Dan Opens!

March 24, 2018
by Christina

In the honor of unboxing videos that Dan loves so much, I am happy to announce the launch of the YouTube Channel: Dan Opens!

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This channel is dedicated exclusively to videos of Dan opening (and consuming) the new and unfamiliar drinks and snacks that we find on our travels. Fermented yogurt drinks, spicy lobster potato chips, brined quail eggs, mysterious green drink, and more! Join Dan for the unknown, tasty, and gross on Dan Opens!

Note: Dan wishes to state that he is in full protest of this announcement as he is embarrassed at the idea of anyone other than internet strangers watching his videos. 

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Island Thailand Edition: Phuket(aboutit) and Koh Phangan

March 23, 2018
by Christina

Rather than the long multi-stop bus ride to get to Phuket from Luang Prabang, we opted to splurge and fly instead. We took a tuk tuk to Luang Prabang airport, which is small but very modern. From there our Air Asia flight took us to Bangkok with a short layover, then to Phuket.

Only we had already discovered a problem with our plan: getting around Phuket is really expensive. Not American-traveling-with-an-income-expensive, sure, but by local standards it’s loco. For ~400 Thai Bhat (THB), you can take an overnight bus hundreds of kilometers, for example from Phuket to Bangkok. That same 400 THB will get you 5 whole kilometers in a taxi on Phuket.

Since we arrived after the public bus had stopped running for the night (an option which is much more reasonably priced than taxi), we stayed at Room Hostel @ Phuket Airport, a short walk from the airport. Room Hostel was perfectly acceptable, and the $26 USD room was cheaper than the taxi ride to Chalong Bay where we were planning to stay a few days.

In the morning we walked back to the airport and caught the bus to Phuket Town for 100 THB. We were dropped off at Bus Terminal 1 and walked to the market about 1.5 km away where the local buses stop. They’re not really buses, they’re trucks with a roofed bed and benches, but they act like buses and they’re called “songthaew”. From there it was another 30 THB ride to get to Chalong Bay where we had a reservation at Phuket Marine Poshtel.

On the walk over I also took the opportunity to stop at one of the food carts and get a delicious Thai iced tea for 20 THB, not bad! They also have an interesting minimalist bag that they give you for the drinks, which I’ve seen a lot of places.

Except for being in a not-very-happening part of the island, Phuket Marine Poshtel was pretty nice. New and clean, with a sweet AstroTurf-ed roof where I could do yoga and practice my handstands. They also had free coffee in the lobby all day, real brewed stuff, not instant. The free “breakfast” however, was a total joke: toast with butter/jam and fruit punch in several flavors. Beds were comfy though, and overall it was a good stay.

Unfortunately for everyone, there were two guys in our dorm that go violently ill from food poisoning. They were both in Thailand to train Muay Thai, and so it was really bad luck. They basically rotated barfing in the en suite bathroom for a while.

The next day we went to see Karon Beach on the other side of the island. Catching a songthaew at the traffic circle, we got there very easily. It was baking hot, and the sand was scalding, but the water was really lovely.

In general, Phuket was just too touristy for us, and definitely the first time we’ve decided to bail on a destination because we didn’t really like it. My feelings are best expressed in punny meme form.

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However, we weren’t prepared to give up on our Thailand Island dream, so after doing a little research we decided to bail on Phuket and head to Koh Phangan.

So after two nights in the Poshtel, we caught a songthaew back to Phuket Town from Chalong Pier. The stop was a little confusing to find, and there were lots of taxis assuring us the songthaew would take forever to arrive, but we found the sign marking the stop and it showed up shortly. For reference, the songthaews are this bright blue and yellow in color, and pretty easy to spot.

On the walk back to the bus terminal in Phuket town, we discovered this fascinating double-trouble beverage, and while we were there, we asked about the little table with a presentation of food out front. We were told it’s for “ghosts,” and we saw it a lot of places around the island.

I also picked up some fried tofu, which came in a bag with a stick and spicy sauce. There’s a lot of food that we’ve seen that gets served in this general format.

Back at the terminal we booked a bus ticket to Surat Thani for 200 THB per person. It was actually a min-bus, and it dropped us off at the dock in Surat Thani, where we could catch the overnight ferry to Koh Phangan. We arrived with several hours to spare, so we hit an ATM and got some food at the street vendors by the dock.

It was our first whack at proper street food in Thailand. Dan and I did, with absolute relish everything you are advised not to do. We got a papaya salad: all raw vegetables. We got seafood dishes (hello squid Pad Thai!). And we got peeled fruit (Salacca or snake fruit, which Dan had just read about but we just bought by coincedence because it was a mystery fruit. Exciting!). Not even the fresh memory of our dorm mates violently barfing their insides out could slow us down. As we sat across the table from each other, Dan looked at me and said to me “this is what we’ve been training for.”

And I am happy to say, a week later, that we seem to have suffered no ill effects.

The night ferry was actually pretty uneventful. The passenger compartment is comprised of two rows of narrow mattresses, with life vests stuffed in pillow cases for headrests. No privacy or dividers. Could be a recipe for disaster, but even the pack of bros who had been drinking settled in to sleep, and all was very quiet.

We arrived in Koh Phangan before dawn, and since no one kicked us off the boat, we just slept in, which was pretty nice. Most people left, so it was just us and a family of three, two adults and a very well behaved toddler. Since our hostel wouldn’t be ready to check us in until later, we opted to take advantage of the sleeping space, and the boat crew let us.

Around 9 am or so we hopped off the boat at Thong Sala Pier and wandered into town to get some breakfast. Dan ordered a dish neither of us recognized called Yen Ta Fo, which came out PINK. PINK food people, it’s a thing! The broth had a light sweet edge to it, and Dan was a fan.

Fed, we began to debate how to get to our accommodation in Haad Rin. We had been quoted 150 for songthaew per person to get to Haad Rin, but motorbike rentals could be had for 200 per day for multiple days. However, a common practice is requesting a passport as collateral for the bike. For the more disreputable establishments this can mean your passport being held hostage to force you pay exorbitant amounts for repair of damages you may not even be responsible for. That, plus the general dangerous nature of motorbikes dissuaded us from this course of action.

That’s when we went ahead and made a mistake: we decided to rent bicycles to get to Haad Rin. It was 300 per bike for the 4 days we had planned, so that was the same as the cost we thought to expect for round trip songthaew. Same cost, but then we have free transit around town, and we get to ride bikes! It was only 12 km to get to Haad Rin, not a big deal. Sure, yeah, we’ve got our huge backpacks (mine is 16 kg), but we’re strapping young folk, it’ll be fine.

The guy who rented us the bikes said there was a big hill to get to Haad Rin. Okay, we can handle a hill. Little did we know, this was like the moment in the horror movie when the protagonist decides to go stay at the haunted isolated cabin in the woods, an obviously bad decision only in hindsight as they perish.

Okay, it’s wasn’t that bad. But a little melodrama is good for the story.

We were lulled into a false sense of security as the first half of the trip is pretty flat. But then we hit the hill. Then another hill. And then another. They increased in severity too. I had to get off my bike and walk up the second one. It was easily a 45 degree angle or more. Dan is stronger and more bicycle-abled than me, and even he was forced to walk. Not because he lacked the strength, but because with his backpack on, the hills were so steep the front wheel of the bicycle was coming off the pavement due to the imbalance.

What would have taken 20 minutes in a songthaew took us 1.5 hours, but we made it to Haad Rin alive and reasonably well humored, but very tired. We headed through town and went to find Ocean Phangan Homestay where we had our reservation. It was a little off the beaten path, something we wanted with the party-reputation Haad Rin has (obligatory statement regarding the Full Moon parties that Koh Phangan is famous for). And there was another hill. There was lots of cursing going up this last one, but we made it, and finally arrived at Ocean.

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Ocean Phangan Homestay is a bunch of bungalows set on the hillside overlooking the sea. It’s green and tropical with flowers, and our cabin at high ceilings, huge bay windows with a partial ocean view, and a deck with a hammock. It was beautiful. I was so thankful, because if I had hated it, after the torture we had just put ourselves through I might have thrown an actual tantrum.

We had originally planned to stay in Haad Rin four nights, but I was so enamored with Ocean, that we extended our stay to six nights total. A week during which we largely just relaxed, took in the tropical atmosphere, enjoyed the water, and ate Thai food. Not that there weren’t a few downsides, namely a thriving ant population and a pack of roosters that saw fit to crow most hours of the day, but after the first night I just mostly slept through the bird calls.

Walking down the steps from our cabin one arrives not at a beach, but a rocky shoreline. However, its excellent for swimming (if you’re a confident swimmer), with the water getting deep quickly, and a line of buoys roping off the general area to keep out boat and jet skis from nearby Haad Rin beach. The deep water was cool and very pleasant in the hot weather.

On the other side of the mountain is Leela Beach, which was one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. White sand, palm trees, the turquoise water, the whole nine yards. It was also pretty unpopulated the days we went. However, I didn’t like the water as well as on the rocky side. The water stays shallow for ages, which means it’s quite warm and not as refreshing in the heat, and the first things I encountered in the water were two glass beer bottles and the rubber sole of a disintegrated shoe, which I marched right out with and plopped in a trash can.

Interestingly though, there were tons of black sea cucumbers hanging out at Leela Beach. They were about a foot or more long, and the thickness of a wrist. Dan and I weren’t sure if they were animal or vegetable initially, and poked a them gently, finding them slippery and spongy. We hunted them down online later and found that if you piss them off, they emit a toxin than can cause blindness if you get it in your eyes. So, good thing we were only poking gently!

What Leela beach was perfect for was a ring work out though. Ring workouts on the beach with a beautiful view, including sand to practice handstands on, then a quick dip after when I’m all sweating is where it is at! I went down one evening about an hour before sunset and had a lovely workout followed by a dip as the sun went down. It doesn’t get much better than that. Oh, but then I had to climb that stupid hill after doing one legged squats. The prices we pay for the things we love…

As to food, Haad Rin isn’t where you go specifically looking for Thai food, but we found some stuff we liked. The two best restaurants we found in town were Ladino and Tukta Thai. They both had Thai Food offerings for 50 to 80 THB and were pretty tasty stuff. Tukta especially had generous serving sizes and very good noodles, and was our favorite place overall.

A little more expensive, but much more accessible (read: did not require going down the hill into town) was the restaurant at Amarsea a short walk up the road from Ocean. The servings sizes are on the smaller side, but their Vegetables and Salt Fish dish was really good, and the green mango shake was too.

The Rock should also get an honorable mention. It was priced reasonably and the masaman curry and green curry that we got there was pretty good.

I’m not entirely sure of the relationship between Amarsea and Ocean, but they collaborate a lot, and may be owned by the same family. I know one of the teenage girls that I saw hanging out at Ocean was also over at Amarsea another time when I went to pick up food.

Back on Phuket when we had been researching alternate island options, Dan had come across Koh Phi Phi as being famous because it is where The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed back in 2000. While we didn’t opt to visit Koh Phi Phi (it seemed too developed), we did decide to watch the The Beach while we were staying on Koh Phangan since we had never seen it before, and it looked hilariously awful (it is).

Well, the second Leo opens up the fateful map that leads him to the secret beach… we realized we were on that map. While the Beach was filmed on Koh Phi Phi, the fictional location of the eponymous beach was in the An Thong National Park archipelago. Which we had been thiiiiiiiis close to visiting, but opted not to because the only way to get there was with an expensive and crowded cruise. Irony? Nah.

But also, that movie involves multiple shark attacks and the next day as I was swimming alone in deep water, I was questioning my choices. Especially after that time in 2011 with the tiger shark in Jamaica… Yeah, I was there, in the water. But that’s a story for another time…

At any rate, to avoid the hilly ride back with the bikes and because we decided to stay longer, I took the bikes back to Thong Sala in a songthaew, and picked up some fruits and snacks at the market there before returning to Haad Rin. I got a beverage that was made from fermented salak fruit, which was absolutely delicious. Sweet, but with a tart fermented edge, it was very refreshing on a hot day.

I also went for a haircut. I was nervous after the disasters I had in India, but this lady knew her stuff. She appreciated the concept of a fade, and that’s what I appreciates about her. Her asking price was 200 THB, but she accepted my counter offer of 150 amicably, and she knew enough English to make the haircut an easy success. Her place was a little out of the way, but the other more central places started with 300 THB as their opening offers.

A little boring, but we didn’t really take part of the party culture down in Haad Rin. I did wander down on the beach one day to see what all the fuss was about, and while it was pretty, there was lots of broken glass on the beach, with jet skis and boats floating in the water alongside the swimming area. It wasn’t crowded since we weren’t there near a Full Moon party, but there were a lot more people than at Leela, and it’s completely lined with bars and resorts. I didn’t feel like I was missing much.

Our final conclusion about Koh Phangan was that it was still a little touristy for our taste, but that it was absolutely beautiful. Any island is going to be more expensive than the mainland, and though Koh Phangan was less extreme than Phuket, it wasn’t an exception to this rule. I would go back to enjoy the scenery and the water, but the lack of cheap street food was a deal-killer for Dan.

So after a week in Thailand Island Paradise, it was time for a change of pace… and we packed up and hit the road for Bangkok… Gateway to Southeast Asia… where the hungry go to feed…

leosnake

 

Luang Prabang, Laos: a palace, a waterfall, noodles & pumping iron

March 19, 2018
by Dan (& Christina)
Laos has been an interesting experience. I was pretty excited to visit Laos because I knew very little about the country and there really isn’t much written about tourism here. So I had a small list of expectations. Even still most of these expectations turned out to be wrong.

There are only a few cities typically recommended to visit in Laos, mostly in the north. Most people say there isn’t much to see in Vientiane besides the Golden Stupa. Then there is Vang Vieng, the previous party capital of Laos. That’s not really what we were looking for right now but in general it sounds like that scene is more a thing of the past anyway. So the top remaining destination in Laos was Luang Prabang. Known for its temples and Buddhist monks. It sounded like the perfect Laotian experience.

So we took the bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. Based on reading, one of my expectations for Laos was that it was going to be very underdeveloped compared to neighboring countries in terms of infrastructure, economy, and tourism. This expectation was quickly dissolved during our ride through the country and initial arrival in Luang Prabang. The roads were in relatively good condition and even the small villages we passed through were much fancier than I expected. We had cell coverage throughout the trip that was comparable or even better than taking a trip through rural Iowa.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang at midnight and started wandering around a small residential neighborhood looking for a guesthouse, we were very surprised at how fancy this city was. Wide streets, sidewalks, lawns, and no trash. It felt like we were in some Southern California suburb.

Although this was one of the few top tourist destinations in the country, as of a year or two ago the internet was still calling Luang Prabang relatively untouched by tourism. Based on that I really didn’t expect to see many tourists and I’d never heard of anyone from my friend set visiting Laos before. Whether or not Luang Prabang was undiscovered a year or so ago, it certainly has been found. At least in the city center it’s all tourism.

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Interestingly enough, even though there are tourists wandering all over, there isn’t actually a whole lot to do or see in the city. To be fair that is part of the appeal, it’s a decent place to just hang out and not feel pressured by doing tourist things all the time. So despite our laziness, we ended up hitting most of the highlights over the course of a week.

First up was the climbing of Mount Phousi in the center of town. It’s an easy climb and the hill houses various Buddhist temples and statues on it. At the top is a nice view of the surrounding area, including the Mekong River. Unfortunately during March there are lots of agricultural fires and the view is a bit hazy. Still worth the trip up and the 20,000 Kip entrance fee.

Next up was the National Palace Museum and Wat. This was probably our most Laotian cultural experience while here and really well worthwhile. The wat next to the palace is free to peer into. I loved the architecture and the amazing vibrant and pristine paint job. Plus the place is covered in dragons. I think dragons would make every building better.

The National Palace Museum requires an entry fee of 30,000 Kip. It’s a government building, not religious but they are quite strict about dress code. There was a women ahead of us in line that was scolded by the ticket lady for having a small hole in her jeans that she was required to cover, but also it seemed like they let a lot of people into the museum wearing short shorts. It all seemed randomly enforced. But we came prepared and covered up so after getting our ticket stamped… and then hole punched… and then scanned, we were finally allowed into the museum. And not allowed to take pictures.

I didn’t find most of the museum too terribly interesting, but the throne room was absolutely epic. It was my favorite part. It’s a huge room covered in colored mirror mosaics depicting Laotian legends and battles. But yeah, no photos allowed, sorry. Christina definitely would have had a field day in here with the camera. Wandering around the throne room was just a blast looking at the pictorial stories full of elvish looking heroes with long ears, pointy toes and auras over their heads. We finished up the museum and only later did I realize that our tickets also got us entry to the royal classic car collection which we missed unfortunately.

Also popular with the tourists is the night market, where foreigners can buy things that I don’t think are particularly Laotian other than that they are sold in this market. I don’t get consumerism as a tourist attraction, which seems to make me anomalous. A market of bootlegs where locals and tourists alike can shop sure, that sounds like a blast to me. But I don’t get why you would buy loose fitting elephant pants here versus just getting the exact same thing on amazon.com for not much more money. There was some nifty metal work and indigo dyed products, but overall this seemed a bit over hyped or at least not something that suited my tastes.

However, Christina found something called a ‘sinh‘ which is a sort of Loatian wrap skirt. It’s loop of fabric with one seam that gets folded over and then rolled. She was loaned one to cover up for a Thai massage and once she knew what it was and told me about it, we started seeing them everywhere! In fact, at the airport on the way out of town it seemed like the female uniforms for the airport employees all included sinh.

The last tourist attraction that we hit up was the Kuang Si waterfall. It’s a bit of a trek out of the city to get there so we rented a motorbike to make the 20 km journey. We got a semi-automatic bike since it was the cheapest option available. I had never heard of such a thing. A semi-automatic bike requires shifting, but there is no clutch so all you have to do is ease off of the gas to shift. We got a late start and arrived to the falls around 2:30 pm.

The fall and pools are gorgeous. Full of tourists, but I wouldn’t say overrun. It was still easy enough get nice views without too much crowding. There are main falls followed by a cascade of small turquoise blue pools. Swimming is allowed in some of the pools. The water was a bit chilly, but perfect after the sweaty motorbike ride. Unfortunately we missed out swimming at the middle swimming hole which had a jumping ledge that looked like a lot of fun.

And of course: Loatian food! As always this was the most exciting prospect for me. I had very little knowledge about Laotian food so I was super excited to see what there was to offer. I expected it to be a bit of a mashup between Vietnamese and Thai food. We have eaten at a Laotian place in DC and that’s a pretty fair assessment with the addition of the food often featuring sour tastes. At this particular restaurant in DC there is also an ‘adventurous’ part of the menu. Of course Christina ordered pig ear from there. I am not a fan of pig ear. Anyway that’s basically what colored my expectations. I was expecting sour and some weird ingredients that I may not necessarily be comfortable eating.

This didn’t turn out to be the case, and we found it a bit difficult to hunt down distinctly Laos foods. This could be due to several factors. The first and most probable is that we were in a super touristy area, so there there lots of restaurants serving spaghetti and hamburgers. This is baffling to me, especially here. I would have imagined that the Venn diagram between of people that could find Laos on a map and people that would eat a hamburger while visiting Laos would include very little overlap. But Luang Prabang proved otherwise.

My favorite and probably the most emblematic dish of Northern Laos is Khao Soi. This dish has variations that are popular in Northern Thailand and Myanmar as well, but Laos Khao Soi is it’s own dish. It’s a bit like pho, typically served with minced pork. The broth has strong contributions of tomato and ginger which gave it the sour taste that I was expecting. I really enjoyed it. It was probably my favorite dish here and possibly one of my top noodle dishes.

There isn’t much in the way of street food here, but we did manage to find a few favorite snack items. First was the marinated and grilled sticky rice. I was mostly intrigued by the mechanics of it all (how do they put it on a stick?), but it’s delicious as well.

Next was a single vendor of little wraps. They were made with leaves of lettuce, cabbage, or some mystery leaf, and filled with rice noodles, grilled eggplant or ground sticky rice, and a side of dried chilies for extra spice. I’m not sure what they are called, but they were delicious and cheap (10 rolls for 5000 Kip, less than $1 USD). These were Christina’s absolute favorite and we went back multiple times.

We also found that we preferred the banh mi (or whatever the sandwich is called in Laos) to what we found available in Hanoi. I was pretty surprised by this but delighted all the same.

Other notable mentions were things grilled on sticks and things mixed up in a bowl. It was a common theme where you would make your selection of a bunch of random items and the restaurant would grill it or mix it up for you. We had not clue what we ordered for most of these experiences. One time we ended up with a bunch of different cuts of fish cakes. It was a fun adventure.

One of Christina’s favorite dishes was simple purple sticky rice. It wasn’t sweet or savory, just sticky. It was rolled up and used like bread to soak up sauces. And then there was the seaweed snack with ginger, garlic and tomato baked in. Not really our favorite thing but distinct for sure. There were also sweet coconut cakes served in banana leaves that were a very nice snack while walking through the night market. And spicy (so spicy) papaya salad (tum mak hoong) that we got at a roadside stand on the way to the water falls.

Our favorite activities though was going out for coffee. Laos coffee is pretty similar to Thai and Vietnamese. It’s a strong coffee with lots of sweetened condensed milk. But important to note that one of Laos main industries is coffee so we are close to the source for whatever that’s worth.

The first place we stopped at for coffee became our go to for Laotian coffee. It was a food stall called Taxi Pizza. We stopped on a whim because we were kind of tired and the price listed on the sandwich board wasn’t outrageous. We order a coffee and tea and the women started preparing a normal sized looking drinks. Then she proceeded to fill up a big bag with ice and mix the concentrated coffee and a bunch of extra milk into the bag. She tied it up with a rubber band, and put it into an insulating paper bag, inside a plastic carrying bag. To drink it, you stab the beverage bag with a straw. It was a great process to watch and way more delicious beverage than I was expecting. Turned out to be a fantastic deal.

All in all our week in Laos was an interesting experience, but totally not what I was expecting. I try not to be a traveler that says a place is too touristy because I see other white people around. If a place is cool, I expect other people visit there also. I totally understand a place taking advantage of this and becoming touristy in the sense of making money off the experience. But Luang Prabang does seem to have been negatively affected by tourism. The touristic area feels a bit bland and ‘cashing in on tourism’ seems to have been done by westernizing a lot of things (oh but just wait until our Phuket post, future Dan is laughing at the naivety of this paragraph). From the food to the market, it feels like Luang Prabang may have lost some of what first started to bring people here. For myself, I think that just passing through for a couple days would be sufficient. If I were to come to Laos again I would probably try to find some villages off the beaten path to get a better feel for Laotian culture.

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Christina’s Fitness Interlude!
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While we were walking around Luang Prabang, we discovered something that I hadn’t seen in a long time: a gym with free weights! Barbells no less! The place is called Mr. Big Muscle and it’s located right next to Aham Backpackers Hostel. It’s small, but it’s got some good stuff, and it only costs 15,000 Kip, which is a little less than $2. I made it out twice to lift, the first time in the evening, when it was full of foreigners, and the second time on an afternoon with a handful of locals working out.

There are a bunch of signs posted that say “No Olumpic Lifting,” which I assume means that someone did an over-the-head oly lift and bailed the only-rubber-coated plates on the tile floor at some point. Manners!

The tile floor is evidently a common East Asian fixture in gyms, as well as this interesting style of art…

I also made it out for a run. Laos is hot, but not humid, and running in the evening was quite pleasant. I made a loop in and outside of the touristy area, and beyond the downtown area it wasn’t particularly well lit, so bringing my headlamp was a good choice. I also felt very safe despite running out in the dark, and the people I came across didn’t seem particularly surprised to see someone out running. I also came across another gym, presumably mostly for locals, though I didn’t stop to ask about the fee structure. But it’s there, and it’s called Tigo Gym.

 

The dreaded night bus from Hanoi to Luang Prabang

March 19, 2018
by Dan
‘We needed to get from Hanoi to Laos and the top recommended destination for Laos is Luang Prabang. Not having any strong opinions of our own, we decided to take that recommendation. The only issue was how to get there. Everything I read said to skip the bus and just fly. But flying is so expensive, at least relative to the bus. In this case three times more expensive that the bus. As seasoned long distance bus travelers, we figured how bad could it be? Is it truly the bus ride from hell?
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I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never actually seen this movie even though I love LDP and owned the DVD for the longest time. I still know it’s the best even though it’s only rated 6.66/10 on imbd.com

The answer is no, but kinda yes. There were no demons or fiery pits to speak of. But it was pretty long and uncomfortable. I want to share my experience for the sake of future travelers. There was precious little detail about how to book the bus and my impression is that things are generally improving for this route, so some updated information will be useful. I have the general account of the journey followed by specific recommendations for how I would do it if I find myself taking the same journey in the future.
First off, I was very frustrated that I couldn’t find information about how to book the tickets for myself. We had to go through a tourist agency so I know we paid more than necessary. The ‘bonus’ we got for booking with a tour agency is that they will pick you up from your hotel in Old Quarter Hanoi and take you to the bus station. This turned out to be one of the most stressful part of the journey and so booking directly would not only have saved us money, but made for an overall better journey.
Our experience entailed being ‘picked up’ by a guy on a moped. He was late. We had to follow him on foot with our bags as he drove ahead through the streets. He would wait for us at each turn. It felt very much like a video game, but was not a pleasant experience. We didn’t walk too far and then we just waited at this main street as he made a dizzying array of phone calls, then told us to wait there… as he took off. After about 30 minutes of standing around, I got on the wifi at a cafe across the street and called the tour agency. They told us to keep waiting. Eventually he returned at 6 pm, which is when we were told the bus was supposed to depart. He was followed shortly by a bus full of other foreigners. We all crammed in and off we went to the bus station finally. I wasn’t especially surprised by this mess of a situation based on some other accounts that I read online.
The journey to the bus station was full of the other travelers recounting what they had read about this bus. Mostly this was stories of the road being so bumpy and windy that all the passengers were vomiting and it was just the worst ever. This route does not have a good reputation.
Finally we arrive at the bus station and the van driver has no clue where to drop us off. Because just a taxi driver hired by the tour agency, not actually from the tour or bus agency. Inspires confidence doesn’t it? It finally gets sorted out and we walk off to the bus. We’re late. In fact we are the last people to show up. Due to this Christina and I almost ended up being crammed in the aisle. It’s not so bad since you have to take your shoes off when entering the bus and the aisles are padded. But you don’t have room for any stuff you bring on the bus and there will be people walking over top of you all the time. At this point I decided that there is absolutely no benefit to booking through a tour agency.
After some fussing with the driver about all the empty seats at the front of the bus that were full or blankets, or “for the driver,” we finally got a pair of seats next to each other. Unfortunately this involved some shuffling of Vietnamese passengers. I felt really bad about this, but the folks behind me said that those passengers were explicitly told not to take those seats when they got on. Maybe because we paid more, we were supposed to get those seats. I don’t know, but I still felt bad about that for most of the journey. The same thing would happen in Peru, but it was just that foreigners got the better seats even if they paid the same amount. It’s a hard situation to gauge when you don’t speak the language though and I was happy to get seats so I didn’t put up too much of a fight.
Off the bus goes. I don’t actually think we were that late based on a bus schedule that I found online later, but it was well after 6:30 pm. The seats were super small. Basically they were permanently reclined at around 160 degrees, couldn’t sit all the way up, couldn’t lie all the way down, and there was a foot well large enough for someone about 5 feet tall. I think it would be comfortable if you were a child. Even the smaller Vietnamese passengers didn’t look super comfortable. But it was good enough for me to sleep. There were blankets and the a/c kept the bus at a nice cool temperature to for sleeping, but not frigid like in Central America. Still I longed for the Indian style sleeper buses where you could lay flat and stretch out.
The journey from Hanoi was a bit surprising. We went straight south before heading West to Laos. I’m not sure it was the most direct route, but maybe it’s the best. Alternatively it may have been so that the bus could make its frequent stops to pick up cargo for some extra cash. That was a bit frustrating and made the journey take much longer than necessary.
There were also relatively frequent bathrooms stops, which everyone appreciated. The first stop though only the men were allowed off. Christina tried to exit but was denied even after a bunch of arguing. She was told to wait 1 km. It was more like 30 km, but there was finally another stop when everyone was allowed off the bus. We learned that ‘1km 1km’ was something that we would hear frequently and it meant ‘I hear you, and we’ll stop in a bit.’
I slept decently well for the tight quarters and woke up around 6:30 for our arrival at the Vietnam/Laos Nam Khan border. We arrived before the border opened. Which is apparently quite normal. Basically the extra package pickups didn’t matter too much since arriving earlier wouldn’t have made a difference. But we could have left a bit later. Oh well. The border situation was an exercise in frustration though.
Along with packages we also kept picking up more passengers who did get stuffed into the aisles. It was quite the sardine can.
At the Vietnamese side we entered as a big group at 7 am when the office opened. Our pack of foreigners quickly found out that we needed to be pretty aggressive with Vietnamese travelers cutting line. It wasn’t just a cultural thing like in India. It was specifically people cutting in front of the foreigners. Tapping people on the shoulders of the offenders didn’t work. We found that we had to physically block people from cutting, or my technique, just look for an opening and cut in front of them. There was a guard up front that would, every once in a while, catch people and send them to the back of the line.
I didn’t have any trouble with the Vietnamese side, but the officials didn’t believe that Christina was who she said she was, and withheld her passport for a few moments, while asking what her birthday was… because she got a haircut. She has long hair in her passport photo, and obviously not any more. They looked right past her when they called her name, even though she was the closest and only white person standing nearby, and then disbelieving looked back and forth between her and her passport several times. She suspects they assumed she was a man initially. This sort of gender confusion happens to her a lot with her height and short hair.
Then it was a short walk over to the Laotian immigration and customs.
Loatian immigration… 😦
We were sent to the “visa on arrival” office which is tucked away behind the counters for passport stamps. Every single foreigner was quoted a false price on the visa. At first we were individually thinking that we read the wrong information, but after enough confusion we banded together to figure out what was going on.
The cost of the visa for a US citizen is $35. The visa official was charging 350,000 Kip which is $42. That’s the maximum quoted visa fee for any nationality, which includes Canadians, one of whom we had with us. So maybe I read it wrong? Nope the Canadian was told to pay 420,000 kip, approximately $50. The immigration playing numbers games and it was decidedly the wrong price that we were paying.
I had mobile data service so I was able to confirm the real prices. When confronted with this information, he pointed to a sign that said it was illegal to pay in USD and that he was doing us a favor. Keep in mind, everything online quotes the visa prices in USD so everyone specifically brought USD to pay the visa fee. Even if he had gone out to the border and changed our money he would have still made us pay 350,000 kip, which is the wrong price.
On top of this we were all charged a $4 fee for tourism or overtime. I had read about these unofficial fees ahead of time and I was ready for it so that didn’t bother me. But the fake cost of the visa really pissed off everyone. In the end we all paid because there is only so much you can do at a border. Fortunately, despite all the horror stories of this sort of thing at Latin American borders, this was the only true scam we have encountered so far. It really soured our entry into the country.
All the foreigners arrived back at the bus as the last passengers to return. We luckily got our original seats back and hit the road. Now this was the point where I was expecting the ‘vomiting’ to start. I had read that Laotian roads are very bumpy and windy. But I found it to be perfectly pleasant. The driver took the turns at reasonable speed (i.e. very slow, roughly 15 km/hour) and all the roads were paved. Not in great condition, but it was far smoother than what I was used to from India and S. America. My body didn’t leave contact with the seat once during the whole journey. I call that downright posh.
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Also at this point I was worried that we were going to be hungry. I had read that the bus will maybe, at best, make one food stop. That already happened at night in Vietnam and we didn’t buy any food because we came prepared and ate snacks. And the journey according to google maps was already shaping up to be longer than expected. I was worried that our huge amount of snacks wasn’t going to be enough. But we were fortunate to make at least another food stop. The food wasn’t plentiful or great but we were able to re-up on snacks and things weren’t so dire.
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It was also notable at this time that my perception of Laos was shaping up to be quite wrong. The main thing that I had read about Laos was that it was quite poor and underdeveloped compared to its neighbors. But everywhere we stopped seemed very nice with wide roads, sidewalks and big houses. We were able to find an ATM during a stop in some small town to get Kip for buying things on the road. It felt unexpected based on what I had read.
In the afternoon around 5 pm (the original quoted time for our arrival) I started seriously tracking the progress of the bus. We weren’t making good time with the slow driving and the frequent stops to load or unload cargo. The guy behind me said we were traveling an average of 10 mph. I would have rather been on a bike.
Well into the evening, the bus made a brief stop for what I thought was going to be dinner. Actually there was a crash up ahead on the road that we needed to wait to be cleared up. We were fortunate though that it was cleared up quickly and super fortunate that were was a nice Laotian family that was feeding passengers rice porridge cooked in banana leaves. We thought it was a food stall, but it was just a kind family that decided to feed the travelers stopping by. Very kind people. Khorp Jai!
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Finally we arrived at Luang Prabang at around midnight. I had read that if you show up too late, then you will spend another night on the bus until the tuk tuks arrive in the morning. In preparation for this we hadn’t booked any place to stay in advance, but just had a rough idea of where the hostels were. Lodging is expensive in Luang Prabang and I was tired already so I actually was kind of hoping to stay on the bus despite being uncomfortable. I was dreading finding a place to stay past midnight. But there were tuk-tuks at the station and seven of us piled in paying 20,000 kip each. It was costly for the area, but it seems like the going rate for transit from the bus station.
We arrived in a shockingly lush suburban enclave that looked like somewhere in Southern California where I knew we could find some lodging. The first option was all full but we quickly found a private room at Global Guesthouse for $21. Way more than we are used to spending, but at 1 am after 30 hrs on the bus, we took it. It was definitely one of the nicest places that we’ve stayed on this trip.
Now for the advice. If I were to do this again I would absolutely book the bus ticket on my own. I basically spent the entire journey trying to talk to other travelers and figure out the actual price and how to book it without a travel agency. The best info I got was from another American traveler that attempted booking on his own. And after finishing the journey I found a website for the bus station where we left from. It had a decent English translation, but only seems to work on mobile. I was able to fill in the gaps when I found this page about the Hanoi-Luang Prabang bus (here is the page listing all of the routes).
The bus leaves from the Nuoc Ngam Bus Station. This is where you can buy your tickets, but you have to buy them day of. The bus company that we used will not sell advanced tickets (our American friend tried in person and was turned away). If you want to do some advance planning, you can also try your luck calling the number that was listed on the side of the bus. The Viet number on the bus was 098 66 88 279 (Laos number is 00856 20 99 389 389).
You will want to show up early to get tickets. Based on the fact that the bus was constantly picking up new passengers and there were people sleeping in the aisles, I doubt that they ever truly sell out tickets, but the bus will definitely be full. Being one of the first people with tickets is to your advantage. The price listed online is 850,000 VND (we paid 1,070,000 VND, just shy of $47 USD). I talked with some Vietnamese passengers with mixed levels of success. They all told me prices much lower than that, but still 850k VND is a huge savings over the million+ that you’ll pay at a tour agency.
Side note: An alternative high price option that I found is the 277 bus. I thought it was all going to be the same thing, but this looks like it might be a better service and go along a different route. So if you are going to shell out a million VND, this might be a better gamble.
When you go to board the bus, try to score a downstairs seat as you will have decent head room and more space in general. But also remember that there will be people sleeping in the aisle next to you. It’s probably best to get a seat towards the front of the bus since the aisle fills from back to front.
As for getting to the bus station, the transit included in the tour agency ticket it not worth it. So just book an Uber while you are on wifi at your hostel or ask someone at the front desk to book a Grab for you. With Grab (a local car sharing service) you will pay the driver in cash, but the price is set at the time of booking so it’s much more straightforward than flagging down and negotiating with a taxi. The benefit here is that it’s cheaper and you’ll also get there on time.
On the Vietnamese side of the border you’ll need an exit stamp. There should be no cost for this. In the queue there will probably be Vietnamese trying to cut in front of you, sometimes holding a stack of passports. They are not allowed to do this. An attentive guard will tell them to knock it off and go back in line, but otherwise it is up to you to hold out an arm and physically bar them from cutting. Tutting angrily certainly won’t help and neither will getting their attention and telling them to go back in line. In our case, it only produced laughter. Remember it’s not just you that they are delaying, it’s everyone in line behind you, foreign and Vietnamese alike, and it’s not just that one individual that is going to be cutting the queue. Slowly more and more will cut. Be prepared to feel rude and bold.
At the Laos border there is not much you can do about scams. I read up on the topic and it’s super super common for land border crossings in this part of the world. I found this guide rather helpful and I’ll be using this for future travel. As for this particular border, my specific suggestions are to bring sufficient kip to pay for the visa. Have exact change and then some extra tucked away for the border fees… and then some more tucked away somewhere else in case putting up a fight goes nowhere. Come prepared with a web page or two showing the visa fees and exchange rate. That’s about the best you can do and it’s going to be a tough battle because guaranteed all the other foreigners are going to cough up the inflated rate. You may have better luck waiting until everyone else pays and then presenting your arguments one on one.
Finally don’t expect to arrive on time. I don’t really see this trip ever taking less than 30 hours. I was happy with my decision not to book lodging in advance, but it was a gamble. However, Luang Prabang turned out to be quiet, temperate, and clean, and we probably could have safely slept outside somewhere. Also due to the long transit time come well prepared with snacks. The stops are frequent, but there isn’t always food available and it can be of dubious quality and cost.
Overall it wasn’t a great journey, but I think the cost savings was well worth skipping the flight. And if  you’re a traveler, hopefully with this information you can make an informed decision about what you want to do to get from Hanoi to Luang Prabang.

Vietnam week 3: Cat Ba Island, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and the famous Ho Chi Minh mausoleum

March 8, 2018
by Christina

In order to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi we enlisted the help of Ling, the manager of Le Plateau, who helped us to purchase a bus ticket online, something that is not possible without a Vietnamese credit (bank?) card. We booked on Inter Bus for 150,000 VND per person, which was cheaper than we saw elsewhere (usually 200k).

We walked from Le Plateau to the Inter Bus office, where we got off to a late start. It appeared that those who booked through third parties were transported from their hostels to the bus, and this transportation was not especially timely. Something that might come into play later during our bus ride to Laos (ooooh, foreshadowing).

The bus ride was a little under two hours to reach the ferry, which is a short hop to the island, then a van the rest of the way to the main town on Cat Ba. The Inter Bus employee from the first bus joined us for the ferry ride over, but immediately bagged and hopped on the next ferry back before most of our group was even off the arriving ferry. He just pointed at our island-side contact and ran.

I turned out to be the only person who witnessed the hand off, which I did not realize, so there was a lot of confusion with our fellow passengers not knowing where our guide had gone and balking at getting on the second van (which was not actually marked “Inter Bus”). When I finally put two and two together and let everyone know that we’d been handed off, everyone climbed aboard and we got on our way.

The town was almost comically dead, though one got the impression that during high season it is party central. The advertisements for happy hours, cheap beers, and funky balls (nitrous oxide in a balloon) were plentiful, and it seemed like at least every other building was a hotel. Only no one was there. The reason being the weather, which managed to be drizzly and overcast for the majority of the stay.

Sadly, the disease fairy decided to pay us a bonus visit, and as I came down with a moderate case of traveler’s diarrhea, Dan came down with a cold, so the fact that the town was quiet, and the private rooms (with a private bath) were some of the cheapest we have ever seen ($5 a night), worked in our favor. We stayed our first two nights at Cat Ba Garden House, which was spacious, but in poor condition and mildewed, so we moved from there to Cat Ba Hostel which was smaller, but in nicer condition.

Both rooms had a TV with cable, so we spent two days convalescing and watching English language movies dubbed in Vietnamese, including this gem, which I am calling Jason Statham Gone Wild 40: World Travel Hitman Edition. (I actually had to work a bit to find that particular film, Jason Statham is incredibly prolific, the 40 is more or less accurate. But also, in researching this, I found out something cool: Statham does rings, ya’ll. Never did I think I would have a reason (excuse?) for juxtaposing my image with Jason Statham’s.

The food situation in town turned out to be a little limited. There were a handful of restaurants open, most of them expensive sit down places. Not much in the way of street food, though we did find a ban mi stand down near the waterfront.

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Our favorite spot ended up being Restaurant Yummy 2, which had a nice spacious atmosphere and veggie pho for 25,000 VND, very reasonable.

On our third day in Cat Ba we were recovered enough to go out for some adventuring. And we did something we normally wouldn’t: we rented a scooter. We’re pretty risk averse in the motorbike department, though we did get our endorsements before leaving Florida. But we hadn’t been on a bike in the roughly 4 years since.

However, the island was scenic and very chill in the traffic arena, with motorbike rentals around the $4 range. We arrived at 1 pm and were told it would cost 80k VND until 6 pm, but we managed to sandbag and were offered 100k VND (<$5) for 24 hours, a deal which we took.

The rental of the motorbike was something almost unimaginable for us, coming from an epically litigious country. We were asked for no ID, signed no paperwork, left no collateral. We just paid up front and left, scouts honor that we would bring the bike back the next day. It’s an island, and it did have yellow markings on it, clearly it was a rental, but I was still amazed at the relaxed nature of the transaction.

We took the bike up to one of the beaches, which is maintained by a resort. There is a paved path along the cliff between Cat Co 1 beach and the next beach over. It was very pretty, though a little grey when we went. There are a total of three beaches in the vicinity, and they are relatively small, leading me to believe that they are crazy packed  and total pandemonium during high season.

The next day we drove up to see the Hospital Cave, which is one of the more famous attractions on the island. This is a natural cave that was outfitted as a hospital and hideout for the Viet Cong during the American War. That’s right, we call it the Vietnam War in America, and in Vietnam they call it the American War. The cave has one level that is largely concrete, and two higher levels that are still natural cave structure. The tour was very short, less than 30 minutes, and the entry fee was 40k VND. Though it was quick, it was interesting and I’m glad we did it.

We also discovered a nice coffee shop called Cafe 5S, located with a lovely view of one of the bays. It was more accessible with the scooter and we stopped in twice for Vietnamese coffee, with each cup brewed fresh. I got the Island Coffee during one visit, which is an iced Vietnamese coffee, including the sweeten condensed milk, but the the addition of yogurt. It was delicious.

There is a short hike up some stairs to the top of the hill in the middle of town. It has a structure on top and a nice view of the bay. The entrance to it is strangely hidden though, it just looks like a driveway out of a bus parking lot, and we wouldn’t have though to go if one of the employees at Cat Ba Hostel hadn’t clued us in.

To get back to Hanoi we took Inter Bus again. Their office in Cat Ba is operated out of the Sunflower 2 hostel, though it isn’t marked as such. Dan just found the address online. By going there to buy our tickets and board, we saved ourselves 50k a ticket. If you book through the hostel, they’ll pick you up, but it’s such a small town that it makes more sense just to go straight to Sunflower 2.

After an uneventful trip back to Hanoi we checked back into Chien Hostel with some very specific touristing plans in mind, now that, for the first time in Vietnam, neither of us was sick. First up, we went to go see the inside of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the one that we stared at for breakfast for a week during our first visit to Chien (yeah, we were really that lazy our first week in Hanoi).

Then we did some shoe shopping. My flip flops had bitten the dust while we were staying at Le Plateau, and there is a place just east of Hoan Kiem Lake called “Shoe Street” (Hang Dau) which is just two blocks of shoe sellers. I’m a size 10.5 men’s US or 44 European. Women’s shoes in Asia? Not a chance. After assessing the limited options for someone like me with humongous feet we managed to barter down from the 195k VND asking price to 150k VND.

In an uncharacteristic buying spree of a whole two items that had Dan pulling his hair, I also picked up a new pair of sunglasses, some sweet polarized aviators. Note that even though the store had priced the sunglasses with printed tags, they still let me haggle.

In general these shopping experiences were interesting because until that point we had no luck bargaining whatsoever in Vietnam. But we had also been buying 1) food items and 2) items in the 50k VND range. These were both non-food items, and well above 100k VND. I guess it makes sense that you wouldn’t haggle over smaller value items, but that you’d be willing to deal for products with a higher price tag.

We also paid the Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kiem Lake a visit. It is housed on a small island on the lake which is reached via a colorful red bridge with several arches. Inside, I found it interesting to see that offerings of not only money, but alcohol, water, and fruit, were placed on the altars. There was also a giant turtle in a climate controlled case. Overall a fun visit, with an entry fee of 20k VND per person.

Laundry was also on the to do list, and we had discovered a great place for laundry during our first stay. Green Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, which is around the corner from Chien, has laundry for 15k/kg, the lowest price we found in the area, and for same day service. Note that like many (most) places we’ve visited, you don’t do laundry yourself, so whatever you put in the bag goes through the washer and the drier.

And of course, back in Hanoi we once again began stuffing ourselves with street food.

Our last day in Hanoi we went to see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. This houses the actual preserved body of the Vietnamese revolutionary leader for whom it is named. The open hours are short, only 7-11:30 am each day. The line is long and there is a long list of restrictions: no showing shoulders (cover up), no sunglasses, no hats in the mausoleum, no using phones in line, no taking pictures, and silence in the mausoleum itself. Entry is free however, and line moves relatively quickly, we were in and out in about an hour.

The interior of the mausoleum is lined in stone, both walls and floors, and the ceilings are very high. The body is housed in an (air tight?) glass walled casket, evoking my childhood memories of Disney’s Snow White. The casket is on a tall dais and an honor guard of four stands posted at its corners. The guards for the mausoleum have sweet white uniforms decorated with gold brocade and red flourishes. Visitors walk along a railed path that is slightly raised above the casket area, and pass around three edges of the room, entering on one side of the head of the casket, passing around the foot of it before exiting. The lighting is low and the room is very cold.

Our laundry, shopping, and touristing complete in Hanoi, that night we boarded a bus for our next destination: Luang Prahbang, Laos. This took us on a journey that many term The Bus Ride from HELL (dun dun dun). Coming up! [Spoiler: We didn’t think it was that bad.]

Vietnam week 2: more noodles, yoga, running, and a meditation ploy!

March 3, 2018
by Christina

After about a week of convalescence, I felt ready to go out for a run. While in many cities in Central and South America I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going for a run after dark, Hanoi felt perfectly safe. I picked my route the way I usually do, browsing the Strava segment explorer, and I picked a park with a large lake about a mile south from the hostel.

Outside of Old quarter of Hanoi the streets get much wider, and with Tet still winding down the streets weren’t very busy. But I didn’t bring any money and when I got down to Thong Nhat park I discovered that there is a 4k VND entry fee (less than 20 cents), so I had to beg my way in, but I was successful! The park is lovely, with all kinds of exercise equipment, a carousel, and small kids rides, including a train that appears to circumnavigate the park.

After I got back and had a shower, Dan and I went out for dinner and got bun oc, which I really enjoyed. It’s another rice noodle soup, but this one is topped with fried tofu chunks and tomatoes. [Note: I later discovered that this dish is supposed to include snails, but she shorted us our snails. It was still pretty good, but I got some sweet bun oc later with all the actually ingredients, stay tuned.]

The next day our culinary adventure continued and we got the sticky rice dish that we had been hearing about: xoi. Xoi is sticky rice, and our came xoi topped with fatty pork. The quantity of the pork was a little low compared to the rice, so we supplemented heavily with spicy garlic vinegar sauce and chili paste that are pretty standard condiments here.

That evening we headed to the northeast region of Old Quarter where we hadn’t toured around much. This turned out to be the drinking area, packed with even more tourists than our spot at Chien Hostel near St. Joseph’s Cathedral, or just more people in general. We met up with a group of couchsurfers that have a standing weekly social/drinking hour, where I ironically I spent most of the time chatting with someone who happened to be not just in our dorm at Chien, but in the next bed over.

On our way back we discovered something called “Cream Rolls”. This is ice cream made in a very special format. The cart has a refrigeration unit with a metal plate that is cooled to below freezing. The liquid ingredients are pour on the plate, sweet milk base plus flavors, then mixed on the plate, spread flat, and finally scraped up in a “roll” form. Dan got durian flavor, and it was delicious.

Also in durian news, I picked up some durian flavored cookies at the corner store. They were awful. We couldn’t eat them. I think we had two each before we gave up and gave them to someone in the hostel who said they’d like them. The worst part was the durian burps. Yikes. Will not be trying those again. I’m now officially terrified of trying actual durian. (If you don’t know durian, it’s a very polarizing fruit that has a very strong smell. Some people love it, some people hate it, some cities have banned it on public transit due to the smell.)

Walking around Old Quarter one evening I saw two women dressed in fancy traditional attire, and I stopped to ask for a photo. To my surprise, they wanted a photo with me as well (in my sweaty running clothes). It turned out it was a ploy to get me to meditate! They gave me a gift with a website they said had meditation information. It had two websites on it, and it appears to be a modern philosophical (religious?) movement also known as Falun Gong. Much more fun proselytizing than yelling about the end times!

After over a week at Chien, we decided to check out a different part of town and moved to La Plateau Hostel in a neighborhood outside of Old Quarter, just northeast of it. The neighborhood was much more residential and less touristy, thus easier to get normal pricing for food. La Plateau was relatively new, with a kitchen and self-cook breakfast including instant noodles, eggs, coffee, milk, lettuce, tomatoes, bread, jam and peanut butter. It also had a nice work space on the third floor where they offered English lessons.

A short walk from La Plateau I found bun oc for realsies with the snails (for 30k, not 50k like in Old Quarter). The snails are slightly chewy, and not super flavorful. Interesting, and I’d eat it again, but not something I expect to actively seek out regularly.

We generally stuffed our faces the next couple of days, more pho bo, nom thit, and spring rolls. So much delicious street food in Hanoi. And here you can see Dan starting to turn the tables in the food pho-tography department (ba dum-chssss!).

I also decided to try and get some yoga teaching in, and I posted a free beginner yoga class on couchsurfing. I scouted a nice spot in the Hanoi Botanical Garden, which has lakes to run around, a sculpture garden, caged monkeys, exercise equipment, and a 2k VND entry fee. By Friday when the class was scheduled, I had 18 RSVPs! I was so nervous. I walked over, set up… and I had one student. One whole student. But you know what, one is enough! We had a good class. He was a local and gave me a ride back home on his scooter.

I also got out for a run with a local group. We were transported outside of the city and our trail went through some rice paddies, which were really beautiful, though that slowed progress to more of a walk. I learned that the correct way to go through rice paddies is to walk on the dividing burms, and to disturb the burms and the plants as little as possible!

After that, we headed out of Hanoi to the island of Cat Ba!