Tag Archives: Vietnam

The Dreaded 30-Hour Bus From Laos to Vietnam

4 Feb

For most twenty-somethings backpacking around Southeast Asia, it almost seems as if the bus ride from Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam (or the reverse trip) is something of an initiation as it basically becomes an inevitable journey for the budget traveler.

I had heard so much about this dreaded bus trip before heading to Laos and, although I really didn’t want to do it, I knew that I had to.

I’ve heard so many horror stories and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little intimidated by this gruelling, 30-ish hour bus trip.

Anyway, after an awesome few days in Vang Vieng, it was time to head to Hanoi. We had previously secured our visas in Luang Prabang and were ready to finally head over to Vietnam. I can’t stress this enough — make sure that all the information on your visa is accurate (i.e. the dates of validity and your passport number. This visa didn’t have my name on it like Laos and Cambodia did). Border control going into Vietnam from Laos is very, very strict. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, read Adventure Kate’s post about how she almost got banned from Vietnam at the border.

Anyway, when we bought our bus tickets in Vang Vieng, the lady we bought them from said that it would be a 21-hour journey. I knew that this probably wasn’t going to be accurate and I actually prepared myself to expect at least 30 hours of traveling.

The bunks

We got picked up by a mini-bus at around noon which took us to Vientiane, Laos’ capital city. Once we got there we were ushered onto a random bus with bunk bed style lounge seats. It’s weird, if you go to Southeast Asia you’ll notice how much of an organized mess everything is. Here’s what I mean. When we got off our mini-bus in Vientiane there were a ton of big buses and our mini-bus driver kind of just took off. We confusedly stood around for about a minute before someone just came up to us and brought us to where we needed to go. Even though there was absolutely no verbal communication between us because he didn’t speak English, everything just kind of fell into place. It seems so chaotic, but don’t worry, it actually all works out (usually) in the end. At least, it did for me and, believe me, I took SO many buses around Southeast Asia and came to know what to expect. I eventually got used to the chaotic set-up of transportation around Southeast Asia.

Here’s a tip for you: Bring as much food on the bus as you possibly can because I swear all the bus drivers bring you to their friends ‘shops’ and get you to buy whatever they are selling. In our case, it was a plate full of disgusting mystery meat and overcooked rice. We were so hungry though so, along with everyone else, we were pretty much forced to eat this pile of who-knows-what.

After we stopped for this mystery meal, we continued for a few more hours before we got to the border. It’s funny that they tell you it’s going to be a 21-hour trip because there is absolutely NO way that this could ever be true because the border will be closed when you get there. AND they will turn the air-con off while you sit in your own sweat overnight waiting for the border to open at, I believe, 5 a.m.

Ashley!

The awesome friend who I was traveling with, Ashley, as well as many others, actually needed to get off the bus because it was too hot for them to sleep. So bring a book (or two) and fully charge your iPod! Mine died halfway there and it was torturous.

Now, as for the border crossing…

This was probably the most unpleasant border crossing I have encountered throughout my travels, other than my experience going into Bolivia. There are a few things I think I need to point out. For one, on top of the fee you needed to pay for your visa, you will need to pay an ‘extra’ fee when you’re getting your passport stamped. This is totally a tourist rip-off. You can try to fight it (as some did), but I suggest just paying the few dollars to get through hassle-free. Also, depending on your nationality, they might give you an even harder time forcing you to actually have to bribe them to get across the border. This happened with one girl on our bus who was from Morocco. She had no idea why they were giving her a hard time and, after much debate, they accepted a bribe from her. So, I would suggest bringing some extra American dollars with you in case you find yourself in a sticky situation like this.

You also need to put your bag on this conveyor belt that goes through this machine that’s probably an x-ray and I found that the men working around there were extremely aggressive, especially with young, Caucasian women like myself and my friend. They really, really gave us a hard time. I mean, they were grabbing ours arms and saying inappropriate things to us. It was really unpleasant and we got out of their as quickly as possible and chucked our bag back on the bus.

You then have to walk to the actual border crossing. It was actually quite a distance. I’m not good with accurately measuring distances, but it was probably somewhere from 1/2 km to 1 km. It took about 20 minutes. Here’s a picture (of course it was raining!).

Walking to Vietnam!

Make sure that you try and do all these steps (departure stamp/’extra’ fee and putting your bag on the conveyor belt and back onto your bus) as quickly as possible because your bus is only going to wait for so long before they leave. Believe me, they will leave without you.

Anyway, we got into Hanoi after another day of driving. Once we got into Hanoi, we all piled into another mini-van which took us to their “choice of hostel”, a.k.a. their friend’s hostel. We quickly grabbed our bags and headed into the streets of Hanoi at night. Finding Hanoi Backpackers on Ma May street was easy and stress-free as it seems like everyone on our bus had the same idea of heading there. So, if you’re planning on heading to Hanoi Backpackers, there will more than likely be someone on your bus going there as well, so just ask around like we did.

I know I’m making it seem like the 30-hour bus was awful, but it really wasn’t awful at all. Unless you’re extremely high maintenance, then this journey will probably not be so bad for you. I’m not going to lie, it was uncomfortable, but I think any bus trip that’s longer than 15 hours would be uncomfortable. For being on a bus for 30 hours, it wasn’t bad at all. You’re also going to be around several other people who are in the exact same situation and who are probably just as nervous as you are.

I made some great friends and it was definitely an experience in and of itself. More importantly, the beauty that awaited us was well worth the dreaded 30-hour bus ride. This is what greeted us on our way into Hanoi:

Arriving into Hanoi, Vietnam

The Halong Bay Booze Cruise!

28 Jan

When I was planning my trip to Southeast Asia, I knew that I would only have about a week’s time in Vietnam. So, I decided I would make my way over to Hanoi, Vietnam from Vang Vieng, Laos until I needed to fly back to Thailand for the Full Moon Party. There were two things that I knew I had to do: Visit a snake restaurant and cruise on a junk boat through the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Halong Bay.

I heard from many people about the infamous “Rock Hard, Rock Long Halong Bay Tour” offered at the ever-so-popular Hanoi Backpackers hostel. It would be expensive, but literally everyone recommended it so I knew that I had to do it.

Anyway, there were a few different options for the Halong Bay Booze Cruise. I chose the 2 day tour which cost 79.50 USD. It was significantly more expensive than tours offered in town and through other hostels, but I knew I was signing up for a guaranteed good time. From what I heard from all the friends I met and from all their pictures I have seen, my advice would be to splurge on the 3 day tour instead of 2 day as you get to spend the 2nd night on Castaway Island. Regardless, the 2 day tour was unreal! SO much ridiculous-ness and SO much fun.

It started with a 4 hour drive to Halong City where we would eventually take a small boat to our junk boat, the Jolly Roger, in Halong Bay!

One of the best parts of our tour was our tour leader, Luke. He was AWESOME. He had actually ran out of money and returned home to work for a bit, so this was his FIRST night back as a tour leader AND it was his birthday! By the end of the tour, he said our group was the craziest he has ever guided and that it was one hell of a birthday. So, if you get Luke, you’re in for one hell of a good time. That’s what I love about Southeast Asia: it’s so unconventional in so many ways. A tour guide in Canada or the U.S. wouldn’t be caught dead drinking with his group or he’d be fired, but in Southeast Asia, it’s not only okay, but it’s encouraged! Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to bring your own alcohol aboard, although I’m sure you can get away with sneaking some on like we did. Drinks are a little more expensive on the Jolly Roger than they are in Hanoi, but there’s nothing like an ice-cold 333 on a hot, sunny day, so it’s worth it.

Halong Bay was exactly as I imagined it would be. It was a sunny day when we got there and it was absolutely stunningly beautiful. Even with the sun, the thousands of limestone islands covering Halong Bay gave it a mystical feel making it seem like a lost place.

We cruised along Halong Bay for a few hours before the junk anchored itself in a clear spot where we could jump off the boat!

Myself and Gemma jumping into our salty fate

Jumping into this salt water abyss was incredibly exhilarating. It was a perfect day for swimming too since it was SO hot out. It was probable one of the hottest days on my trip. Soon enough, our entire group had jumped in except for one girl who was terrified because she just recently learned how to swim. Our group was awesome though and we eventually convinced her to jump and she was so glad she did as it was such a huge fear she wanted to overcome.

Now, one thing I noticed on my trip, and it has something to do with the fact that it is really expensive to fly from Canada to Southeast Asia, was that I rarely encountered other Canadians! By some crazy coincidence though, not only were there about 6 other Canadians on the boat, but most of them went to the university that I currently go to in London, Ontario. Mind-blowing.

Anyway, after swimming we all partnered up and took kayaks to this cool cave. It was fun because so many of us were terrible kayakers. But, for me, the cave wasn’t the cool part. Rather, it was seeing the floating stores where Vietnamese people made their living selling snack, drinks, etc. There are ton of them on Halong Bay, but beware of getting ripped off like so many tourists do.

As we headed back to the boat, the sun started to set. Little did we know, we were in for one crazy night.

The party started with a massive game of King’s Cup for us North Americans, or Ring of Fire to the rest of the world. Basically, it’s a game where everyone sits around a table lined with a circle of cards that are faced down. Everyone takes turns flipping the cards over and for each card there’s a specific rule. I swear, every time I play this game, the rules are slightly different. The rules that our leader gave us were the best and most inventive I have ever played with.

Since there were so many people on board we split up into two tables and kind of played against each other for certain rules, which totally added to the fun.

Here’s how it went…

If we turned over an ace, it was A & B. Basically the person who picked up the card got someone else to cover their eyes while they point to 2 different people and, before uncovering their eyes, they think of an action for them to do. For example, A motorboats B, A gives a lap dance to B, etc.

What about a 2 or a 3? Well, a 2 required our table to yell “F*CK YOU” as loudly as possible to the other table and that table would then have to drink. We had to scream “F*CK ME” if someone picked up a 3 and, in turn, we would have to drink.

If someone picked up a 5 they would have to scream “SHARK ATTACK!” and jump on their chair. Last person to jump on their chair had to drink.

7 was one of my favourites — the Troll card. If someone picked up a 7 they would have to go under the table (like a troll) and they had to stay there until someone else picked up a 7. People also got to “feed the troll” alcohol. It was hilarious.

Poor Steph was troll for the majority of the game

Card number 9 was definitely one of the most surprisingly funniest. It was the Confession card and the person who picked it up had to stand on their chair and confess something. Naturally, most of these were funny (hence, sexual), but some of the ones were just MAD. Like absolutely crazy things that I could never mention here. Let’s just say is has something to do with the Pattaya red light district, hookers, and lady boys. Leader Luke even said that he had never heard such ridiculous stories in his entire Halong Bay career.

After the crazy Pattaya story was told...

The Queen card was my favourite because it was just so stupid and funny — the Transvestite card. If someone pulled a Queen, they had to swap clothes with the person of the opposite sex to their left. By the end of the game, my tank top and jean shorts were half way across the room on some random guy.

Yeah, those are MY clothes! No, I don't know his name!

Steph, Gemma and I in our boy clothes

And the rest of the night was history! Just a massive, drunken dance party on the top deck. Drinking games and a lot of ‘getting-to-know-each-other.’ It was definitely one for the books.

We headed back to Hanoi early the next day. And, it rained. AND, it was still beautiful in the rain. Magical, even.

The Halong Bay Booze Cruise tour was awesome! I definitely recommend going through Hanoi Backpackers because they were really keen on making sure we had a great time. Also, going through Hanoi Backpackers (or any hostel, I would imagine) ensures that you’re with other people your age. Otherwise, you might end up with a group of old people (no offence) who might be annoyed with your drunken antics.

The tour of Halong Bay was one of the highlights of my trip, as it was for many others. If you’re ever in Hanoi, do not pass up this crazy, fun opportunity.

Snake Blood and Bones in Hanoi, Vietnam

21 Jan

Anyone who has seen The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio will remember the scene where he takes a shot of snake blood in Bangkok. However, I don’t remember seeing any offers to try snake blood in Bangkok. Rather, I was generally pointed in the direction of Vietnam where you could easily find snake restaurants.

Particularly, I had heard about the Snake Village tour held by Hanoi Backpackers in Hanoi, Vietnam.

For a bit less than $20, Hanoi Backpackers drives a group of people to Snake Village, which is a restaurant where, you guessed it, they offer the Vietnamese delicacy of snake (bones and all!). Our tour guide was hilarious and awesome.

That's him in the middle!

There’s more to it though and, little did I know, this night would end up being one of the funnest and craziest of my entire trip.

When you first arrive, you get a chance to hold some snakes if you’re brave enough.

Afterward, everyone in your tour group (there were about 10 people in mine) sits down on mats on the floor.

Believe me, if you’re not friends with the people around you at the beginning of the night, you will be by the end!

Everyone was given a bottle of beer for the purpose of chasing down the disgusting shots of whiskey we’d be having between each course.

Excuse the blurriness!

Within each tour group, 2 people who are brave enough get to eat a snake’s beating heart right out of its body! I am far from being a vegetarian and I try not to think about the slaughter of animals when I’m eating them so I volunteered. In fact, after I was the first to do it, almost everyone else wanted to do it. Only two people get to do it for free so everyone pitched in to pay for some more snakes to kill. If you are brave enough, it is SO worth the extra money. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

This next picture is not for the faint at heart!

One thing I didn’t expect though was that I was meant to KILL the snake myself!

My blood was pumping with adrenaline as I got ready to do it. The workers instructed me where to cut the snake with my dagger and I did. Then they showed me where the heart was and I actually had to BITE through the muscle or tendons or whatever was holding the heart in the body to get the heart out. As I swallowed the heart, I could feel it STILL BEATING all the way down my throat. It was CRAZY. Seriously. Such and adrenaline rush. I was shaking afterward.

Click HERE for a video of me participating in this crazy activity.

After everyone killed their snakes and ate their hearts, we all sat down to take shots of snake blood and bile, both of which were mixed with potent rice wine. I found this MUCH more disgusting than the heart.

From what I can remember, there were seven courses.

There was rice cooked in snake fat (YUM!).

There were snake ribs (My personal favourite).

Snake skin (Yuck!), snake steak (Chewy, but good), and snake bones (surprisingly delish!).

Snake skin in the front, steak in the back, and bones on the plate in right with the big spoon on it.

Snake meatballs (So good!).

Snake spring rolls (So delicious!).

If I had to describe what snake meat tasted like, I would probably say that it was most comparable to chicken.

One thing we learned whilst there was that it was customary to do a communal shot of whiskey before each course since snake was something of a delicacy in Vietnam. We also did a ‘cheers’ before each shot in as many languages as we could think of. Not only was the whiskey so incredibly gross, but it was so strong and cheap (resulting in us buying a few more bottles of it). By the end of the night everyone was completely wasted. One girl was passed out before we even left the restaurant! It was hilarious.

Who knows where the night might take you, but if it turns out to be anything like ours, it will be the funnest night ever!

First it took us to the streets where we possibly sang “I’m A Little Teapot”, but who knows?

Posing as a teapot. Do you see it?

Then we drunkenly hit up a random Vietnamese club where we were the only Westerners present! It was SO ridiculous and awesome.

We made a lot of Vietnamese friends.

Then, for some strange reason, we went to a nice sit-down restaurant! This part of the night I have no recollection of. No idea why that was necessary, but it’s hilarious when I think of it now.

Then, we headed back to Hanoi Backpackers where I drunkenly Skype’d with my DAD! Seriously, WHYYY?!

Oh, and did I mention that we had a 9 am flight the next morning?!

So, if you’re ever in Hanoi and are brave enough to try snake, prepare yourself for a potentially drunken, crazy, and unforgettable night!

I think this picture pretty much sums it up!

Packing for Southeast Asia

28 Sep

Last time I went backpacking I packed WAY too much. The six weeks I spent in Peru last summer (2010) was my first real travel experience and I didn’t  know what to expect. I brought things that I didn’t end up using, like my blow dryer and straightener. I even brought high heels, which I never wore once. It really depends on where you’re going and how long you’re going for. If I were going to Paris or London for a month I probably would bring high heels and some more high end clothing. If I were going for six months to a year then I definitely would bring heels and hair appliances.

Not to say that you shouldn’t bring those kinds of items. To each their own. I like to bring my makeup and a lot of people disagree with this decision, but I really don’t care. If I’m more than willing to carry the extra weight then why not?

Sometimes you need to make sacrifices though. I have a huge problem packing light, especially when it comes to clothes. After packing way too much clothes last time and having to throw out a lot of things that I liked, I had to force myself to make good choices when it came to packing for 7 weeks of backpacking around Southeast Asia.

So, here is everything and anything that I brought with me to Southeast Asia.

Note: I decided not to post this until after my trip because then I could tell you what I ended up using or not and what I ended up throwing out. This is my ORIGINAL LIST with descriptions. The words written in red are some comments after the trip was done. So, here’s the list:

Clothes

  • Shorts (4)- Yes, it’s a lot but I get so much use out of all of them.
  • Jeans (1)- This is probably the biggest ‘controversial’ item of clothing in the backpacking world. Yes, it’s going to be hot in SE Asia, but I always get use out of my jeans. If I don’t? Well, they’re an old pair so I can throw them out if need be. If I ever come back to SE Asia these will not be coming with me. Didn’t wear them once!
  • Black leggings (1)- For those possibly not-so-warm nights. Threw out.

  • Tank tops (4)
  • T-shirts (3)- Only needed one.
  • Long sleeve shirt (1)- Surprisingly got use out of this.
  • Nice shirts (3)- These are shirts that I can dress up or wear casually.
  • Hoodie (1) (not pictured)- For those cold A/C bus nights and for a pillow. Tons of use.
  • Cardigans (2) (not pictured)- Didn’t get any use out of these.

  • Bathing suits (2)
  • Underwear (10)- The more underwear the better, I say.
  • Socks (3)- One white, two black
  • Bras (4)- It sucks being a girl. Strapless, black, pink, and sports bra.

Yeah, I know it may seem like a lot of clothes to bring, but I don’t mind carrying the extra weight and, plus, it all fits into these little netted bags easily which makes them much more compact. These bags were my saviour.

Footwear

  • Running shoes- Didn’t use.
  • Flip flops for shower
  • Sturdy sandals (2)

Headwear

  • The Green Sombrero (obviously)
  • Straw fedora
  • Sunglasses
  • Bandana

Electronics

  • HP Mini Netbook (and case and charger)- Best thing I brought.
  • SD memory cards (3 x 2 GB)
  • Canon Powershot (and case and charger)- Lost it’s life in Vang Vieng, Laos. Bought new, crappy, waterproof Olympus in Hanoi, Vietnam. The Olympus Tough is CRAP, by the way. The waterproof-ness was handy, but the quality of the photos was terrible.
  • iPod touch (and charger and headphones)
  • Plug adapter for SE Asia
  • Old phone for alarm (and charger)
  • USB drive (2)
  • Headlamp- SO much use!

Toiletries

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Razor
  • Soap
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo/conditioner
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen- If you need a lot like I did, bring a couple bottles because sunscreen is bloody expensive in Asia.
  • Make-up
  • Body spray (for the days I have to go without showering)
  • Brush and comb- Brush broke half way in. Had that brush for 7+ years. R.I.P.
  • Bobby pins/hair ties
  • Tweezers
  • Nail clippers
  • Band-Aids- Probably went through 100+ Band-Aids.
  • Tylenol

Other

  • Journal and pens
  • Guidebook (not pictured)/phrasebook- Didn’t need the phrasebook. Knowing how to say hello, thank you and maybe a few hand gestures can easily get you through SE Asia.
  • Books (2)- So I can exchange at a book exchange- Man, do I love book exchanges.
  • Money belt- Never used this for some reason. Guess I’m a little too trusting.
  • Travel pillowcase
  • Travel towel
  • Padlock (Not pictured)
  • Gum- Can’t live without it!- Ran out 😦
  • Toilet paper- I’m sure this will be my saviour- It was.
  • Passport, insurance info and contact info- Thank God for getting travel insurance because I broke a foot bone and needed a cast!
  • Passport photos for various visas- Most places ask for 2 photos but you only need one.
  • MONEY, debit card and credit card

Bags

  • Day bag
  • Dry sack- Came in handy.
  • Shoulder bag

And everything fits into my backpack perfectly!- By the end of my trip, with souvenirs and such, my pack was overly full, especially with clothes being so cheap in SE Asia.

Once again, I wish I brought less clothes. One day I’ll learn.

And there you have it. Agree or disagree with anything?

One of the most exciting things about travel is…

31 May

…booking a flight!!!

I am excited to announce that I just booked a flight to Bangkok, Thailand!

I will be leaving YYZ (Toronto Pearson Int’l Airport) in the morning of July 17th and I will be arriving at BKK at around 11 pm on the 18th.

I’ve been planning for months, but it really just doesn’t seem completely real until it’s official.

Well, it’s official!

There’s no going back now.

I will be backpacking around Southeast Asia from July 18th to September 5th.

I am REALLY on a budget. But, this time, instead of going solo, at least half of my time there I will be traveling with a friend and we will help each other stick to our budget.

I’ve done a lot of researching and thinking about this trip and it will mostly be spent in Thailand — Bankok, Chiang Mai, Ko Pha Ngan, Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Koh Lanta hopefully. However, I will also be heading to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in Laos, Hanoi in Vietnam, Siem Reap and (maybe) Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and possibly Bali. If I don’t go to Bali, then I will keep Kuala Lumpur and Penang in Malaysia as well as Singapore in my mind.

BUT, as we all know, it’s VERY hard to stick to a strict schedule as a backpacker. My original itinerary for Peru turned out to be completely different. I ended up in Bolivia! So, although I have a basic idea of where I want to go and how long I will spend in each place, the only days that I am sure of where I’ll be are Bangkok on my arrival and departure date and Ko Pha Ngan on August 14th for the Full Moon Party.

I’m excited to bathe and feed elephants in Chiang Mai, to eat crickets and drink Thai buckets on Khao San Road, to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat, to cruise Halong Bay in Vietnam, to drink snake blood (and maybe even eat the still beating heart), to party until the sun rises in Ko Pha Ngan, to go tubing in Vang Vieng, and most importantly, to soak up the culture as best as I can in the short amount of time I have there and create memories to last a lifetime.

Other than that, who knows where this trip will take me. I’m excited, I’m ready, and I hope SE Asia is ready for us!

Meet my partner in crime, Ashley.