Mui Ne and the sand dunes

Vietnam was celebrating its 40th anniversary of independence (victory over the Americans), and we both got a week vacation from our schools. We decided to head to Mui Ne, one of the spots we had so far missed.

Mui Ne is about 6 hours away via bus. You can take a bus or train from Ho Chi Minh City, but since it was a holiday, the train was all booked up for the week. We got lucky and snagged bus tickets from a couple that couldn’t go on their trip anymore, so we got a good deal. We used The Sinh Tourist bus line and we’d highly recommend it. It was a very comfortable and safe(ish) trip.

Known for its red and white sand dunes, Mui Ne is nestled in a rain shadow right beside the ocean. It has both the sea and the desert sand, making it a popular vacation spot for foreigners and locals alike.

On our first day, we rented a motorbike and drove to the white sand dunes. We had lathered on sunscreen, but we burnt to a crisp anyway. They were HOT. We enjoyed seeing them, but couldn’t stay too long since it felt like we had been left to die out there in the heat. Luke gently reminded me that we were only 30 feet from the shade, but I still hold that I nearly died out there.

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Later, we went to the red sand dunes, which I really preferred. I think they were much more beautiful, especially if you venture away from the crowds. It’s possible that the red sand doesn’t reflect as much heat, too. At about 4pm when the sun is going down seems to be the best time. The sunset is breathtaking and the sand is cool enough to explore in bare feet.

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For cheap, you can rent magic carpet boards from kids to sled down the sand dunes. Note that you will get sand absolutely everywhere, so think hard before taking part. It was definitely funny to watch the Asians sliding and screaming, though.

The next day, we went to the Mui Ne Harbor where you can see the blue ocean and boats that seem to go on for as far as the eye can see. It’s fun to see but really only worth a quick stop to take a photo and move on.

Later in the evening, we went to the Fairy Spring and walked along the bed of the creek, directly beside large, red-sand dirt walls. Since the sun was setting, it was the perfect temperature to be exploring the Fairy
IMG_9149Spring, and it wasn’t rammed with people either. We enjoyed our slow walk taking in all of the scenery.

On our final day, we spent the morning at the hot spring center. For $40 total, we both got mineral mud baths, a mineral pool soak, some time in the steam room, and an hour-long massage. It included lunch as well. We lounged in the pool and enjoyed our lunch and free smoothie. It was the perfect way to end our trip in Mui Ne.

For dinner, we went to the crab markets to have dinner like the locals. We settled on a plate of shrimp, since crab was a bit pricey. It was an interesting experience, but our dinner the night before at Sinbads was the highlight of our trip. It was much more affordable, and incredibly flavourful/filling.

On our way to our guesthouse, we stumbled across Pogo Beach Bar, which had beanbags and cabanas on the beach for lounging while they played some really good music. We sat on a rooftop on beanbags and took in the ocean air, saying goodbye to an absolutely perfect vacation.

If you come to Vietnam, do not miss Mui Ne, whatever you do! And again, only pictures can really do this place justice.

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Back to Vietnam: Life in Ho Chi Minh City

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Even though we didn’t enjoy our time in Hanoi, we decided to give Vietnam one more try. We had heard that Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, as the locals call it) was much different than the North end of the country, so we booked a ticket and tried this whole teaching English thing one more time from March until this July. As of this post, we’re just getting ready to leave again after four awesome months here.

Saigon really is a lot different than Hanoi. Perhaps it’s just the fact that the South is much different than the North, but it seems that everything from the traffic, to the food, to the locals is much better. 

The traffic

The roads are better for riding a motorbike since they’re set up with bike lanes and one ways, creating a lot less congestion than Hanoi. The roads are wider, with many of the major arteries being 3 or 4 lanes in each direction, separated by medians. In Hanoi, it was often two cramped lanes only. The craziness level is (a bit) lower and it’s way easier to get around. It took us only about two weeks before we no longer needed Google Maps.

The food

While Hanoi was amazing for traditional pho and bun cha, Saigon has so many more options, and all for incredibly cheap. We eat for about $5-7 a day, and that’s eating out for every meal. For breakfast, we grab noodles with spring rolls anIMG_7957d pork for 75¢. For lunch, I usually get an omlette with pork on noodles for $1 and a bubble tea (my favorite) for $1. Then for dinner, we get a buffet style chicken, pork, or beef dish with rice and veggies for $1.50. Luke often gets a large meat and rice lunch for $1-2.

You can also get banh mi sandwiches at any street stall for 50¢-$1, and different kinds of soups and noodles are everywhere. I really love the ‘pho Hue’ in the alley near our house, which we get for $1.50. It’s a special pho with a red broth and rare beef. There are also juice ladies everywhere that will sell you a mango smoothie for $1, and/or a freshly juiced fruit or veggie drink.

I could go on and on about the food, but that’s for another post!

The people

The locals have a much different attitude towards foreigners here, and I’m not sure why exactly that is. We are greeted with warm smiles and people who chatter away at us in Vietnamese, always excited to meet us. When we’re eating, people are so helpful and really want to make sure we enjoy their food (which we do!). Even at the gas station when my bike got blocked in, a guy jumped off his bike to back mine out for me.

IMG_8124We have a tea lady in the front of our apartment and she’s always smiling and chatting away at us, even though we have no idea what she says. It’s nice to try charades-type conversation with her. She’s like having a watchdog grandmother always looking out for us. Another lady down our alley has the cheapest tra tac (a lemon oolong ice tea) for 25¢, and she loves asking me where Luke is when I’m alone. She makes sure to always smile and wave at us when we drive by. It’s very charming, and a refreshing change from the cold stares of the North.

It’s been nice to really settle in here. We have a lady who mends our clothes for us (and gets stains out of Luke’s clothes), usually for about 50¢ or so. We have friendly ladies who run a vegetarian restaurant, where they sell buffet style imitation meat and rice at $1 a box. We have mechanics that laugh at us every time we come in but never overcharge us, and we have a smiley doorman named Lin who watches over us. We also have three friendly neighbourhood ‘So dogs’ (alley dogs) that we love to pet and feed. The locals judge Luke a little for being so hands on, but he just washes his hands immediately after. It has really begun to feel like home.

The expat community in Saigon is also much different. Here, everyone hangs out and goes to the same few places. There’s more of a nightlife and community feel here. In Hanoi, everything shut down at around 11pm, whereas here, there’s no time limit. We’ve made friends easily, enjoyed the kind of music we liked, and we get to hit up events all the time.

Our life

We’ve been living in a small one-bedroom furnished apartment in Binh Thanh district, which is outside of the main District 1. We pay about $290 (not including electricity) for our place, which has washer/dryer, Internet, and cleaners who comes 3x a week (they do our sheets too!). It’s on a nice quiet alley and we have Lin, who provides 24-hour security and helps me take myIMG_8378 motorbike out in the morning. We never have to worry about our bikes being stolen, as they’re under lock and key, and there are about three locked doors and a doorman between our apartment and the city. It’s nice to not have to worry about break-ins or theft, which is a very real reality in Asia.

We bought second hand motorbikes for very cheap. My Honda Wave was $150 off some backpacker with a flight the next day, and Luke got his Yamaha Nouvo for $230. Gas is about $2.50 a week for me, and $5 a week for Luke (he pays extra for a little horsepower).

It took us both about a week to find good jobs. We work down the street from one another at Korean language schools in District 7. We’ve been very happy with both places, and I have a second job at night that I love as well.

All in all, I’m really happy we gave Vietnam another chance. The country is a little rough around the edges, but has such a soft side to it. We’re working a ton to save up for the next leg of our journey but for the last four months, this has been our happy home.

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48 hours in Singapore

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For my birthday, we decided to spend two days in Singapore. Since it’s such an expensive city, we couldn’t quite stay as long as we wanted on our budget but getting to see Singapore at all was a treat.

We took a public bus from Jahor Bahru, Malaysia for about $3. It takes you to the border, and then picks you up on the other side before dropping you off downtown. Singapore has another amazing transit system, so we bought a tourist pass ($10) and enjoyed it as much as we could.

Finding affordable accommodation was a huge struggle, so we finally settled on 5footway.inn, which is a cool art hotel with a few locations. Ours was right by Chinatown and after making a note on our reservation that it was my birthday, they upgraded our room for us a surprise. It was perfect.

Since we only had two days, I figured it would be best to sum up everything we did in a list:

Day 1:

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Gardens By The Bay

We got to Singapore in the late afternoon on our first day, so we grabbed the subway to the Gardens By The Bay. It’s a large park/artistic garden, and it’s mostly free to enjoy and explore. At dusk, they have a light show in the middle of the park. We really enjoyed hanging out under the Avatar-like trees that pulsed and glowed with lights – it honestly felt like we were on another planet.

Walking around the city (and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) 

After dinner, we spent the night walking around the city and enjoying all of the architecture and art around the city. The Marina Bay Sands was all lit up and we took some selfies on the helix bridge. We also passed a hotel playing Breakfast at Tiffany’s outside, which is my favorite movie. The waiters let us sit and enjoy the movie, even though we didn’t order one of the $40 cocktails.

Clubbing at Zouk

Around midnight, we decided we wanted to celebrate my birthday in style. I checked the biggest clubs in Singapore and Zouk came up, so I went on Twitter to see who was playing. We saw that a DJ we enjoy, Mat Zo, was playing at 1am. We threw on some clothes and ran to a cab.

The club was already packed and our $30 entry got us a free drink each. We cozied up to some locals who were also celebrating, and they were kind enough to share their massive bottle of vodka for the occasion. Everyone was so awesome and I even met another girl at midnight that shared the same birthday as me!

Partying in Singapore was interesting and the club scene was fun to be apart of. It’s a different way of partying for sure, but the people were friendly and we had the time of our lives.

Day 2:

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Cloud Forest and Flower Dome

We got up nice and early to enjoy breakfast on the terrace of our hotel before heading back to Marina Bay Sands. We wanted to see the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome.

Both structures are separate from and you can pay an entrance fee to do just one or both of them. We opted for both and headed into the Cloud Forest first. It was a giant glass dome with a living mountain built inside. You took an elevator to the top, then climbed walkways and bridges back down. It was really cool to see and there was a beautiful waterfall that fell from the top – it felt like you were inside a jungle rain forest. Although it was smaller than it looked outside, it was still a lot of fun to walk around and see all of the plants.

The Flower Dome was a bit of a let down for us. It was another huge glass dome filled with tons of flowers and plants from all over the world. For a flower lover, I’m sure it would be pretty cool… but we zipped through it and felt pretty bored. Also, the AC was blasting in there so much that I had goosebumps the whole time.

Cat café 

Since it was my birthday IMG_20150307_175459weekend, Luke decided to treat me to a cat café experience. Since he’s allergic, he hung out outside, but for an hour I was in cat heaven at Café Neko no Niwa. They have 13 cats, all of which are rescues. Some cats are deemed “lap cats” and one of the workers will go around and place them in your lap. Kai Kai, an orange tabby, decided to sleep in my lap for the full hour, which was fine by me.

Hawker Street 

In Singapore, there are many hawker streets to choose from. Basically, a bunch of stalls open up and serve you any food from all over the world. Satay is Singapore’s specialty, and it’s a must try. Satay is meat seasoned and marinated on a kebab stick and done on a coal grill. It’s really delicious.

We opted for some Indian food and got a whole tray of stuff we couldn’t even finish for $5 a person. Considering Singapore is far from cheap, hitting up hawker streets are one of the few ways to stay within budget.

Marina Bay Sands 

We wanted to go to the top of the Marina Bay Sands for a drink, but we got there a little too late. After 9pm, the bar charges a $30 cover charge. So instead, we just decided to take our $30 and head into the casino to try our luck. Let’s just say, our luck lasted about two rounds of roulette… oops.

Singapore has so much to do and it’s such a nice, well put-together city. Most major buildings have some sort of fascinating and unique art installation, so it’s a picture taking Mecca. We absolutely loved our time there and we were both so happy we got to experience it. There’s really nothing else like it. While it’s a bit tough on the wallet, a short time is all you need to experience what Singapore has to offer.

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“Where did you stay?”

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While on this trip, I happened to get a tad bit addicted to TripAdvisor. I had never used TripAdvisor before back in Canada but on this trip, it was a saving grace. I cross-referenced every place we stayed on TripAdvisor (while taking some reviews with a grain of salt, mind you) and I love searching the best places to eat and trying them out in each place we visit.

It’s worth mentioning that obviously, the site should be used to compliment friends (and local) recommendations as well as your own judgment. Especially travelling South East Asia, a lot of people writing reviews are vacationers and not backpackers and seem to have a higher “standard” when it comes to cleanliness and customer service, forgetting that that this IS Asia after all and things are different here. We’ve been pleasantly surprised staying at places with bad ratings as much as we’ve been disappointed staying at places with glowing reviews.

With that said, the entire point of all this is that if you like our blog and are planning a trip and appreciate our advice, then check out my TripAdvisor profile. I reviewed every single place we stayed at as well as a few places we ate and some of the things we did. A lot of people ask me where we’ve stayed and the profile organizes everything by city. You can view my profile here.

Also, if you ever want to ask me any question at all you can comment or contact me on social media.

Tea time in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

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Upon arriving in Malaysia, we realized we really had no idea where to head off to next. We had arrived here on a fairly spur-of-the-moment decision, so we hadn’t planned our next stops. After browsing a few tourist agencies, we noticed several posters for Cameron Highlands, and decided to buy a $5 bus ticket.

No one had warned us about the twists and turns on the last hour of the drive. We also didn’t know it would be up the side of a mountain. The massive bus was careening around corners back and forth, and both of us quickly popped a Gravol to settle our stomachs. The views were nice, but I’m surprised we made it in one piece.

We had scored a quaint guesthouse for $10 a night. It was basic, but we had a private room and they served cheap (and good) food, so we were happy.

Cameron Highlands is a really small town nestled in the mountains and surrounded by the biggest tea plantations in Malaysia. The plantations in this region actually produce enough tea to supply all of Malaysia, although they do export much of it.
On our first day, we walked to the Cameron Valley Tea plantation. Taking about an hour, it was surreal to finally get to the top of the plantation and look down at all of the tea leaves. They explained to us that tea trees can grow endlessly, and we saw some of the massive trees that had never been pruned. The fields were filled with tea trees that were just as old, except they were constantly cut back to a size and shape that is easy to work with. We got to try some of their delicious tea and explore the plantation on our own after.

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On our way back, we decided to try and skip the hour-long walk (uphill this time) and stuck out our thumbs. Cameron Highlands is such a small town and the people of Malaysia are so incredibly kind, our guesthouse had actually recommended hitch hiking here. A guy and a girl our age pulled over in their work van and talked our ears off on the ride back. They were grinning ear-to-ear after having met us and we were so thankful to have a break for our feet, so the feeling was mutual.

The next day, we bought a packaged tour that would drive us to the top of Gunung Brinchang Mountain, followed by the Boh Tea plantation, and finish with a tour through the Mossy Forest. It was $15 for the whole excursion and it lasted all day.

The view from Gunung Brinchang was beautiful, although a bit crowded. We had to battle our way up an old iron lookout post to get a picture, but it was nice to see the entire view of Cameron Highlands.

After snapping a few pictures atop the mountain, we took our jeep to the Boh Tea plantation where we saw where Southeast Asia’s largest tea company. They took us on a tour of their tea fields, and we got to see them harvesting the leaves. We also went through their factory and were shown the process by which tea leaves are sorted, withered, rolled, aged and then dried. It was interesting to learn, and really made us appreciate the tea we got to try at the end!

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Last in the tour, we got to see the Mossy Forest, which looked like a scene from Avatar. The overgrown jungle was full covered in moss, hence the name. As this jungle was perched on the side of the mountain, the views were incredible. Our guide showed us massive pitcher plants and told us all kinds of cool facts about the forest. It was really interesting, as well as pretty.

In the evenings, we spent our time relaxing. We enjoyed some incredible and authentic Indian food, met some other travellers, and went to bed early to the sounds of crickets and frogs chirping.

Cameron Highlands may not have a ton to do, but if you want peace, quiet, and beautiful nature then it’s not to be missed.

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Living the city life in Kuala Lumpur

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Going to Malaysia was sort of a last minute plan for the two of us. We wanted to get more out of our trip to South East Asia, rather than just the typical route, so we budgeted and made it happen.

Kuala Lumpur turned out to be a really incredible city, with tons of things to see and do. The East Indian presence made this country very unique from all the others we had been in so far. The food, customer service, and overall atmosphere was completely different. They also have a really amazing transit system that includes free bus routes. Once we mastered the routes, we were able to explore the entire city for free.

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Teh tarik, before being stirred.

We started off each morning with roti, and I fell in love with ‘teh tarik’, their signature milk tea. It was sort of like a chai tea latte. For $1 a meal, we were on cloud nine. The flavors and cost of the Malaysian food was a total highlight of our trip. But, more on that later.

The city is known for its obsession with shopping malls. In the downtown core there were almost a dozen megamalls that put most western malls to shame. Massive skylights, hundreds of stores, roller coasters inside, and arcades that stretch from one end to the other, it was the definition of excess. We were staying right by the iconic Bukit Bintang mall, and it didn’t disappoint. It had been months since we stepped inside any mall, let alone one this massive. We indulged in some shopping and got some phone cases, screen protectors, and a few other tech-necessities for super cheap.

Later, we headed to the hawker street and Central Market for some local food and souvenir shopping. We walked and walked until our feet couldn’t take any more. At sunset, we caught the bus to the Petronas Towers to enjoy the lights.

It felt really surreal to be at the bottom of the Petronas Towers. We were extremely excited and took probably 100 selfies. While there’s not much to do other than gawk at the height and beauty of them, it’s something that should not be missed. It’s hard to describe how beautiful the towers look when lit up at night – the pictures hardly do it justice. There was also a free light and water show at sundown.

On our way home, we stopped for some satay in Chinatown and revelled in the people watching and street-food smelling.

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Luke’s new best friend, Samie’s worst enemy.

The next day, we headed to Batu Cave. After a short ride on the subway, you can walk to the cave from the station. We lathered on the sunscreen and headed up the massive flight of stairs into the cave. While the cave itself isn’t too pretty, there are monkeys everywhere vying for food. Luke loved getting up close to them but they didn’t seem friendly, so I kept my space.

We have such fond memories of being in Kuala Lumpur and it was hands down one of our most favorite cities so far. The people, the food, and the incredible infrastructure really blew us away. If you haven’t done so already, make sure to put Kuala Lumpur on your list!

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