Our guide to Tomorrowland

 

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Being able to go to Tomorrowland has been a huge dream of ours, one which we didn’t entirely expect to achieve. Being one of the largest and most popular festivals in the world, Tomorrowland often sells out in only seconds. Luckily for us, we were living in Vietnam and I was able to be one of the first five people to pre-register for tickets in the country, guaranteeing us four tickets. We got super lucky!

After Amsterdam, we headed for Belgium! We were lucky enough to be able to stay with a couple we met off of Couchsurfing just outside of Brussels for two days for some serious R&R. They were so friendly and had two super cute dogs. We had arrived just in time for National Belgium Day, so we all went to a beer festival, saw some fireworks, and ate some amazing European food (and cheese!). It was a great chance to experience some local life before we headed to Brussels to meet our friends Sam and Chris from back home.

The four of us took a train from Brussles to Boom. The train was packed exclusively with festival attendees, who were conspicuous in their neon tanktops, facepaint, and national flag capes. The ride was so exciting, as everyone was proudly wearing their flags from all over the world and were super friendly and chatty. We were so happy to see friends from home after being away for so long, the four of us couldn’t stop talking!

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Upon getting to the festival, we checked in and pushed through the crowd to try and score a good camping spot in Dreamville. This process was pretty stressful, as they just move a barrier rope bit by bit, forcing people to push and try and claim a spot to put down their tents. Lucky for us, we waited patiently and got a pretty good spot by an area where there were washrooms and showers.

Dreamville has absolutely anything you could imagine! Free outdoor showers, FLUSHABLE washrooms (mixed with normal ones(porta-potties? optional)), charcoal BBQ areas, a butcher, a bakery, a grocery store, as well as tons of amazing food and drink options. They even had a hair salon for girls wanting to get up-dos each day. We felt like we were camping in luxury!

The festival itself was obviously a dream come true. The production and the stages were something we’ve all never seen before and we got to hear a lot of our favorite DJs. We spent so much time walking around, eating, relaxing, and dancing that the time absolutely flew. We had a lot of fun, despite the fact that it rained a majority of our time there.

Some quick tips if you’re heading to Tomorrowland:

  • It’s not always as hot as you think, and it rains! Despite the sunny after-movies, Belgium is quite cold at night and feels a lot like Canadian summers. Bring warmer, dry clothes that you’ll actually want to wear. Sam and I were stuck with baggy sweaters and no rain gear, and we were not pleased when it rained. I think I only managed to wear shorts one day out of three.  Bring proper shoes for this as well, such as sandals that strap on.
  • Bring warm sleeping clothes. Again, it gets cold at night!
  • Bring a flag! You’ll feel left out without one, trust me.
  • Bring lots of things to share with those around you. This is such a great way to make friends from all over the world! Sam and I had glitter, stickers, face gems, and all sorts of fun stuff to share so we could make some lasting girl friends from different countries.
  • Bring earplugs to sleep at night – nothing ruins a festival mood quicker than being kept up until the sun rises by chanting drunk people 😉
  • Bring a bathing suit so you can shower in the FREE outdoor showers.
  • Take advantage of the grocery store and save on food costs.
  • Don’t plan your DJ schedule! The stages are far apart and running from one stage to another is just going to drive you crazy. Just pick one or two ‘must-see’ shows, and leave the rest up to chance.
  • Go to the festival early each day and make the most of it. One day we waited until about 5pm to go from Dreamville to Tomorrowland and by the time we walked there, stood in all the lines, and ate dinner, it was pretty late. As the festival ends at midnight, it felt like we really hadn’t gotten a proper day of fun in.
  • Go to Mainstage for the final set, even if it’s not your favorite type of music. We were told this and followed the advice (reluctantly), despite it not being our preferred genre of music. Tomorrowland puts ALL of their production value into Mainstage at the end of the night and the show cannot be beat. When everyone is singing, chanting, and putting up their lights, it really gives you an amazing perspective of how massive the crowd is. Plus, the fireworks at the end are incredible!

All in all, Tomorrowland was a ton of fun but I wish we had prepared for the weather. It’s an expensive festival, packed with big name DJs — making it super busy and a bit too corporate. While it wasn’t my favorite festival we had been to, it was still exciting being part of such a global community of electronic music lovers from all over the world.

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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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The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan

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The Full Moon Party in Thailand is one of the most famous all night beach parties in South East Asia, if not the world. Koh Phangan is not only famous thanks to the movie The Beach, but also for the monthly party hosted on Haad Rin beach. Nearly 30,000 people come to enjoy music, fire shows, neon everything, and of course buckets of booze.

When we realized we’d be arriving on the islands the day of the Full Moon Party, we decided we had to go. We looked into accommodations on Koh Phangan, but everything was either booked up, price hiked, or demanding a minimum five-day stay (which wasn’t in our plans). We did some quick research and asked a travel agent and quickly learned a really cool hack: you can stay on Koh Samui and take a $25 USD round-trip speed boat there and back. Perfect.

This catch was amazing for a number of reasons. Our bungalow on Koh Samui cost only $15 a night and we had it all to ourselves. The island wasn’t rammed with drunken partiers, but still had an exceptional music and club scene. The beaches were less packed, the food was amazing, and we could keep our distance from the craziness if we wanted to. It was an all-around way better option for us.

IMG_20150203_235238Our travel agent on Koh Samui got us a round trip speedboat trip for 800 baht, which was significantly cheaper than what was offered right at the dock. If you buy at the dock, they’re asking 1100 baht. So, try to shop around. This price included a bus from our hotel as well as the boat there, boat back, and the final bus home (note: in the early morning hours this bus ride can get pretty overloaded, so don’t rely on the ride home being straightforward). The speedboat takes about 15 minutes and everyone is cheering and stoked on life so it’s a fun trip. Oh, and skip any VIP tickets – they’re useless. Regardless of which route you pick, your ticket is good from 10pm till 7am the next day to get you home.

We had read a lot of horror stories about the Full Moon Party online. So many people say it’s not safe, it’s gross, it’s just a bunch of drunken backpackers, etc. etc. We weren’t sure what to expect and I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. Conversely, we had met two other couples that went to the Full Moon Party on a whim and loved it, so we were also hoping to be pleasantly surprised. We both grabbed some potent Thai Redbulls (Google it, they’re insane) and headed over around midnight.

We got to Haad Rin beach around midnight when everything was already in full swing. It was 100 baht entrance ($3 USD) and they weren’t checking any IDs (duh, it’s Thailand). We scored some free body paint that other partiers were sharing and Luke IMG_20150204_023617was the artist of the evening. We grabbed a flower headband, a bucket (200 baht, $6 USD for a pint of Thai rum, a Coke, and a classy plastic drinking bucket), and began to explore.

The party sprawls across the entire beach. Every little bar is selling buckets, food, and playing their own music. You can hear anything from Top 40, to electro bangers, to crazy deep psytrance, to bone-shaking drum and bass. If a song comes on that you don’t like, just walk 15 feet further and enjoy the music there. We settled in for some deep house at one place, and then ventured on to some crazy fist-pumping electro the next.

There is also fire everywhere. Fire dancers, fire signs, fire limbo, even fire jump rope. Luke gave that a try – the flaming 50’ rope would start swinging, people would join in and start jumping, and eventually someone would screw it all up and cause a wipeout. Untangle, clear the jump-rope area, repeat.

There was a water slide, dance stages on the beach, black lights and lasers everywhere, and endless opportunities for exploring. We really enjoyed just walking around, people watching, dancing, and seeing all of the stuff offered by the island. Black lights kept the neon glowing, and stores stayed open all night (in case you forgot to bring your own neon swag).

IMG_20150204_020847Yes, the Full Moon Party is a bit crazy. We saw drunkenness that can only be explained in terms of frosh week debauchery (including one guy dancing atop a billboard), and we saw some telltale signs of drugs. The large number of people and the short supply of public washrooms meant that hordes of bros were using the surf as a urinal. That was a bit grimy, but then again, when is a festival’s washroom setup not grimy? We just kept our heads about us, kept each other close, and kept our shoes on.

Overall the Full Moon Party is a blast and the basic safety rules apply: Watch your drink, watch your bucket, don’t accept drinks or party favors from strangers, take a buddy (and WATCH your buddy … too many girls were on the solo on the hunt for their lost BFF), don’t sleep on the beach, watch your stuff for pickpockets, try not to get blackout drunk, and WEAR SOMETHING GOOD ON YOUR FEET. Broken glass in the sand leaves a lot of backpackers hobbling for the rest of their trip.

In the end, it was one of the most memorable nights of our trip. Before we knew it, it was 4AM and we were grabbing chicken shwarma in preparation for battling the long line to get back on our speedboat. If you’re ever in Thailand around a Full Moon Party date, I cannot urge you enough to leave all of your inhibitions behind, grab a neon tank top, and just GO.

Watch our video recap of our night at the Full Moon Party:

Phnom Penh to Bangkok in under $50

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On this trip, it’s been important for us to find the most cost-conscious ways of getting from point A to point B. In South East Asia,  it’s pretty easy to cut costs if you’re willing to put in the work. From walking from travel agent to travel agent, to researching extensively online and knowing every way possible, to taking the less direct route, you can always make your budget work.

Flights in South East Asia are usually cheap, but sometimes when booking last minute the prices will suddenly be unaffordable. We missed our chance to get a plane ticket from Phnom Penh to Bangkok as planned and we weren’t about to opt for the extremely badly reviewed bus company offering $30 overnight “VIP” buses. There were far too many stories of drivers falling asleep and landing their buses in a ditch.

We’ve thoroughly enjoyed using one website called The Man In Seat 61 for cross-checking all of our transportation options before we make a final decision. The site is basically a hub for anything you need to know about train and bus travel in most countries. So, we decided to take a route we found on his site but added a few of our own preferences.

IMG_5069Here’s our step by step guide for how we got from Phnom Penh to Bankok for less than $50:

Step 1: We jumped on a 10:30 PM night bus with Giant Ibis (great bus company that you can book online, choose your seat seats, and it has wifi!) from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap for $15. It was a 6.5 hour overnight drive on a”hotel bus” where you get a full lie down bed, as opposed to traditional sleepers with recliners. The one half of the bus was double beds, so my boyfriend and I got to sleep side by side with plenty of room.

Step 2: After arriving safely in Siem Reap at 6AM, we hailed a $2 tuk tuk to take us to the bus station for a $9 bus (as suggested by Seat61). Our driver told us the buses get really full (who knows if this is the truth) and suggested a private taxi instead. We asked how much, and he said $30 to get us to Poipet where we would cross the boarder. So at $15 each, we were totally cool with that. He drove us to some guys he knew and they tried to get us for $35. A little haggling and the threat of walking away, and they caved for $30. It took two hours to get to the border in a nice car.

Step 3: At 8:30 AM we walked across the boarder into Thailand! No lines, just some quick passport stamping and then we walked into Aranyaprathet. Note that the visa rules have changed and you can now get a free 30 day visa when you arrive by land, instead of just two weeks as it was previously.

Step 4: We got food and hung out in a cafe before taking a $3 tuk tuk ride to the train station to grab the 1:55 PM train to Bangkok. We waited at the train station and bought our $1.50 train tickets from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok (6 hours). The only option is a 3rd class seat, which is bench seating. The 3rd class soft seats filled up quickly, so we were stuck with the leftover hard seats in 4th class. The windows come right down so the ride is really breezy and nice. The only issue we had was with the food, as we couldn’t tell what it was they were selling. My advice would be to take the time and get some snacks for the trip, or be ready to try some unusual Thai food.

And with that, we arrived safely in Bangkok. A little bit hungry but no worse for the wear. All in all, our trip cost us (per person):
$15 bus from Pnom Penh to Siem Reap
$2 Tuk tuk in Siem Reap to car
$30 Car from Siem Reap to Poipet
$1.55 Train from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok
Total cost: $48.55 (USD)

It’s a bit of a journey but if you’re mentally prepared for it, it’s really easy and not too bad since it’s all broken up into steps. All in all, it was really cool to figure it out for ourselves and we’d recommend the trip for the adventurous souls.

Teaching English in Vietnam

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We originally moved to Hanoi, Vietnam to try our hand at teaching English. It’s had it’s ups and downs, but overall it’s been a rewarding experience. Here are the basic pointers we’ve learned from teaching English in Vietnam. We’re by no means experts, but we learned a few lessons pretty quickly from being over here!

Getting a job

To get a job, we simply made a concise resume with our education, experience, and we emphasized our tutoring/teaching time with ESL students. If you have a degree and a TEFL/TESOL/CELTA, then you’ll have your pick of the jobs. If you lack either, you can definitely still find work, you’ll just have to hunt a little bit harder. Teachers in Vietnam make on average $18-20 an hour. Make sure you include a professional picture on your CV, as ‘looking the part’ is just as important as your qualifications. Jobs are posted daily on Hanoi Massive and Expats in Ho Chi Minh City (Facebook groups), as well as The New Hanoian.

Part-Time vs Full-Time

Don’t assume that you’ll be working a 9-5 schedule as soon as you arrive. This is a IMG_4066large city, and a lot of employers are offering teachers individual classes in the evenings and weekends. Classes are often littered throughout the day or evening andweekends only. Also, be wary of the amount of driving you’ll have to do. At first, we snapped up a bunch of classes but soon realized we were driving an hour to teach for an hour — definitely not worth it. Try to focus on jobs that are close by, or especially on jobs that offer large block chunks of teaching hours.

Contracts

We had some serious frustrations as a result of signing contracts when we shouldn’t have, and most of our friends have experienced this at some point as well. The contracts in this industry often seem to work one way – if you sign the contract and then break it (quitting early, showing up late, etc), they’ll keep your pay. As such, never sign a contract on the spot, and delay signing it for as long as you can until you’ve  gotten a feel for the job. Delaying by a week or two might be the difference between being stuck in a bad job and being free to go with pay. Also, be mindful that jobs try to lure you in with the promise of a work visa. They’ll either never follow through on this promise, continue to put it off, or get you one and you’ll be locked in with them for a year (or at risk of losing the money they put out to get you the visa). If you’re serious about staying here, make sure to get a company that will follow through. If you’re unsure about staying here, put off getting a work permit.

When to arrive

Every year, the entire country slows down for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. This year Tet falls on Feb 15-23, but you can check it online here. Less money gets spent in anticipation for the celebration, so there are fewer people hiring, and fewer hours being given to teachers. If you arrive in January or February, prepare yourself for a very slow start. That being said, all other times are consistently good. May/June is perfect to get hired for the summer term (students are out of school, and hours are high), or November/December to replace all the teachers leaving for Christmas.

Type of schools/classes

Be picky about where you work and try to find somewhere you enjoy. Teaching at a public school can be very rewarding if you enjoy children, but classes can range from 30-50 students with little to no help from teaching assistants and terrible organization. We often hear that teaching these classes are quite challenging. We’ve always opted for language centres for this10881514_10203484982632457_1604608478411638350_n very reason. This leaves us working mostly evenings and weekends, but the class sizes are smaller and we were lucky to get mostly adult/teenage classes. Teaching older students is awesome, as they’re more eager to learn and teaching conversational English is more enjoyable. On the other hand, kids classes are a lot of fun if you like playing games. Vietnamese children are always so happy and hilarious to spend time with.

Excellent way to travel

All in all, teaching English has proved to be an incredibly easy way to work while traveling. The low cost of living means that saving up for your next leg of traveling is not hard at all. We definitely made our moneys worth teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam. If you browse Dave’s ESL Cafe, the salaries for Korea, China and the Middle East all seem to leave room for quick savings, as well.

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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Travelling as a couple: What we’ve learned

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A few months ago, everyone was offering us words of wisdom and caution before embarking on our trip to South East Asia. I didn’t really take them all that seriously -Luke and I had spent almost three years as friends getting to know each other before choosing to date. We’d been through so much already and we had experienced being outside of our respective comfort zones – how different would things be?

Well, I thought wrong.

We couldn’t have imagined all the various things our relationship would be up against when we moved abroad. We dealt with culture shock, minor starvation while on long trips, heat stroke, having to sweat through our clothes as we walked in the muggy Asian weather, busy streets (the kind of busy that keeps timid people indoors), menus in other languages, bumpy bus rides that would leave you sore and angry at the countryside, gross hostels, and so many other not-fun travelling perks.

The bottom line was that we are all we had. We didn’t have friends, the comforts of home, or even our own space. We quickly learned that the most important thing was our relationship and above all, that you need to put the other person first at all times. I figured I’d share a bit of my wisdom, just in case anyone is thinking of putting his or her relationship to the ultimate travel test.

Open communication

IMG_4100Being totally and shamelessly honest with each other has saved us a ton of headaches. For me, I just had to be up front when something made me uncomfortable, like a long bus ride or a sketchy hotel. For him, he’d just tell me that he was feeling cranky for no reason to let me know that it wasn’t personal. It takes a lot of patience to do this and practice makes perfect. There’s no hiding the real you when you’re travelling together, so suck it up and let each other in.

At first when we started travelling, I felt a lot of pressure being on this “once in a lifetime trip”. Not only was it my big trip, it was Luke’s too and I didn’t want to ruin it by skipping an activity, staying in, or sleeping early. I held back my real feelings. Finally, I told him how I felt and realized that my mindset was completely incorrect. The only way we would ruin anything was if we held back what we really felt or wanted.

Learn to let go

Things happen and people get mad—It’s inevitable. After a long day and a few too many snide remarks, it’s not hard for two people to become enemies. Emotions run extremely high when you’re travelling since you’re constantly out of your comfort zone. It’s important to accept and be prepared for that.
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We allowed ourselves to fight, since it’s healthy to let off steam and say what’s on your mind, but we both learned to back down. If I wanted to hold a grudge against Luke, I would be alone here. Also, I would ruin our entire day if I decided to stay angry. What’s the point? What fight could possibly be worth ruining a day in the mountains of Asia with the person you love? Hopefully, the answer is always: Nothing.

We learned to say sorry quickly and also to let bygones be bygones. We realized that asking ourselves, “What is this actually worth?” made a huge difference. Although we had some close calls (Read: Hunger-induced issues – pack snacks, people!), not a single day was a total write-off and this lesson is something that benefits our relationship every day, travelling or not.

Don’t shy away from big talks 

When we were planning this trip, I wasn’t up front about what I wanted. We got to Asia and I was holding on to a lot of resentment towards Luke, feeling as if this was “his” trip and not mine. It all came to a head in Bangkok and we finally had a much-needed, long, open discussion about what I wanted as well. We wrote a list. We talked about our plans. We made some changes. Most importantly, he listened to me and I realized I should have done this way earlier.

It’s not always easy asking for something, at least not for me. And for some, it’s not always easy listening to someone else or compromising on your dreams. As a couple, you are responsible for two lives, two sets of dreams, and two peoples’ happiness. In our final years together, I hope that I can say I’ve given Luke the absolute best life he could have had. At the same time, I need to say that for myself as well. Check in with each other, have the talk, reevaluate a million times, compromise, and make it work.

You don’t always have to like each other

There have been days where we have woken up and said, “I don’t like you today”. Although we always say it with a massive grin on our face, it still feels very real. When you’re together 24/7, sometimes you just don’t want to have to think about the other person. Sometimes you want a break.

IMG_20141111_164103Being around Luke is like having an annoying brother – he puts bugs in my food, throws me into cold water, takes the last slurp (and by slurp, I mean the entire last half) of my smoothie, and messes up my hair. He drives me nuts some days. I’m not innocent either! I hide his cell phone so he thinks he lost it and tell him we overslept when we didn’t, causing a mini heart attack for him as many times as possible in one day.

The reality is, when you’re together all of the time you need a break. Honor this and take time for yourselves. Read a book, lounge on the beach, go for coffee and catch-up on e-mails. Trips can often be non-stop exploring or activities so be mindful of the fact that it’s okay to take a break and enjoy each other’s company in silence.

Embrace it

Before this trip, I thought I knew Luke inside and out but I can safely say that there are things I’ve now seen that I can never unsee. We’ve become inseparable and one benefit of travelling is that it’s brought us even closer together. If you’re in a relationship and aren’t sure you’re ready for the next big step, take a serious trip together and it’ll be pretty telling.

In the end, I believe that coming on this trip has made us so much stronger as a couple. I think the main benefit is that we’ve always been challenged as a couple and we’ve never stopped working to make the changes we’ve needed to make. I’m glad we pushed ourselves and we’ve made memories to stay with us for the rest of our lives. While travelling with someone isn’t for everyone, it’s an experience that will bring some serious change into your life.

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

Getting a suit made in Hoi An

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Like many others before us, we traveled to Hoi An anticipating getting a suit custom made and tailored for a good price. We had planned this stop about a year ago when we were brainstorming Vietnam and let’s just say Luke was very excited.

Years ago, Hoi An only had a few tailor shops. Now, it has hundreds (depending on your source, it’s around the 600 mark). Walking through the streets of Hoi An, you see shop after shop making suits, dresses, leather bags, leather shoes, and everything in between. The city is a top tourist destination and it really shows. It’s almost a overwhelming how much this city thrives off of Westerners coming to get something hand made. The tailor market has become so popular that some shops are very aggressive when trying to get your business. More on that later.

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The interior of Luke’s suit jacket.

Finding a tailor was daunting, but after a friend’s recommendation and checking some things out online, Luke felt comfortable choosing Kimmy’s. Walking into the bustling shop full of other Westerners, the ladies at Kimmy’s know how to cater to a dude getting a suit. Jumping all over Luke the moment he walked in, they explained the materials, colours, silks, and designs. Nicer fabrics cost more but overall, a three piece suit starts as low as $79 USD or as much as $250 USD. A nice dress was about $50 USD, depending on the length, fabric, etc.

This price range wasn’t the absolute cheapest in Hoi An, as some shops offered suits in the $50-150 range, but the quality had been attested for by others. The women walked us through the ‘extra touches’ that they add to their clothes, such as double-stitching key areas, reinforcing stretch points, and using high-quality ‘guts’ for the suit, and we felt good about the slightly higher price point.

As I mentioned, the tailor market is extremely cut throat since it’s Hoi An’s bread and butter. While being able to get a cheap quality suit tailor made is exciting, there’s unfortunately quite a dark side to it as well.

While we were finalizing some details about Luke’s suit, we heard a smash outside. As Luke looked outside and the women rushed to the window, he could see a terra cotta pot had been thrown at the store front containing grey sludge and dead birds. It was a homemade stink bomb. Quickly, the putrid smell filled the shop leaving everyone gasping and flooding out. It left us pretty shook up.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Our tailor told us that this stuff happens from time to time and they have no idea who does it or why. Likely, it’s because someone was jealous of their success and wants to hurt their business. Either way, the stinkbomb was both scary and disgusting.

The next day, we went back for Luke’s first fitting. He had settled on a two piece Navy suit with three dress shirts. At the first fitting, everything was almost pretty much perfect. His tailor was great and took all of our suggestions with an encouraging nod. The next afternoon, the suit was complete.

All in all, the total cost to Luke for a two piece suit, two ties, and three custom made dress shirts: $220 USD.

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The final product.

My experience at Kimmy’s wasn’t as great. I wanted to join in on the experience and get two simple but dressy sleeveless shirts made. Since it was a low commission, my tailor couldn’t seem to care less about really taking care of it. Long story short, after a few disastrous fittings, we decided I should try somewhere else.

Thanks to our Irish friends’ recommendation, I headed over to BiBi Silk and the ladies there were so friendly and nice. In just three visits, the shirts were perfect without a hitch! We decided Luke will get his next suit made there on our way back through before leaving the country.

Overall, definitely try getting something custom made in Hoi An. The prices absolutely cannot be beat and if you find a good tailor, you’ll end up with a stunning product.

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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