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Around the world travel, Backpacking, Border Crossing, Bucket List, long term travel, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Walking Across the Cambodian Border

After getting off the boat from Phu Quoc, we made our way to the bus station in Rach Gia but found very little information on how we were going to get to our final destination (Phnom Penh, Cambodia). Often times, this isn’t that worrying because there are either other backpackers going the same way, or an information booth, or someone who knows what’s going on who can help you. Here, none of the above could be located. There were a couple of empty buses with signs in the window indicating they were going in our direction, but it didn’t look like they were going anywhere fast. In fact, all we could find was an old beat up white minivan that was going where we needed to go, and it was leaving in five minutes and it was cheap. So we hopped on.

I managed to snag the passenger seat upfront, which may have made for a more comfortable journey, that was until the driver ran flat over a chicken in the road. Ok, at least it was a chicken. After about 3 ½ hours, we pulled into the border town of Chau Doc. It was here that a hotel owner jumped on to the bus and informed us that there was no way we were going to make it to Cambodia that afternoon, so we should just make plans to stay at his hotel and make a reservation for the boat to Phnom Penh for the following day. I was fuming. We had about another 15 minutes until we arrived in town, and a lady on the bus handed me a hand-written note, obviously trying to inform me of what I could do instead, but it was in Vietnamese, so at that point in time, I didn’t know what to do.
We got off the bus and followed this hotel manager, who wanted to be ever so helpful in getting us a room and getting the commission off our boat ride to Phnom Penh the next day, but I was adamant that there had to be a way around this and another way to get to our final destination that day.

I wasn’t sure what was making me so adamant about making it to Phnom Penh. I think it was a combination of a bad experience in Phu Quoc and the fact that I didn’t want to have to spend ANOTHER day in transit. So I decided to find out if Mr. Hotelier was indeed telling us the truth. I walked a few doors down to a tourist office and they gave me the same information on the boat that the guy at the hotel had. Then, I began to talk to some kids in the street who told me there was indeed a land crossing and they could take me there by bike, where I could walk across the border and then get another bike to a small town the other side where I could find transport to Phnom Penh. I also showed them the note that the Vietnamese lady on the bus had written me, which they translated for me, and I learned it said basically the same thing. (Bless her. I’m constantly amazed at the kindness of strangers)

Ok, we had to move quickly. It was pushing 3:30, and the border crossing was a 30 minute drive by bike, and it closed at 4:00, so with no hesitation, I jumped on the bike, well, after they debated who was actually going to take me. Then, I got to experience again the art of balancing a backpack on a motorcycle. The driver took my big backpack, placed it between his feet, and I hopped on the back of the bike with my smaller backpack on. I guess the driver was stressed we weren’t going to make it in time, because he proceeded to drive like a madman, and I started to doubt I was going to make it to the border alive.

As we pulled up, a driver from the Cambodia side approached us, and it was sort of like I was handed off. I showed my passport and paperwork to a man in a booth on the Vietnam side, walked about 100 yards, filled out an immigration form and presented my passport and paperwork to the man in the Cambodian booth. As I was getting ready to leave, the man stopped me, and I got a little nervous because I’d heard that it was normal for them to request “additional processing fees, “on top of what you’ve already paid for your visa. But all he wanted to do was take my temperature as a preventative measure against H1N1. Phew!

So my Cambodian bike driver was waiting for me the other side, and we jumped on the bike. I asked him where my helmet was (he had one, shouldn’t I?). He said, “Don’t worry, this is Cambodia, you no need helmet here. “I then proceeded to make him give me his.

We drove about 20 minutes to a small town where I could get a ride to Phnom Penh. So, I was handed off again, and began the 2 hour journey to the capital of Cambodia. First impressions, this place was so green, but then again it was the end of wet season, but the rice fields seemed to be so green, they glowed. And, the land was flat for miles and miles. I don’t think we hit an incline once.

About one hour into the journey, I was feeling starving, like painfully hungry. I knew we only had an hour to go, but I realized the only food I had eaten the whole day were the crackers they gave us on the boat ride over from Phu Quoc. It was now reaching 5:00 and my stomach was rumbling. Unfortunately, my driver spoke no English, so I began a miming game with him, and as we drove through the next village, he eventually stopped and we ventured into a small market where all I could find was a huge box of animal crackers, which we shared on the rest of our journey.

I checked into Royal Guesthouse that night, which was $ 7 a night. Ok, it was sparse, but clean and central, and you can’t beat that! After 12 hours of travel, I ordered a cold Angkor Beer (the national beer) and shortly thereafter nodded off, still hearing the sounds of cars beeping in my sleep.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Phu Quock, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam, Wet Season

Phu Quoc Island, aka “F*ck off Island”

I suppose the title of this entry says enough. This wasn’t the highlight of the trip, by any stretch of the imagination. We left Saigon looking forward to some beach time, some time to just catch our breath, chill out and top up the tans that were gradually starting to fade from Ko Tao. More than that, we were expecting a beautiful island, similar to the islands of Thailand, but that’s not what was in store for us.

We left Saigon at 11pm on an overnight bus. There were no sleepers this time, and the bus proceeded to stop multiple times, and each time it stopped we were forced to exit the bus and wait until it was time to leave again…not fun. We arrived in Rach Gia, which was moments away from where the boat left for Phu Quoc. The weather didn’t look too terribly bad, but we had seen the forecast, and it didn’t look pretty. Still, weather is finicky and we were being optimistic.

We boarded the hovercraft and were told the journey would take 1 ½ – 2 hours. Then the Jackie Chan movies began to play, with the loudest Vietnamese subtitles possible. We put in earplugs and managed to get some shut eye on the way over, but awoke to the smells of vomit filling the bottom area of the boat where we were sitting. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and the seas were choppy, and for some passengers it was just too much. Fortunately we didn’t have too much longer to go, but the rain was getting heavier by the minute.

We docked at a pier, donned our ponchos, and made a run for the men standing nearby yelling at us to come to their guesthouse. We had done a little bit of reading in Lonely Planet as to where to stay, but we were at the mercy of these men, seeing as it was pouring down now, and we just needed to get somewhere. On the drive, we learned that a lot of guesthouses were closed given the time of the year, but they took us to one of the places we had read about, and we figured it would do- put it this way, it wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst either.

Fortunately, after arriving, the clouds began to lift and give way to the sun, and we managed to walk on the beach. This was a good thing, considering I don’t think we wanted to spend any extra time in our room- our room that was damp, muggy, had weird nests growing down the wall from the ceiling, had no TV, no hot water, and appeared to be home to massive spiders! (I can handle all of the above, but when I find a massive spider and then lose sight of it, I don’t usually get a very good night’s sleep.)

The rain didn’t hold off for long, so we took to lounging in the hammocks watching the rain for the rest of the day. The second day dawned dry, but dark and threatening. Still, we made our way out to explore…by motorbike. This is where I learned the lesson that wet season and unfinished roads don’t really mesh. We managed to get to more secure ground and literally drove the whole circumference of the island. There were dry moments throughout the day, but most of the day was spent on the bike getting pelted by raindrops, wondering if we were going to stumble on anything worth seeing.

Unfortunately, Phu Quoc wasn’t all we expected it to be. It was one of those places that made me think, “We should just leave tomorrow.” Still, this was supposed to be some time for us to chill out, so we decided to give it one more day.

Fortunately, we had a sunny day on our last day in Phu Quoc, and some time on the beach was in order. We also managed to get an amazing sunset, and it felt like our time on the island wasn’t for naught. We left early the next morning, and the boat ride over was just as adventurous as the incoming ride, except with added vomit. And little did we know, we were in store for quite a journey that day…



Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Cu Chi Tunnels, long term travel, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Saigon and The Cu Chi Tunnels

My stay in Saigon was eye opening. To be honest, I’m not too knowledgeable about the Vietnam War, so I was definitely in for an education and I learned just how gruesome this war was for both the Americans and the Vietnamese. Our first full day in Vietnam was spent touring the Reunification Palace, which has been left in the same exact condition it was in when Northern Vietnam rolled troops in on April 30, 1975 and forced the President of South Vietnam to surrender, consequently ending the war.

We then made our way to the War Remnants Museum, where I saw graphic firsthand accounts from journalists, photographers, soldiers and the Vietnamese people, who lived and died during the war. Also off to one side was a special photography exhibit on the affects Agent Orange has had on the people, both Vietnamese and American, who were exposed to it.

Agent Orange is a chemical agent that was used by US troops to clear land, so they could navigate during the war. It literally destroys anything in its path. Unfortunately, the after affects continue to ruin as many lives now as they did during wartime, and the most disturbing effect has been the number of birth defects in the children of the soldiers’ who were exposed to the agent. These are often severe deformities, like missing limbs, extra fingers, blindness, cerebral palsy and cleft palates. Again, this is an aftermath that both US and Vietnamese families are having to deal with.

While in Saigon, we also had the opportunity to take a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is a network of underground tunnels built by the Vietnamese during the war. They cover about 150 kilometers in total, and became home for many soldiers and families alike, who were seeking shelter from the warfare going on above ground. The tunnels were like a maze, and because of the Vietnamese peoples’ ingenuity and knowledge of the terrain, the tunnels became key in helping the NorthVietnamese win the war.

We had the opportunity to crawl down into, and through these tunnels, and I’ll just warn you now- it’s not for the claustrophobic. Not only was I completely closed in, but it was also pitch black, so I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. It is hard to imagine people living in these kinds of conditions for years on end.

At the end of the tour, we had the chance to fire some old guns, and I opted for an M-16. Let’s just say, I need some target practice and better earplugs before I attempt that again! It was a unique day, and like I said, one that was very humbling and eye-opening, but I feel better for having an understanding of that time period in history, and the way it has shaped modern day Vietnam and its people.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Ho Chi Minh, long term travel, Saigon, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh – A Change In Course


Hoi An looked to be a beautiful city from what I could see. Unfortunately, the damage done by Ketsana was worse in Hoi An than in Hue. We arrived at a dingy guesthouse after a 2-hour bus ride, and after all the rain, the weather had turned hot and muggy. Before understanding the extent of the damage, we decided to rent a motorcycle to get around town, however as we got closer to town and closer to the river, we found everything to be underwater. What a disappointment! The old town of Hoi An looked to be so charming and colorful, but we just couldn’t get around it. Where there wasn’t water, huge, fallen tree limbs stretched across the street, and being on a bike was like playing a game of bob and weave.

We took a ride out to the surrounding beach areas, and saw further debris and damage, and when we awoke the next morning to more rain, we decided to bypass the rest of Southern Vietnam, including Moi Ne and Natrang. This was disappointing. Seeing as how much I was enjoying Vietnam, I didn’t want to skip anything, but I also didn’t want to be spending my days sitting in a guesthouse watching the rain, so we booked a ticket to Ho Chi Minh for that afternoon.


Ho Chi Minh (still referred to as Saigon by the Vietnamese), is a bustling and modern metropolis compared to other Vietnamese cities. We arrived after dark, and the lights and tangible energy made me feel like I was back in New York.

We checked into My-My Guesthouse run by a women named, Hahn. She was a hilarious woman, never at a loss for words and full of advice and tips on how to navigate the city, especially if this enabled her to sell you an additional tour or service of her own. She pointed us in the direction of Vietnamese Barbecue, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike, which specializes in local cuisine prepared on a barbecue at your own table.


This restaurant was so good, we had to go back again. We grilled fresh prawns, brought out to the table still squirming on the skewers; we gorged ourselves on lotus salad, which was indescribably good; we sampled wild boar and frog, and topped it all off with a couple of special Saigon beers. We were slightly shocked when the bill came and it was less that $7 USD each! Surely they hadn’t done the math right!

We opted to walk home, or waddle, and soaked in the architecture of this more modern Vietnamese city. We had to praise Hahn when we arrived back at My My, and she just shot us a look as if to say, ‘do you think I’d steer you wrong?’

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Typhoon Ketsana Puts A Damper On Things


I was settling into a groove in Vietnam. We had seen so much, and every city we visited left me more surprised than the last. I was loving the diversity of the land. We had seen rice paddies and tribal villages, ocean bays with limestone casts, bustling cities and ancient ruins. So much is packed into this small country. Add to this an amazing cuisine and friendly people, and any traveler would be happy.

Hue was a very special city. We spent four days touring the Forbidden City and the Citadel, taking a river tour to visit pagodas and temples of ancient emperors, dining on some of the best food of the trip, and really immersing ourselves into the culture. Part of what was so nice about Hue was that we really slowed down. We had been seeing cities in three days and then quickly moved on to the next.

We spent about eight days in Hue, four of which we were sightseeing, but not at breakneck speeds. The other four days were spent mostly confined to the hotel. Unfortunately, it was wet season, more specifically, it was typhoon season, and after Typhoon Ketsana caused all the damage it did in the Philippines, it decided to plow right into Hue.

The rain arrived on a Tuesday afternoon as a steady shower. We were still able to get out and about- it was more annoying than anything else. Wednesday brought hard, steady rain, and this continued non-stop for the next 2 days. We watched as the water levels rose in the streets, glad that we still had cable and an internet connection. On the third day, the rain was now seeping into the hotel lobby, and we were confined to our room for the most part. Now we were just glad to have power and hot water. The streets had turned into rivers. Some residents were still trying to bike around, others had opted to turn their bikes in for boats and were paddling through the streets. The river had breached and it became quite dangerous to walk around, seeing as the water levels were up to mid-thigh on me, and there was quite a strong current.

Our guesthouse was running out of food and milk, so we braved the rain and went around the corner for food, and stocked up on water and cookies in case we couldn’t get out again later in the day. Finally on the fourth day, the rain subsided and the sun came out. However, by the end of that day, the water levels were still only just below the knee, and we were unable to go anywhere. By the fifth day, the rainwater had drained away, but no buses or trains were running, and by this point in time cabin fever had set in, and I was itching to move on.


Looking back, the break was probably a good thing, and I was glad we were safe and that no one was too terribly affected (unlike the Philippines). But we were so happy to hear that buses would be running the following morning, and we were making our way to Hoi An.



Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, bus travel, long term travel, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Sleeper buses? Not as bad as I thought

Before we left for Halong Bay, we had booked an overnight bus from Hanoi to Hue so that we could leave immediately upon our return. It makes me tired just to think about this now… We hadn’t really stopped since leaving Ko Tao, and the thought of getting on a 14-hour bus after 2 overnight train rides and a 4-hour bus ride to and from Halong Bay made me want to cry. Still, being the budget traveler, I looked at it as a way to save on a night’s accommodation, so I sucked it up and snuggled into the sleeper bus with an ambien, ear plugs and an eye mask.

Maybe the best way to travel is to be worn out, because despite the techno music they played for the first 3 hours of the bus journey, I managed to get a solid 10 hours of sleep and arrived in Hue feeling surprisingly good. Unfortunately my backpack didn’t arrive in such good condition. It had rained most of the night and we had been driving on flooded roads.  My pack was underneath the bus and must have been on the bottom because it was completely saturated when we arrived (NOTE- always travel with a waterproof cover for your pack).  Not one thing was dry, so we found a guesthouse and made sure they offered a laundry service.

Given that we had been on the go for so long, a lazy day was in order. This consisted of napping, a huge lunch at Minh & CoCo’s (the best restaurant in Hue, where no dish cost more than $1), and lots of bad TV.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Halong Bay, long term travel, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Hungover in Halong Bay


We made our way back to Hanoi from Sapa by overnight train and literally walked to a hostel and signed up for a 3-day trip to Halong Bay that left the same morning. There was just enough time to grab a shower, check our backpacks and pack a smaller overnight bag. Call me crazy!

We had heard that Backpackers Hostel in Hanoi was known for its organized trips to Halong Bay, and we had heard it was quite difficult to organize your own trip, so this seemed like a good idea and a fun trip.

We boarded a tour bus with about 20 other travelers and made our way to Halong Bay. We transferred to a junk boat and got settled into our rooms and then sat down for lunch. Then, the debauchery began. This consisted of the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, card games, more consumption of alcohol, jumping off the mast of the boat, some organized activities, including kayaking and caving, followed by the consumption of more alcohol into the wee hours of the morning.

With all of the fun we were having (yes, I felt like I was on a college spring break trip), I am forgetting to tell you just how beautiful Halong Bay is. The bay is made up of islands and inlets formed by giant limestone casts. It’s really unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The harbor is dotted with numerous junk boats, which are old elaborate dark wood boats with bright fan like sails. These boats were invented by the Chinese, however, I still can’t find out why they are called “junk” boats.

After pulling ourselves out of bed the following morning for a 7:30 wake up call, we nursed our hangovers with a greasy breakfast and transferred to a smaller boat that was taking us to “Castaway Island” for the remainder of the trip. This island was only a small beach that sat at the foot of a tall limestone rock. It was literally big enough for a small restaurant and bar and five small huts for sleeping. The huts were basically a wood floor and thatch roof, with a mattress and mosquito net.

By the time we arrived on Castaway Island I was starting to feel like a human again, so the rest of the day was spent kayaking, exploring deserted beaches, chasing fiddler crabs, playing volleyball and lounging in a hammock.

After dinner, the rain arrived, so we were confined to the bar area, where there was less debauchery but still enough consumption of beer going on. The hangover wasn’t as bad the following morning, and I had to ask myself if I was becoming better at this game?

The following day, we made our way back to land and back to Hanoi with a little less energy than we started out with, but with new friends and memorable travel stories…

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Sapa, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Welcome to Sapa, Am I Still on Planet Earth?


If I could recommend just one place to visit in Vietnam, it would be Sapa. This is a magical place that I had heard about, but knew little about, and it was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my entire trip.

Sapa is a 9-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi (we got a sleeper this time!). The train drops you in Lao Cai, a small town that seems to serve more as a stopover point for travelers than anything else. From Lao Cai, Sapa is another 1 ½ hour uphill bus ride away. We originally planned on basing ourselves in Lao Cai and exploring the surrounding towns by motorbike, but quickly changed our minds when we saw Lao Cai, so we jumped on a bus straight for Sapa.

The bus ride alone indicated this was the right decision. We spent the 90 minutes driving up winding hillside roads, feeling like we were climbing into the clouds. To the left were terraced rice paddies that dropped all the way down to rocky rivers below, and to the right were more uphill roads and ride paddies. We stepped off the bus and were met with cool mountain air. What a treat, especially compared to the humidity we had left behind in Hanoi.

The town of Sapa is very small and can be covered in about 20 minutes by foot, so we weren’t too concerned about where we stayed. We found a great hotel, called Darling Hotel, which was just a stones throw from town. It looked like Bavaria had come to visit and we were staying at Hansel and Gretel’s Inn, but not in a bad way. We got settled in and then decided to go and explore on a bike we had rented from the inn. First stop – food!

We found a little café on the other side of town where we were able to get some breakfast, and we sat outside on a little terrace. We noticed a lot of tribal people in town, who were selling their needlework, and we began talking to a pair of sisters from the Hmong tribe. We must have sat talking to them for our entire meal. Their English was perfect, and they were so interesting and interested in us. We listened to their stories of hosting other travelers, and at the end of our conversation, I asked if they would take us to their village, so we could see where they lived and could eat lunch with them. They immediately said yes, and we planned to meet at Darling Hotel at 8:00 the next morning.

We spent the rest of our day riding around remote villages. It was harvest time, the skies were blue, and the fields glowed gold and green. Everyone was working the fields, but happy to stop and visit with us as we drove through their villages.

We found a delicious restaurant called Gerber, which we went back to again and again, and ordered way too much food every night- duck, veal, fish, chicken rice, soup, you name it, we ate it.

8am the following morning came quickly, but Gia and Mai (our newest friends) were outside our hotel to meet us the next morning. We made our way to the Saturday market, where we bought all the ingredients for Bamboo Chicken. We then made our way by bike to their village, a journey that took about 20 minutes.

After entering their village, we went as far as we could by bike, and then parked them at a friend’s house. They had warned us of the long walk the other end, but we assured them we were up for it. We hiked, and hiked, and hiked some more, stopped at a little rest area, drank some water, and then hiked some more, and after about 2 hours, we arrived at their home.

We looked at the piglets in their pig pen, crushed the indigo plants they used to die their clothes in our hands, used the outhouse, met the 90-year old great grandmother, who insisted on carrying the toddler around on her shoulders, even when going down the steep steps in front of their home, we watched as they lit the wood stove in their kitchen, smelled the slop they fed the pigs and watched the kids as they chased the ducks and roosters around the garden. Where were we? I wasn’t quite sure, but I loved it.

Shortly after we arrived, Gia’s husband arrived home from the fields, and lunch was almost ready. We pulled plastic chairs around a small wooden table and had one of the best meals I had while in Vietnam. This consisted of fresh rice (picked within a day of being served) bamboo chicken and shou shou (which is like a steamed cucumber, although it looks more like a green gourd or squash when growing). After our meal, Gia disappeared upstairs and retrieved some fermented apples and prepared rice wine for us. As much as I wanted to indulge, I couldn’t help but think of the hike we had back to our bike.

I had enjoyed the day so much I didn’t want to think about leaving. It was like we had stepped into another world, a world where there wasn’t much to go around, but there was an abundance of simplicity and happiness. We bid farewell to our friends but not before getting their mobile numbers (the one thing everyone does have). During the rest of our trip, we were sure to pass along Gia and Mai’s numbers to everyone we met who was on their way to Sapa.

Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, Hanoi, long term travel, Pigeon, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Hanoi – Back to City Life

First of all, it was weird to be back in a city after all my island hopping, and the first adjustment was the traffic. Seriously, crossing the road truly is a necessary skill here. If you hesitate, you are done. You have to look at the road and divide it into sections and traverse each section one by one, not thinking about what might be careening by in the lanes behind you. Once you get used to this, you are A-OK. Well, almost…You also have to adjust to the humidity, which is almost offensive. You can break a sweat by just lifting your arm.

I didn’t have any expectations of Vietnam, and tried to check any preconceived notions at the door. First, I was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Vietnamese people. They may not be as outgoing as the Thais, but if approached for help or directions, they will do all they can to help you out. Secondly, I was amazed by the food. My first two meals consisted of Pho (soup), Cha Ca (grilled white fish prepared table side with noodles, fired onions, etc) and pigeon (yes, pigeon). Ok- I was a little nervous, but I wasn’t going to say no. And I’m glad I didn’t. It was delicious! This was all sampled with some Bia Hanoi and Saigon Beer.

Hanoi isn’t a huge city, despite how busy it is. I easily saw everything I wanted to within 3 days. I visited the Old Quarter, the Catholic Church, strolled through the night market, visited the Temple of Literature and the Ethnology Museum, and had a couple of great meals. I can’t say anything bad about Hanoi, and didn’t dislike it, but I was excited about what else there was to be discovered in Vietnam.