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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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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Phuket? Meh.

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Oh, Phuket.

Obviously, Phuket was on our travel itinerary since we’re in the South of Thailand and everyone and their drunk best friend has a travel story from Phuket. I guess it’s safe to say the place is more infamous than famous, and we quickly found out why.

I don’t want to completely rule out Phuket, because I’m sure there are lots of sides to it, but we really didn’t enjoy it. After seeing much of the South already, Phuket was a big let down. It had a grimier feel than Bangkok with much more in your face sex (ping pong shows, girls dancing on poles, and Asian girls teetering on platform heels galore) on the main drag and the beaches we checked out were sorta…meh.

Mind you, we stayed closer to the Patong Beach area (which is the main tourist area) and maybe that was our issue. I’m sure there’s lots to explore in Phuket but if you’re coming to Thailand, please just hop to the islands sooner rather than later and enjoy what the South really has to offer.

IMG_6165Our trip was generally uneventful. We had a hotel mishap and had to endure the blaring sounds of construction every morning, but we got a free meal out of it at least. We made a trip to the mall to replace our broken Mac charger, bought a second-hand GoPro Hero 3 (yay!), and explored the more local eateries.

One highlight was No. 9 2nd Restaurant which we only noticed due to the massive line out front. Intrigued, we lined up and we were glad we did. About a 10 minute wait (as we were salivating over all the food being brought out), we finally got to sit down and enjoy some of the tastiest Thai food we’ve had this trip. Trust us, it’s worth every minute of standing.

I’m sad to say we don’t have much else to say about Phuket. We enjoyed walking the main strip, popping into some clubs and checking out the crowd, and we liked watching the sunset on the beach.

Overall, I’d say that it’s worth checking out but only for a night or two. If you’re into partying and not knowing what happened last night (or, which ladyboy happened…) then it’s definitely the place for you. For us? Back to the islands!

A day on Railay Beach

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Railay Beach was one of the main reasons we decided to go to Krabi, so we rented a long tail boat for a day trip to the beach.

We opted for just a day trip rather than an overnight to save on money (both accommodations and food) and so we could explore the rest of Krabi. It was a decision we didn’t regret! We drove our motorbike 15 minutes from Krabi to Ao Nang beach (amazing ride!) to catch a long tail boat for 100 baht ($3 USD) each way. The boat leaves whenever it has enough people, which for us took less than five minutes.

It’s worth mentioning that the beach town of Ao Nang is worth checking out, even as a place to stay. Packed with beach stores, food options, and a good beach vacation vibe, we really wished we had known it was such a happening place. Compared to the somewhat underwhelming town of Krabi, it may have been a better home base for this leg of the trip.

The long tail boat ride was about 15 minutes and the ride itself was gorgeous. Sailing past all the rocks and peaks coming out of the water and getting to see the beach up ahead was truly breathtaking. Our anticipation to get to the beach grew and grew the closer we got.

Once we arrived, we didn’t set out our towels to relax just yet. There are many different beaches on Railay, all within walking distance, so we wanted to pick our favourite. We walked from Railay West to Railay East and then to Ao Pranang. On Ao Pranang, there are some really cool rock climbing setups and you can check out the Pranang Cave. Overall, Pranang beach was our favourite place to sunbathe.

The beaches didn’t get too busy while we were there and the water was perfect. We explored the island, met some monkeys, checked out the caves, and grabbed an incredible chicken shwarma from an expat who owns a little shack. It was the perfect day trip to take in another beautiful Thai beach.

With that, we figured only pictures could do the rest justice. Enjoy!

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So right on Koh Rong

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Koh Rong is a tiny gem of an island just off the coast of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We were looking forward to getting away from the chaotic partying of the mainland, so we took a $5, two hour ferry ride to Koh Rong.

IMG_4922We didn’t book anywhere to stay in advance and finding a quality, affordable place to stay proved to be quite a challenge. Most places to stay were above bars and had an open concept roof as well as thin bamboo walls. Not only could you hear music until 2AM, you could also hear your neighbours’ conversations. It wasn’t in our budget to do $40+/night bungalows, so we walked further down the coast. We eventually found a really cute guesthouse up on a hill that had an amazing view of the entire island. Probably due to the distance from the main drag, it was only $12/night.

If you’re hoping to visit Koh Rong, it’s important to note that it is a tad bit more “rustic” than you might imagine. The mosquitos are fierce, the wifi is crap everywhere (oh well, turn off your phone!), and power cuts out routinely throughout the day. Finding hot showers anywhere on the island is unlikely — saving water and electricity is a huge priority to the island, as it’s still pretty underdeveloped.

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Luke checking out the plankton at night.

Embracing the authentic island vibe, Koh Rong is a great place to just sit back and relax. You can explore the various beaches, go kayaking, enjoy a seafood BBQ at night, or go snorkelling in the day. We spent most of our time in our hammock on the beach, enjoying $1 smoothies and $1 chicken fried rice. We also took part in many of the BBQs offered at night and had a really tasty grilled barracuda dinner ($5).

One night, we did a $5 boat ride to go snorkelling with the bioluminescent plankton. They were so cool to see! You could see faint blips of light, light fireflies, all around you. Stirring up the water made them glow brightly. It was definitely worth the money to get out there and experience it!

Luke was excited to get up close and personal with one of the island’s water buffalos. The local kids are also super cute to watch and stray puppies and kittens are always happy to cuddle. We spent about 3 days on the island relaxing, suntanning, and enjoying really cheap food before taking the $5 ferry back to Sihanoukville.

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Unwinding in the sleepy town of Kampot

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Before we had finished the paperwork required to check in to Ganesha Riverside Eco Resort, our host Billy suggested we take a moment to go see the sunset. We walked past huts on bamboo stilts and stood at the edge of a rice field just in time to see a deep orange sun set over the Elephant Mountains. It felt like the perfect response to bustling, chaotic and unsafe Phnom Penh experience.

The town of Kampot is a quaint fishing village with a French colonial twist. The surrounding farms grow world famous Kampot pepper and there are large salt farms lining the ocean coast. Ganesha is hidden twenty minutes away, off a couple of dirt side roads. It really doesn’t get any more idyllic. We didn’t get up to too much in Kampot, as it’s more of a place to sit back and relax with nature. We spent time in our hammock and played cards in the evening to deep house music — our favourite way to kill time.

The one thing we enjoyed most about Kampot was how seriously everyone took the sunset. Every evening, right at 5 p.m, locals lined the riverside to watch the sun set over the mountains. Watching (and joining) everyone as they stopped to take in the natural beauty of the landscape before dinner was our favourite part of the evenings. Little things like that are uncommon in the western world.

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Our view driving through Kep.

We decided to take one day to see all there was to see in Kampot and its sister town, Kep. We rented a $5/day motorbike and drove out to get our very own Kampot pepper, straight from the organic farm. They sold three varieties of pepper: white, red, and black. Each has a distinct flavour – white was for fish, red for poultry and beef, and black was used on everything.

After the short tour, we headed through Kep to dip our toes into the ocean and experience the oceanside crab market. The crab market in Kep was bustling with locals selling any kind of seafood you could imagine. Every restaurant sold crab, making it hard to choose one spot. Eventually we settled on a place called Holy Crab, encouraged by some online reviews.  The view was amazing and the crab dishes were even better. We chose a crab salad with two crabs ($6) and a green Kampot pepper baked crab ($8). They were hands down some of the best dishes we’ve had during our travels!

A nice break from the bustling cities of Cambodia, Kampot was delightfully understated and hopefully it stays that way to preserve the beauty and simplicity of it. A city untouched by tourists, the food and people made it one of our favourite destinations in Cambodia.

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A riverside hut at Ganesha

Our life in Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve definitely been slacking on updating our blog, apologies for that! We’ve been extremely busy settling in and working. We moved to Vietnam to teach English and the job market in Hanoi is plentiful. We both got teaching jobs the day after we moved here and it’s been an adventure ever since. More on that later!

As one could imagine, living in Vietnam is quite different than Canada. Here’s a few highlights of our daily life here in Hanoi.

The traffic

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The traffic is insane here. With nearly four million motorbikes on the road, plus cars, vans, public transit, pedestrians, and cyclists it makes almost every journey to work a miracle that we survived. Our friends often joke about the road rage we’ve all developed over here. Some days on my way home from work, my jaw hurts from clenching my teeth. It’s pure insanity.

IMG_3863First of all, there are no laws. Well there are, but with so many people, good luck. People drive on the sidewalk, run red lights, drive in the opposite lane, you name it. During rush hour, traffic cops stand in the middle of the road to try and keep
some order to everything and keep two lanes of traffic flowing. It’s a cute attempt on their part but unfortunately, not too effective.

Luckily, everyone is driving at a max speed of about 30 km/h if you’re lucky and  it’s often stop and go. Most days I’ll bump (or be bumped by) a bike or two. You get used to it. We even had our bike knocked over once, but the slow city speeds meant there was no harm done.

Luke got himself a Yamaha Nuovo for about $250 USD and I got myself a cute little red Honda Wave for $270. We should be able to sell these to other foreigners when the time comes. Gas costs us about $2.50 a week, and our helmets cost us $5 each. Mine got stolen recently (a common thing here) and I had to buy a new one, so I’m at $14 total for brain safety.

We have been pulled over by the police once for accidentally driving in a “car only” lane. Luke slipped the police officer 500,000 dong ($25 CAD) — sorry mom! — with his license and he let us go, no questions asked. Getting pulled over by cops can be quite tricky, since foreigners don’t have the right driver’s license and cops in Vietnam can pretty much do whatever they want. We were worried our bike would be impounded, so we were happy to pay the bribe and move on.

All you can hear all day is car honking. From about 6am till 11am, the honking is constant. Also, it’s extremely polluted here. A good long drive will gift you with a nice pounding headache. We’ve invested in these fancy hospital mask things (reusable!) which most people wear. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than breathing the smog directly.

The food

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Not only is the food here in Hanoi incredible, but it’s dirt cheap. A meal will cost you anywhere from $1-5 USD for a huge portion. The key is to find the right places that don’t charge foreigner prices!

We live near the Old Quarter in Hanoi, which is home to so many great places to eat. Around the corner is a Phở place we love which serves us a heaping bowl of beef soup for $2.50 (50,000 dong) each. We also love the Bánh mì sandwiches at $1 (20,000 dong) a pop. Actually, we’re a little bit addicted to the sandwiches. They often come with some sort of slow-roasted port, a pork liver pate that’s to die for, and fresh veggies like cilantro, cucumber, and tomato. We also found a delivery place that brings them right to our house. Mmmmmmmm.

On the other hand, we love to cook as well. Vietnam doesn’t do the whole oven thing, so we just have two gas stove-top burners. I can honestly say I haven’t missed having an oven. You really can make do with just a stovetop, aside from a good homemade pizza, we’re doing alright.IMG_4220

We go to the market down the street from us where we buy chicken breast off a butcher for $2.50 (50,000 dong) for two big boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Then, we visit our favourite veggie lady and usually end up with a bag of veggies that includes red and green peppers, two onions, cabbage, garlic, broccoli, bean sprouts and cilantro (depending on the day). We’ve never paid more than $3 for everything (60,000 dong). We come home and make a meal for about $5 total that lasts both of us for about two days.

Last, I can’t forget to mention the sweets. I think deep down I was born Vietnamese, because their sweet tooth matches mine. There’s an ice cream place around the corner from us that sells ice cream with chocolate chips and coconut milk for 15,000 dong ($0.80 CAD) and a tea place I love, Feeling Tea, which sells bubble tea for 20,000 ($1 CAD). Also, we get huge bags of kettle corn to feed my popcorn addiction off street venders for 10,000 dong ($0.50). I’m in love.

One of the hardest adjustments food wise has been the milk. Vietnam kind of does milk, but not in the way we do back home. First, it isn’t “fresh” milk. They put sweetened condensed milk in their tea and coffee. The milk we eat in our cereal comes from boxes of milk that can last on the shelf for a long time. Cheese is also a no-go here. If you find some, it’s usually tasteless. Think, ‘white spread’. The rest of the milk they use is powdered milk or soy. We miss our chocolate milk and cheese, that’s for sure.

The people

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While we have our ups and downs here in Hanoi, I think it’s safe to say that the people in Vietnam have been a treat to get to know. One thing we’ve found is that they’re extremely eager to help.

For example, every night we need to bring our bikes inside a locked area so they don’t get stolen. I have a hard time with my bike, since it’s quite heavy. There is rarely a night were a stranger doesn’t see me attempting to get my bike up the ramp and instantly jump to push the back for me. The other night, I watched as two guys from next door helped Luke push his inside without him even noticing. One night, we forgot to bring our bike inside, but the guy who works next door remembered it was our bike and locked it inside the karaoke bar for us. He wouldn’t even accept a thank-you from us the next day.

Another time, Luke’s bike broke down outside a fast food place, Lotteria. I texted my student, and she wrote me a message in Vietnamese to show the parking guy. As he was trying to help us, a woman with her two kids stopped to help. She spoke some English and spent at least 15 minutes with the parking guys trying to help us. One of the guys biked to see if a mechanic was open, but it was too late at night. So, she went in and got the manager of the place and he came out, all smiles, and said of course we can leave our bikes there overnight and the guys would bring it in for us and back out in the morning to pick it up.

The next day, Luke called a local guy we met when we first moved here, because he’s the only local person we knew. Instantly he told Luke not to worry, that he’d pick him up and they’d get it sorted. He grabbed Luke at 8AM the next morning and drove him 20  minutes to the place we left the bike and then helped him get it to a mechanic. In the end, he wouldn’t accept any form of payment for his entire morning of work and the drive.

Like I said, it definitely has it’s ups and downs. Not knowing the language can be tiring and not everyone is as patient as others. But, the one thing I’ve noticed is the kindness of strangers.

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Exploring the beautiful Ancient Town of Hoi An

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Hoi An is a beautiful Ancient Town nestled on both a river and the Pacific Ocean.

While it may be packed with tourists, it’s with good reason. Hoi An has a lot to offer. While our original plan was to head to Hoi An to get a suit made for Luke, we ended up staying in Hoi An for an entire week enjoying beaches, incredible food, and the friendly locals. Being recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the beauty of the town is tough to describe in words.

We stayed at the Han Thuyen Homestay in Hoi An and we loved the family feel of the place. A little toddler was running around during breakfast and always there to greet you with a huge smile when you came home. The homestay also offered free bikes to ride in town and really, it’s all we needed. We spent the entire week biking to and from wherever we wanted to go.

After getting Luke all dolled up in his handsome suit, we needed some shoes to go with it. We headed over to The Friendly Shoe for some custom made leather dress shoes for him and a pair of leather boots copied off of some I wore out back home in Toronto. For $60 a pair, our feet were measured and we picked out the colours and leather we liked. In just three fittings, they were perfect!

Cua Dai beach was a quick 10 minute bike ride along the river ’til you hit the white sand beaches and the kiss of the Pacific Ocean. Almost as warm as bath water, it was still refreshing to bob in the ocean before lounging on one of the many beach chairs local restaurants have set up. It was a great way to get a tan, relax, and spend some much needed time off from the always-on-the-go travelling we had been doing.IMG_3623

Every night when it gets dark, Hoi An has lanterns you can light and drop into the river. We were there on the full moon, however, so the city was extra special. They turn out all of the power and lights near the river, relying solely on lantern lighting. The Japanese Covered Bridge glows, as does the river and all of the boats. For $1 USD, you get two to let into the river for good luck.

We absolutely loved spending time by the river in Hoi An. Enjoying a coffee, browsing the many shops, and people watching was the perfect way to spend a vacation. You can fly right into Da Nang for $30 USD from Hanoi, making Hoi An an up and coming holiday destination and we’d highly recommend it.

Hoi An is known for its quality silk, so it only seemed fitting to visit the Hoi An Silk Village. It ended up being surprisingly interesting and fun. At only $8 USD a person, we were greeted by the sweetest guide with a mulberry drink. Then, she showed a sampling of the more than 100 traditional silk costumes worn by Vietnamese tribes. Following that, she showed us the mulberry gardens while talking about the history of silk.

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You could hear the silkworms chewing!

We got to see the full silk worm life cycle, which is actually only about a month long. We saw big and small silkworms munching on cut mulberry leaves and also big trays of silk cocoons. Then, we went into the hut where the cocoons are boiled in hot water to dissolve the silk glue so that the women could pull it apart and wind it on a spindle. Luke and Bryan actually ate the the silkworm that had been boiled out of the cocoon. Very gross, but they claim it tasted pretty good.

Next we got to watch silk scarfs being made in the traditional Champa weaving style. The process looked extremely tedious with the result being a stunning robe, scarf, or bag.  Ending the tour, our guide showed us one final and useful fact. Have you ever wondered how to tell whether your silk souvenir is actually 100% silk? The answer is to light it on fire. Take a small flyaway thread, light it, and smell. Silk smells like burnt hair, and goes out the instant you take the flame away. Cotton and polyester keep burning after you remove the flame, and lack the signature scent. Polyester smells notably of plastic. We tried testing it in the market afterwards – as our guide told us, vendors did not mind a thread being tested to verify the material.

All in all, Hoi An is a perfect place for shopping, good food, getting a serious tan, and enjoying the local feel of Vietnam. A short plane trip or cheap overnight train ride from Hanoi, we have plans to get back as soon as we can.

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Hoi An traffic

Buffalo Run part 2: Explosions, hot springs, and Top Gear

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On Day four of the Buffalo Run, it was time for us to do some serious reflection on the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s named here). We arrived at Vinh Moc, a deep tunnel complex in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The tunnels were dug right at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and the waves crashing onto the shore created an eery feel. Looking around, it was surprisingly easy to imagine thousands of bombs being dropped as families hid inside the tunnel system during the war. There were still craters left in the ground and black on mountain sides to remind you where the missiles and bombs had hit.

The cramped, damp, dark tunnels were home to over 600 people, and 17 babies were welcomed into the world down there between 1965 and 1972. Barely able to stand up inside, families lived in cramped alcoves that left you wondering how they could even lie down to sleep. When the Americans found out about the tunnels, they created bombs designed to penetrate deeper. The Vietnamese’ response was to simply tunnel deeper. At its deepest point, the colony was living about 30 meters below the surface. Talk about resilience.

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The explosives we detonated.

After lunch, we visited the Mine Action Visitors Centre in Dong Ha, which housed Project RENEW. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to clearing up explosives from the American War days that still remain scattered around the countryside. During the war, the US barraged Vietnam with an estimated 15 million pounds of explosives, and roughly 10% of it never exploded. That 1.5 million pounds has been killing farmers, livestock and children ever since.

We were able to join them on a bomb disposal run, as there had been a report of explosives found in a farmer’s field the night before. When we arrived, the team had unearthed two M33 grenades, two 61mm mortar shells, and two 37mm anti-air projectiles. All of this had been lying in the farmer’s field since the war, buried deep in the mud. Cows roamed all around, farmers were working, and children were in the schoolyard next door laughing. It was an unsettling sight to see.

The reason these bombs didn’t go off forty years ago is not that they were duds. Rather, their trigger mechanisms didn’t activate properly. Bombs that needed to spin a certain amount of times before detonating landed several spins shy. When a child finds it and tosses it to a friend, they can end up dead. Or a bomb that needed impact to detonate might be waiting for a farmer’s plow.

While the realities of the post-war plight are sad, the act of disposing of the explosives can be a little fun. After the team herded the cows away and signalled an alarm for the children, Luke was given instructions and the detonator switch. Rather than describing what happened next, see for yourself (spoiler – the look on his face after is the BEST):

Day five

We arrived in the lovely town of Hue (pronounced hway) with storm clouds that really didn’t want to let up. Luckily, we stayed at Hue Backpackers. It was a busy party hostel with lots of things to do. We got to fight off the rain with a trivia night and a two-for-one pizza special. Ourselves and our Scottish friends (with a little bit of cheater’s luck) won trivia night! Woohoo.

IMG_20141104_144309Since it was still cloudy and rainy long after arrival, we changed plans from the original beach activity to zip-lining and the natural hot springs at Alba Thanh Tan. While the zip-lining was a tad anti-climactic (but, still fun) and the rope course was geared more towards teenagers, the hot springs were perfect. We floated around all day, even in the rain, in pools up to 45 degrees Celsius. They had built a lazy river leading away from the source, and each segment was progressively cooler.

Day six

It was the moment Luke had most been waiting for: the Top Gear motorbike journey through the Hoi Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An. If you haven’t seen the episode, you should! It perfectly describes our new life here in Vietnam and shows the beautiful scenery and crazy roads we travelled.

We biked through fishing villages, mountains, farmland, cityscape, and beaches; the journey was much more than we expected. Children waved at us as we drove by and dogs moved out of our way. We even had to swerve around massive water buffalo that wandered across the middle of the road! They’re beautiful creatures, to say the least. And in spite of their size, they seem quite unthreatening to be around.

Overall, the bike trip took us about six hours. It started with a cruise down to Cua Tu Hien first thing in the morning, followed by the Phuoc Tuong Pass for 20km before hitting the Phu Gia Pass. Then, after driving through Lang Co we stopped for some lunch (if all the names are confusing, don’t worry – we didn’t get it either… we just followed our tour guide down the coast). Our tour guide had heard tell of a waterfall/swimming spot that the locals went to, so he asked our waiter.

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Fifteen minutes back up the road, followed by ten minutes of navigating a dirt path through the thick forest, we reached a
house with an old lady who waved us in. We stepped out onto a stunning series of waterfalls that originated from way, way upin the mountains. The water was crystal clear and crisp, and the views incredible. It’s gems like these that make hiring a tour guide worth every penny! The group swam and explored for an hour or so before it was time to hit the road again.

Getting to the Hai Van Pass was simply icing on the cake at this point. The views just kept getting better. Swerving back and forth across the mountain roads, you could look down and see beaches and a skyline the seemed endless. We pretty much had the road to ourselves as well, so we could take all the time we needed before finally cruising into Da Nang.

Finally, with sore bums and a slight sunburn, we reached DK’s House in Hoi An and settled in for some BBQ burgers. Saying goodbye to our tour guide, we were happy to have made some new friends and see some things we definitely wouldn’t have been able to on our own.

– Samie & Luke

P.S – Photos from the trip can be all be seen right here. 

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