Phong Nha (Mar 22-24): A Beautiful Cave, Ducks, and a Botanical Garden

The journey to Phong Nha was a bit rough because it was the first overnight bus of my entire trip. I booked the ticket through my hostel for 300,000 dong ($17.70AUD) and was told that it would take about 7 or 8 hours, so I should arrive at around 5 or 6am. I was the only person to get on the bus in Tam Coc, and the bus workers only pointed me to the back of the bus. But I walked and walked and there weren’t any free seats! Then at the very back, there were three beds right beside each other, with a couple on two of them and all of their stuff on the other. I ducked down and said that I would be joining them, so they moved all of their stuff in order to make some room for me. So there I lied in a three-person bed, wedged between the bathroom (with a constant swinging door), and a couple, and feeling like the ultimate third-wheel – I mean…I’ve been in third-wheel situations before, but sharing a bed was a new one for me!

I sat there and vowed to never book transportation through my accommodation again (which of course still keeps happening). There were a bunch of locals already sitting in the aisles, where they were given a mat to lie down on for the night – it blew my mind! A few minutes later, they picked up some more foreigners (who had to sit in the aisle) but then the bus stopped somewhere else and let all of the foreigners off. The locals still remained in the aisles and slept there for the duration of the trip. After about half an hour, we stopped for a break but I decided to stay on the bus since I had already eaten beforehand. I looked for a hostel to book for the next day and emailed them to say that I’d be arriving early in the morning. Then, I put in my ear plugs and put on my eye mask, and tried to sleep. And I think I actually did because I wasn’t horribly tired the next day. I had read that the bus would sometimes arrive early, around 4 or 4:30, so I set multiple alarms every half hour because I was paranoid that I’d miss my stop. At about three, I woke up and checked my map to see where we were. I saw that we were getting close to Phong Nha so I got my stuff ready. Only about two or three other people got off with me, and we were left on a street that was eerily quiet at 3:30 in the morning.

No one was there to pick me up, so I sat and tried to wake myself up so that I could decide how to get to my hostel. No Grabs were available, and it was a 50-minute walk so that wasn’t going to happen. I was wondering if I should book a private room at a nearby hotel just so I’d be able to get some sleep. Just before 4am, a bunch of locals started showing up to pick up some people from another bus. I asked if anyone was from Village House and they said no, so I decided I’d try to send a Whatsapp call. A very tired person answered and said that he’d be there in about ten minutes. I was staying in a 10-bed mixed dorm for 86500 dong ($5.10) per night. Luckily, the guy let me check in early (EXTREMELY early!) and showed me to my bed, which I was so thankful for. By the time I got to bed, it was 5am so I slept until 9:30 so that I wouldn’t miss breakfast.

On Friday morning, I had lemon pancakes with coffee for breakfast and then had a lazy morning researching what I could do. The homestay that I was staying in was right on the river, so it had a very relaxing atmosphere.

Phong Nha is famous for all of its caves but in order to get to them with a tour, I’d have to pay a MINIMUM of 1000000 dong ($60.76). I needed to decide if I would do a tour by that night so that it could be booked for the following day. That day, I decided that I’d just explore the surrounding area since the hostel was outside of the city and there was a lot of countryside to see. The hostel had free bikes to use so I biked about 15 minutes away to Bomb Crater Bar, which is exactly what it describes – a bar made in a bomb crater. I ordered some instant pho, which was interesting with little balls of instant meat that I decided to skip. However, as soon as I ordered, I realised that I had left my phone charger plugged in outside of the hostel and started freaking out that someone would take it, so I ate my food as fast as I could, biked back, and luckily it was still there. I then asked the hostel owner if it would be better for me to bike to the Botanical Garden or through the Bong Lai Valley, and he said the valley would be a lot easier because the botanical garden was really hilly to get to. The trip to the end of the valley was about 10km so it would take just over an hour to get to. It was also a ‘feels-like’ 42 degree day, so I was seriously questioning why I was crazy enough to go biking for over two hours in the sweltering heat. However, the slight breeze of the bike made the weather a lot more bearable, so it wasn’t that bad! I biked along the main road, past Bomb Crater Bar, hit a highway, crossed the highway, and then started on the gravel road through the valley.

At one point, there was a man who waved at me so I waved back, but then he started yelling so I stopped. I had just gotten on a really bumpy section, so I thought that maybe he was going to give me some advice. However, he pointed to my bike and then pointed to the road, and it looked like he was suggesting to push me up the hill. Nice! Okay, yeah sure… I got ready to start peddling again but my bike wasn’t moving. The man had jumped on the back of my bike and was trying to get me to bike him down the road! No, absolutely not. Especially when I was hardly even confident riding the bike down the road on my own. He kept insisting and saying motorbike, and I kept resisting until he finally got off. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to say that he’d give me a ride on his motorbike, but that’s when the language barrier gets the best of you. I continued on my way and eventually got to a place called The Duck Stop. It was a duck farm that was run by a local family, and as soon as I got there (completely sweaty and gross), there were two younger kids (a teenager and an 8-year-old) there to greet me. They sat me down and offered me some peanuts with salt and pepper, and then asked if I’d be interested in doing a duck tour.

I had the choice of spending time with the ducks and having a pancake and drink for 100000 dong ($5.90), or do everything AND ride a buffalo for 150000 dong. I decided to do the first option, and joined a group of about 8 people to visit the ducks. We were first shown how to be duck leaders, by quacking around the area with the food dish so that the ducks would follow you (and basically feeling like you were making a fool of yourself!). Then, we were told to sit down and hold our feet in a cup position so that the leader could pour some food in the “cup” and then the ducks would eat all of the food and give you a “foot massage” at the same time. Definitely a once in a lifetime experience, and it tickled so much!

We were given a duck to hold and were told to make a wish and throw it into the air so it flew into the pond. That one I felt bad about doing, but I guess they fly and like water, and they didn’t seem to mind.

We only spent about 10-15 minutes with the ducks and then went back to the main area, where we were served traditional pancakes (which might have actually been duck…).

After I finished eating, I decided to continue my way to the end of the valley and once I got there, I sat at a cute cafe on the riverside and enjoyed an iced Vietnamese coffee. The river was quite low at that time of the year, so even though the views were already nice, I’m sure they’d be even nicer during wet season!

When I noticed the sun starting to set, I decided to cross the suspension bridge and bike back on the other side of the valley. It was like day and night – as soon as I crossed that bridge, every single person would yell out hello. The people were so friendly, and all of the kids were so excited to see a foreigner – they’d always point and yell out hello, even the kids under the age of 2.

I got back to the hostel and was happy to see that I had the whole room to myself, so I went to have a shower. However, after my shower, everyone started to arrive. I went outside and met a girl named Shantaliah who was from New Zealand. She was thinking of renting a motorbike to go to the caves the following day, but she didn’t feel comfortable going by herself. I suggested that I could go with her if she wanted, and it would halve the price of the motorbike. She had never ridden a motorbike with someone else on it, but she said that she would give it a try, and we decided to go to the caves the next morning. We chatted for quite awhile – I ordered dinner from the hostel and we continued talking until after dark.

On Saturday morning, I got up and went to have breakfast at the hostel. I needed to plan my transportation for the following day, and I decided that instead of just taking a bus directly to Hue, I would go with a tour company in order to stop at some DMZ (Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone) sites on the way. While I was emailing, a guy came and sat beside me and introduced himself as Nick from the Netherlands. Shantaliah came and joined us, and we realised that it might rain that day so we figured we should get started as soon as we could. Nick said that he would join, and then when we got to our room, we ran into a guy named Tom from Germany who said that he would also join us. There were a bunch of caves to choose from, but we decided to start with the Phong Nha Cave because the Paradise and Dark Caves were the most popular and also the most expensive. We got our stuff ready and rented our motorbikes (Shantaliah and I paid 100000 dong/$5.90 each), and made our way to the cave. It wasn’t too far away and we had to pay 190000 dong ($11.21) for the three-hour tour. Once I realised it would be three hours, I decided to buy some snacks because I didn’t think I would last until 2pm. We needed 10 people for one boat, so we had to join other people who were waiting for a group of ten. The nice thing about this tour was that most of it was on a boat. We started by going about 20 minutes down the river past a bunch of villages, then the ladies turned off the motor and paddled through the cave.

The cave was absolutely spectacular, and had so many designs coming from the ceiling and the walls – it was so cool! It’s definitely one of the better caves that I’ve been in. Once we got to the end of the cave, the ladies turned the boat around, paddled a bit, and then dropped us off so that we could walk through the rest of the cave.

It was difficult getting good photos (as it always is when it’s dark), so they definitely don’t look as good as it did in real life. Once we got back to the end of the cave, we all got some ice cream and then got on the boat to go back to the entrance.

We decided to go for lunch, where we all got Banh Mi sandwiches, and then the four of us decided to go to the botanical garden (which was really a forest hike with an alright waterfall). However, as soon as we got there, it started misting down with rain. We paid 40000 dong ($2.36) and only had about an hour and a half until the park closed. As we walked, the rain started getting heavier and heavier, and the rocks started getting slipperier and slipperier. We finally made it to the waterfall, where some people were swimming, but we decided to keep going.

The worst part was that it was too hot and sticky to wear a rain jacket or poncho, so we either had the choice of being extremely hot or extremely wet. On the walk back, we had to step over some rocks across a stream, and that’s when I finally slipped. Luckily I didn’t actually land in the water, but on a rock so I was able to stay relatively dry. We made it out of the park right at the closing time (4:30) and then decided to make our way back to the hostel. However, the rain was a lot worse when going at a faster speed on the motorbike so it was impossible to stay dry. Tom’s motorbike suddenly stopped working, so we all had to stop and figure out what to do. He needed to catch a bus in about an hour, so he was really pressed for time. He could only drive at the slowest speed, so we all followed him for about 10-15 minutes. Then all of a sudden, his bike started working again (thank goodness!) so we drove the rest of the 30 minutes at a faster speed. We decided to join in on the family dinner that night, which has a bunch of food cooked by the homestay, so we each paid 70000 dong ($4.13) for that. It didn’t start until 6:30, which gave us all time to shower and then chat until dinner started. There were about 12 people at the family dinner, and it was so nice! They had so many different types of food, and it was a good way for everyone at the homestay to get to know each other.

We were sitting outside on the patio, but we were sheltered from the rain while it was absolutely pouring outside, so it was nice to have the sound of the rain in the background! Nick said that he would join me on the bus trip to Hue the next day, so we decided to wake up at 6am because we’d be picked up between 6:30 and 7:10. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to Shantaliah that night because she would be heading north (one of the difficult things about travelling in Vietnam is many people are going in opposite directions). After our goodbyes, we just had a relaxing evening before going to bed. Love always

Ninh Binh/Tam Coc (Mar 19-21): A Boat Ride, A Few Bicycles, and Some Beautiful Scenery

Tam Coc was one of my favourite places that I’ve ever been, and likely my favourite place in Vietnam thus far. It had everything that one would look for in Vietnam – the bright green rice fields of Sapa, and the tall surrounding cliffs and mountains of Ha Long Bay – it was a combination of the two, and I absolutely loved it! To be honest, I didn’t actually step foot in the actual city of Ninh Binh because I heard to stay in Tam Coc instead. I ordered a ticket to Tam Coc through my hotel in Cat Ba since I was too tired to walk to one of the travel companies to order a nice bus. However, every time I book transport through a hostel or hotel, it doesn’t seem to be the best option (yet I continue to keep doing it!). I paid 260000 dong ($15.34AUD) for the bus to pick me up at 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I got into an extended golfcart-like vehicle and we drove around Cat Ba to pick up about 10 people to go to the bus. We then got on the bus and it completely filled up. Even though it was cold and rainy in Cat Ba, the trip to Ninh Binh got more and more hot because there was hardly any air conditioning and any time I opened my vent, the guy beside me would close it. The seats also weren’t built for a normal-sized person, so everyone ended up leaning their seats backwards, and you would either have your knees digging into the seat in front of you, or have to try to find some space in the aisle. We stopped at around 12:30 for a bathroom and food break, and then I ended up arriving in Tam Coc just after 3pm. I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as hot as it was in Tam Coc, because some of the people who I had met in Cat Ba had come from there and said that the weather was the exact same as in Cat Ba. It was a pleasant surprise, especially since it had been so cold for the past week. I decided to stay at Tam Coc Rice Fields Homestay for 115000 dong ($6.79) in an 8-bed dorm. This place was so nice because it was only a five-minute walk from the main part of town (through a dark alley), but then it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, with a beautiful view of the rice fields off of the patio.

At dawn and dusk, you could hear a chorus of frogs all around you – it was so cool! Julia (the girl who I had met on the Cat Ba tour the day before) had also booked a bed in the same room and she had arrived about a half hour before me, so we went for lunch at the closest restaurant that we could find. We both ordered some chicken pho and a smoothie for 60000 dong ($3.54), but it took so long (which we discovered is normal for most restaurants in Tam Coc). After eating, we decided to walk over an hour to the nearest pagoda, called Bich Dong. The walk was so beautiful, and we both couldn’t believe the views!

The pagoda wasn’t anything special, but we still spent some time exploring it and then made our way back into town. We went back to the hostel to do some research and make some plans about what we’d do the next day, and then decided to go for dinner. We were both exhausted and were only planning to go for dinner and go to bed, but that didn’t end up happening. We stopped at a restaurant right by our hostel because it looked popular (and we continued going there everyday at least once per day – I don’t even know what it was called!). When we got there, there weren’t any free tables available but they directed us to a table with a French lady, who ended up leaving shortly after. Julia and I both ordered burgers (which we were so excited about!) and a coke for 80000 dong ($4.72). After we had ordered, two guys sat at the table next to ours and we got talking. Their names were Mike and Charlie, were from the United States, and were just doing a few weeks away from home. We told the guys what our plans were for the next day because we were starting with a boat ride in Trang An, which needed a minimum of four people. We all agreed to meet back at the restaurant the next morning at 8:15am so that we could order a Grab and get to the boat rides before 9am (which is when it tended to start getting busy).

On Wednesday morning, Julia and I got up and had breakfast at our hostel (I just got a crepe with a coffee), and then we headed to the restaurant, where Mike and Charlie were already waiting for us. We ordered a Grab, which was only supposed to be 160000 dong total. However, we honestly thought it might have been one of the first times that the driver drove a manual vehicle because the amount of times that he stalled or we jerked back and forth was insane. Not only that, but when he found out that the guys were American, he asked if we knew a song, which was ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time.’ He ended up having multiple Britney Spears songs available, so we were all trapped listening to the driver singing along while slowly making his way to Trang An. I was confused when he took a wrong turn down a backroad and we drove the whole way down, only to find out that there was a whole bunch of construction and a tractor was blocking the way. We waited for about ten minutes, while the driver honked his horn and the tractor didn’t change position. We suggested that maybe we should go back and take the highway, so he finally turned around and went the way that we were supposed to go. Then when we got there, he charged us more (200000 dong) because he had to drive all the way around (which wasn’t our faults), so we just paid it and left. We got our tickets to the Ecotourism Trang An Boat Ride for 200000 dong ($11.80) each, and decided to take Route 1. We heard mixed reviews about whether to take the Trang An or Tam Coc boat ride, but I heard that the Tam Coc boat ride is a lot more touristy and they constantly ask everyone to tip the driver. On our boat ride, they didn’t ask for tips because there’s a survey that we have to fill out at the end (which questions whether we were asked for a tip). However, as soon as we filled out the survey, the driver said, “Tip, tip!” He definitely deserved one though, so we were happy to give him one. Anyway, our tour ended up being about three hours long and included boating through 9 caves and stopping at two temples. We were given about 20 minutes at each temple, and the rest of the time was spent on the boat.

The boat ride was so relaxing, and the caves were so cool to boat through, with only the soothing sound of the oars rhythmically going through the water. It was also so impressive how the rower was able to navigate his way through the caves without bumping into the sides! Some areas would have been so difficult to get through, and we had to duck down quite a few times to avoid hitting our heads on the top. They call Ninh Binh the “Ha Long Bay of the land,” and even though I didn’t technically get to see Ha Long Bay, I could definitely see why it got that name.

We finished our boat ride at about noon and decided to head back into Tam Coc to get lunch. After lunch, the plan was to rent some bicycles in order to bike to one of the lookout points about five kilometres away. However, considering the last time I was on a bike was in 2012 in China, I was trying so hard to get out of it. I suggested going for iced coffee and everyone agreed, but only after we rented the bikes for 50000 dong ($2.95). Julia was more nervous than I was because not only had she not been on a bike in 7 years, but she was also in a motorcycle accident before, so she was really hesitant about getting on a bike. However, despite both of us hesitating, we ended up going through with it cause we didn’t want to let down the rest of the group. And I’m so glad we did! We got to see so much more on a bike, and the scenery was beautiful to bike through.

Despite taking a really bumpy path that I was actually nervous to bike on, we ended up making it to Mua Cave. There was a parking lot quite far from the entrance, where locals were saying we had to put our bikes. I was 90% positive that there would be another parking lot closer to the entrance, so we were going to try to look, but the locals started shouting at us and blowing whistles when we tried to leave. Charlie tried to bike ahead and one of the kids (who must have been about 8 or 9) grabbed onto the back of his bike and wouldn’t let him go. I couldn’t believe it! I actually talked to someone else about this later on in my travels, and the same thing happened to her. We biked to the entrance, where there was another parking lot, so we paid 5000 dong (30 cents) each and then bought tickets to the entrance, which cost 100000 dong ($5.90). We then started the 500 steps up the Lying Dragon Mountain. It was an extremely hot day, which didn’t help keep our sweat levels down. However, we finally made it to the top and enjoyed the incredible views for the next 1-2 hours.

The weirdest thing happened at the top. I was sitting and talking with Charlie, when Mike came up to us with Dana (the girl who Julia and I had met on the Cat Ba tour). Turns out Charlie and Mike had hung out with her in Hanoi! Such a small world when it comes to travelling!! Dana ended up joining us for the rest of the night, so it was nice to reunite without even having to plan it. We stayed for sunset but it ended up being a cloudy day, so we didn’t actually get to see it. We headed back down and biked back in the dark to make it for the last half hour of happy hour at our “regular” restaurant (they give free beer for an hour every night!). We then did a bit more biking to look at where the guys were staying (they have a way bigger budget than Julia and I, so it was NICE!) and then stopped at another bar for drinks. Then we headed back to the regular restaurant for dinner and more drinks, and ended up staying there until about 1. It was a fun night!

On Thursday morning, I woke up after not having the greatest sleep (thanks to the roosters and the plastic wrap on the mattress, which seems to be a common occurrence in Asia). Julia and I had breakfast at the hostel and then decided to rent bikes for the day again (since we were pretty much experts at that point!). I had to pack up all of my stuff since I’d be catching a night bus that evening. We biked around for a bit before deciding to stop for lunch and then Charlie and Mike met up with us to have some beer while we ate our lunch. For the rest of the day, we didn’t do a whole lot – just biked around, enjoyed the views, and chatted with random people who we ran into. We followed as many trails as we could find on, which was so useful! Julia and I biked to an area that we had seen from the viewpoint, where we could watch everyone on their boat tour.

It was crazy watching the rowers use their feet to paddle – I don’t understand how they’d be able to survive the three hour tours! We then went for an iced coffee before getting on our bikes again and finding the Beverly Hills of Tam Coc. The houses were so nice, and they even had cars parked out front (Tam Coc mostly only had bicycles or motorbikes). Everyone was so friendly too – if anyone was outside while we biked by, they’d always yell out hello.

We headed back to our regular restaurant to catch happy hour, and then Charlie and Mike wrote and asked where we were. They met up to join us for a drink and then we went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. However, I think we waited too long to go because I had to be back at the hostel by 8pm to catch my 9pm bus. I wasn’t too sure why I had to be there so early, but I didn’t want to risk anything so I ended up asking to get my meal packed up so that I could bike back to the hostel in time. These goodbyes were so difficult – this was one of the first places in all of my travels where I forgot that I was actually travelling. I just felt so comfortable, and absolutely loved my time there and the people who I was able to spend it with. I got back to the hostel and the lady gave me a towel and asked if I wanted to shower. Guess I didn’t have to be in a rush.. I said I was fine, and tried to eat my food as fast as I could but after I was about halfway done, the hostel owner got off of the phone and said that we’d have to leave in five minutes. I put on my big backpack while holding my day pack in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, and jumped on the back of the pregnant lady’s scooter. I was definitely a pro at this point! She drove me five minutes down the road to the bus terminal (basically a random parking lot) and then after about ten minutes, my bus to Phong Nha arrived, which will be for another post. Love always

Cat Ba (Mar 17-19): Lan Ha Bay, (A Lack of) Ha Long Bay, and a Whole Lotta Rain

The trip to Cat Ba was pretty simple since it had hotel-to-hotel pick up and drop off. I booked my ticket through Bookaway for $12USD ($16.90AUD) and I was supposed to be ready by 9:45 in order to leave by 10:30am. However, it was kind of pointless being there 45 minutes early because the bus didn’t show up until just after 10:30am. We spent the next hour driving around Hanoi to pick up the rest of the people until the bus was nearly full. At about 1pm, we arrived at the ferry terminal and had to wait for the ferry to arrive. We had to take all of our stuff off of the bus, sit for about 5-10 minutes, and were given tickets to get on the ferry. The ferry ride only took ten minutes, and went from the outskirts of Haiphong to the northern part of Cat Ba Island. Then we had to grab our stuff again, get on ANOTHER bus, and drive to Cat Ba Town, which took about 20 minutes. It was raining by the time we arrived and it continued to rain for the majority of my time in Cat Ba.

The great part about Cat Ba was that the private rooms cost just as much as a dorm, so basically everyone I met there had their own room.

I decided to stay at a place called Thanh Luan 2 hotel for 150000 dong per night ($9.06) so when I arrived, I put all of my stuff in my room and asked where I could go for lunch since it was already around 3pm. I went to a place called Yummy and ordered a Tom Yum soup and a coffee for 50000 dong/$2.95 (the restaurant had so many Thai dishes and they were WAY cheaper than any of the dishes that you’d actually get in Thailand). I then decided to do some walking around (even though it was raining and foggy) for the last two hours of daylight.

I walked to one of the public beaches and along the coast to one of the other beaches, but the beaches were both construction zones, as there were huge resorts being built right on the beach (actually, most of Cat Ba Town was a construction zone). When it started getting dark, I headed back to my hotel to dry off before meeting up with Mathijs (the Dutch guy who came with me from Hanoi) for dinner at a place called Quan Cat Ba. Cat Ba is supposed to have really good seafood so we each got prawns and squid with lemon dishes for 135000 dong ($7.97) – it was just alright, I think it was a tad over-cooked, but I’m very picky about my seafood!

After dinner, we walked around for a bit and then called it an early night because we were taking a tour the next morning.

On Monday morning, I got up and had an extremely quick breakfast at the hotel (which was just a baguette with a banana) and then had to be at Green Trail Travel by 7:25am for my one-day boat tour through Lan Ha Bay, Ha Long Bay, and Monkey Island. The tour cost $26.40USD ($37.18AUD), went from 7:30 until about 4pm, and it was completely worth it, despite some of the bad weather. There were 25 people in our group and our tour guide was called Thang, and he was absolutely great! We all had to get on a bus to get to the boat terminal and then we all loaded up on the boat. Mathijs and I sat at a table with two other girls: Julia from Brazil and Dana from Romania. We were explained a few houserules and then were allowed to go up to the top of the boat for basically the only hour of “clear” weather that we had.

There was a bit of fog, but it added a kind of mysticism to the surroundings so it looked really cool. We had an hour to take pictures and get used to being on the boat, and then Thang shared some stories about the fisherman villages that we were passing. These people spend their whole lives on the water, from birth until death, and they have their own fish farms to sustain themselves. Most houses also have dogs that live with them in order to scare off all of the hawks that try to take the fish. The parents boat their kids to the mainland each morning to go to school, and then pick them up at the end of the day.

After Thang finished all of his stories, it started misting down (and continued for the rest of the day) and then we arrived to a certain area of Lan Ha Bay. We all got off of the boat and were given an hour and a half to kayak around the bay and go through caves. It was absolutely beautiful! The only problem was that I just wanted to go slow and enjoy my surroundings, but Mathijs (and some of the other guys) kept wanting to race, so we kept speeding through everything.

After kayaking, we were soaking wet and had the option of changing into normal clothes or eating lunch in our swimsuits and going swimming after. I decided to switch into normal clothes before lunch, and the lunch was the best one I’ve ever had on a tour!

They literally had every type of food imaginable, and it was all delicious! It gave us a lot of time to get to know every person at the table, and I found out that I’d be going in the same direction as Julia and Dana to Ninh Binh, so we made plans to meet up while there. After lunch, Thang came in and told us that the driver couldn’t go through Ha Long Bay because it was completely white outside so it would be too dangerous to try to go through.

We had about an hour and a half of free time so the four of us played cards until we arrived at Monkey Island. The monkeys there weren’t as aggressive as the ones that I had seen in Thailand, but there were a few (stupid) people who kept trying to feed the monkeys and obviously continued getting attacked. The walk up to the viewpoint wasn’t the most enjoyable walk – let’s just say that I thought I was going to die at any moment. Especially in the rain, the smooth rocks were so slippery, and if you took a wrong step, you could fall onto the razor-sharp rocks below.

I think we were only doing the hike because we didn’t do Ha Long Bay and the company didn’t want to get bad reviews. I didn’t go up to the top viewpoint, only the second one, and then I made my way back down because I wanted to go slow and steady. I got back to the beach where I got to watch some of the monkeys play, and then we went back on the boat to head back to Cat Ba Town. We arrived back at around 4:30 and Mathijs, Julia, and I made plans to meet up again at 7pm for dinner. However, I was still cold even after showering and once I lied on my bed, I didn’t want to get back out, so we all decided to just stay in our rooms and relax. I knew I needed to eat at some point so I walked to Yummy and sat down to have dinner. Right after I ordered, two Dutch girls asked if I wanted to join them so I said yes. They were really nice and had come from the south of Vietnam (so were travelling in the opposite direction) so they gave me some tips about my next destination. I was originally planning to stay in Cat Ba for three nights, but after looking at the weather and realising it would be cold and rainy the next day as well, I decided to start heading further south in order to get to some warmer weather. I headed back to the hotel to hang up all of my damp clothing (which never dried) and called it an early night. Love always

Hanoi (Mar 14-17): Egg Coffee, Some Busy Streets, and a Walking Tour

The trip to Hanoi has definitely been my most comfortable trip so far! I booked a ticket online through (which a couple had told me about in Sa Pa, and it’s great for booking bus and train trips in Asia!) and paid $13USD ($17.79AUD) to get a seat on Green Sapa Bus. My bus was leaving from Sa Pa Town at 8am and I was supposed to be there 30 minutes early, so I made an arrangement to take a motorbike taxi with my homestay at 6:45am for 100000 dong ($5.90). One of the brothers took me along the horrible road to Sa Pa after stopping at a little shop on the side of the road, grabbing a big Aquafina water bottle with a greenish liquid, and pouring it in the tank under the seat.

He dropped me off at the Green Bus station, I checked in and got my seat number, and then ordered a coffee. While I was drinking my coffee, some of the local workers were sitting at the table next to me and started playing a card game spelling different words in English.

One of them was considerably better than the rest, so I started making suggestions and they told me to join. I figured it would be unfair if a native English speaker played an English game, but I pulled up a chair anyhow and helped everyone out at the table. It was nice how friendly everyone was, and how easy it was to integrate myself in with them. Someone came in and said that we were going to leave, so we put the game away and I got my stuff to get on the bus. We were required to take off our shoes and put them in a plastic bag, as well as leave any food that we had at the front of the bus. This bus was the nicest bus I’ve ever seen!

Everyone got a bed to sleep in (if they wanted to sleep), and there were two levels (like bunk beds) with two aisles going between the beds. We made two stops along the way – one quicker one for a toilet break, and one longer one for a lunch break. I ordered some pho for 45000 dong ($2.66) and it was the best one that I’ve had so far! I arrived in Hanoi at around 1:45pm and my hostel was only a 10-minute walk away. I stayed at Nexy Hostel in a 14-bed mixed dorm for $7.34USD ($10.78AUD) per night. It was a really nice hostel, with a bar on the bottom floor, a cafe and pool table/games room on the second level, a TV room on the 6th level, and a rooftop patio on top. Plus they gave free breakfast, which not only included your typical toast and cereal, but also some chicken pho (which not many people other than me seemed to take). I’ve realised that I thought I wasn’t a breakfast person my entire life, but maybe I’m just not a WESTERN breakfast person. I’ve never been a huge fan of breakfast food – hate cereal, not a huge fan of toast, eggs are alright… But give me a big bowl of noodles or soup, and I’m happy! Hanoi is an extremely busy city, however it’s not just a typical busy city, but a city full of LIFE.

I loved it as soon as I arrived, and all I ever wanted to do was sit in a coffee shop and people-watch/traffic-watch. The traffic was absolutely insane and if I want to cross the street, I was told to just walk slowly (and DON’T STOP) because the traffic will be able to figure out where I’ll be at certain times and go around me. I’ve always been overly confident with crossing streets so I didn’t have much of a problem with it, but it really makes me have to put all of my trust in the drivers around me. I walked around the streets for a bit, came back to my hostel, and then went for dinner. I went to Bún Bò Nam Bộ, where I could get bun cha (or a noodle bowl) and a Pepsi for 75000 ($4.43), and it was so good!

It reminded me of the ones at Mi Hong, the Vietnamese restaurant that I worked for in my hometown. The place was so busy, so I basically just had to join people at their table. The person across from me was a local, but then when he left, a lady from Germany came so she gave me some tips on what else to see during my time in Vietnam.

On Friday morning, I decided to do a walking tour. I absolutely loved the walking tours in Europe because it gave me a good amount of information about the country and its history, plus it gave me the opportunity to meet other travellers. However, when I booked this free walking tour with my hostel, I didn’t realise that it would be a private tour (meaning I’d be the only person on it). The tour is “free” – all they ask is that you cover all of the costs of the guide, but seeing as I was the only person there, the prices added up quite quickly so I may have actually been better off paying for a tour. The tour guide ended up coming a half hour late because the original tour guide had some motorbike issues and was unable to come, so Alex replaced him. All of the guides are university students, so they’re giving up their study time to give the tours. The first place we went to was St. Joseph’s Cathedral, so I just took a picture from the outside.

We then walked to the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial, which was a pretty emotional place. The entrance fee was 30000 dong ($1.82) for me and then 15000 dong for Alex. The prison had been used by the French colonists on Vietnamese political prisoners in the early 1900s. The way that the prisoners were treated was extremely sad, and when I saw the guillotine, there were chills that ran through my entire body.

All of the materials used to make the prison were transported from Europe in the late 1800s. The prison was later used during the Vietnam war for the US prisoners of war, but it was kind of interesting how they portrayed this part of the museum because they had pictures of the prisoners enjoying themselves, such as playing basketball or chess. I’m not sure if that part was sugarcoated, or if the prisoners were actually treated well. After going to the prison, we walked to the train tracks, where many people stop to take pictures.

The train tracks are still in use, but only a few times per day so shops and cafes are set up right next to the tracks. We stopped at a cafe to get some drinks, and I tried a coconut coffee, which is a coffee with coconut ice cream added – it was so good! Our two drinks were 60000 dong ($3.54). After that, we walked to the Citadel, which is where the king used to live. The entrance for the two of us again cost 45000 dong ($2.66). It was around lunch time, so we were hoping it would be quiet, but unfortunately there seemed to be an entire school there on a field trip, and none of the kids seemed interested in the citadel so they were running around and playing games. We tried to keep our distance as much as we could, explored the citadel (which at this season, the entrance was beautifully covered in sunflowers), and then took a Grab back towards the hostel, which cost 35000 dong ($2.07).

We stopped for lunch, where I got a Banh Mi (basically Asian subway). I remembered to ask for no cilantro, but didn’t think to ask about onion, so when they brought me my sandwich, about half of it was filled with onions.

Anyway, I paid for lunch for me and the tour guide, which cost 140000 dong ($8.26) and then at the end, I wasn’t sure if I should tip as well, but I gave 100000 ($5.90), so the entire tour ended up costing quite a bit. I went back to the hostel to relax for a bit and then decided to go for coffee. I went to Đinh Cafe, which is owned by the daughter of a man who invented egg coffee. The cafe is almost hidden away, so I actually walked past it the first time i was trying to find it. However, I walked in, up some stairs, and found an open table (which in Vietnam, are like kids’ tables – the chairs are tiny so you feel like a giant!). This location was a lot less crowded than the original (which I checked out the next day), and it was actually cheaper (and better in my opinion). I ordered an egg coffee for 20000 dong ($1.18) and it was so good – it tasted like an egg nog latte, with foamy, sweet egg mixture floating on top and an extremely strong coffee in the bottom.

I walked around the streets for awhile and took in all of the sights and smells, and then went back to the hostel to relax.

That evening, I went to Banh Cuon Gia Truyen Thanh Van to try the Banh cuon, which is a steamed rice pancake wrapped around minced pork. I ordered a set with a Pepsi for 60000 dong ($3.54), but the service was pretty bad at this place and the food didn’t have much flavour (even though it’s rated quite high). I walked down the night market for a bit and then headed back to the hostel.

On Saturday, I decided to do some exploring on my own. It was a rainy day so I had to balance my walking with escaping indoors every once in awhile. My first stop was Cafe Giang, which is the original egg coffee place. It was a lot more crowded but I came just as some others were leaving, so I got a table and ordered an egg coffee for 25000 dong ($1.48).

I spent some more time walking around and then I wanted to try the best Banh Mi restaurant, so I went to Banh Mi 25 and got a Banh Mi and Fanta for 35000 dong ($2.07). I really liked mine, but a lot of people who I talked to said that they didn’t think the restaurant was that good. I then walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is the resting place of Ho Chi Minh, and his body has been preserved there. I had to go through security before getting onto the grounds. The guy behind me had cigarettes and they said that he had to leave them there and could come and get them afterwards. The mausoleum was just a building that everyone was getting pictures with (apparently you can go inside and see the body at some parts of the day), so I continued walking into the park area, where there was a Ho Chi Minh museum.

However, it was closed between 12 and 2pm and it was 1, so I came at the wrong time. I wasn’t too keen on waiting outside in the rain, so I decided to walk to the Temple of Literature, which gives the teachings of Confucius. I paid 30000 dong ($1.77) and went through all of the buildings. It was a really beautiful area, although the rain kind of made it difficult to enjoy.

However, I still spent about an hour there and then found a nearby coffee shop to enjoy an iced cocoa, which was delicious! I then slowly walked back towards the hostel, where I relaxed and dried off. Then I went out for dinner, and I was determined to try Banh cuon again. This time, I went to a restaurant called Bánh Cuốn Bà Hanh and the server was so friendly! He was a university student and his English was really good. He let me sit in front of the lady making my food so I could watch it being done, and he said that I could try to roll them, but I was happy with just watching.

These rolls were a lot better, and the friendly service was a nice plus. I paid 60000 dong ($3.54) and then made my way back to the hostel. There, I met Mathijs, a Dutch guy who had JUST arrived from Europe and only had two weeks to spend in Asia. He was planning to go to Sa Pa the next day, but when I said I was planning to go to Cat Ba, he booked a ticket there as well. So I had a travel partner for the next destination! Which I’ll save for another post (and hopefully I’ll write it faster than I wrote this one!). Love always

Sa Pa (Mar 11-14): A Family Homestay, Rice Fields, and Lots of Haze

I finally arrived in Sa Pa at 2:30pm on Monday afternoon. It was waaaaay more touristy than I thought it would be, and a lot colder – I had to find my rain jacket deep down in the bottom of my suitcase! It definitely reminded me of another mountain city like Banff. I went to the tourist information centre to ask what I could do, and they tried to sell me a 2-day/1 night trekking tour for $40 USD. I’ve learned that no matter where I go, people will try to sell me stuff. And usually for a way more expensive price than I could get on my own. It actually shocks me how many people give into paying without researching how to do it on their own first.

Anyway, the tourist centre makes it sound like you can’t walk around without a guide, but I did for two full days and it was completely fine. My next step was to find out where I could get a SIM card. The tourist centre pointed out a street, where I found a VinaPhone shop and got a 5GB/30-day plan for 150000 dong ($8.85AUD). Even though I was staying in a homestay outside of Sa Pa, I decided to find a coffee shop and relax for a bit since I still hadn’t had a coffee and was feeling a bit groggy after my 8-hour bus ride. The Vietnamese coffee that I got was one of the best coffees that I’ve had in awhile, but cost a bit more at 40000 dong ($2.36). I then requested a Grab to take me to my homestay. I read that they’ll normally charge 200000 dong ($11.80) and it would take at least a half hour because the roads were so bad, so when my driver messaged me saying 200k, I replied okay. The reviews weren’t lying when they said that the roads were horrible – there were potholes everywhere, and I felt bad that the driver was putting his nice, shiny car through such a tragic experience. I was staying in a village called Ta Van in the Muong Hua valley, at Chopai Homestay. And I got it for a steal, at $4.66 per night, in what was supposed to be a 10-bed dorm but it turned out that I was the only person there, so they put me in my own twin room. The homestay was run by two brothers, both married and with their first kids (each less than a year old), and they had a huge fluffy dog named Sam. I was kind of sad that I was the only person there because it made it more difficult to interact with people, plus it felt more like I was imposing on their home, especially when they were having family dinners. However, everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and it was definitely a different experience. Within five minutes of me being there, I was sitting and waiting to check in, and I turned and there was a lady standing there. “Hello.. shopping?” she asked and pointed to the numerous purses she was carrying. I quickly learned that every lady who’s wearing the same traditional outfit will start every conversation with either, “Hello… shopping?” Or “Hello… where you from?” And then “What’s your name?” And when I continue to refuse to buy things, they’d persist, “Something little?” “Maybe later?” I definitely started losing my patience towards the end of my time there because it happened non-stop. I decided to walk around for a bit before the sun set and by that point, it was a bit hazy. Little did I know that this moment would be one of the clearest moments during my entire time there. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I kept finding myself saying, “Wow!” out loud.

After the sun set, it got extremely cold! I went to the restaurant across the street (Dzay Restaurant) and ordered Bún chả (a vermicelli noodle bowl) with a cinnamon tea just to try to warm up.

It dropped down to 9 degrees that night, but it felt way colder! I was staying in a wooden/straw-built house, two of my walls were blankets hanging from the ceiling, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any heating. The last time I felt that cold was when I was camping in Africa at the Ngorongoro Crater (read about that here), and had to roll up into a ball and cover my head with my sleeping bag. I did the exact same thing that night – I was messaging my friend and my hands were so cold, I couldn’t type! Luckily, they provided huge blankets so I wasn’t up the entire night.

On Tuesday morning, I got up and made myself have a shower. It was the exact same feeling in Africa, where I was dreading having a shower because the water would be cold and have no pressure. I wasn’t even sure if all of the shampoo and conditioner came out of my hair but I didn’t want to stand under the cold shower to wait for it to happen. I decided that this would be my only shower during my stay. The homestay provided free breakfast (but not free coffee) so I opted for banana pancakes, which were bananas wrapped in crepes with a side of honey. They were so good! I also got my first Vietnamese drip coffee, which is given with condensed milk but not so much that it’s overpowering – however the caffeine was definitely overpowering (in a good way!).

I hung out for a bit and waited for the fog to clear and luckily, it did. I decided to walk through the bamboo forest towards the waterfall, but within five minutes, a lady came from the opposite direction, asked where I was from and what my name was. Then she turned around and just kept following me. It was kind of uncomfortable because every time I stopped to take a picture, she’d stop too. And then when I started again, she’d continue following me. I’m the type of person who really likes doing hikes by myself (if you haven’t noticed by now) – there’s something about being able to experience everything around me and hear every sound while doing everything at my own pace. So this was likely making me feel more uncomfortable than it would the average person. After about 15 minutes, I turned and said, “It’s okay, I’ll go by myself.” “No, it’s okay. I follow you to waterfall.” “No, I’ll just go alone, it’s okay.” “I go that way too, I follow you to waterfall.” Finally, I just said, “Okay, but I don’t have any money to give you.” “When we get to waterfall, you give me something little. Buy something.” “Sorry, I don’t have anything to give you.” That seemed to get the point across because the lady turned around and went back. However, I still had to do that a few more times during my walk because ladies kept trying to join me. I got to the waterfall, which wasn’t much of a waterfall compared to the beautiful Kuang Si in Laos, and then crossed a bridge and walked back towards the homestay.

The rice field views are absolutely beautiful! Plus on my walk, I got to see nearly every type of farm animal wandering around: dogs, cats, cows, pigs, chickens, and horses. By that point, the fog already started to set in, so I had lunch at Dzay Restaurant (pumpkin soup and spring rolls for 110000 dong/$6.49) and relaxed for the afternoon.

I had walked nearly 7km after all! That evening, I joined a British couple for dinner at the homestay. They were staying in the other location, which has private rooms (the owners said that eventually they’ll permanently close the place that I was staying because there aren’t as many solo travellers as there used to be). I had phở and a hot chocolate just so that I could stay warm since the weather had completely cooled down.

On Wednesday morning, I got up, had breakfast, and waited for the fog to lift. This time, it didn’t. However, I still decided to walk in the other direction this time: towards Sa Pa. I walked along some paths, but then eventually I just ended up following a road the rest of the way. Luckily, all of the tour groups were walking FROM Sa Pa, so no one bothered me on my walk this time. It was considerably cooler that day, but I was still one of the only people wearing a tank top. But when I got back that evening, the back of my neck was completely burnt, which I wasn’t expecting at all! I ended up walking the entire way to Sa Pa, which took nearly four hours.

Before I got into Sa Pa, all I wanted was to find a restaurant, but every place I passed seemed to be closed. I had to actually go INTO Sa Pa, but I didn’t realise that once I passed the ticket booth, I’d have to pay 75000 dong to get back into the villages. I finally found an open restaurant at 2pm and by that point, I was starving. The restaurant (Good Morning View) had a set menu advertised at the front, so I decided to get that for 130000 ($7.67). My first course was pumpkin soup, which was much better than the one that I had the day before. My next course was the biggest plate of food – with a curry portion, a morning glory portion, and a rice portion. I didn’t even end up eating it all because I still had to eat dessert! The dessert was a banana pancake with honey, which seems to be a staple here.

I didn’t want to walk back the way I came – I wanted to cross the river and walk back on the other side of the river. I walked further into Sa Pa and started heading down a huge hill to go towards the river. However, the path that I was supposed to take had a huge crowd in front of it and they were charging 75000 dong to go through because it led to Cat Cat village. Sometimes my stubbornness gets the best of me… I continued walking further down because I refused to pay. I eventually got to another street and turned down it. All of a sudden, I heard, “Miss! Miss!!” I turned around and a man was there, and asked for my ticket. He said if I was going to Cat Cat village, I needed to pay. I tried to explain that I was going to Ta Van, and he replied that I’d have to go back up the steep hill for about one kilometre, and turn right (which was the way I came). By that point, it was about 4pm and I realised that I likely wouldn’t get back to the homestay before dark if I walked back, so I decided to order a Grab to drive me back. However, when I requested one, it said that none of the drivers were available. Guess I had no choice but to walk back up… I had only been walking for less than two minutes when a taxi driver coming down the hill opened his window and asked, “Taxi?” I asked for Ta Van, he said 200k, and I got in. I had done 12km and climbed 112 floors that day, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about getting a ride back. However, when we got to the ticket booth leaving Sa Pa, the guard came up and asked for my ticket. There was no way I was going to pay 75000 dong on top of the 200k! I explained that I was going to my homestay and luckily, he let me through. It’s weird because I didn’t experience that at all when I first came to my homestay so I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I relaxed for the rest of the day, and then had one more dinner at the restaurant across the street. I honestly don’t know why I kept going to this restaurant because the food was sub-par (however the service was so friendly, so maybe that’s why). I ordered pho and a hot chocolate, but this pho was half onions, which is very difficult to distinguish from noodles.

I ate as much as I could before giving up and going back to the homestay. I had an early morning to wake up for, so I got ready and went to bed. Sa Pa is an absolutely gorgeous area, and I’d love to see it in the summer months when the rice fields are greener and there is less fog. However, it was still a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities! Love always

The Slow Journey from Laos to Vietnam (Mar 10-11): A Stop in Dien Bien Phu

My trip from Laos to Vietnam was even longer than the slow boat from Thailand to Laos (read about that journey here)! I went to a travel agency in Nong Khiaw to book my bus ticket for my next destination. I was wanting to do a 2-day trip into Vietnam by taking a 5-hour boat ride to Muang Khua, spending the night, then taking a bus to Dien Bien Phu and then an overnight bus to Sapa. However, I asked three different places and they all said no boat would be available unless I got a private one. I think it was actually because they could only sell bus tickets and not boat tickets, so they were telling me there wasn’t a boat (because the German guys took a boat TO Nong Khiaw). I was skeptical and was going to go straight to the boat office to see if I could get a ticket, but then I realised that I’d save time AND money by just taking the bus (even if it might make me more sick than a boat). My guesthouse quoted me 250000 kip, but the two travel agencies said 220000 kip ($35.42AUD) so I decided to go with one of them. The bus would go straight to Dien Bien Phu, and the sign said that it would take 11 hours, which I was hoping was an over-exaggeration. The guide said that if I wasn’t carsick once I got to Dien Bien Phu, I could continue to Sapa on the 10-hour nightbus. “And if you’re carsick, then you spend the night in Dien Bien Phu and leave for Sapa in the morning.” “And get carsick again?” I replied. I got up at about 6:30 so that I could get ready, pack up my stuff, and hopefully have breakfast before catching the bus. When I asked my guesthouse where I could get food and they suggested that they could make me something, I agreed. I still had just less than 20 minutes left until my 8am bus… but then it was 7:55 and they still hadn’t finished making my sandwich! I honestly didn’t know how it was taking so long to make a sandwich, and was nearly about to leave because I didn’t want to miss my bus. The man said 1 more minute so I decided to wait, but the lady was waiting for it to toast, and then slowly wrapped it in Saran Wrap. Finally she handed me the sandwich and I ran towards the travel agency. Turns out, I had nothing to worry about (as usual when I’m in a hurry) because we didn’t leave for about ten more minutes. When I got into the van, there were three other people inside and they all said that they were going to Luang Prabang, which is in the complete opposite direction of Dien Bien Phu. When the driver got in, I double-checked if the bus was going to Dien Bien Phu and he said yes. However, we started driving towards Luang Prabang. About ten minutes outside of town, the driver did a u-turn back towards town (thank goodness!) but then he just did another u-turn and started driving back. I think everyone in the van was confused as to what was happening, until he pulled over to pick up someone else. We continued our drive and he finally explained that he would be dropping me and the other person off in Pakmong, where we’d get on our respective buses. We got to Pakmong just after 9 and the driver said that my bus would come in 30 minutes. Again, all of the buses were written in Lao so I was hoping that someone would warn me when my bus was there. I ate my sandwich along with my last motion sickness pill, and about 40-45 minutes later, they made a call for Dien Bien Phu. This van was like a limo-van, so it was more like a bus. However, I was once again pushed to the back seat since most people must have already come from Luang Prabang.

There were only two other foreigners on the bus (a couple from Poland), but the rest of the people were locals. They were all friendly and tried to make conversation using the English that they knew, and even shared some oranges with everyone on the bus. The Polish girl was extremely ill, but I’m glad that she was keeping her sickness to herself because I probably would have gotten sick too. I didn’t find the ride too bad actually – but the roads got worse and worse as the ride continued. At about 12pm, the bus stopped for food and a toilet stop (which was the only toilet stop we got on the 11-hour trip – any other stops were on the side of the road when all of the guys got off the bus, and the girls stayed on). This is when it’s tough not knowing the language because had I known we would have been stopped there for 45 minutes, I probably would have ordered some food. However, me and the Polish couple just sat and enjoyed the fresh air. At about 5pm, we arrived at the border. For the first time ever, I actually had to pay to LEAVE a country, which only cost 10000 kip ($1.61). We then had to show our stamped passports to the guards before getting back on the bus, cross the border, get back off, and go through the Panghok border crossing into Vietnam. This is where my research came in handy because I knew that this border crossing didn’t accept e-visas or visas-on-arrival, so I HAD to plan ahead and get my Vietnam visa beforehand or I wouldn’t be let in. I spent a lot more than I should have on my visa ($100), but I didn’t want to risk getting it done in Luang Prabang and having it take too long (Note: I talked to Abbey, who just got that done in Luang Prabang, and she said that the process was extremely smooth). The man just stamped my passport and let me go through. Then there was a guy working the “Medical Examination” room who said hello, and I was confused about having to go through. He asked if I had money to exchange. I was told that I had to change my Lao money IN Laos, or I wouldn’t be able to change it later, so I was thankful that he was there. I got all of my Lao kip changed into Vietnamese dong, left the building, gave my passport to the guards to look at, and then got back on the bus. By that time, we only had just over an hour left until we’d get to Dien Bien Phu, so we got to enjoy the beautiful sunset behind the mountains.

We arrived in Dien Bien Phu at about 7pm and were SURROUNDED by people as we got off the bus, who kept asking if we wanted a taxi. I walked across the street to the bus terminal, but found out that the night bus had already left about an hour ago. Therefore, my options were to take a bus at either 6:30am or 9:30am the next day. As much as I wanted to take the 9:30 bus, I wouldn’t end up arriving in Sapa until at least 5:30pm so I decided to take the 6:30 bus. It cost me 227000 dong ($13.39), and the lady told me I had to be at the station by 6am. Great… I left the station (which was on an extremely busy street) and turned left on the next block. I was slowly walking around, trying to find a guesthouse, when someone yelled, “Hello? Guesthouse?” I asked how much and when he replied 200000 dong ($11.80), I said okay. I went into Tuan Minh Guest House, where he gave me a key and led me to my room. I mean, it wasn’t the nicest of rooms.. there were some burn marks on the bedspread from cigarettes, and the bed was literally the hardest bed I’ve felt in my life – I felt like I was sleeping on a table. I kid you not… I actually knocked on the bed a few times just to make sure it wasn’t made of wood. But it was cheap and less than a five minute walk away from the station, so I really couldn’t complain. At about 8pm, I realised that I’d need more money for the next day (since I had spent almost all of my dong on the bus ticket and guest house) so I set off to find an ATM, which was a 700-metre walk away and seemed to be the only one in the area. Unfortunately, it only allowed 2000000 dong as a maximum withdrawal (about $120) so it would have to do – I wasn’t going to spend another $5 to withdraw twice. I then needed to find food… Pretty much all that was around were street food vendors, so I found a place across the street from the station, where I ordered beef pho and a coke for 40000 dong ($2.36).

The thing that I didn’t realise about Vietnamese cuisine is that they put cilantro/coriander in everything. Not only that, but at this restaurant, they also gave a huge bowl of MORE cilantro to add. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t struggle eating this pho, since that soapy taste took over the whole dish (darn genetics!). I took note to make sure I say, “No green!” anytime I order food in the future. I headed back to my room to have an early night before another long day of travel.

On Monday morning, I got to the station by 6am, gave them my bag, got some snacks, and we left at 6:30. This time, I was the only foreigner in the van. Only me and one lady ended up going all the way from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa, but many other people came on and got off along the way. We stopped about an hour and a half outside of Sapa in a town called Tam Duong at noon, where we were given 40 minutes to have lunch. The thing that I loved about this stop was that everyone on the bus sat at a table together, even though most people had just met that day (whereas in most western countries, people always separate at rest stops). I sat down with all of the locals, and one of them (the only one who seemed to speak any English) asked if I wanted rice or soup, so I said soup. It was only 25000 dong ($1.48)! I enjoyed my pho at the table with a bunch of locals, who continued their conversations and gave me friendly smiles every once in awhile. We all got back on the bus and continued our journey to Sapa. Then, the driver pulled over at a little shack, yelled something inside, and someone came and I could feel the van slowly rising. Next thing I knew, the guy had one of the tires in his hands! I wasn’t sure if this was a regular occurrence, but it was interesting watching the mechanic work on the tire. Once we got our tire back on, we drove the rest of the way to Sapa (and thank goodness the tire was fixed because the roads were horrendous at this point!) and made it in exactly 8 hours, at 2:30pm. Love always

Nong Khiaw (Mar 8-10): A Quiet Mountain Town and Phadeng Peak

The trip to Nong Khiaw was the squishiest ride that I’ve been on so far. I booked my ticket from my hostel in Luang Prabang, and it cost 85000 kip ($13.69AUD). I was told that it would come at 8:30, but it showed up ten minutes early and I joined an older couple in the back of a tuktuk. I thought, “This will be nice! There’s only three of us.” But then, the driver stopped at another place and picked up one more person, and then another place and picked up one more person, and then continued stopping until there were about ten of us packed in. All of our luggage was professionally stacked in the middle, as if the driver had done this a million times.

I could hardly see the people across from me because the luggage was stacked so high. About a half hour later, we stopped at the van, where we all had to get out of the tuktuk, grab our things to put in the van, and get in. This was the disadvantage of being one of the first ones picked up – I was one of the last ones off of the tuk tuk, and the last one to enter the van so I was forced to the middle seat in the back, sandwiched between a random guy and the huge stack of luggage, some of which was taking up half of my seat space. My only two options were to 1) squish behind the big bulge coming into my seat, or 2) rest my head on the bag and use it as a pillow. Within the first five minutes of us moving, I suddenly remembered my motion sickness pills. I guess I forgot to take them 30 minutes beforehand, and they COULD end up making me feel drowsy, but I wasn’t going to take any chances this time. I’d rather face drowsiness than one or two days of feeling sick. It wasn’t a hugely swerve-y ride, but it was definitely a bumpy ride!! Many times, I couldn’t help bouncing into the guy right beside me. Luckily, the ride wasn’t too long and we arrived about three hours later, right at noon. Nong Khiaw is a not-so-secret mountain village, and it’s absolutely breathtaking with the surrounding mountains.

There weren’t any hostels advertised online, so I had to book my own room in a guesthouse, called Meexai Guesthouse, for a whopping 129000 kip per night ($20.77). However, it WAS nice to have my own room and bathroom for more than one night, especially with a king-sized bed (starfish position all night!). I checked in and oddly enough, they didn’t ask for any payment and said I’d pay at check out, which was very trusting of them. I got settled and then decided to go have lunch. I went to a restaurant closeby called Noymany Restaurant, which was known for a nice patio but slow service. I prepared myself and asked for the wifi password, but they didn’t have wifi (as well as many of the other restaurants in this town). Laos is the only country that I didn’t get a SIM card – not because it was expensive, but because I was only in Laos for a week and figured I wouldn’t need it. However, it made me realise how useful it was to have a SIM card because often when I’m on my bus or waiting for a train, I can research places to stay and things to do in the area that I’m going to. Since I wasn’t able to do that, I found myself wasting time at my accommodation because I’d spend my time researching stuff there instead of going out and doing what I had planned. I had actually planned most of this trip over a year ago, back when I was stuck doing my farmwork in Australia and had nothing else to do. I read blogs, looked at Pinterest, researched travel itineraries, and planned out my route. And I typed out a 6.5-page document to guide me through my trip. When I first started my trip, I ignored the guide and did what I wanted instead, but then when I looked at the guide later, I realised that all of the things that I ended up doing were on the list anyway. Obviously, no one knows myself like I do, so I’m very thankful that my past self prepared this document for my present self! In the document, all I wrote for Nong Khiaw was to do the 100 Waterfalls Trek. It’s supposed to be one of the best hikes to do, and has even been featured on a television show (which is why Nong Khiaw has now gained so much popularity). However, I didn’t realise that I’d have to pay to take a guide on this hike. And the cheapest amount that I heard of was 180000 kip ($30)! I’ve never paid this much to do a hike, and wasn’t really feeling like paying my entire daily budget to do it. I hummed and hawed for awhile, and eventually decided against taking the hike. It’s probably for the best because that day, I ended up getting sick. Again. At the restaurant, I ordered a green curry soup and an iced coffee for 33000 kip ($5.31).

However, I’ve noticed that ever since I reached northern Thailand (and Laos), my stomach has been a lot more sensitive to the foods. This has led me to believe that they must use MSG (monosodium glutamate, or E621 for all of you European folk) in their foods, which I react to quite badly. I was also suspicious about this when I was reading reviews about another restaurant in the area, and many of the reviews said that the other restaurant didn’t use MSG. So I figured other restaurants MUST be using MSG. Either that, or I reacted to the condensed milk that they put in their coffee, which makes it beyond sweet. Anyway, I did a brief walk around the town but then ended up spending the rest of the afternoon in my room until I started feeling better again, which wasn’t until later in the evening, when I had dinner.

I decided to go to an Indian restaurant this time (which can also be hit or miss with my stomach) and went to Deen Restaurant, where I ordered a chicken korma and chai latte for 46000 kip ($7.41).

It was absolutely delicious (and so I happily returned there the next evening!). I didn’t get back to my room until about 9pm and when I did, I was really struggling with opening my door. There were two German guys sitting on their patio two doors down, so one came over to help and couldn’t open it either. Then the other one came and finally got it open, but I didn’t even end up going in because we stayed out and chatted until about midnight. They were on a 3-week vacation and had just come from Vietnam (so they were doing the opposite route to me), and they were both really down-to-earth, nice guys. It’s always those people who I really get along with (such as Paulina in Chiang Rai) who I never end up exchanging information with, or even get a name in this case. But I enjoyed our three hours of conversation!

On Saturday morning, I decided to do the viewpoint hike, which climbs to the top of Phadeng Peak. First, I went for breakfast at a nearby restaurant called Alex Restaurant and got the Farmer Breakfast, which was by far the tastiest meal I had in Laos!

The meal came with an omelette (which was amazing and was made with dill, among other things, but why have I never put dill in my omelette before?! It takes it to the next level for sure!), cooked squash, kaipen (crispy riverweed, which is like seaweed but without the fishy taste – it was so good!), and sticky rice with a delicious eggplant dip. It was so much food, but I ended up eating it all because it was so amazing! Not only that, but with the coffee, they gave condensed milk AND actual milk so that I had the choice. All of that for 33000 kip ($5.31)! After breakfast, I headed back to my room to get everything ready for my walk, and then set off to the entry point. I had to pay 20000 kip ($3.22) to enter, and was greeted by a sign that said I had to worry about something OTHER than snakes and other creatures – unexploded bombs that were still in the area, because Nong Khiaw was one of the most bombed areas in Laos in the 60s by the US.

I was told that it would take at least one hour to go up and then about 45 minutes back down. I decided to wear my compression bands for my knees and I’m so glad I did! It was a constant uphill battle for the majority of the hike. I was going higher and higher and was already out of breath when I came to a rest area with benches and swings, where two British girls were taking a rest. I checked my watch and it had only been 8 minutes… I was doomed. I chatted with the two girls for awhile and then continued on my way. I took multiple breaks and was so thankful that I brought two water bottles because I was nearly done the first one after I had reached the halfway point. After about 40 minutes, I finally got out of the heat and reached a rainforest-like area, which was considerably cooler (yet still not quite cool enough!). I reached the top after about an hour and ten minutes, and I spent at least an hour up there. When I checked my phone, it said that I had climbed 130 flights of stairs – the most I’ve ever done on this trip! No wonder I was so tired… It was surprisingly busy when I first arrived, with about 10-15 people at the top, but once everyone got their selfies and left, I got to enjoy the whole place by myself. The haze had already started to settle in, so it wasn’t a completely clear view but it was still really nice!

I made my way back down and caught up with Hannah and Robyn, who had already started heading back so I walked the rest of the way down with them. They were both planning to move to Australia after their Asia travels (as many travellers here do), and one of the girls did her farmwork and stayed in the same hostel as me when I was in Mildura – such a small world! By the time we got back to the bottom, my legs were feeling like jelly so I went back to my room (they had to catch the bus to their next destination) and showered. I then went to a restaurant to enjoy a banana smoothie with the sunset and as I was leaving, two other girls (a German and French girl) were leaving and invited me to join them for dinner.

They were going to the same Indian restaurant that I had went to the night before (which I was fine with) so I ordered some chicken tikka masala with naan.

I had been looking forward to having dessert this time because they had gulab jamun on their menu – one of my favourite things, which I haven’t actually noticed on any other Indian menus during my travels. Unfortunately, they were out of them so I STILL didn’t get to have any. Maybe next time… One of the girls said that she had done the 100 Waterfalls Hike and because it was dry season, there wasn’t much of a waterfall. She said that it wasn’t really worth paying for, so I didn’t need to have any regrets about not doing it! I had to catch my bus at 8am the next morning, so I went back to my room to organise my things and go to bed so I could get up early enough to have breakfast before starting the extremely long journey into Vietnam. Love always

Luang Prabang (Mar 4-8): Kuang Si, Tak Bat, and a (Half-)Day in the Life of a Rice Farmer

My time in Luang Prabang (pronounced Loo-ong Prah-bong) was quite long – perhaps a bit TOO long with the amount of stuff that there was to do there (I think that three nights would be the perfect amount of time). It was still nice to have a place to relax and not feel guilty about it. Luang Prabang is another UNESCO World Heritage City, and it has a sort of charm to it. However, one of the things that I definitely noticed was the amount of stray cats and dogs that didn’t seem to be cared for. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere, but most of them still seem to be taken care of (especially in Pai – many dogs are almost fat!). Here, many of the dogs (and cats especially) looked so sad, with really rough fur/skin, and they definitely didn’t look healthy. It was difficult to see, especially when they’d come up to your table while eating at a restaurant.

The tuk-tuk arrived in the “city” centre (which still has a village-like feel) just after 5pm, and I realised that I still had a ten-minute walk to my hostel. This was also the time when all of the vendors started setting up their stalls for the night market, so I had to weave back and forth around tents being set up, and be careful not to step on the mats that they had placed on the cement.

I was staying at Smile Hostel, which cost 70,000 kip ($11.52AUD) per night for a 6-bed female dorm. This was a bit more expensive than some of the other places in the city, but it had the best hostel breakfast that I’ve had on this trip (they have a menu of scrambled or fried eggs or an omelette or banana pancakes with ham or sausage, and fruit). Plus it had the cutest puppy!

I got to my hostel and reorganised for a bit before going to Nang Tao for dinner. It was an extremely quiet family-run restaurant, and when I saw Khao Soi, I didn’t hesitate to order it. However, I quickly realised that Lao Khao Soi is very different from Thai Khao Soi, and is made from minced meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth (almost like a hamburger soup).

That and a coke only cost me 20,000 kip ($3.22). I walked around the night market, which I was excited about because I had read that the prices in Laos are a lot cheaper than Thailand because Thailand gets a lot of its products FROM Laos. However, I found that most of the things (not only at the night market, but also entrance into temples, transport, accommodation, etc.) were a lot more pricey than they were in Thailand.

On Tuesday, I was planning to go to Kuang Si Waterfall, which is about a 45-60 minute ride outside of the city. The hostel offers three minivans per day, but the van will only stay for 2.5 hours and I didn’t want to be rushed. Luckily at breakfast, I overheard some other people planning to go so I said I would join them in getting a tuktuk. We walked down the road and were able to talk one of the drivers down to 180,000 kip (so 36,000 kip/$5.80 each), and we convinced him to stay for four hours. The scenery on the way there was beautiful! Once we got there, I picked up some food at a street vendor and then made my way inside, and we had to pay 20000 kip ($3.22) each to enter.

In order to get to the waterfall, we actually had to walk through an enclosure housing a bunch of bears. These bears are part of the “Free the Bears” project, which saved the bears before they reached the bear bile farms. Bear bile is used in traditional medicine for liver and gallbladder problems, but bears live horrible lives on these farms, confined in small cages, where their bile is constantly extracted either by ‘free drip,’ where a hole is put in their gallbladders or they have a permanent catheter inserted. Obviously, it’s better for them to be in the wild but this protects them from the poachers, and is run by the Government of Laos.

We kept walking along the path and eventually came upon a pristine blue pool, with a few small waterfalls going into it. As we kept walking higher and higher, the amount of waterfalls seemed to multiply. We then made it up to the top, where there was a massive waterfall! It really was quite stunning, especially with the surrounding blue in the pools (which was very inviting to swim in!).

We all ate some lunch and then decided to climb up to the top of the waterfall, where we could walk over it and come back down the other side. There honestly wasn’t much to see at the top – just a viewpoint and a sign that said there was a cave 3km away.

We decided to make our way down the other side, but it was a lot steeper and difficult to go down. When we had gotten about halfway down, someone had walked by and asked if we had went to the cave and we said no. She said that it was really nice and worth walking to. I was already fine with going back down to enjoy the waterfalls, but the other four decided to climb back up so that they could go to the cave. I found one of the pools to swim in, set all of my stuff in an area that I could watch, and had to walk along the top of a set of falls in order to get to a quiet pool on the other side. Some people were nonchalantly running across the top of the waterfall, and it was freaking me out! I definitely took it slow and made my way to the other side, where I sat for two hours and people-watched. The water was so cold so I didn’t actually swim in it – I just sat in it with my feet in the pool. The group said that they would be quick and come back down as soon as they could so I was surprised that at 3:10, they still hadn’t come down since we were supposed to be back at the tuktuk at 3:30. However, I figured that maybe I just missed them when they walked by. I got out, changed, walked back to the tuktuk, and made it there RIGHT at 3:30. However, it was only the driver who was there. I sat in the back and we waited for about 15 minutes before everyone else showed up. They said that they left the cave at 2:30 and were going as fast as they could, so it took them over an hour to get back. By the time we got back to our hostel, it was just before 5pm so I showered and then all of the people from the slowboat arrived. I went for dinner with a girl from Russia, where we split a couple of dishes and paid 27,000 kip ($4.35) each. We then walked around the night market and headed back to the hostel.

On Wednesday, I decided to explore the city (which can take less than two hours), so it really ended up just being a day of walking around, sitting in cafes, and relaxing. Many of the temples ended up charging 20000 kip ($3.22) to enter, which was a bit too pricey for me and because I’ve already been in many temples, I decided to just look at them from a distance. Luang Prabang also has a few bamboo bridges, which are only there during dry season (during wet season, they get washed away and then they have to build new ones), and they charged 10000 kip to cross (which goes towards building the new one). Again, I decided to just enjoy it from a distance. It’s not that much money, but paying for little things multiple times adds up quick!

I was walking back towards the hostel right before sunset and noticed all of the people climbing up Mount Phousi to get the perfect few. I decided to walk to the riverside instead, get a smoothie, and enjoy it from there.

I went to @Phonheuang Cafe later that night for dinner, ordered fried sukiyaki (which is a noodle dish), and it ended up being the best meal that I had in Luang Prabang.

And only for 25000 kip ($4.03)! While I was sitting there, a German guy (Mike) ended up sitting at the table next to me so we ended up talking until after the restaurant closed.

On Thursday morning, I had booked a half-day tour at the Living Land Rice Farm. This tour was definitely the most expensive tour that I’ve paid for at 344000 kip ($55.38), but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go, and it had amazing reviews so I knew I’d enjoy it. The project was started almost 15 years ago by some local families who put their land together to grow rice and organic vegetables. They support community projects and offer free English classes to village children, as well as offer their land to the northern college for students who need to do practical work for agriculture school, so I knew that I’d be supporting a good cause. They picked me up at my hostel at 8am and drove me to the farm, which was only about 15 minutes away. It was absolutely beautiful!

Laos has surprised me with how lush and green it’s been everywhere. There were only five of us in the group – two sisters from the States, and two guys from the UK. We started by being shown how to pick out the good grains of dried rice (to later plant). Our guide added salt in some water, and then took out any of the grains that were floating because it meant that they were empty.

He then took us out to the mud, where we were told to take off our shoes and walk through the fields barefoot. He showed how to make a mound of mud to sprinkle the rice grains on, and eventually they’d start to grow. We had to rip out some of the already grown ones (roots and all) to replant in the fields.

However, before we replanted them, we got to meet Rudolphe, their buffalo, who had to walk through the muddy water to plow through the mud in order to mix it around.

Then, we were ready to replant the sprouts! We took four or five at a time and had to stick them into the mud about a foot away from each other. The guide said that they’d be submerged in water for ten days, and then they’d drain and block the water for ten days.

We then went to another field where the rice was fully grown, and had to use a sickle to cut and tie a bundle. Then we’d have to lay the bundles to dry for a few days.

After the bundles were dry, we had to thresh the bundles (hit them against a piece of wood) in order to loosen all of the grains. Then, we’d take a fan and swing it over the pile to get rid of all of the empty grains.

He then showed us the three main carrying methods used by different tribes, who would have to carry the rice many kilometres.

We were shown how the rice had to be hammered by using a huge device, and then sorted to get rid of the rest of the bad rice. The sorting is a woman’s job and if a woman couldn’t do it correctly, she couldn’t get married.

That definitely put the pressure on! The rice could then be further ground into a flour to make noodles. Then he showed us how the rice was steamed for 15 minutes, flipped, and steamed for another 15 minutes in order to make sticky rice, which is a staple in the Lao culture.

Between all of these steps, we were also able to find time to watch how weaving is done using bamboo (the men were so friendly and kept making us rings and bracelets!), how to use manual bellows to feed a fire, which would heat some metal so it could be hammered into a sickle or other tool, and then the two guys from the UK used another tool to squeeze all of the juice out of some sugarcane so that we could all enjoy a couple glasses of sugarcane juice. It was actually incredible how much liquid was able to come out of a bundle of sugarcane!

We were shown the nursery and garden, which had a huge assortment of vegetables. Then at the very end, we were able to enjoy multiple rice products! Everyone eats with their hands, so we took the sticky rice, squished it in little balls, and dipped it in a Chili paste/buffalo skin mixture (yes, you read that right!) – it was actually so delicious! I ended up being the only one who finished all of my rice. We also tried some rice wine, which was extremely strong!

It really was such a good experience and I’m so glad I did it! I went back to the hostel to relax for a couple of hours but then I was starving so I walked to a French cafe that a couple of the girls recommended to me. Although it was quite expensive, it was still nice to have some French pastries (there were so many French restaurants in Luang Prabang since it was part of the French Colonial Empire years ago – also, the amount of French people who travel Thailand and Laos is insane! I could hear French everywhere I went).

I went back to the hostel to visit for a bit, and then met up with Mike for dinner. We then went to the night market, where he bought so much stuff. This made it more tempting for me to buy things (I’ve been so good with convincing myself not to buy anything!). I stayed strong though, and didn’t get anything. I went back to my hostel and Abbey had just arrived (not by coincidence this time – I told her where I was staying), so we chatted for a bit before I went to bed.

On Friday morning, I was leaving for my next destination at 8:30. However, I decided to wake up to watch the Buddhist Alms Giving Ceremony (tak bat). It has occurred in many of the past cities that I’ve been in, but it starts before the sun rises (around 5:30), so I’ve been too lazy to wake up for it. However, I was told that they come on the street right in front of the hostel at 6am so this time, I didn’t really have an excuse. I tried to set an alarm a couple of days earlier and just rolled over and went back to bed, so I was determined to get up this time, especially since two other girls in my room decided to go as well. Tak bat is a daily ceremony when the monks go and collect food (alms) from the locals, who usually give sticky rice or fresh fruit to make merit. The monks go down the streets in meditation and collect this food for their one meal per day, and don’t have a kitchen so the food is already prepared. We decided not to take part in giving food (because we were told that they expect the food to be made with love at home and not just bought from a street vendor) and instead just watch. I’ve also read that this ceremony has become such a big spectacle for tourists, and many of the locals have refused to take part anymore because they feel like the sanctity of the ceremony is ruined. A lot of people take pictures with flash and then chase after the monks in order to get a good picture. We weren’t on the main street so it was pretty quiet where we were, but I was surprised as to how many flashes I saw in the distance, as well as how many people were following the monks when the ceremony was over. It was interesting seeing how the locals (and some tourists) just took a pinch of rice to give to each monk (there were hundreds of them) – I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be like that.

It was a very quiet and peaceful ceremony to watch, even though I still felt guilty for doing so. As interesting as it is to see other cultures and religions, I guess I wouldn’t go around taking pictures of people doing communion in church (maybe cause I grew up with it), so it’s hard not to feel disrespectful by being there. It still was a beautiful sight to see, with a sea of orange robes coming down the street. After about 20 minutes, we went back into the hostel and I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep so instead, we all just made coffee and visited until about 7:30. I went upstairs to pack up my stuff, came back down for breakfast, and then my bus came early so I rushed off to head to Nong Khiaw. Love always

The Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos (Mar 3-4)

On the morning of my trip into Laos, I got up at 4:45 (after having less than 5 hours of sleep), packed up my stuff, and went downstairs for breakfast. I only took two pancakes and two bananas, but as soon as I took the first bite of a pancake, I started heating up and felt like I was going to throw up again. I kept forcing myself to eat because I didn’t want to be rude, especially since the hostel owner had gotten up at 5am to prepare everything for me. It was definitely a struggle, and I had to keep taking bites with coffee just so that I could get it down. We left at about 5:50 and the hostel owner drove me to the bus station so that I could catch the first bus to the Laos border at 6am. She gave me a big hug and sent me on my way – she was so sweet! I got on the bus, which only had one empty seat left (it seemed like there was a big group of people travelling together), and paid 100 baht ($4.36) for my trip to the border (just outside the city of Chiang Khong). The process was actually a lot more straightforward than what I was expecting! The price of that bus is actually 65 baht per person, but then they normally drop us off at a tuk tuk station and we would have to pay for a tuk tuk to go the rest of the way to the border. Because there were so many of us in the bus, they just charged us 100 baht each and took us straight to the border, which saved us one step. When we got to the border, we had to use our departure cards to leave Thailand (which they give you with your arrival card when you get INTO Thailand, so it’s important to keep it safe). Lucky for me, most of the people had lost their departure cards and therefore had to fill out new ones, so I was able to go straight to custom control without a lineup. Then I had to pay to take a bus across Friendship Bridge, which would bring me to Laos customs. The ticket only cost 25 baht ($1.09) and then the stand also exchanged Thai baht into Lao kip. However, normally the ticket is 20 baht but because it was before 8:30 (and therefore outside of office hours), I had to pay 5 baht extra.

I decided to exchange a bit of baht into kip, just so that I’d have some money on the other side of the border. We had to wait for less than five minutes and then everyone boarded the bus, which took us across the bridge. Then, we had to fill out two forms to apply for the Laos Visa-on-Arrival. I was so happy that I got on the first bus across the bridge because the line kept getting longer and longer. I filled out both of the forms (one for a Visa application, and one was an arrival/departure card) and found a passport picture stored deep in my backpack (which I had actually forgotten about, but luckily I travel prepared!). I then stood in the first line to hand in my passport, forms, and picture, and then I had to go into the second line, where they would get us to pay for the visa in order to get our passports back. As a Canadian citizen, I had to pay $43 US ($58.86AUD) so I gave $103 and got three 20s back. I then took those 20s to the currency exchange so that I could get more kip, because I realised that I’d use all of the kip I had to buy my boat ticket. I stood in line, finally got to the front, and she said that she wouldn’t take my money because there was a stamp on it. I was so mad because I had already stood in line for awhile, plus I was tired and still feeling sick, and I tried to explain that I had gotten the bills from the visa booth. She told me to go back there and return when I had new 20’s. Livid, I walked back to the visa counter and cut in front of the extremely long line to explain, and the man easily exchanged my bills. I went back to the currency exchange, waited in line once again, and she REALLY examined the bills. She pointed out a crease down the middle of one of the bills and said that she’d only exchange two of the 20s. Whatever. I couldn’t be bothered anymore – I was too sick and too tired to care (Note: the currency exchange in Luang Prabang exchanged this bill easily.. this lady was just being difficult). I got my money and went to the ticket booth to buy my ticket for the slow boat. There are two options to get into Laos – the first is to take a bus and the second is to take a slow boat (which is two 7-8 hour days). I had been trying to book a ticket beforehand so that I’d have proof that I’d be leaving Thailand but when I asked a company about it (Mekong Smile Cruises), they quoted me $700USD because as of March 1st, it was “low season” so if 6 people joined, they’d lower the price down to $130 per person! I said absolutely not, and decided that I’d just play it by ear when I got there. I’m extremely glad I made that decision as well because I was able to do it A LOT cheaper on my own (about $28USD!). I had read that the boat left at either 10:30 or 11, but was surprised to see the sign that said it left at 11:30.

It was only 9am so I’d have a lot of time to kill! I walked to the booth to buy boat tickets, which would cost 210,000 kip ($34.57). However, even though the signs said 210,000, they charged me 270,000 kip ($43.47) to include the tuktuk. I knew that this was a legitimate charge because I read that you have to take a tuktuk to the Thailand border, a bus across the bridge to the Laos border, then a tuktuk to the slowboat. I paid and then they gave me a badge to wear around my neck, which I would later exchange for the boat ticket.

About 7 of us got in the back of a songthaew and they drove us to a shop, which would be our only opportunity to buy food and water for the day (luck was on my side!). They also said that we could book accommodation and buy SIM cards if we wanted. It almost seemed like a tour company because they were only selling rooms for one type of accommodation, so I went on my phone and found my own place. Before my trip, I was told not to book anything in advance and instead walk past all of the people when I arrive, tell them I have a reservation, and then just show up to a hotel because they would charge you a lot less. However, I still wasn’t feeling very well and just wanted a piece of mind that I’d have a room with a bed and bathroom when I arrived. I honestly wasn’t even sure if spending 7.5 hours on a boat that day was a smart idea, but I just wanted to get to Luang Prabang because I’d have four nights there and could find a clinic if I needed. I booked a room on Agoda at BKC Villa 2 with my own queen-sized bed, a river view, and my own bathroom for a whopping $17.90, which was cheaper than some of the dorm rooms I stayed at in Taiwan, and almost half the amount of staying in a dorm room in Australia! After booking my room, I found some water and soup crackers for 20,000 kip ($3.22), as well as a sandwich for 15,000 kip ($2.42) in hopes that I’d eventually want to eat it. Just before 10:30, they drove us to the slow boat, where we had to wait to get our tickets, and then could board the boat. They said that day, we only needed to SHOW our tickets to the driver because we’d need to keep the tickets for tomorrow or we wouldn’t be able to get onto that boat.

We were able to board the boat, which was set up the same way that an airplane might be set up, with a set of three seats on both sides. They were actually wooden benches (which looked like pews) with cushions on each spot, and papers with numbers on each cushion. We all had numbers on our tickets, and I was assigned to a middle seat but luckily a couple wanted to sit together, so I traded and got an aisle seat.

There were over 100 people on the boat (my seat number was 95), and it nearly filled up. We hadn’t even left yet and my butt was already hurting, so I wasn’t sure how I’d survive the 7.5-hour trip. Luckily when we left, one person on my bench went to one of the empty benches at the back of the boat, and about an hour later, her boyfriend followed suit. Therefore, I got an entire bench to myself for the rest of the trip, so I was able to shift as many times as I wanted! By that time, my appetite actually came back so I was able to eat my sandwich and didn’t even end up feeling sick afterwards! The trip was really relaxing and I spent the time going from blog-writing to doing crosswords to just listening to music and taking pictures.

They said that we wouldn’t arrive until 7pm, but we ended up getting to Pakbeng right after 6. There was a huge crowd of people waiting, and many were trying to sell rooms to their establishments.

To get off, we had to balance along a metre-long board. Then, a bunch of kids crowded around and kept pointing to my bag. I wasn’t sure if they were asking for food, or offering to carry it for me, but I just kept saying no since it was the only water and food I had. I saw a sign for my accommodation held by a boy who wouldn’t have been older than 12, so he walked me to where the guesthouse was, which was only about three minutes up the hill and was likely the first hotel on the road, which was nice! They didn’t even ask for my passport or my name when I got there – they just gave me a key and pointed to my room.

I’ve never been more excited to shower and go to bed! However, I figured I should probably eat something, so I went across the street to Pakbeng Guesthouse, ordered fried rice with chicken for 25,000 kip ($4.03), and then went back to my room to shower and go to bed.

On Monday morning, I woke up after a long 9.5-hour snooze and packed up my stuff before going across the street to get some coffee and a sandwich for that day.

The boat was meant to leave at 9am and we wouldn’t arrive in Luang Prabang until about 4pm, so we were in for another long boat ride. I got to the boat at about 10 minutes to 9 and by that time, half of the boat was already full. The full part of the boat had tables, so all that was left in the back of the boat were seats that literally seemed to be taken out of multiple cars (and therefore reclined!), so they were set up two by two down the middle of the boat and along the sides. I grabbed one of the seats along the side right before the huge 10+ group of British people (who spent the entire boatride drinking the day before) came and took all of the remaining seats. Unlike the day before, there wasn’t any room to spread out so I was confined to my one seat and the girl beside me seemed to take not only her own part of the seat but also part of mine (for no reason other than not seeming to realise that there were two separate seats). Anyway, I just put my earphones in to tune everything out, and kept myself busy for the next seven hours.

Again, it went by quite fast and we arrived in Luang Prabang at about 4:30pm. They dropped us off quite far out of the city so we had to grab all of our stuff, go up a whole bunch of stairs to get to the road, and pay 20,000 kip ($3.22) per person to get a tuktuk to the city centre, which was about 10 kilometres away. Luckily, I got on one of the first ones (since the majority of the people who were on the boat seemed to be travelling with tour groups, so they had to get sorted out first) so I arrived in the city centre just after 5pm. However, I’ll save Luang Prabang for another post. Love always

Chiang Rai (Mar 1-3): A Peculiar Temple and Some Kind of Sickness

Chiang Rai was when I finally got sick with something… I’m still not exactly sure what it was, but may have been a combination of carsickness, food poisoning, and overheating. Once again, I booked my bus tickets on 12Go, and I had to go back through Chiang Mai in order to get to Chiang Rai. I had read reviews that some people’s first bus ended up arriving late so they missed their second bus. Therefore, I wanted to leave ample time between my two buses so that it wouldn’t end up happening to me. I booked my first bus for 8am, which was scheduled to arrive at noon, and cost 215 baht ($10.05). I booked my second bus for 2:15pm to arrive in Chiang Rai at 5:50pm for 289 baht ($12.61AUD). On Friday morning, I got up at 6:30, got ready, packed up, took a quick look at the sunrise, and started my walk to the bus station so that I could get there 30 minutes in advance.

On my walk, I saw the monks collecting alms, which I was contemplating waking up early for in Chiang Mai to watch. The monks go out every morning at dawn to collect food from the locals, and they were followed by all of the dogs. One of the dogs joined me on my walk and walked me all the way to the bus station, which was great to have the company! The dog was so excited and happy, but I felt bad for bringing him to the bus station because there were a bunch of bigger dogs that kept trying to run after him. Once I got to the station, I went into the 7-Eleven to buy some dog treats but the dog wasn’t interested in them – he must only eat human food! Anyway, I took the advice of some people and didn’t eat anything beforehand because apparently it makes you more sick on the car ride. Another girl had said that she bought motion sickness tablets halfway through her trip, and they ended up not working and just made her drowsy. I had bought motion sickness tablets, but I didn’t want to risk feeling drowsy all day so I decided not to take them. Maybe it was the wrong choice though… We started the journey back to Chiang Mai and once again, I was in the back seat, leaning all over the place. At one point, my bag of food came loose from under the seat so many people (including myself) just spent the next 20 minutes watching my bag roll from the left side of the vehicle to the right side of the vehicle and back. At the halfway point, I decided to get some coffee but still decided not to get food. I wasn’t feeling too great and was now understanding how people who get carsick feel. We got to Chiang Mai an hour earlier than scheduled (at 11), so I went to check in to my next bus and asked if it would be possible to get on an earlier bus, but the lady said that they were all full. Therefore, I had about three hours to kill. I found a restaurant called Black Coffee Smile, and decided I needed to force myself to eat something. I still wasn’t feeling well, but I hadn’t eaten all day and by that time, it was 11:30. I ordered a cashew chicken with rice and a coke.

I had the choice between a small or large coke (which I assumed was a can or a bottle) and since I knew that I would be there for awhile, I opted for a large coke. What I wasn’t expecting though, was for them to bring me a 1.25-litre bottle of coke! Anyway, eating still didn’t help my stomach feel great – I actually think that it ended up making my stomach feel a bit worse. I spent the next three hours waiting for my stomach to settle, but it never did. I went to where my next bus would be and was so relieved to see that it was an actual-sized bus and not a 14-passenger van. I knew that these buses wouldn’t be able to do twists and turns as fast, so it should end up being easier on my stomach. The bus arrived right at 2:15, we all got on, and we started our 3.5-hour journey to Chiang Rai. There had been a warning on the ticket about the air conditioning being extremely cold, and to be prepared when going on the bus. I noticed everyone around me was shivering and covering up, but I was wearing a tank top and shorts the entire time and never started feeling cold. I think it actually helped with making me feel better. We arrived in Chiang Rai and once again, my hostel was way out of the city centre. I had to order a Grab because otherwise it would be a 30-40 minute walk, and I didn’t feel like carrying my backpack for that long. The Grab was only 70 baht ($3.05 AUD), so it really wasn’t that bad. I was staying in Grace Hostel and paid 200 baht ($8.86) per night in a 16-bed female dorm. The hostel was run by a really sweet lady who drove everyone to the night market every night, and also got up at 5am each morning to make breakfast for everyone who’d be travelling to Laos. I also really liked the set-up of this hostel because there was a huge shared shower and toilet room (rather than having only 2 or 3 separate bathrooms), and even though the room was 16 beds, each bed got their own pod so you still got lots of privacy. The hostel owner asked if I wanted to go to the night market and said we’d leave at 6:50 (in a half hour). I said sure but as I was preparing my things, I started questioning whether it would be a good idea for me to go. I felt like I’d feel better if I threw up, but I really hate that feeling so I didn’t let it happen. I went to the night market with a girl from Finland and a guy from kind of all over the place. The hostel owner stopped at the clock tower, which does a light show for 7 minutes every night at 7pm.

Then she dropped us off at the night market, where we walked around and searched for food. The other two got dinner, but I knew it wouldn’t be a good idea to eat so I just got a smoothie for 25 baht ($1.09) and we chatted while they ate. We decided to walk back to the hostel afterwards and then chatted for awhile before going to bed. Surprisingly, I still didn’t feel hungry before going to bed so I only ended up eating one meal that day.

On Saturday morning, I got up at 8, got ready, and had breakfast in the hostel. This hostel breakfast actually had food other than toast, and provided pancakes, boiled eggs, cereal, and bananas. The girl from Finland (Paulina) joined me, and we decided to check out the White Temple together. The hostel owner told me that I should exchange my Thai baht into US dollars, and THEN exchange the dollars into Laos Kip when I got to Laos because I’d lose less money that way. This actually surprised me because I assumed I’d lose less money by changing baht into kip directly. Paulina and I walked about 15 minutes to a currency exchange place so I could change all of my money, and then we continued another 20 minutes to the bus station. We found a big sign that said ‘White Temple’ and saw that the bus was supposed to leave in 4 minutes (good timing!). We got on, paid 20 baht (88 cents), and arrived at the White Temple about 20 minutes later. We had to pay 50 baht ($2.18) for entry, and it was extremely crowded when we got there!! Online, there are so many pictures of people alone with no one around, and I have no idea how they would have managed to get a picture like that unless it was Photoshopped. The White Temple is extremely unique because the person who designed it added a bunch of random features, such as heads hanging from trees, or a bunch of hands coming out of the ground.

It was bizarre, but cool to see! We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the temple, but I was glad that I was with Paulina because she had read that there were cartoons inside (and I totally wouldn’t have noticed them if I wasn’t with her). As soon as you walk in (almost behind the doors), there are random characters added into the painting such as Spiderman, Harry Potter, Angry Birds, Michael Jackson, Sailor Moon, etc. It was really entertaining trying to find them all! We walked around the grounds for awhile and then decided to go back into the city to get lunch.

We weren’t too sure where to find the bus (because there weren’t any written bus stops) so I quickly read a couple of blogs, and we found a police station with a wooden pergola beside it. As soon as we got there, a bus came so it was great timing again! When we got to the city, we walked around for a bit to find a restaurant. It’s very difficult for Paulina because she’s deathly allergic to peanuts (which is one of the main ingredients in Thai cooking), so it’s not as easy for her to walk into one of the cheaper establishments because she needs to be sure that there isn’t any cross-contamination. I think I would be so paranoid if I were her! Anyway, we found a restaurant and both got green curry with rice, and then we were planning to go to the Black House afterwards.

However, we ended up staying at the restaurant for two or three hours just chatting and by the time we decided to leave, I think both of us were fine with just finding another cafe to relax in. We found another cafe, and stayed for another two hours there. This was another situation where we clicked so well, and talked about anything and everything – we had so many conversations that I’ve never had on my entire trip (many conversations tend to get quite repetitive). We decided to walk back to the hostel to reorganise so that we could come back for the Saturday night market, which was supposed to be much larger than the regular night market (it went for 2 kilometres!). The hostel owner drove us (me, Paulina, and a guy from the US) to the night market at 7pm. We walked along the length of the market, and then walked back to where the “food court” was. In the middle of the food court was a dance floor, where we were surprised to see so many people all doing the same dance moves. However, most people didn’t really look like they were enjoying themselves and were doing the moves robotically, so it was more comical to watch. We walked around looking for somewhere to eat, but I wanted to make sure I could get something that I could actually SEE being cooked. The problem with many of these food stalls is that most of the stuff is just sitting there – the sushi, the cooked sausages and skewers, the noodle dishes, and I can’t help but question how long it had been sitting there. Finally, we found a stand that was actually cooking their food, and their dish was oyster omelette. I’ve read great things about oyster omelette, so I decided that it was finally time to give it a try. However, this oyster omelette was definitely made with mussels, and I’m not sure if there were even any oysters in it. Paulina ordered first, and she got the more-cooked selection. Then I ordered and they gave me some of the less-brown selection. We all found a place to sit in an area where they had a bunch of mats and small coffee tables, so we took off our shoes to go on the mat and then sat around one of the tables. I tried one of the mussels but it was a bit too chewy for my liking (I’m very picky with my seafood and the way that it’s cooked), so I put them all aside. We sat there for quite awhile and enjoyed people-watching all of the dancers in the middle of the food court. Then at 9, Paulina and I decided to walk back to the hostel because I had to get up at 4:45. However, when we were walking back, I suddenly started overheating and I felt like I was going to throw up again. It was bizarre because I had eaten two meals that day and felt fine, and all of a sudden, that familiar feeling was back. Right before we got to the hostel, Paulina asked if I wanted to go into the grocery store to get some food for tomorrow (because I’d be on a 7.5-hour boat ride with no food) and we stepped in. After 30 seconds, I said I couldn’t stay and I needed to go back to the hostel. We went back so I could sit down, and I was feeling like crap for at least a half hour. I was so close to going to the bathroom so that I could throw up. It was nice that Paulina sat and chatted with me to keep my mind off of everything, and we actually ended up talking until nearly midnight. I felt much better by that point, so I got ready for bed and decided I’d deal with the lack of food the next day. Love always