few more scenes of the river, in the morning

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