Highlights of Vietnam/Cambodia and What I Would Do Differently

Because this was an entirely new part of the world for me, I didn’t know what to expect. The languages were so vastly different than what I am used to that it made it more overwhelming to plan as the names of the various places just sort of blended together. But plan I did, and I think I did a pretty damn good job.

The Highlights

Angkor – Seriously, such a magnificent place. I was honestly worried that I wouldn’t get much out of it, and especially that I wouldn’t be entertained by temples for three days. But I needn’t have worried. It’s impossible to not be impressed visiting. And while I will never be one of those people who could spend forever checking out every single temple, there was plenty to keep me occupied and happy for half a day those three days, and then balance it out with swimming in our pool and going out to Pub Street.

Even after my research, the complex was so much larger and more spread out than I had imagined. The main temple, Angkor Wat, was arguably the most impressive, but if we had just seen it, we would have missed out on all my favorites – Ta Nei, Preah Khan, Banteay Srei. Actually, I almost feel like I’m cheating by putting all of Angkor as one highlight.

And the details. The carvings and sculptures were so immaculate, and the stories behind them just absolutely fascinating. Which is why I would encourage everyone to hire a guide for at least one day like we did to really learn about what you’re looking at. Happy Angkor Tours added so much more depth to our visit.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay – Honestly, all of Ha Long Bay was great. I didn’t know what to expect since depending on who you ask, it’s either a “must do” or it’s not worth it. Our experience put us on the “must do” side of the equation. The views are gorgeous, and it’s a welcome change of pace from the cities and roads of Vietnam.

Sitting up on top, relaxing while passing by gorgeous karst landscapes. Having big, delicious meals served to us. Sleeping on the junk in a peaceful lagoon. But kayaking was definitely the best part. Kayaking through the caves themselves was really cool, but coming out to these calm, quiet lagoons, having them all to ourselves while listening to the wildlife… that was amazing.

I also like to stay active while on vacation. Relaxing on top of the junk is wonderful, but without the kayaking and swimming intermixed, I would have gotten bored. And strangely, the sun seemed to always come out for us once we got in our kayaks, which was much appreciated.

Motorbiking around Ninh Binh – What a way to see the countryside! I enjoyed the activities in Ninh Binh, too – Cuc Phuong National Park with its primate rescue and turtle conservation and Cave of Prehistoric Man, Trang An, Bai Dinh, etc. – but really, what stands out the most was just riding on those motorbikes, taking in all the beautiful landscapes and all the unique culture, smiling at the children and seeing their faces light up, seeing the water buffalo pop out from their ponds, being mesmerized by the flat fields of blowing green rice paddies, with their dramatic karst mountain backdrops. There wasn’t a single part of that drive that wasn’t lovely.

The food – Yum! I’ve traveled to a lot of places not known to have the most remarkable local food, notably Central American countries and Iceland. Vietnam, on the other hand, is indeed known to have good food, particularly in regards to its street food. And while it’s not known to be terribly vegetarian friendly, I managed to have no issues whatsoever in finding delicious, vegetarian Vietnamese food.

The real surprise for me, though, was how much I liked Cambodian, or Khmer, food. Anthony preferred Vietnamese, but I loved the sweet and sour sauces and curries, and the hot soups. It seemed to be this wonderful fusion of Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Indian influences. So now I know to keep my eyes open for any Cambodian restaurants in the States.

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What I Would Do Differently

Trade out time in Hanoi for Highlands – This makes it sound like I didn’t like Hanoi, which is not the case. However, it was probably my least favorite, and it’s where we spent the most time. Hanoi is a bustling, crazy city packed with culture that I would enjoy immensely for one day, and then I’m ready to move on. And I had oh-so-badly wanted to be able to fit in somewhere in the northern highlands, such as Sapa, or Ha Giang, or Mu Cang Chai, with their gorgeous terraced rice paddies, mountains, and abundance of cultural ethnic groups. If I were to do it over again, I would make that happen.

Bring mosquito repellent – I made the assumption that I would easily be able to find bug spray once we arrived in Vietnam, but I ended up not finding any until our first day in Cambodia when we specifically asked our guide if they could take us somewhere where I could buy some. And then I wasn’t able to bring that giant thing of bug spray back to Vietnam with me, so I had mosquito repellent for a whole 2.5 days of our trip, resulting in over 30 bites. Bugs. Love. Me.

I would guess most people would not have as hard of a time finding some bug spray as we did, but it’s probably wise to just go ahead and bring some with you. Fortunately, my bites only resulted in itchy discomfort, but depending on where you are going, it is possible to get dengue, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis.

 

That’s honestly all I can think of. Everything went surprisingly smoothly, we enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we came in well under budget. What more could we ask for?

Our Final Day – Wasting Time in Hanoi

The last day of our trip, we had time to waste. In the morning, we braved the streets of Hanoi to find an ATM before finding a café with an upstairs patio to drink some Vietnamese coffee. Once we were more awake, we hung out at our apartment until we had to check out at noon.

We found a fancy Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant for lunch, which had incredible food.

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However, it also had a ton of mosquitos inside somehow. And by a ton, there were probably like 2 but they both found me and had a feast because that is just my fate in life. So, instead of time there, we ate and hurried out.

I figured a good way to occupy part of the afternoon before spending 30 hours on planes and in airports would be to get a massage. So I found a place online that was nearby with great reviews. It was catered to the locals rather than tourists, and I was interested in stepping outside my comfort zone a bit and having a unique experience, so I jumped on it.

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That was one big step outside my comfort zone, but well worth it! No one there spoke any English, so I pointed at the Standard Package on the menu (cost equivalent to about $15 for an hour and 45 minutes), not knowing what I was getting into, and someone came and led me away.

Immediately, they brought me to some lockers, where they signaled I should take my clothes off and leave them there. And I mean all my clothes. There was no room for insecurity here. I was then led to a shower and given a shower cap. Next up was a cup of herbal tea while sitting in an herb-infused wooden barrel bathtub. And then some more soaking in a jacuzzi tub with an exfoliating back scrub. This was followed by the steam room that smelled again very strongly of herbal tea. I soaked my feet in a bucket while relaxing before I could stand the heat no longer. When I came out, they had me shower again and then led me upstairs to the massage room.

That’s where the real magic happened. They used several techniques and were very thorough, working from my face and scalp, to my neck and shoulders, my arms, my hands, my legs, my feet, even my stomach before I flipped over for them to repeat everything on my back. It was incredible, and well worth the $15.

Once I was done, I met back up with Anthony and was served some fresh fruit and more tea. We went and got our shoes and headed out, back to the lake to hang out in a café for awhile before dinner.

We ate dinner at a delicious Indian restaurant, grabbed a beer at Bromance, picked up our luggage, and got an Uber to the airport, sad to leave, as we always are.

Also, here’s a picture I forgot to upload of a cool cloud with a colorful halo formed by ice crystals that we saw in Cambodia. It was awfully purdy, and I couldn’t let it go to waste ;).

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The rest of Angkor and Siem Reap

On our second day in Siem Reap, we finally ventured into the city. At least when you’re a tourist, getting a ride “into town” means going to Pub Street, the ultra touristy part of town. I like it, though. It’s great seeing how the locals live and getting out of our element, but it’s also nice having a retreat back into what we are more accustomed to from time to time. Pub Street is filled with restaurants and bars and shops that cater to tourists.

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I bought a couple skirts, we sent a postcard, drank a couple mojitos, ate some ice cream… and then we were approached by “Batman Driver.” His tuk tuk was decorated with a batman theme, and he came dancing over to us, singing the theme song, and then loudly introducing himself and insisting we look him up on Tripadvisor. It was a tad obnoxious, but we did need a ride out into the countryside to see the temple Banteay Srei (“Lady Temple”), and he spoke good English which is, of course, helpful for us, so after a tiny bit of bartering, we hired him.

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He bragged about how fast he drives and how old people hate him, and sure enough, when we climbed in, he tore off, passing all the other tuk tuks in the street, and swerving around singing the batman theme song some more.

The drive to Banteay Srei was a long one, but it was rather pleasant looking out at the various stores and farms through the countryside.

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We arrived at the hottest part of day, and it was a bright, harsh sun, but the temple really was spectacular.

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It’s an extremely old temple, built in the 10th century, older than Angkor Wat, and is an almost pink sandstone with the most intricate details.

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It’s also a rather small temple, though, so we were done in half an hour. We found batman, and were once again on the road.

We took a break from the heat by cooling off in our fabulous pool.

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And then we made another trip to Angkor Wat, to see its magnificence in the later afternoon, when the crowds were smaller. But it was hot. We sat down in the shade for a bit to drink some cold coconut water and people watch, a favorite pastime of ours.

The lack of crowds and late afternoon sunlight made up for the insufferable heat though. We stood side-by-side with the monks mopping sweat off their foreheads, and just took in the beauty.

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And took pictures. Because you have to. This is the kind of thing that you need handheld memories of.

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Once we had our fill, we went back to Pub Street for dinner. We watched groups of people ogle the food stand with bugs and scorpions and snakes, and even watched a group of brave Australians taste-test all of it. Their verdict seemed to be that the scorpion was the worst, and the snake was the best.

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We found a less busy restaurant and went up to the upstairs patio for better people watching. I like the food in Cambodia. There are a lot of vegetarian options for me, and the flavors tend to be sweet and spicy, or sweet and sour. It’s pretty delicious. And cheap. Cheap is pretty great too. Our dinner, in what I would assume is the priciest part of town, included four beers, one appetizer, and two entrees for a grand total of $15.

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The next day, we woke up and arrived at Ta Prohm just after opening time to try to see it with fewer people. That part, we succeeded in.

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However, the sun was already extremely harsh, making the lighting not the best and making us sweat pretty much instantly. Still pleasant though.

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We met back up with our tuk tuk driver and he took us to Ta Keo.  

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Here, I had a bunch of scary steps to climb up. I had recovered from my stair hatred, but these ones were steep and shallow, and the going up was one thing, but going back down made me feel like I was going to plummet to my death.

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Our next and final stop was Preah Khan, and honestly, we may have saved the best for last. To be fair, there were dozens of temples we hadn’t seen at all, so maybe my favorite is still out there, but Preah Khan was pretty beautiful.

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It’s largely been left unrestored, so there are many ruins throughout, as well as the trees growing on and within similar to Ta Prohm and Ta Nei. It was also huge. We weren’t even able to explore all of it.

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We went through the middle of it, checking out the shrines, the carvings, and the hallways of doorways.

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We also went around the outside of it a ways, trying to get a sense of what it had looked like in its prime.

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Even the moat outside of Preah Khan was pretty.

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Once we were done at the park, we had 5 and a half hours to kill between check out and our ride to the airport, so we went back into town for lunch and shopping and hanging out.

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We don’t typically shop on trips, but I’m a sucker for colors and elephants, which this town is full of. Plus everything is so CHEAP. We have limited space since we’re carry-on only though, so I had to not go overboard.

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Check out time was at noon, and our flight wasn’t until 8 pm, but our hotel was nice and stored our luggage and let us hang by the pool for awhile and take a shower before giving us a free ride to the airport. Our flight was not delayed this time, which was pretty great, and we made it to our AirBnB on West Lake by 11pm.

We had a wall of windows looking out over the lake which was nice, but we didn’t have any bottled water waiting for us, so we went walking down the street in search of some, taking in the atmosphere. It was still very much Hanoi, but quite a bit calmer than being in the middle of Old Quarter. Right next to our apartment was a place called “Bromance & Beer” with a group of people having a jovial time, so we stopped there for some water and beer overlooking the water, enjoying our last night before heading home.

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Angkor Wat – Small Circuit

After a long day of traveling and flight delays, we finally landed in Siem Reap around 9 pm. We got through immigration and stepped outside where our driver was sitting cross-legged on the ground waiting for us. He took my suitcase and showed us to our tuk tuk, and off we went, through the refreshingly calm streets of Siem Reap.

We arrived at our little boutique hotel at about 10 pm, met with a cold towel and delicious fruit drink. We were shown to our room which was amazing.

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The best part is that we take one step outside our door to our patio, and then another step and we are right in the beautiful pool.

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Other than the rooms, the hotel is all open air, and it’s lovely. Gardens everywhere, lizards and frogs entertaining us during meal times.

I wasted no time in getting to bed though, as we had to wake up at 4 am for our sunrise tour at Angkor Wat! The ticket booth was already crowded when we got there at 5 am, but our guide got us through quickly, and we got a front row seat to view Angkor Wat at sunrise from outside the gate. It was a little bit far away, and it was cloudy so we didn’t get a colorful sunrise, but it was still beautiful and peaceful, listening to the jungle come alive as the towers of Angkor Wat became more and more visible.

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Once we had our fill, our guide took us back to the hotel for breakfast, and then back we went to Angkor Archaeological Park to visit the temples. We stopped outside the east gate of Angkor Wat to get some history before I started snapping away with my camera. And then we were walking in, already impressed just by the gate.

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Angkor Wat is beyond impressive, the largest religious monument in the world, built in the early 12th century. It was originally a Hindu temple, dedicated to the god Vishnu, but was then transformed toward the end of the century into a Buddhist temple. You can see characteristics of both religions throughout.

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Our tour guide was fabulous about pointing out the different carvings and decor and giving us the stories behind them. Such intricate details everywhere we looked.

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We got to go up to the top of the temple for views around.

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Once we made it through, we could see the huge crowds of people coming from the west gate. What’s amazing is that we are here in low season – our guide said there are 3 times as many people in high season.

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Once we got outside of the temple, there were a couple monkeys lounging around, calmly taking in the vast numbers of people walking by and snapping pictures of them. They’re smart monkeys; they know tourists will feed them.

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We took in some more beautiful views from the west before hopping in our car to move on to another part of the park.

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Next up was the old capital city of Angkor Thom. We were met by monkeys playing on tops of pagodas, and elephants giving rides to tourists, which of course made me sad.

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Several temples make up Angkor Thom, the most popular of which is the Bayon.

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The Bayon is the temple of smiling faces.

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The faces and the doorways provided ample photo opportunities, though there was always the give and take of waiting for everyone else to take their own pictures and then them waiting for us to take ours.

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We visited a couple other temples in Angkor Thom, including Baphuon and who knows what else.

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We got away from the other tourists a bit by driving a little bit to one of the gates.

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Our last visit before lunch was Ta Nei, possibly my favorite temple of the day. Certainly not as “impressive” as the bigger temples, but it was so unique and no one else was there.

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It was never completely finished, and much of what was there had been destroyed. Trees were growing on top and within it.

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We had a tasty lunch at a restaurant in the park and then drove over to the entrance of Ta Prohm, which has gained a lot of popularity as the “Tomb Raider temple”.

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The temple is truly beautiful, similar to Ta Nei though bigger with more going on.

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Unfortunately, it was packed with tourists and so was hard to navigate and get the pictures we wanted.

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The sun was coming out, so it was getting awfully hot, but that was our last temple of the day, so we climbed back in the car, our driver passing over our ice cold lemon water infused towels, and water bottles. We got pretty spoiled to having the guide and the driver. My sore legs much appreciated the limited amount of walking we had, and Anthony was pleased to have the occasional A/C and cold towels :).

We enjoyed our pool outside our door once we arrived back at the hotel.

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Completely exhausted but not wanting to nap and screw up our sleep schedule again, we just took it easy, hanging out at the hotel and eating dinner there. I swear we had the whole place to ourselves… other than the critters.

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So far, I’m loving Cambodia.

The sights of Ninh Binh

We woke up to rain on our second day in Ninh Binh. And lots of it. I was curious if that was going to change the plans for the day and we’d be riding around inside a car instead of on the back of a scooter, but nope, our guide arrived at 8:30 am with scooters and ponchos. A little rain never hurt anybody afterall.

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The rain meant we didn’t see another tourist out on the roads while we were which was pleasant. After about a half hour ride, we arrived at the Trang An entrance for the boat ride. Yes, boat ride. In the rain. Though when we arrived, they told our Toan, our guide, that we needed to wait for the rain, so we went inside to wait.

But then Toan came to get us about 15 minutes later, saying it was time to go. Who knows what we had been waiting on, but it certainly wasn’t the rain as it was still coming down strong.

We hopped into our little boat with two Vietnamese men, and the tiny Vietnamese woman in the back who would be paddling us down the river. With no current. Those little ladies must be so strong.

It was such an interesting experience because we were the only foreigners around. Everyone was Vietnamese, and no one spoke English, so we never had any idea what was going on. I didn’t need any translation to appreciate the beautiful scenery though, even through the rain.

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All of a sudden, we were going through a crazy cave in which we had to basically flatten ourselves against our legs so that we didn’t hit our heads on the stalactites.

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On it went like this, alternating between gorgeous mountainous scenery and going through awesome caves.

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We stopped at multiple pagodas and temples along the way as well, though since we can’t understand Vietnamese, we weren’t sure exactly what they were.

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One of them required a climb up a billion stairs because I hadn’t climbed up enough stairs the day before. I was sore, so I wasn’t terribly pleased about this. The worst part was that it was a climb up stairs and then down the other side, and then we had to do it AGAIN to get back to the boat.

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We then reached this bizarre point where it stopped raining outside, and starting “raining” inside with water pouring down from the cave ceilings. I had decided it was safe to get the good camera out instead of using the GoPro since it wasn’t raining anymore, and then we got into a cave that decided we needed to be wetter than we already were. The next couple caves were the same way.

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Once we got close to the starting point, I once again saw the benefits of being early risers. We may have had wetter weather, but there were only 2 little boats on the water, including us, when we headed out, and by the time we were getting back, they were endless. The river was so congested, and the station had what was almost like a conveyor belt of boats. Tourists would be hurried onto a boat, it’d push off, and the next boat would be there, and on and on and on. Still no westerners that we saw anywhere though.

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We met back up with Toan and headed off for lunch. Again we were given more food than we could ever eat, and then we sat down with some locals to sip some ridiculously strong tea.

Our next stop was Bai Dinh, the largest complex of Buddhist temples in Vietnam. The place is massive. There was the older original temple with shrines and a fairy pool inside caves.

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But the new complex is a decent walk away and covered most of the area. It started being built in 2003, and was “completed” in 2010, though they still add on to it.

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It was great having Toan with us for this because he was able to explain the context, give some history, teach us some Buddhist beliefs, and share humorous anecdotes.

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He also had to be translator for us, when a group of Vietnamese tourists came up wanting to take pictures with us, like we were famous. After a dozen photos, I thought we were free to go, but then they all wanted to take pictures with just me as well. So there I was, wet, messy hair, sopping wet jean shorts, hiking sandals, makeup washed off my face from the rain, posing for photos right and left.

But the stairs. I cannot express to you how sick of stairs I was at this point, after our jungle trek yesterday, and the various stairs during our morning Trang An tour, but alas, there I was climbing stairs, and more stairs, and more stairs, and more stairs, and more stairs. Just when I would think we were done climbing stairs, there were more stairs. By the end of this vacation, I’m going to have the world’s greatest butt.

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We spent the whole afternoon walking around the complex.

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We took a scenic route home, going along the old road instead of the new, nice road. This took us through some rural towns, and brought us to some pretty views of “Halong Bay on Land”, as the Ninh Binh area is often called.

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We hung out that evening at the hotel, taking some time to relax before another day of travel.

We had a few hours the following morning before we needed to take off, so after breakfast, we borrowed some bikes from the hotel, which allowed us to take in the views a bit better than when we were racing by on a scooter.

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We stopped at Bich Dong, an older Buddhist pagoda in pretty scenery.

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After arriving, we discovered that we were not appropriately dressed, as you’re not supposed to wear shorts there, so we decided not to be disrespectful and go up to the sacred temple. We stayed outside, and after awhile, went back to our bikes to ride into town a bit.

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We checked out of our fancy hotel at noon, and our driver came to take us the 3 hours back to Hanoi airport. Our flight got delayed three times before we could finally fly to Siem Reap, where we were met by a tuk tuk to take us to our fabulous little boutique hotel. More on that later.

Motorbiking around Ninh Binh

After another somewhat long journey, we checked into our hotel, Tam Coc Gardens, in Ninh Binh. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves, staying somewhere so fancy since we’re used to AirBnBs where we mostly just take care of ourselves. When we arrived, they gave us a warm towel to wipe our hands and a welcome cup of tea. Staff grabbed all our luggage and took it to our room, the Vietnamese woman at the front desk explained various things about the hotel to us before escorting us to the room and showing us around.

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It was already 9:00 at night, and we were exhausted, so we ordered some food from the restaurant to be brought to us as room service, and I climbed into my fancy ass bath.

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And then I put on my fancy ass robe, and ate my fancy ass springrolls and chili lemongrass tofu, with the fancy ass carrot flower decorations. And generally just felt fancy.

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The following morning, I enjoyed the misty view from our patio before Anthony woke up.

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We then walked through the lovely gardens on the way to the restaurant for our breakfast.

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We had yet more pretty views while eating our breakfast.

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Afterward, we met up with our guide, Toan, and his extra driver, at which point we strapped on some helmets and hopped on our motorbikes!

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We had possibly the most spectacular scenery of the trip driving through Ninh Binh on our way to Cuc Phuong National Park, but I didn’t feel safe enough to take both hands off in order to take pictures until we were on better, straighter roads, which of course had less incredible views.

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My driver would pat my leg and point out various things like water buffalo and goats and rice fields.

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After a wonderful ride, we arrived at the park, Vietnam’s first national park and its largest nature reserve, and we met up with a new guide to show us through the nature reserve.

The nature reserve is home to well over 100 primates, including langurs, loris, and gibbons. We even got to see some baby monkeys!

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They also have a 2-step process for re-introducing the primates back into the wild which made me happy. Wildlife rescue and conservation is my dream job.

After the monkeys, we got to see the turtle reserve, slightly less impressive but still cool.

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We made our way back to our drivers, and off we went, riding through the cool jungle, millions of butterflies swarming us on the way.

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We stopped again, this time for a long, steep climb up to a really cool “Cave of Prehistoric Man.” The cave was excavated in 1966 where it revealed human graves and various tools.

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We had flashlights with us so we explored through the cave which was actually quite massive. At one point we climbed up some extremely dangerous feeling ladders. They were very, very steep, they were rounded instead of flat, and they were wet. Once we safely got to the top, we saw dozens of bats before carefully climbing back down.

We climbed back down to where we were parked, and back on the road we went.

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We stopped at a restaurant, where first we had to use the restroom which was quite the experience. They didn’t have actual toilets. They had what looked like a urinal in the ground. And Anthony said the men’s one was filled with hornets and mosquitoes which sounded like even more fun.

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Anyway, our guide asked us if we were vegetarian or not, we said yes, and a few minutes later, food and more food and more food and more food just kept being brought out to us. When we first got to Vietnam, I figured the reason nearly all the Vietnamese were so thin was because most of their signature dishes were simply broth based (such as pho). However, the last few days I have been fed more food than I ever have in the US. Maybe they assume since we’re Americans we eat that much, or maybe it’s the norm. I’m not sure. But it was a lot of food, and we could only eat about half of it.

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It was good fuel for what we had next, though. Since Anthony and I apparently like to torture ourselves on vacation, we followed our guide on 2 to 3 hour afternoon trek through the damn jungle. It was hot. It was humid. It was dirty. There were bugs freaking EVERYWHERE, and I had not been able to find bug spray beforehand. Considering that, I didn’t get nearly as many mosquito bites as I had been expecting, probably just between 15 and 20 (I can easily get that many in my backyard summer evenings).

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We did see some pretty cool trees. A giant thousand year old tree that has been damaged by recent storms, and then another giant tree that I couldn’t even get a picture that captured the whole thing.

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But other than that, it was really just trekking through the jungle. And there were SO MANY STAIRS. I was not sure I was going to make it. I was recovering from my cold, so my breathing was still shallow and I was weak, and oh my gosh, the never ending stairs. Any time we stopped, my legs would be shaking.

But made it, I did. Pouring sweat and wanting nothing more than to go back to my hotel pool.

But then we hopped back on our motorbikes, and the cool breeze revived me.

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We basically circled all of Ninh Binh. We took a long route back home, seeing some absolutely stunning countryside. In some of the more rural areas, the locals would get very excited at the sight of my blonde hair.

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We saw many workers out farming. We saw rice paddies. We saw karst mountains. We saw lakes. We also saw a king cobra! Which we failed to grab our camera in time to photograph.

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By the time we got back to the hotel, it was very late afternoon, and I was worn out, but had had a fabulous day.

We rinsed off all the dirt on us and then went over to our wonderful pool.

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Nice and refreshed, all we had left for the day was dinner and drinks and relaxation.

Wonderful Ha Long Bay

Anthony and I caught the 6am train from Hanoi to Haiphong, which was actually my first train experience. It was comfortable, though not as “steady” feeling as I had expected. Once we arrived at the train station, we had 20 minutes to find a taxi, get taxi’d over to the harbor, buy hydrofoil tickets, and get on the hydrofoil. Fortunately, there were dozens of taxis clamoring for our business. The first one we chose, however, showed us over to his little scooter. We’ve been in Vietnam long enough to realize that the Vietnamese can fit as much as they damn well want on a scooter, but we weren’t so sure the two of us and our luggage wanted to go through that experience. So we found a car taxi instead and were on our way, getting onto the hydrofoil on time, and without getting scammed as I had been forewarned. Hurray!

We pulled up to Cat Ba Island, which is beautiful, though like most of Vietnam, it’s at this weird stage of rapid growth. Plenty of poverty around, but also a lot of hotels and restaurants and bars being built.

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Our tour guide met us at the hydrofoil, and after some prep at the office and a drive down to the water, we were loaded up on our Junk. We had chosen to do a private tour along the bays (Lan Ha, Ha Long, and Bai Tu Long bays) with Cat Ba Ventures. I had read mixed reviews on Ha Long Bay due to it being overrun by tourists and filled with boats and litter, so I chose to do the tour out of Cat Ba Island rather than Halong City. I was super pleased with that decision.

It was a bit cloudy and foggy for the first part of the tour, but it was still obviously gorgeous. The karst mountains had a smoky look through the fog, and the water was just so calm and peaceful. There was an occasional other boat, but it never once felt overrun, and I also noticed hardly any litter.

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We stopped at a floating fish farm which just completely boggles my mind. These fish farms were everywhere in Lan Ha Bay. The farmers build these little floating shacks right on the water, and they grow and catch fish there. Sometimes boats bring them food and such from the markets, or every now and then they’ll go back to the island for their shopping. But mostly, their days are just spent there. I can’t imagine being that immobile. And all of them had dogs living there too, and somehow the dogs looked happy enough.

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After that brief visit, we were back on the Junk, enjoying our beautiful views and chatting with our tour guide.

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We were served a delicious feast for lunch, just SO MUCH food.  We’re not ones to waste food, so we somehow ate it all.

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Eventually, we stopped to do some kayaking. The kayaking was amazing. We went through a long cave that came out to this beautiful, peaceful lagoon.

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We then went through another cave to another lagoon. And then another.

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Our guide was a kayaking machine, and so after all that, we kayaked some more to an empty beach to swim. It was a bit too chilly to swim, though, so then we kayaked all the way back to the junk.

We watched a beautiful, if somewhat foggy, sunset over the water while hanging out with our guide.

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We then went down for yet another massive feast, this one even bigger to where we couldn’t finish it all. We drank a bottle of wine with it and then went off to bed, where we slept through the whole night for the first time since arriving in Vietnam. And by slept all the way through the night, I mean we slept til around 5:30.

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I was feeling pretty miserable because of my cold, so I napped up on top a bit more until we were called down for breakfast and coffee.

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Afterward, I tried to wake myself up by taking in some morning views.

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I still felt lousy, but it was time for some kayaking, so I sucked it up and put my swimsuit on. Fortunately, the kayaking was so much fun, I completely forgot about how terrible I felt.

We first went through Bat Cave, which had a message above it telling us not to enter. It’s very dark in the cave, so it’s easy to get lost and hurt. It also goes under water at high tide. But lucky for us, we had a knowledgeable guide.

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We did end up seeing a dozen bats while in bat cave, and then out we came out the other end of the cave to a calm lake. We sat there in silence, listening to the birds and cicadas. All of a sudden, we heard a new sound, and our guide sort of gasped “monkey!”. So we rowed over to the sound, but were never able to actually see the monkey, just hear him.

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We gave up and went back through the cave and continued kayaking on, going through a few more caves to a few more lagoons.

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We had everywhere all to ourselves, and it was magical. On our way back out, we saw the hordes of tourists with other companies heading our way, so getting out on the water early was the way to go. We stopped in one final lagoon, and once we got in there, Anthony pointed a ways away, and I looked over, and monkeys! A bunch of them, with babies! They were down on some rocks at the water, but by the time we got close enough for pictures, they had climbed up into the trees. But we sat there for awhile, watching them jump between trees, and eat.

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We came back to the junk for long enough to cruise over to a little beach. We grabbed some snorkel gear, hopped into the water, and swam over to it. On the way, Anthony apparently ran into a jellyfish. Said jellyfish retaliated by stinging the crap out of his leg. Anthony thought “meh” and kept swimming over. We snorkeled and swam for around half an hour before swimming back to the boat. Upon arrival, we pointed out the bright red jellyfish stings on Anthony’s leg, and the boat crew quickly jumped into action to apply some natural remedy to it, giving him the “tough tourist” award because anyone else they had had get stung came back to the boat immediately. Anthony was pretty proud after that.

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After another massive lunch, we just relaxed on top of the junk all the way back to Cat Ba Island.

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Such a fabulous two days. 10/10 would recommend.

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Day 2 – Sightseeing in Hanoi

Last night, we joined the party outside our door, walking through beer corner until we could find 2 available stools to sit and have a beer and people watch.

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Could not understand a word spoken around us, but it was clear everyone was having a good time. We were still fighting off the jet lag, though, so we left the party early while it was still going strong and went to bed. Sadly, we still didn’t catch up on sleep, as we woke up at 5am to water pouring down through a vent in our bathroom.

That meant we got an early start on the day, though, so we headed out to find somewhere to drink some iced Vietnamese coffee. During our walk, we passed a pretty park, and we saw locals doing their morning Tai Chi or lining up for their morning pho.

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I wore my new dress which I bought from a girl who told me I was “so beautiful” which is a surefire way to win over my business (and it was like $6).

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Once we felt more alive, we walked down to the French Quarter to visit the Vietnamese Women’s museum.

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Right outside the museum was a photo exhibit by Rehahn Photography, showing older women of Vietnamese ethnic minorities, and the photos were absolutely stunning. I was in love with all of them.

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Images by Rehahn Photography

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Images by Rehahn Photography

The museum itself had 4 floors with different focuses, the first being marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. We looked through images, read about the various marriage rituals of the different ethnic minorities, examined tools involved in childbirth, saw examples of the gifts and exchange involved in marriages, and watched a couple videos.

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The next floor was more about Vietnamese women’s role in family life, mostly centered around the roles they had in keeping a home and tending to the agriculture.

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We continued up to learn about various historical women, mostly about the women involved in the Vietnam/American War. It was fascinating reading the stories from a northern Vietnamese perspective. The verbiage was clearly different than what we would see in a museum in America, and it was weird to see the propaganda from the other side, but it was mostly just fascinating reading about all these women that were so involved in the war.

The final floor was centered around fashion. Probably the most interesting was seeing images of the various teeth lacquering strategies, women smiline with black or red or green teeth, but the dress exhibits were lovely. Much of the traditional dress is quite beautiful.

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Afterward, we caught an Uber which was a rather harrowing experience. Trying to walk through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter feels like a dangerous feat, but sitting in a car that’s maneuvering through scooters and pedestrians while the driver is watching a movie on his phone is a different level. But we made it safely to the Temple of Literature.

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The Temple of Literature is a Confucian temple and was Vietnam’s first national university.

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The architecture, layout, and statues were really quite pretty and different than anything I’ve seen before.

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There were also TONS of people there. Mostly families or friends or couples like us wandering through taking pictures and selfies. Some worshipers. But also classes in their graduation gowns and wedding parties. Cameras and cell phone cameras EVERYWHERE.

We started walking back through the grounds to leave when a few girls ran up to me, holding their cell phones up and saying “picture.” I thought they wanted me to take their picture, but nope, they wanted to take a selfie with me. Who knows.

We headed to a Banh Mi stand that had some vegetarian banh mi sandwiches available for lunch. Somehow it was the only local Vietnamese restaurant around that had primarily Westerners at it. I told Anthony they were probably all vegetarians like me that Googled what restaurants they could eat at.

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After food and some rest back at the house, we ventured back out into the world. We walked back to Hoan Kiem Lake, which seems to be our favorite spot in Hanoi, to sit outside at a fancy restaurant and drink a milkshake. Because I’m 7. But also because I’ve come down with a cold and ice cream sounded good for my sore throat.

Because of said cold, we found a pharmacy after getting a little lost in some alleys, and since I couldn’t read what any of the medicine was, I asked the lady working there if there was any cold medicine. I sure hope she understood me because she handed me some medicine which I then bought.

It wasn’t quite supper time yet, but we were hungry and saw a vegan restaurant, so we decided it was close enough. It certainly wasn’t Vietnamese food (though it did have a slight Vietnamese flare to it) but it was delicious and we got to sit on a patio upstairs and watch the crazy Hanoi life below us.

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On our way back, we stopped in some art galleries. The art is absolutely gorgeous. Giant, colorful images of Vietnamese life. We ended up purchasing a small painting for $10. We probably could have bartered, but at that price, what’s the point? Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of it before it got all wrapped up.

Once we got back to Beer Corner, we decided to grab a stool and watch as the local bars and restaurants prepared for another crazy night there.

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We need to wake up super early tomorrow to catch a 6am train, so we came back to the house early to get everything ready and get to bed.

 

Our Arrival in Hanoi

It was a long journey, but we made it. For some reason we were not able to check into our flight online or at the kiosk, but the travel agent couldn’t find anything wrong, so she printed our boarding passes, and we were off, me slightly skeptical and definitely wondering at what point something was going to go wrong.

But then we got on our first flight to Chicago with no issues. And then came the big one, 12 and a half hours from Chicago to Tokyo. I had prepared myself for this flight. I bought an amazing travel pillow. And I bought “LegsUp” to allow me to bend my knees and take some pressure off my lower back for the flight. While I can’t pretend I was comfortable, I was way better than I would have been otherwise. The Tylenol PM probably helped with that too.

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After our layover in Tokyo, we had one final leg, a 6 hour flight to Hanoi. By this point, we were tired and a bit frazzled, and we still had to figure out our Visa On Arrival. We had 2 options for our Vietnam visas – spend a lot of money for the peace of mind of getting our actual visa before going, or do “Visa on Arrival”, going through a company online to get an approval letter, fill out forms, take a couple pictures, and then wait in line at the airport and pay the stamping fee. Being the frugal people we are, we went with the cheaper option. No regrets! We had a few moments that caused stress (flight agents asking about whether or not we had a Visa), but everything ended up going smoothly!

We got to Hanoi at around midnight… on a Friday night… to our house right down an alley from Beer Corner in Old Quarter. It was madness. Pure, beautiful chaos. Unfortunately we were too tired to take part in it, so we just walked down the street, bought a few beers (FIVE beers for TWO DOLLARS AND FIFTY CENTS. I love this country), and came back to the house to unwind and catch up on sleep. As we were unlocking our door, a lady was lowering a basket of food to someone else that nearly hit Anthony in the head. Made me smile.

Our house is charming. I love the decor, and the location seriously cannot be beat. Even though we are right next to Beer Corner, you could barely hear the loud music and people and honking from inside.

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My plan of sleeping off the jet lag didn’t work, as I was wide awake by 5:15am. Once Anthony woke up, we headed out to walk around Hanoi and drink some Vietnamese coffee. We instantly learned that pedestrians apparently do not have the right of way here. There are scooters EVERYWHERE, never ending, and they do NOT stop for you. It was a real-life game of frogger every time we had to cross a street, but we figured out pretty quickly how to manage.

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After breakfast, we went to the Hoa Lo prison, aka “Hanoi Hilton” where American POWs, including John McCain, were held during the Vietnam War. While most of the prison has been demolished, the parts that remain have been turned into a museum.

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We were exhausted, so we decided to sit down in a park and people watch for awhile. We watched people zoom by on their motorbikes, carry heavy baskets on a pole thrown over their shoulder, push bicycles topped with insane amounts of goods, and sit on small stools, drinking, eating, cooking, or doing their own people watching.

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After we ate some lunch, we decided a nap was necessary. We woke up somewhat refreshed and decided to walk around Old Quarter and do some shopping and exploring.

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We headed down to Hoan Kiem Lake, and walked all the way around with a few detours. The atmosphere was so vibrant and fun.

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People were playing games.

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Kids were in little jeeps or on hoverboards or rollerblades.

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Guys were working out?

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There were some monuments and pagodas and bridges to be seen.

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After making our way around the lake, we went and got some dinner at a restaurant with Vietnamese “street food” style food. Vietnam is known for its street food. A lot of it smells amazing, and a lot of it looks rather terrifying to be honest. As a vegetarian, I haven’t tried any of the actual street food places because I’m not sure how to tell if there is anything vegetarian for me, and there is too much of a language barrier for me to figure it out by asking. But I knew from research that the restaurant we went to would have options for me.

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I was SUPER excited when our server explained to us how to eat our meals. Everywhere else just put a bunch of stuff in front of us, and if we asked how we were supposed to eat or drink it, they would just kind of point at some things and then walk away.

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We stuffed our faces and then went back to the lake for some evening shots.

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We then battled the absolute MADNESS of Hanoi street life to see the night market.

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And now I am sitting here typing this up before we venture back out for the nightlife.

Hanoi is a crazy, crazy city with the most active street life I have seen in any of my travels thus far. I can’t imagine trying to live in a city like this, but it sure is fun to visit.

Bay Islands, Honduras

The Bay Islands, Honduras is one of the cheapest places to learn to scuba dive in the world. They also have a huge, beautiful coral reef right off the coast, part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which is the second largest coral reef in the world. Utila even has whale sharks throughout the year. So when we had about a week available for a quick trip, I decided to go for it.

We flew straight into the island of Roatan. Getting to Utila is much more difficult, however. Three days a week, they have a direct ferry between the islands, but unfortunately, the one on the day of our arrival was earlier than our landing. Instead of wasting a night and staying near the airport to catch the ferry the next day, we decided to book a charter flight with Captain Angelo on IslandAir.

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The plane can supposedly seat nine people, but there were three of us, and it was pretty tight with our luggage. The flight was only 13 minutes from takeoff to landing, and it was smooth and easy. If you’re short on time, I’d definitely recommend doing the charter flight option.

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We were picked up from the “airport” and taken to our treehouse in the jungle. The treehouse was about a 15 minute walk, or 5 minute tuk tuk ride from town, but it felt like a world away. Utila is a rather flat island. There are two big hills, Stuarts Hill and Pumpkin Hill. The treehouse was built in and around a strangler fig tree up on Stuarts Hill, so from the deck we could see most of the island, but the only company we had were Betsy, Bob, and Junior the resident tarantulas living in the bathroom, nearby cows, a million geckos and other lizards, and some bats in the evening to help take care of the mosquitos.

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The architecture of the treehouse was amazing, as were the views.

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However, it was a struggle if you had to pee in the middle of the night. Unlocking 3 different doors to get down to the bathroom, navigating around the various critters, and having the tarantulas stare at you while you’re peeing half-asleep was quite the adventure.  Particularly since the property managers mentioned when we checked in that “If we were really lucky, we’d see a boa constrictor.” Maybe some people would think that’s lucky. I thought it was terrifying, so walking down the treehouse in the dark paranoid that a boa constrictor was going to slither out in front of me at any second, was enough to make me suffer with a full bladder throughout the night. No boa constrictors made an appearance, by the way.

Utila itself was a decent little island. But the true draw is the underwater life. So, our first morning on the island, we arrived at the dock of the Bay Islands College of Diving (recommend) at 7 am to get our gear together, load it onto the boat, and take off. We had completed the education and confined water portions of Open Water certification back home, so all we had left were four open water dives.

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Our first day of diving had fabulous weather. We first went to Stingray Point where the colorful fish and coral left me in awe. The highlights of that dive were our first stingray sighting and an adorably shy porcupine fish peeking out of the coral at us. Next, we went to Big Rock where we saw several giant barracudas (one of which looked rather disturbing, as though he were hissing at us) and numerous stingrays as well. Huge success. We absolutely loved it.  We did not want to worry about trying to take photos while learning to dive, but fortunately, we met a couple that were getting involved in underwater photography. The underwater images here are theirs, so check them out on Instagram, @blueblanketimages!

 

Day two, we were out on the water bright and early again. We went to Black Coral Wall and Airport Reef. We got to dive down to 60 feet this time, and saw an incredible array of beautiful fish, a shipwreck, and an eel.

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A post shared by Katie Jones (@blueblanketimages) on

 

Once that was over, we were officially Open Water Certified! We came back to land, celebrated with some beers with our instructors in the Lodge, filled out our Log Books, signed some documentation, and went on our way, happy and excited.

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After some lunch, we walked back to the treehouse, rinsed off under our bucket shower, and relaxed for the evening.

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Since we hadn’t had enough diving, we were out early once again on our third day, for our two free “fun dives” (meaning there was no educational component to them). It had been raining all night and morning, but they decided to go out to the north side of the island anyway, where the better diving is. The boat ride was long and cold and rough, but once we got suited up and in the water, it was a whole new world.  We went to The Maze first, where it’s a maze (surprising, yes?) of coral walls with a deep drop off. Somehow, despite all the rain, the visibility was absolutely amazing. We could see all the way down, and swimming over the corals displayed brighter colors than we had seen before. Right toward the end of that dive, we saw a massive stingray.

 

Coming back out of the water, I was nearly freezing to death in my wet swimsuit out in the wind and rain, but we huddled under towels in the dry area until we got to our next dive site, Moon Hole. Here, we saw another small ship wreck, and a frog fish, which might be the weirdest creature I’ve ever seen.

 

The following day, we first took the ferry to La Ceiba on the mainland. I was surprised by how mountainous and beautiful the mainland looked as we approached. I’ll have to make a point of coming back for it someday.  After a two hour wait there, during which we grabbed some food at a tiny restaurant packed full of local workers, we then caught the ferry to Roatan.

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Roatan had a much different vibe than Utila. Much more tourist-y. The island was a lot bigger, and there were actual cars instead of just tuk tuks and scooters. We made it into West End where we checked into our apartment on the water on the outskirts of town, and then went wandering. The day was spent walking, drinking on the beach, and eating on over-water balconies. At one point, we were in a shop where a woman was loudly complaining about the lack of a tennis court at her resort. “I mean what’s the point even? I guess I’m just not used to slumming it. And this is slumming it.” Clearly she had no shame, but I was embarrassed for her.

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The next day, we took a water taxi in the morning over to West Bay beach. While the beach was lovely, I can’t say that I was a big fan. Since it was low season, there weren’t very many tourists, which may sound nice but we were constantly being harassed by people selling tours or bracelets or massages. The beach is lined with resort after resort, and if you’re not staying in one of those resorts, you have nowhere to sit and hang out unless you want to pay one of them to be able to sit in their chairs (I did learn the next day that the bar Beachers has chairs in front for general use). We ended up wandering up and down the beach a few times, stopping in a couple places for drinks and lunch before deciding to head on back to West End for the rest of the day.

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Our final full day, we decided to check out the scuba diving Roatan had to offer and went with West End Divers (again, recommend).  On our first dive that morning, we went out to Blue Moonshine where we saw a green sea turtle! To be honest, I forgot about everything else because I was so excited to see my first turtle while diving.

Green turtle swimming over coral reefs in KonaBrocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

We came back to the dive center to warm up with some coffee before heading out again to West End Wall. This was to be a drift dive where we went with a current along a coral wall. However, the current was much stronger than anticipated, and little ole me was being swept out very quickly, and I spent the whole dive trying to swim back into the current just to be able to stay with the group. Due to all this effort, I got low on air and had to surface early, exhausted. Anthony thought it was a blast, for the record.

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Afterward, we decided to get some papusas at a local restaurant, and ran into some friendly Polish tourists. Since I am an American Polish woman myself, we sat around and chatted about Poland and our various travels. That evening we went to a bar on Half Moon Bay to have a couple drinks, watching the waves lapping the shore.

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The following morning was stunningly beautiful. The temperature was perfect, sun was shining, and the water was calm and turquoise as could be. We saw multiple people wander out for some shore diving, as we sat on a balcony eating breakfast. We decided to hang out on the beach, soaking it all in, for as long as possible before we had to go back, pack up, and catch our taxi ride back to the airport.

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In short, we love scuba diving, and we hope to come back to Honduras in the future to see what the mainland has to offer us as well.