Cu Chi Tunnels

We were only in Ho Chi Minh city for one day overnight in order to catch a bus to Cambodia. We wanted to make good use of our time so we asked the locals what was the one must see/do in the city and the answer was unanimous: visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. 
We booked an afternoon tour through our hostel, and walked around the city to get the lay of the land. The biggest observation we made right away had to do with the heat. It was different than being at the beach in Hoi An. This heat was thick, humid and overpowering. The minute you left your air conditioned room you are covered in sweat from head to toe. Every minute or so I had to swipe my brow and remove the endless sweat dripping down into my eyes. It’s hard to describe how thick the air felt walking around the city. It’s as if you could almost see the air. The heat and humidity combined with my asthma was not a good feeling. The only way to describe is comparing it to trying to suck air through a straw; except the air is thick like a milkshake. After w few hours, I started sounding like an old rattling set of pipes with my wheezing. 

When it was time for our tour, we boarded a semi-air conditioned bus for the two hour bus ride to the tunnels. Our tour guide, Mr. Bean, used the time to share some of the history of the tunnels with the group. He also provided some personal stories from the Vietnam War. The only way to describe Mr. Bean is by using the word passionate. He has a thick Vietnamese accent and sometimes I wasn’t sure what he was saying but that didn’t stop me from feeling his passion or emotions about a harsh time in his country. Mr. Bean puts all his energy into sharing these gut wrenching stories with you and at the end of each one he would lean towards the person closest to him, look them in the eye and ask “understand?” 

We learned that Mr. Bean served in the American Navy and assisted US Troops in navigating the Cu Chi Tunnels. He taught us that the tunnels were built in Southern Vietnam by the Viet Cong (VC) who were Communist Supporters. The network of tunnels, which extended over 250 kilometers, received their name because they were located in the Cu Chi District. 

The purpose of these tunnels were to evade US troops and Vietnamese troops in the South (Non-Communist). Through the use of the tunnels they were successful because the USA used primarily aerial bombs and the VC would just go down into their tunnels and wait on until it was safe to come back up again. The villagers and VC would go underground and spend hours, days, weeks in these tunnels in order to avoid the enemy and their gas bombs. 

Now these tunnels are small! You know those children’s tunnels that you see at gymnastics classes or mommy and me places? The kind a small toddler crawls through for fun? That’s the original size of the Cu Chi Tunnels! We couldn’t believe that the Viet Cong were able to survive in these tiny tunnels for long periods of time. How was this possible. Mr. Bean explained this in great detail. First, he did a squat stance down low to the floor with both his feet flat on the ground. This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed someone sit like this. Most of the locals sit like this at the market or when eating the street food. Many of the chairs and tables at street carts are so short that you have to squat down to sit on them. Also, a lot of the toilets are very short and low, low, low to the floor. Mr. Bean called this the “Asian squat.” He said this was an invaluable skill during the war. See, the Viet Cong could squat in this stance for hours. Mr. Bean said that this squat position is so comfortable that the VC would stay in the squat and take a nap, smoke a cigarette, eat their food and wait until all the bombing had ended. This didn’t mean that the VC didn’t take the war above ground. They used their stealth and squat skills to hide in the jungle. When their enemy would walk past them, athey would shoot just one person. While the enemy would start shooting (at waist or eye level) the VC would just stay in a squat waiting for the shooting to stop (they didn’t want to waste any bullets) and then fire back eliminating the enemy one at a time. 

The VC also created booby traps that were extremely effective. They did all this with minimal resources. They didn’t have the technology or the funding that the Non-Communist Vietnamese troops received from other countries but their tunnels and booby traps gave them the ability to outwit the enemy and retain their land. Mr. Bean really helped us understand the driving force behind the Viet Cong. He said, “They did it because they loved their land. They were trying to keep what belonged to them and this fierce passion is what drove them to great lengths to fight for it.” 

When we arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels we were in a dense jungle atmosphere (if you thought it was hot in the city….). The first part of the tour takes you around the jungle to point out the different booby traps used by the Cu Chi people. 

 This one is hard to see, the VC called it a “trap door.” Someone would hide inside with a gun. Wait until the enemy had walked past and start shooting. The leaves cover the trap door making it nearly invisible.  

 This booby trap replica was a swinging door. A soldier would step on either side, their leg/body would fall into a pit full of spikes.  

 A Rolling Trap-Wooden beams layered with metal spikes.  

 A Window Trap-opens like a window and full of metal spikes.  

 This trap was used in the water. When soldiers would cross a stream their leg would slide into the trap and any attempt to pull it out shoved the spikes farther into their leg.  

 A replica of a Viet Cong soldier making a wooden spike.  

 The tour included replicas of the Cu chi people and how they created weapons to use against the enemy during the war. One room showed how the villagers used leftover bombs dropped by the US. Some of these bombs did not detonate. The VC would find the bombs and using a handsaw they’d penetrate the outer metal shell.  

  

 They had to cool the metal as they were sawing through it because a spark from the friction of the handsaw could cause the bomb to ignite (and many did). They did this process to create deadly land mines that were then buried all throughout the jungle. Mr. Bean informed us that there are still some parts of Northern Cambodia that are very dangerous because some of the landmines are live and buried there. 

It was now time to go down to the tunnels. During the entire tour, Mr. Bean had been preparing everyone for this part of the tour. He had told us that the tunnels themselves were extremely small and referenced that they were made for “Asian-sized” bodies. He added that over the years, the tunnels had been expanded in width to allow those of us Americans with extra “girth” to fit through them. But they were still going to be very small. They had also added electricity to the portion of the tunnels that we would crawl through. There were tiny night lights plugged in every few meters to provide some light. We would only be crawling through 90 meters of the tunnels. That doesn’t sound very long, but trust me when I say that it felt like ten miles. 

 Mr. Bean explained to us that once inside the tunnels if we became claustrophobic or for any other reason decided that we could not continue we should exit one of the escape hatches. There were a total of five escape hatches in the tunnel system we explored. These escape hatches were a small side hole that had a ladder leading up to the surface. This is where the Viet Cong would come to stretch their legs and it was also the only source of fresh air. (Photo above is of what an escape hatch looked like from above ground during the war. It looks like a pile of rocks and dirt, nothing more)

  Once you climb down these stairs you’re in a small room and in one corner there is a small hole. The hole comes up to just above my knees. I already started to feel short of breath. So I stepped out of line. I told Super Nel to go on ahead, I was going to catch up. I let most of our tour group go in the tunnel ahead of me while I sat down catching my breath, focusing on my breathing and doing some positive self talk. I stepped into the tunnel at the next break in the line. 

The tunnel seemed to get smaller as I took the first five steps inside. I think what made it worse is the inability to see what lay ahead in the tunnel. A part of it was the dim lighting (I had packed a head lamp for our Asia trip but it was left behind in my luggage, #regret) and the other part is that there are people in front of you so you have to go at their pace (and I could hear people in the middle of the group taking damn selfies which only slowed us down even more). I was doing a duck walk like everyone else and moving through the tunnel. It was extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move, my back hurt and it’s so dark inside. When I saw the first escape hatch I quickly crawled into it and stood up. 

Standing up had never felt so good. I started taking really deep breaths. I started to climb up the ladder ready to end this adventure when a little voice in my head said “You’re really going to quit Andy? Don’t you want to be able to say you finished this? You won’t be able to say on your blog that you made it to the end. Come on, you don’t quit from challenges that easily.” My brain was trying to talk me back into the tunnel. 

I knew if I went back in the tunnel, I had to do something about my gear. I currently was holding the small 24 liter Osprey daypack that Super Nel and I share. I had been carrying it on my chest since Mr. Bean had encouraged us to do so. He said it would be easier to squat and walk with it that way. I knew I wouldn’t make it through the rest of the tunnel doing a duck walk because it put too much pressure on my lower back. I moved the backpack onto my back and secured the chest and waist straps. I also had my straw hat and my hydroflask. I was able to attach the hydroflask to the chest strap of my backpack and continued holding my hat in my hand. I was now ready to leave the escape hatch. 

I had decided to crawl on my hands and knees instead of duck walking. Even crawling proved to be hard. The only way to describe how I looked in the tunnel is for you to imagine I was doing a half push up with my arms bent at a ninety degree angle and on my knees crawling at the same time. This hurt my knees because I’m crawling on hard stone and every now and then there’s rocks in the stone. However, this was still easier than the squat walk. Since my chest was so close to the ground as I was crawling, this meant my hydroflask was dragging along the ground making a loud metal sound. I didn’t care, I was doing it. I made it past one escape hatch but when I came to a third I had to take a break. I took a few seconds to catch my breath. I eyed the escape hatch ladder longingly but my positive self-talk kicked in (never underestimate the power of positive self talk!) and my brain said “You’ve climbed all the way to the top of Duomo in Florence and climbed the steps of the Arc de Triumph in France-don’t you want to know you were able to crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam?! You can do this! Get back in there and crawl!”

That’s just what I did. This time I was pretty far away from anyone in front of me. So instead of holding my straw hat in my hand, I started sliding it as far as I could push it in front of me. Then I would crawl to the hat and repeat the process. I think this provided a good distraction from the fact that the tunnel was starting to look and feel like it was getting smaller. Was this possible? I hoped it was only my mind playing tricks on me. I didn’t know how much farther we had left until the end of the tunnel. I had caught up to a few people from our tour group and they said the tunnel was getting smaller ahead and we had to slide down a section flat on our backs in order to get through it. 

My heart started racing. I was scared. All kinds of thoughts were going through my head: what if I got stuck, what if I fell at the end of the slide, what if I can’t breathe?! I was really having trouble catching my breath and there was no escape hatch in sight. I had let the people in front of me go around the corner while I stayed in the same spot trying to figure out what to do. 

I tried to find say some positive self talk, but my brain was all out of encouragement. I relied on the one thing that my heart could say when my brain runs out of juice, “You can do this. You’re Wonder Woman and she never backs down from a challenge.” 

The slide part of the tunnel was tricky. I had to take my backpack off my back and hug it to my chest along with the hydroflask. I sent my straw hat down the slide ahead of me. Then I laid on my back. Since this slide wasn’t slick it wasn’t like you actually slid down a slide. I still had to shimmy by body down the path. So I would bend my knees as far as I could in the tunnel, dig my heels in and pull my body down. When I landed on the lower level, I continued crawling. I came to an escape hatch and popped into it for a much needed break. I didn’t know how much longer I could go. I didn’t know how much more was left to crawl through. The next thing I knew, a guard popped his head in the escape hatch. He started speaking to me in Vietnamese. I told him I didn’t understand. He pointed to the ladder in the escape hatch and said “You go up now!” But I didn’t want to quit. I pointed to the tunnel and told him I wanted to finish. He said “hurry!” I quickly got into my crawling position and resumed my tossing the straw hat and crawling to it technique. 

I had tossed my hat and crawled to a few times when I noticed there was no more light in the tunnel. I couldn’t see any night lights plugged in ahead. I was now crawling in the dark trying to feel my way through. All the while a guard was right at my feet saying “Go, go, go!” I was crawling blindly as fast as my hands and knees could go. Then I came around a corner and saw light up ahead and I heard voices. I was hoping it was the end of the tunnel and when I arrived to the light it was indeed the exit. I saw Super Nel right away and gave him a dust covered hug as I said, “I can’t believe we made it all the way through!” He then looked at me and said, “Actually, you made it. I went out the first escape hatch.”  

 I was hot, dirty and my gear was all scratched up, but I didn’t care. I can now say that I’ve survived the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. And I have a whole new level of respect for the people who lived down in that tunnel system for months. 

Next I’ll be blogging about our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, It was a very emotional visiting their Genocide museum and Killing Fields. It was hard to take it all in but worth it. 

A Day in Hoi An

We woke up early and decided to hit the beach while it was hot and sunny. The beach closest to our hotel is called An Bang. The first thing we did when we arrived after setting up our towels on the sandy beach: run into the cool water to escape the heat! 

The water wasn’t very clear but since we didn’t come to snorkel we didn’t mind. Instead, we spent the morning jumping waves and watching the fisherman swim by with nets and set them up far away from the shoreline.  

 When we were finished at the beach, we went back to the hotel to ride bikes around town. Since, Hoi An was a little less congested on the streets than Hanoi, it felt easier to be riding a bike and navigating the streets.  Also, the streets were wider so you don’t feel as crushed.

 I felt pretty good about riding a bike in Vietnam and not getting hit my a car or motorcycle. After riding bikes, the heat was at its peak. We spent some time cooling off in the pool before exploring the Ancient City. The Ancient City is a well preserved trading port that was created during the 15th century. No cars or motorcycles are allowed in the Ancient City to help preserve the ambiance. This part of town is full of bridges and a river. The locals use fishing boats to bring in the catch of the day in the early morning and in the afternoon/evening they give tourists rides down the river. You can buy a floating lantern from a local with a candle inside and they have a special long stick they use to lower your candle into the river. It lights up the river at night. 

  

Really enjoyed the setting of this rice patty right outside the town.  

  These ladies enjoy a break from selling local fruit.  

The main bridge that leads into the town.  

 Handmade lanterns are located in almost every shop and you can watch a local make one.  

 All aboard the fishing boats!  

   There were different signs along the bridges. At night they light up.  
   Year of the Monkey 

 The Ancient City felt like Christmas at night with all the different lights.  

  I bought some mango cakes as a treat on my way out of the city. I could only find them in the Ancient City (I wish I’d known that!). As we were leaving the city, I open a mango cake and felt someone tugging on my legs. I looked down and found this little guy looking longingly at my mango cake. He started talking to me on Vietnamese and was speaking to him in English. We couldn’t understand each other’s words but I knew what he wanted (mango cake is a universal language). I asked his mom if he could have one and when she said yes he ate every bite. We both had big smiles on our faces when we were done with the cakes. 

Next we travel down to Ho Chi Minh city to catch the bus that will take us to Cambodia. 

A Delayed Flight is a Lesson in Flexibility 

Our flight from Hanoi to Da Nang was delayed for many many hours. Flexibility is a must when we travel because we’ve learned to expect many hiccups along the way. Regardless of how much planning or prep work we do, it’s inevitable that something will get delayed or canceled. In this case, the airline was saying that there was a problem with the plane and they were working quickly to fix it or get another plane to come to Hanoi. As much as I hated to lose out on half a day in Hoi An, I didn’t mind waiting for the plane to get fixed if it meant arriving safely-no matter how long it took. 
When we did finally arrive in the city of Da Nang, we had to take a taxi to the beach town of Hoi An. The weather was no longer cool and cloudy like Hanoi. It was close to 19:00pm when we arrived at our hotel and it was steamy, humid and hot. Our hotel was ready for us when we arrived and they had glasses of ice cold “welcome juice.” 

We unloaded our bags in our room, turned on the air conditioning and walked down the street to find some dinner. We discovered that the street vendors in Hoi An usually have a little cart out front that advertises the type of food being served. Behind the cart is a seating area that is covered by a palapa style structure and beyond the seating area is another small structure where the family lives. Almost all the other businesses in Hoi An are set up the same way-business our front and a home in the back.  

 Sitting area and in the back is the family room.  

 When our hostess/chef wasn’t serving us dinner she would go to the family room to entertain the kids.  

 Our hostess/chef served us her variation of chicken and rice. The rice looked and tasted like a variation of quinoa. It was shaped halfway like rice and half like quinoa. The meal filled our bellies and then we went back to our hotel bar for a night cap. 

Our hotel had complementary computers for use as well as a pool table in the bar area. I took advantage of the computers to update my blog. Super Nel really wanted to play pool and when the bartender overheard, he offered to join him.  

 We learned from the locals in Hanoi that one of the best ways to learn English is to interact with people who already speak the language. It’s not uncommon to have someone approach you at the hotel, park, beach and engage in conversation. The people of Vietnam are very friendly (and brave!) to approach people and try out their English skills. The other option would be to pay for classes at a language school.  

 Arnel lost both games of pool to the bartender but I think it’s because he made our drinks extra strong. We decided to hit the sack early to wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed in order to hit the beach and explore the ancient village the following day. 

Hanoi Last Impressions

We woke up on or last day in Hanoi wishing we could say there longer and already planning when we could return for a longer stay. On our way to the airport, we made some last minute observations about this wonderful city. 
Our first observation, is the structure and size of most buildings.  

 The buildings tend to be very tall and skinny. We were told that the reason for this is the cost of real estate. People purchasing property, will buy a small plot of land and build their home or business upwards into skinny buildings. Another fun Hanoi fact has to do with the names of the streets. When the city was first developed, the businesses were grouped together based on the goods they sold. The names of the streets represent what item was primarily sold on each street. So you might have a street called “Toy Avenue” and they sell toys. Another street is called “Coffin Boulevard” and this is where you go to get items for a traditional funeral. 
Our second observation, has to do with the motorcycles. More people use motorcycles than cars in Hanoi. This gives the locals more flexibility with parking (everyone parks on the sidewalk). Also, it’s cheaper to maintain a moto than a car and they require less gas.  

 This motorcycle rider is carrying what looks like goods for selling in a store or an outdoor market. I don’t know how he checks his blindspot though?  

 It’s not uncommon to see two, three and even FOUR riders on one moto.  

 If you look closely, you’ll see this lady rising her moto in high heels. Motorcycle riding is unisex and often we saw more ladies riding than fellas. 

The last major observation we made, has to do with street vendors. Instead of setting up a cart in one place, like other street vendors we saw in Thailand, most of them carry their product with them. This allows the street vendors to be mobile and move around the city to sell to store owners, locals at the coffee shops and anywhere they can find the tourists.  
 A street vendor selling fresh shrimp and fish.  

 The vendor prepares to make a sale. 

 The vender carries a scale to measure the weight of the shrimp.  

 The shrimp and fish are laying on mounds of ice (white blob in the middle of photo) in order to keep the product fresh. 

Already prepping the post about arrival in Hoi An and our day at the beach. As always, thanks for reading about our adventures!

Ha Long Bay: Bamboo boats and the Grotto

After cruising around on the bay for awhile, our boat docked on a pier in the middle of the water. It was here that we would hop onto a bamboo boat with a paddler for an up close and personal view of the limestone rocks.      

 The Little Superheroes enjoyed their first bamboo boat ride. 

 

When we were boarding the boat, we heard a loud scream and a splash. It was another passenger from our boat who had fallen in the water. Luckily, when she fell in the water she didn’t hit her head and she came right back up. The family that was with her and one of the bamboo boat attendants were able to pull her up. She still boarded the bamboo boat so that she wouldn’t miss out on exploring the rock formations. You can see her in the photo above taking in the sites of the rocks.  

 The boats go through these small tunnels to go inside the rock formations. On the other side of the tunnel you can see a trio or duo of rock islands.  

    
    
    
 After our bamboo boat ride ended, we boarded our big boat again and set off for another docking place. This time we would take a hike up the mountain and explore the inside of a cave called Thien Chung Grotto. It was formed over thousands of years ago and contains a plethora of stalactites and stalacmites. The name of this grotto means “Heavenly Palace,” and it was discovered by some people seeking shelter from a storm. One of these men, saw a group of monkeys run down into a hole. When he dropped a rock into the hole, it took awhile before he heard the rock hit anything. He knew that the tunnel must lead to a big cave. When they climbed inside, they found a cave filled all these stalacmites (rocks growing from the ground toward the ceiling) and stalactites (rocks growing from the ceiling toward the ground).   

 
 
    

This is the original entrance to the grotto. It’s said that on really sunny days, bright rays of sunshine come into the cave through this entrance and this is why it’s named “Heavenly Palace.” 

 At the end of the grotto, you get a great view of the bay and the docked boats.  

    We really enjoyed our time on the bay and we’re glad we had the chance to see this special part of Vietnam. Sadly, our time in Hanoi was coming to an end. Our next stop is the ancient village of Hoi An where we’ll enjoy some time at the beach and exploring the village. 

Ha Long Bay: The Descending Dragon 

Our tour guide for the day was Minh and he shared some of his country’s history during the three hour long bus ride to Ha Long Bay. He talked about some of the bridges in Vietnam. There are two that were created by the same person who did the Eiffel Tower in Paris (sorry for the lack of photo but the bus was going too fast) and you can see the similarities between the two structures.
Also, Minh talked about how Vietnam’s Communist Government has evolved over time and how it’s impacted tourism in his country. When Vietnam first became a Communist society, the people all received an equal amount of coupons (not money). Each coupon was good for an equal share of items such as rice, vegetables, fruits and water. They also received coupons for soap, shampoo and clothing. Foreigners were not allowed to visit Vietnam and local citizens were not able to travel outside the country. Minh explained that if a citizen wanted to travel out of Vietnam, the government would want to know where that person was getting the funding to travel. No one had any money because no one was paid in cash, only in coupons. Citizens could travel to visit family within the country but first had to get permission from the government and they would provide the travel arrangements. Minh said that in theory, having everyone have the same of everything sounded ideal. However, there were flaws in the system. He went on to share the problems the system encountered. When people received their monthly coupons, sometimes there were items they couldn’t use. Men might receive a coupon for a pair of female underwear-not something every man could use. So the people would trade coupons with one another. Someone might trade a shampoo coupon for additional rice. Now everyone has a little more or less of each item and it’s not equal like the system had intended. Also, you received your coupons regardless of the work you did. You might have two people working in the rice field. One employee might be productive and hard working, but the other prefers to sit down in the shade and drink tea all day. That hard working employee might see the other employee sitting around and reading the newspaper and decide he wants longer breaks too. Productivity started to suffer. So Vietnam now has a free market in regards to business, but is a Communist society in other aspects. In terms of travel, foreigners are welcome to travel throughout the country and citizens can travel outside of Vietnam. More specifically, the USA lifted the embargo with Vietnam in 1994. This also happens to be the same year that Ha Long Bay became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 
Ha Long means descending dragon and there are over 1900 rocks or islands that stick out from the water. The weather in Hanoi and Ha Long was perfect because it was nice and cool. In Ha Long, there was some fog and clouds which added to the look and feel of the bay. When we arrived in Ha Long bay, we waited on the dock to board our boat.  

  

 Waiting to board our boat. 

Once on board, you could sit inside the boat and watch the huge limestone rocks go by or come face to face with the rocks up on the top deck. 

 

         
   
Ha Long is an ancient part of Vietnam full of villagers who survive from fishing and many live on riverboats like the one above. 

   
 These two rocks are the most famous of Ha Long Bay and are called the Kissing Rocks. 
I loved watching a new rock formation come out of the fog and trying to figure out what each one looked like. 

  
At one point the fog was so thick it felt like we were cruising into a wall of fog! 

Part two of Ha Long Bay will include exploring the biggest cave I’ve ever seen. 

Never Leave Home Without This Item

I’m writing this post more to vent than anything else. So please feel free to skip over this post. 
When we arrived in Hanoi, we had booked a day tour to visit Ha Long Bay. We had a hotel pickup scheduled and were informed the bus would arrive between 8-8:30am. This means we woke up early, packed our day bags and filled our bellies with yummy free hotel breakfast food. We were down in the lobby waiting for our tour guide precisely at 8:00am. 

We were not the only ones waiting for a tour. There’s multiple daily and overnight tours offered to Ha Long Bay that depart every morning. Giant tour buses drive around Hanoi providing hotel pickup before continuing the three hour drive to the bay. While waiting in the lobby, I overheard one tour guide speaking with an American college age young lady. There was a group of eight in her party and the tour guide was trying to collect payment for their tour. This group was doing an overnight tour and the bus driver was asking the lady where the rest of her group was so that the bags could get loaded onto the bus. At that point, two gentleman came off the elevator and handed their bags to the bus driver. Then they preceded to inform him that they were going to go back upstairs to get some free breakfast.

This made the bus driver very upset. He raised his voice and told the two guys that the bus had other people waiting outside and that the bus had already been waiting for their entire group for fifteen minutes. The two guys still went upstairs to breakfast leaving the bus driver to deal with the bus full of people outside getting honked at by other cars and motorcycles because it was blocking traffic. 

The tour guide in the meanwhile is still trying to settle the bill with the young lady. She’s telling her that her group still owes money for the tour. The young lady tells her that her two other girl friends will be paying their share of the bill when they come down. The tour guide became very frustrated and said sternly to this lady “You need to work with us. We have other people who have paid for their tour and were ready on time for pick up. Now they are stuck waiting on that bus for you and your friends. Go get your friends and bring them down here so you can pay and we can go!”

I wish I could say the story gets better from here. A few minutes later the rest of the party arrived in the lobby with their bags and they paid for their tour. As the bus driver is ushering them out the door the front desk hotel manager informs the group that they still have to check out and pay for their room service, laundry and anything else that was charged to the room. This led to another ten minute discussion of how much each person needs to pay and who needs to pay who or send someone money via PayPal or Venmo. I even overheard one of the guys ask his buddy to go across the street and buy a bottle of liquor for the drive. All the while people are waiting on the bus. 

Our tour guide arrived to collect us and this group was still in the lobby figuring things out. The poor bus driver was outside trying to placate a bus full of people stuck waiting. 

Now, I understand everyone has different travel styles. I also understand that not everyone travels as organized as we do. But when your actions and your choices are wasting the time of other people, you are showing extreme disrespect for those people and their time. When you show up late, you’re basically saying “I don’t value your time or you as a person enough to get my act together show up when I’m supposed to.” 

Personally, if I was the bus driver and the tour operator I would have left this group behind. I would have left them after ten or fifteen minutes of waiting. If they wanted to find their own transportation to Ha Long Bay and join the tour group there that would be fine but it is not fair to the other people who paid for this tour to miss out on their time out on the water. I can only assume that since tourism is a huge part of income for Vietnam this company chose to wait for this one group because they can not afford any negative reviews. 

I wanted badly to say something to this group. I wanted to tell them that their behavior is what people will remember. The next time that bus driver meets a college age group of Americans what assumptions do you think he will make about our country as a whole? I hope most of you will read this post and remember that when you travel to a different country, you are a representative of the United States. Always make it a point to put your best self out there on your travels. 

The next time you’re packing your bag for a new adventure please remember to bring some respect in addition to your favorite shirt, comfy shoes and your sunscreen. Respect is the most important item that you can bring with your travels. 

Rant over. 

Happy in Hanoi

Super Nel and I always enjoy exploring new countries. We have a few that are our favorites and if we could visit them every single year we would never get bored. I never expected Vietnam to become one of those countries. I fully expected to enjoy my time visiting this country but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the people and the culture. It was hard to leave one Vietnam city for the next one, but every time we did we always said the same thing: “We’ll be back.”
Our first stop in Vietnam was Hanoi and it did not disappoint. Our hotel, The Legacy, was kind enough to send a driver and I felt mighty fancy when I saw a gentleman holding a sign saying “Baluca.” 
Our drive into the city was quiet. We saw green rice fields and there was fog rolling over all the green. Another plus about Hanoi? The temperatures were substantially cooler than in Bangkok.   

My favorite part of the drive was going over this bridge. There are a few different bridges in Hanoi and one of them was designed by the same person who designed the Eiffel Tower. 

Our hotel was located in the Old Quarter. Hanoi is broken up into different quarters and you can see it on the map when looking at the city. Upon arrival to our hotel, we were greeted by David, the front desk manager. When I say “greeted,” I mean he came over and sat at a table with us. He asked about our ride from the airport, where we were from, what we had planned in Hanoi and a lot more. David wasn’t the only one who showed this sense of intrigue to towards us. I noticed all the staff and even people on the street walk up to foreigners and strike up a conversation. I would later learn that this is how the people of Vietnam practice their English. It gives the the chance to perfect their conversational skills. I think it takes a sense of bravery to walk up to someone and start a conversation.  
We had arrived in Hanoi pretty early, so David offered to let us go upstairs and enjoy the free breakfast while our room was being prepared. 

  
The best part of the free breakfast was the tasty pho soup and different noodles every day. 

We booked a nighttime food walking tour for our first evening in Hanoi. We were excited to try some local food. 
Our local guide, Hannah, picked us up from our hotel and another couple joined us-they were in town visiting from Montana. 
At our first stop we tried four different rice dishes that came with a different sauce-the sauce options were ginger, green bean, black bean and the last one was a floating cake so instead of rice there was a ball in a sweet soup and the ball had a mochi like consistency. The floating cake was the majority favorite with the black bean sauce a close second.   

At our next stop, we enjoyed freshly made Banh Coun (see photo above). We watched a lady making rice paper very similar to how a crepe is made. She had a hot plate that she would add a small amount of liquid to (rice flour with water). Then using a small stick she flattens the liquid so that it cooks into a very thin see through pancake. Once finished making the rice paper, it is stuffed and rolled with a minced pork and mushroom mixture. It’s served with crispy fried shallots and a sauce for dipping called Nuoc Cham. It was so tasty we decided to savor each bite and enjoy a beer. 
The next few stops included pho ga, fried pastry dough with pork mushroom, sweet potato dough with friend shrimp called banh tim ho tay and a vegetable dumpling. It’s safe to say our bellies were pretty stuffed after this much food. And we still had three more places to visit!!

Before taking us to get a fruit bowl for dessert we did some walking (thank goodness) around the city. Our first stop was at Hoan Kiem Lake. 

  
The history behind this lake is that Emperor Loi was given a magical sword during a revolt with Ming China. Later in 1428, while the Emperor was near the lake a turtle came and asked for the sword back. The Emperor, believing that this was his ancient ancestor, returned the sword and decided the name of the lake would be changed to Hoan Kiem Lake (Return sword lake). The lake felt pretty magical at night. 

  
Next we passed by this church. Our tour guide explained that it is a Catholic Church build by the French when they occupied Vietnam. One of my favorite topics to discuss with locals is about religion or beliefs. I love learning about different religions. This can be a delicate subject to discuss but standing outside the church was the perfect time to ask respectful questions. Hannah told us that about 20% of the Vietnamese practice Christianity, a small amount practice Buddhism and the majority of the people follow Traditional Beliefs. Traditional Beliefs mean the people worship their ancestors and a variety of Gods. I wanted to sit down and talk more about this for hours, but it was time to eat dessert. 

  
Our fruit bowl included mango, watermelon, dragonfruit, Asian pear, coconut, winter melon and avocado. It was mixed with coconut jelly and agar agar (gelatin). Then drizzled on top was a mix of condensed and coconut milk. You are given a bowl of crushed ice to add to the bowl and you mix everything together and devour. Mine didn’t last longer than two minutes before it was in my belly. 

Our last two stops were two of my favorites. The first was to enjoy some egg coffee. 

  
Egg coffee is prominent in Hanoi and we were really sad that we couldn’t find it in any other city in Vietnam (more reason to go back!) It’s a combination of egg yolk and coffee. The egg yolk gives the coffee a creme brûlée taste. You can get your coffee iced or hot and they were both delicious. We had one everyday we were on Hanoi. A slight warning: this coffee is strong! I’m really sensitive to caffeine so a few sips of egg coffee and I was ready to Go, Go, Go! There are numerous coffee houses throughout the city and its not uncommon to see locals gathered together drinking coffee and catching up on each other’s lives. The people of Vietnam are very social and enjoy one another’s company. 
  

  
Our last stop was a visit to “Beer Corner.” It’s an area of Hanoi where locals gather for a beer at night. 
I should probably share another important fact about Vietnam-crossing the street is an adventure in itself. It requires skill, finesse and a big pair of canjones. I’d read numerous blog posts before leaving home about Vietnam and one thing that is consistent is info about crossing the street. It’s like playing a life sized game of Frogger. Only if you get hit, you don’t regenerate another life, you break bones.   

Our tour guide and all the other locals are natural pros at crossing the street. Our first few times, involved us waiting until a local was crossing and we would hover right next to them until they finished crossing. By the end of our time in Vietnam, we’d become pros. We could cross any street (running knees to chest) solo. You really have to mentally tell yourself repeatedly “They’re gonna stop. I won’t get hit. You can do this!”

  
Our first night in Vietnam was a complete success. Hannah had to roll us back like little balls to the hotel because we were completely stuffed. We couldn’t wait until the next day to visit Ha Long Bay. Our hotel staff greeted us on our return and they asked about our night, what we ate and our plans for the next day. It almost made us feel like we were staying with relatives instead of a hotel in a city far from home. 

Up next I’ll share photos and stories from our day in Ha Long Bay-it’s said to be one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. 

Amazing Race in Bangkok

It doesn’t matter how often we travel or how prepared we are for any adventure. We always end up with at least one Amazing Race style story. This time it happened during our move from Bangkok to Vietnam. 

Our mission: to catch a flight via the budget airline Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi departing at 6:30 am. 

Our first challenge, was figuring out how to find a taxi to take us from our condo to the airport. We were in a neighborhood where you couldn’t always find a taxi. We couldn’t take the metro system because it was closed that early in the morning. We ended up having to pantomime (act it out) “call a taxi” with the security guards of the condo. We used a piece of paper to write down the time we wanted a taxi (4:15 am) and I pretended to be an airplane using my arms and making sounds with my mouth to indicate where we wanted to go-it worked!

When our alarm went off at 4:00am, we were half asleep and zombie walked downstairs to meet our taxi. We were pretty surprised to find out it was raining-very, very hard. I know, I know-you’re thinking that since I’m from San Diego I think it’s pouring when it’s sprinkling outside. Trust me, I’ve seen crazy storms. This blew them all away. It was as if every single drop of water in the ocean was falling from the sky at that minute. It was the epitome of the words “torrential downpour.” The doorman had a giant table umbrella he was using and helped us get into the taxi so we weren’t completely soaked. 

The drive to the airport was short but it was terrifying. The water had filled the streets and since it was dark outside it made it hard for the driver to see the flooded areas. When we arrived at the airport in one piece I thought for sure the worst was over. 

I was wrong. Air Asia is a budget airline for Asia which is comparable to Ryan Air and Easy Jet in Europe. We had arrived more than two hours early since it was our first time with this airline. When we walked into the airport it was complete pandemonium. Envision hundreds of people packed into every part of the airport and every single one is yelling or talking as loud as they can. The areas for Air Asia were the most crowded. Every line had more than a hundred people in each of them. Each line winded around the area like a giant snake. It was impossible to find the end of any line. We normally would proceed to the gate because we checked in online, but Air Asia specifically said online that we had to stop by the reservations desk to have our passport scanned. So we kept asking different Air Asia staff which line we should be in to travel to Hanoi. Each staff person sent to a different line. After waiting more than an hour in a line and battling with line-cutters (not on my watch!) we had barely moved up a few feet. It was less than an hour to our flight, we were no closer to having our documents scanned and we still had to get through customs and security before finding our gate! 

By 5:50am I couldn’t take the line anymore. I knew we wouldn’t make our flight if we stayed in that line. So again I walked up to an Air Asia employee, I told them our flight was leaving in fourty minutes and we were in a huge line. This employee looked at our tickets and points to a line with only EIGHT people in it. She says that’s the line we should be in. 

After getting our documents scanned we run to customs where there is another huge line. We are almost at the front of the customs line when a bunch of people start crowding the line. We are talking major pushing, shoving and trying to cut ahead. I pretty much lost all patience at this point. We had twenty minutes until our flight departs and we still have to finish in customs and get through security. If anyone thought they were going to get ahead of me they were going to have to pry my cold dead body out of their way. I was seeing red and snarling-this seemed to work because no one tried to bump ahead of me anymore. 

The security line was the shortest line to get through and didn’t even  require removing our liquids from inside the bag. We ran full sprint to our gate which was boarding and somehow made it on board. 

The flight was a little over an hour and when we arrived at the Hanoi airport is was the complete opposite of Bangkok. It was as quiet as a library. I could literally hear the stamping sounds from the customs agents. No one was talking loud or making any noise. 

We had made it to Vietnam! Read about our night food tour and impressions of Vietnam next. 

Six Hours in Bangkok

On our second day in this busy city we split up our time so that we could go back to the condo during the peak heat hours.

We were wide awake and out the door by 8:00am local time. We had six hours, sunscreen, water in our hydroflask and an unlimited ride metro card. Our mission of the day, was to visit the Wat Pho temple to see the Reclining Buddha.  

In order to reach the temple, we first had to take the metro to Chatuchak Park. We read about a weekend market that takes place here so we figured it would be a good place to get some breakfast. 

We were pleasantly surprised to get off the metro and find a huge park full of green grass and trees. Everything we’d seen of Bankok so far felt very tight and crammed with lots of people. It felt good to explore an area that was open and spread out.    

Turns out the locals enjoy coming to this park as well. We saw plenty of them sitting on a bench and eating breakfast, laying under a tree and a few out for a morning run.     

On the other side of the park, we found these stone columns with photos on them. Each photo demonstrates a different exercise that can be done in the park using various wooden logs or equipment.

  
These ladies were stretching using the wooden logs. In the background a young girl works on balancing exercises on a wooden beam. We even saw someone picking up and lifting a log and doing chest press exercises with it. I enjoyed watching the locals make good use of their parks. 

The weekend market was located directly next to the park. We were happy to arrive early, because we had the chance to watch the market come to life. Some stalls were still setting up and the food booths were busy making the special of the day.    

 We found a food vendor ready for business and a gentleman named Ken sat us down next to the stand. After taking our order, Ken proceeded to make the rice and noodle dishes. He asked his coworker to make the papaya salad.   

Everything was very tasty and as we sat there eating (and sweating!) the market started to get very busy. 

We wandered around the market and ended up finding a foot massage stall. We enjoyed thirty minutes of air conditioned massaging. 

 Some of the textiles being sold in the market. 

Before leaving the market I decided to use the potty. It was tucked away down a back corridor. Imagine my surprise when I found an entire art gallery on the way to the bathroom. All these local artists working on a variety of different artworks in a small studio. 

Here are some of my favorites:    

 
 The next part of our journey involved taking a bus. We were determined to figure out the bus system in Thailand. It was a lot harder than expected. We knew more or less which bus number would take us to the temple but the bus stops didn’t have any signs indicating if that number stopped there. We ended up finding a very nice lady who spoke a tiny bit of English. We explained where we wanted to go and she informed us of the buses that would stop at that location. She was also able to tell us how much it would cost and that you pay on board the bus. 

We figured the hard part was over. However, while waiting for our bus we started watching other people get on and off busses. The busses barely come to a complete stop. You have to jump on or off as its moving and the steps are high off the ground. When the bus you’re looking for is coming, you have to start running towards it so the driver knows you want to get on. Otherwise, it will not slow down at all and you’re stuck waiting for the next one. When we finally made it on board, it felt like a huge achievement. We enjoyed driving through the city to our destination. 

Once we arrived at the Wat Pho temple, many vendors outside told us that it’s holy hour and the temple was closed. They invited us to go on a tour or to eat some lunch while we waited. It’s a good thing I had read online that this is a common scam done to tourists in order to get you to buy something. When the vendors asked where we were going we kept saying “just walking.” When we arrived at the entrance to the temple it was open for business. 

Super Nel had to purchase some Thai elephant design pants because the temple doesn’t allow you to wear shorts. I had brought a wrap with me to cover up my shoulders because tank tops are also not allowed. 

In order to enter the area of the Reclining Buddha, you must remove your shoes. You are given a bag to place them in so you can carry them around with you. 

Once inside, you are immediately face to face with a towering golden Buddha.           

The Buddha was glorious! He’s so big he feels larger than life. 

Overall we’d had a very productive morning and we enjoyed our adventure. We were ready for a much needed air conditioned nap. So we negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take us back to the metro.