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!

Sunset yoga and cascading waterfalls in Luang Prabang

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After arriving in Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Despite it being close neighbours to Thailand, we still experienced a bit of culture shock yet again.

We touched down from the slow boat and slugged it from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that was up to par. Lately, this has been our go-to method for finding a lodging, as booking online has proved to be more expensive and crappy. Going door to door is simple in most places, since most hostels are often clumped together. Owners are used to backpackers asking to see the rooms and haggling prices is not uncommon.

On our first day, Luke wasn’t feeling the best due to our malaria medication so I went solo to sunset yoga. Ock Pop Tok offered sunset yoga right on the Mekong River for 60,000 kip ($8.50 CAD). Jenn was my teacher and she was incredible. The hour and a half class was challenging, but the best part was being able to glance up and see the sun setting over the water. Being a huge yoga fan, it was a surreal moment — I never dreamed I’d be doing yoga on a river in Laos. I’d highly recommend yoga in the great outdoors, wherever you can experience it.

The next day, we headed to Tad Sae Waterfall. Brian and Jane caught back up to us sooner than we expected, which was awesome. We all split the cost of a tuk tuk to the waterfall, costing us about $2 each. He drove us 30 minutes to the falls and waited three hours for us to get back and drive us home.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls – well worth the trek!

The waterfalls were stunning. The aqua blue water was like nothing we’ve seen, and the way the water cascaded through the trees made it look like the jungle was flooded. We trekked up the falls until we found the perfect place to go swimming. There was a peaceful patch of water right after a bunch of falls that was refreshing as it was beautiful. We had brought Laos sandwiches (baguette with cucumber, carrot, lots of onion, tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese) for lunch.

There were elephant rides at the falls as well. We felt pretty bad for the animals, since they were chained up and had big wooden chairs on top of them so they could offer rides all day. It’s frustrating to see them abused for profit so often here in South East Asia. Nonetheless, getting a chance to see the herd swimming and walking through the falls was pretty fascinating.

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$1.75 = soup for two

The night market in town proved to be the best place to grab food. Luke and I bought a soup for $1.50 CAD and she split it into two filling bowls for us. The food is so fresh, you actually pick your veggies and they fry it right in front of you. There was also a buffet where you filled your plate for $1.75 CAD and the cook would fry everything together with some seasoning. In the morning, you can get smoothies, sandwiches, and crepes all for $1.50 CAD each. It’s insanely delicious and cheap.

We stayed for four nights in Luang Prabang. Overall, the city was definitely underwhelming. While the travel books glamorized the Luang Prabang as a world heritage site, the quaint city was overrun by Westerners both backpacking and on vacation. So, if you want to get a true taste of Laos, Luang Prabang isn’t the place to seek it. Also, it wasn’t very easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s were the priciest we’ve seen, and scooters cost five times the usual Thai rate to rent. There were a lot of packaged tours available, but the value seemed lacking.

If we did it again, we would have cut our trip in half. Regardless, we can’t wait to see what Laos has to offer.

– S & L

P.S The wifi is terrible in Laos. Sorry for the sporadic updates. We’re safe and loving life in Vang Vieng, so don’t worry!

Zipping around in Chiang Mai

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Although Bangkok was interesting and busy, the smog and constant haggling on the street really began to wear on us. As the train pulled into the Chiang Mai station, we instantly exhaled a giant sigh of relief. This city is small and slow. Once surrounded by a moat, the cityscape is perfection: mountain views, canals, and temples. Not to mention a gentle and friendly population.

Our first hostel was a bit of a bust. The room was small, hot, and lacked any privacy. While the staff was very nice, we decided to get out of there as fast as possible. At $5 CAD a night, we learned a very valuable lesson about trying to save money. Luckily, we found The Green Tulip House for $15 CAD next. This hostel has been incredible, and the people we’ve met here are amazing. Our room has AC and a private bathroom, the main floor has a restaurant and plays deep house music all day, and there’s a rooftop patio overlooking the city. We feel right at home here!

Here’s what we’ve done in Chiang Mai so far:

Day one

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(Samie packing up to leave hostel #1. Not sure this was the safest, but we survived.)

We rented a motorbike for 230 baht ($7 CAD) a day (sorry mom!), which gave us access to the whole city as well as the nearby mountains, waterfalls, and temples. The price includes insurance and helmets for two as well and you’re free to make day treks anywhere outside of the city. If you break down, the rental place will come and pick you up. We rented from Mr. Mechanic which doesn’t have a website, but locals highly recommend the place.

We spent the day driving around and getting to know Chiang Mai. After a few hours, we got really hot and decided to head to the Eco Resort for some swimming. A delightfully designed retreat, there were acres of botanical gardens, as well as hotel-style rooms, a large rustic dinging/bar area, and some private villas. It was 100 baht ($3 CAD) each for pool access for us. Well worth it!

Day two

This is the day where we moved all of our stuff to the new hostel. It was such a relief to be somewhere where we were comfortable. Instantly, we made some friends with two other couples. Luke helped them each get a motorbike as well so they could join us on our way to the Mae Sa waterfalls.

The ride took about 30 minutes and the national park was 100 baht ($3 CAD) to get into. It was trickling rain when we arrived, so we stopped to eat at a food cart. The menu was definitely intended for the locals, with very little looking like it was within our comfort zones. We stuck to charcoal fried chicken, sticky rice, and barbecued eggs (who knew?). The chicken was incredible! If only we were more daring, there was also salted fish and barbecued pork intestines for sale.

When it stopped raining, we made our way up the waterfalls. At Mae Sa, there are 10 locations where you can stop, swim, picnic, and hang out at different levels and waterfalls. It’s really incredible. Some of the locals convinced Luke to jump in the waterfall, and he had a blast trying to stand under the crush of the water. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. You can see more here.

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(Luke and Brian taking in a real waterfall massage)

We got caught in the rain on the way home as we were biking, so we stopped in to have tea at this stunning resort called Cool Downs Resort. They let us in even though we looked like a bunch of drowned rats, but we took a look around and were in awe of how gorgeous the set up was with an outdoor infinity pool, a fire pit, and an overall beautiful modern design.

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(Grilled squid, cooked to rubbery perfection.)

Later on after we all warmed up, Luke and I went out in search of food. I stuck with some chicken fried rice, but Luke got his hands on some grilled squid. It was put on the charcoal grill whole, and cooked thoroughly (maybe too thoroughly, as the texture became pretty tough… but at least it was safe to eat!) before they chopped it up and bagged it. Just before we left with our purchase, they offered a sauce. Luke unwittingly said yes, and watched his dinner get doused in a chili-seed marinade. Overall, the squid tasted great – but next time we’ll go easier on the liquid fire.

Day three

We went to an elephant retirement home. But, you’ll have to wait for that post!

– S & L

Backpackers, Buddhas, and bold street food in Bangkok

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Our week in Bangkok has flown by. We finally got our bearings and decided to try some street food, check out a temple, and meet some other backpackers.

We felt a bit lost in Bangkok, so our hostel host mentioned we should check out the backpackers’ street, Khao San Road. It was a 10 minute walk from our hostel and when we got there, we could tell why it was aptly named. Almost everything was in English, Thai locals were selling everything under the sun, Lady Gaga music was blasting from open bars, and there was a sea of other backpackers.

Luke decided he needed some lighter shorts, so we haggled with some venders to get him two pairs for $12 CAD. We sat down and had some Pad Thai and garlic chicken, watching all sorts of backpackers walk past. While it was a welcome change to the confusion that Bangkok had been thus far, it still left a bad taste in our mouths. Seeing hordes of loud, obnoxious and predominantly very white pedestrians from our restaurant table was at first amusing, then disheartening. Is this how we looked to the Thai locals? Our bar had a band of overly vocal Aussies draining draft beer from a tower, and the bar across the street wasn’t faring much better. Still, we were eating something that had an English label on it, so we took the good with the bad.

After that, we headed back to our hostel to meet up with some friends so we could head to the vegetarian food festival in Chinatown. The seven of us piled into two Tuk Tuks and swerved through rush hour traffic before hitting the busy Chinatown festival. The streets were packed and there were food venders everywhere.

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At long last it was time to dig into Thai street food in earnest. We ate veggie fried noodles, roasted chestnuts, and a delicious cashew fruit slushie. If you’re not sure what to picture when we say cashew fruit slushie, don’t worry – neither did we. It looked like a Sunny D concoction, but tasted like they had added butter and some subtle herbs. We tried imitation sausage, which was tofu seasoned and seared just right. For sweets, we had coconut griddle dumplings and pure frozen coconut ice cream.

There was a man selling Durian fruit, which could be described as a mix between avocado, mango, a spike ball and a stink bomb. Our American friend told us that it’s illegal to transport fresh Durian on public transit in the United States on account of the smell. IMG_2633To get to the edible part, you have to crack open and discard nearly 80% of the fruit matter to get to the heart of it. Our verdict: It tasted pretty gross. It had the texture of foam but had a sweeter taste with a sulphur finish.

The next day, we woke up nice and early to check out of our hostel. After I made sure Luke didn’t forget anything, we wandered towards our first temple in Thailand. We had decided on Wat Pho so we could see the Reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 43 metres long and fully ensconced in gold leaf; the feet have over 100 symbols of Buddha engraved on it. To say impressive and ornate would be an understatement. The entire chamber seemed unable to fully showcase the beauty and overwhelming size.

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The entire area was awe-inspiring. Beautiful gardens, many little Buddha’s, all wrapped in gold-leaf, mini-waterfalls, and decorative bonsai trees, all littered the grounds. Since it’s Thailand’s rainy season, we got caught in the daily monsoon-style rain at the end of our tour. We took cover in one of the shrines while the water absolutely beat down for an hour, but we didn’t mind.

When the rain let up, we headed back to our hostel and collected our bags and headed to the train station. Up next, our overnight trip on the Oriental Express.