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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Motorbiking to Halong Bay in the winter

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Even though it was wintertime in Northern Vietnam, we didn’t want to leave the country without visiting Halong Bay. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a destination so popular, travellers flock there by the busload.

You can get a cheap trip there from any travel agent ranging from $40 for a day trip or $110 for a three day, two night boat and hotel trip. Luke loves motorbiking, however, so we decided to go out with a bang and enjoy the countryside by bike.

We swapped our Yamaha for a Honda Win from our trusty mechanic, Phung. We strapped our day pack on, put on our face masks, and filled up a water bottle of gas for the journey in classic Asia driving style.

Many people classified the drive as dangerous, but we didn’t find it dangerous at all. For about 12 km, you have to drive on the shoulder of the highway (as many other bikes also do) and it can be a bit daunting with trucks speeding past but in Vietnam, everyone tends to respect the space on the road.

After that, it’s perfect countryside to take in the sites and smells of Vietnam. It made us appreciate the country so much more than being in the city. We stopped for coffee in a small town and our bike wouldn’t start. A man happily came over and with some charades, fixed the starter and waved us on our way free of charge.

Honestly, the one thing I loved most about Vietnam is everyone’s willingness to help each other out. No one will leave you hanging and I love that about the culture.

It took us about four hours to reach Halong Bay. Since it was winter, it was cold and foggy but we were dressed properly and ready to see what all the fuss was about. We met another couple who helped us barter a cheap price for a four hour tour of the bay via boat for about $25, including a stop at the Sung Sot Cave.

Halong Bay is breathtaking, even amidst all the fog. The boats, the islands, and the calm water create such a picturesque backdrop. Being in the middle of all of it was impressive – everyone was silent while taking it all in. We made a quick stop at the Sung Sot Cave, which was also really cool. We didn’t even plan on seeing the cave, so for us it was a pleasant surprise.

Later on we headed out to get food and find a place to stay. Some bargain hunting off the main drag led us to $10 a night guesthouses and when one showed us a soft mattress, we were sold (they’re rare over here).

All in all, Halong Bay is not to be missed. Preferably, head there in the summer and book a tour through the sweetest travel agent, Lily. But, if you’re caught in Vietnam in the winter just get out your sweater and take it all in with a cup hot of coffee.

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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):

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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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The Buffalo Run part 1: Monkeys, caves, and rowboats

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We stumbled upon a group tour called The Buffalo Run, a 7 day haul from Hanoi to Hoi An, and decided it would be a good idea to let someone else do the planning for a change. We did a TON over the 7 days, so we’re going to have to split this post up into two episodes!

Oh, and we also uploaded a whole bunch of pictures from Vietnam to our Flickr, so you can check them out here.

Day one

We got up a bit too early and headed to Hanoi Backpackers Hostel for pickup at 6 AM, excited to meet the other people on our tour. We were greeted by Tom, our tour guide, another Tom from the UK, and a Scottish couple, Ryan and Amanda, before hopping into the van.

IMG_20141031_105403The first stop was Cuc Phuong National Park, where we got to see a bunch of endangered monkeys at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre, and turtles at the Turtle Conservation Program. It was feeding time at the centre, so the primates were flying around their cages, stoked on life. Little baby gibbons played with their families and the langurs groomed their friends.

The centre has over 150 primates, which they breed and try to reintegrate into the wild. For some critically endangered species, they don’t reintegrate them as their numbers are so drastically low. Of the critically endangered species, they have the grey-shanked douc langur, Delacour’s langur, Cat Ba langur, as well as the “Endangered” Hatinh langur, black langur and Laos langur. It was really sad to see some beautiful species which were so close to extinction.

After we had lunch we biked an extremely hot 20km, stopping to see the cave of the prehistoric man. This guy’s remains were found and his bones are dated at roughly 7,000+ years old. Truth be told, the cave he was settled in would have made an incredible home.

In Cuc Phyong, there were bugs everywhere – in our room, on the paths, at the dinner area, and in the bathrooms. I suppose it was to be expected, since we were in the middle of the jungle, but it’s definitely not ideal for a person who hates being outdoors. Luke got two nice big kisses from leeches on his foot, leaving quite the murder scene in our room. We made the best of this wilderness insanity, however, by doing a midnight safari into the jungle. With our flashlights and headlamps, we tried to see how much disgusting insect and animal life we could stumble upon. Due to the season, it was mainly stick bugs, massive spiders and assorted oversized crawlers.

Day two

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Up nice and early, we started with breakfast and a trek around the park to see the 1,000 year old tree. It’s important to note that it’s been the 1,000 year old tree for years, so we’re not sure how accurate its name is anymore. The tree was somewhat anticlimactic, but the scenery leading up to it was well worth the hike.

Once we were dripping in sweat once again, we hopped back into the van PANO_20141101_095936to head to Trang An in Ninh Binh. Here, we took a beautiful row boat up a clear river, through caves and between mountains (see top photo). A journey lasting almost three hours, this one local woman rowed the entire time, sometimes switching things up by rowing with her feet! Quite impressive. Navigating through dark caves where we had to bend right down to get through, it was a really gorgeous (and sometimes scary!) boat ride. Some of the best views on this tour were, not surprisingly, adorned with picturesque temples. All in all, it made for a very relaxing and beautiful journey with tons of photo ops.

Not long after that, we were off again for a 10 hour overnight bus to Phong Nha National Park. I wasn’t mentally prepared for such a long bus journey, but it was fairly manageable. You get seats that recline almost entirely down, with places for your feet, plus pillows and blankets. Luke, unfortunately being 6’3″ and size 14 feet, couldn’t really fit… but of course, he still slept like a baby.

Day three

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Up nice and early once again, we were off to Paradise Cave. The cave is 31 km long and can reach up to 100m high and 150 wide at some points. While we were only allowed to enter one of the chambers (not the record setting areas), what we got to see was breathtaking. In Luke’s words, it seemed like we were in the dwarven cities you see in Lord of the Rings. Standing inside something so big, damp, and cold was surreal. The colourful rock formations grew up from the floor like creepy alien spires. We took pictures, but they didn’t do justice to what we saw.

After that, we went for another lunch by a clear, fresh river, which rumour has it originates all the way from Laos. Probably the coldest water we’ve felt, but it was a perfect aqua blue and a nice refresher on a hot day.

Hello, Hanoi

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Our original plan for the last year was to travel South East Asia and settle down in Vietnam to teach English. This week, we finally made it to the place we’ve been dying to see: Hanoi, Vietnam.

The city is more than we expected. Busy streets, incredible food, everything you could ever want or need being sold, and beautiful lakes.

Actually, when I said the streets were busy, I think that’s a tad bit untrue. The streets are insane. They’re more than insane — they’re bursting with people, motorbikes, cars, buses, vendors, bikes, cats and chickens. Our hotel had a notice that stated: “To cross the street, remain confident and walk at a steady pace”. Every street crossing is a brush with death, but I think we’re getting the hang of it.

The people are very friendly here. We’ve taken to eating a lot of street food and almost every time we sit down with a new bowl of something, the staff will butt in to help us figure out how to eat it. I suppose we’re not fooling anyone here.

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Can you spot Samie?

We’re getting into eating Pho, which is a traditional Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat, and herbs. Back in Toronto, we pronounce it “F-oh” but here, when you ask for it like that, people look at you like you have three heads. It’s pronounced “Fuh” here (thank you, Google).

We went in search of “The Best Pho in Hanoi”, which is next to impossible. Hanoi is renowned for Pho. It’s being sold nearly everywhere. You get it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can get it with beef, chicken, pork, or just tofu. You can dress it up any way you like it with sauces and chilis. It’s pretty damn good and for some reason, we never seem to get sick of it. The other plus? It usually costs about $1-2.

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Pho at 49 Bat Dan

Our favourite place so far was a small spot at 49 Bat Dan. It was packed full of people, and you got to see the entire soup-making process happen right in front of you. First came the butcher, who endlessly chopped and shaved her way through racks of salted beef. Next, a serving of white noodles was tossed into your bowl, the beef was added on top, and some raw beef was put on the other side. The man with the boiling broth came next, and he blanched the raw beef, then put a big handful of greens on top. It was an efficient chain – from the slab of meat to the finished product took about a minute flat.

Another great thingIMG_3352 about Hanoi is you can get anything you want (knockoffs, of course) for super cheap. Want fake Toms, Nikes, or Zara clothes? They’ve got that. Need a broom? Oh, there’s a woman with a cart walking past your house right now with 10 different kinds. Phone cases, suits, purses, sporting goods — they have it all. And before you go knocking knock-offs, it’s become a sport to try and ‘spot what’s missing/wrong’. With a lot of items, we’re hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The weekend night market is also jam packed. People line the streets selling just about anything, and on the side streets people cram in, sitting on small little stools frying up their dinner.

We decided that Hanoi is the place for us to settle down for at least six months, and we decided to find ourselves an apartment. We’ll save some pictures of our new place for once we’re all moved in! For now though, we’re heading south to Hoi An – be patient while we drop off the grid for a week or so!