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Conquering Fansipan Vietnam to be the champion

Fansipan is the highest peak of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, so it is called the “Roof of Indochina” while the local people call it Huasipan, which means large tottering rock.

Motorbiking Ho Chi Minh Trail, Vietnam - an unforgettable travel adventure

Riding a motorbike from the North to the South of Vietnam was an amazing experience. Now, while I didn’t ride the motorcycle on myself (Anthony did an amazing job!) it is still something that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Discover Vietnam by cycling

People who had traveled to Vietnam agreed that it was an interesting experience in general, but the bicycle tours definitely brought more adventurous excitements.

A Look into Beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay has been declared a UNESCO World heritage site and it really deserves the designation. It is one of the most exciting unusual places I have been to in my life.

Monday, April 16, 2012

4 easy tips for unforgetable biking trip in Vietnam

As a country with every terrain imaginable, Vietnam offers a memorable bicycling adventure for any and all peddlers, regardless of experience or condition. The flat expanse of the Mekong Delta grows to rugged mountains in the central expanse and then blends into the widest variety of difficulty north near Hanoi.

There are few considerations given to bicyclists, a decided lack of designated lanes is one example, and the crushing throng of traffic in some of the larger cities can seem intimidating, but then when has riding a bicycle not been intimidating? Luckily the traffic thins out everywhere else and a single rider will often find themselves peddling alone.

Traffic and Bicycle Laws
Along with standard laws like not causing traffic problems by racing or zigzagging, Vietnam has few laws targeted specifically toward the bicyclist. It is important to remember not to carry cumbersome loads, carry children over age seven with you or ride more than two abreast. No sort of helmet or lighting is required, but bicyclists are not allowed to ride with open umbrellas. One can only guess what happened to make this law.

  Vietnam has few laws targeted specifically toward the bicyclist

Common Trips
There are some routes that will take you through the backcountry while providing some modicum of modern amenities, or the option to rent a bicycle for a short time lends itself to impromptu day or overnight trips.

The easiest of these is around the Mekong Delta. With a terrain nearly devoid of any rise, these trips are easier, but by no means less scenic, than the others. Traveling through the expanse of rice paddies dotted with the occasional copse of trees, the rider will be joined by children cycling to or from school or women returning from the market. People in the villages will be pleasantly surprised to see a foreigner riding into town and a circuit from Ho Chi Minh to any of the surrounding villages is an easy ride. With the flat terrain and abundance of villages it is easy to take a trip of any length, whether only a day or two weeks, a rider can tour without backtracking.

 The northern provides travellers the more difficult routes

The northern area allows for more wooded scenery while still allowing for easier trips. For the more  bicycle adventurous, the northern area provides a greater degree of difficulty through the hills surrounding Hanoi. A typical trip would be a tour from Hanoi to Hoa Binh to Ninh Binh and then to Hanoi; an intermediate trip of about 200 km on good road conditions.

A new trip for the adventurous would be along the historical Ho Chi Minh trail. The Vietnamese government recently finished building a highway connecting north and south Vietnam that runs roughly the same track the Ho Chi Minh trail did. Traffic is light and the people who live in the mountains hospitable. This is an intermediate trip lasting multiple days.

Weather
Weather in Southeast Asia is a big consideration and it is recommended to go from Late September to December or March to late May. The weather in the southern area of Vietnam stays warm and humid averaging 26°C with its rainy season from June to September. BE WARNED: Vietnam sees monsoonal rains starting in June, peaking in August and tapering down in September. This season varies depending on location; Hanoi in the north generally has a rainy season that peaks earlier while Ho Chi Minh City may not see its rains slack until early October. Vietnam, especially central Vietnam, often floods and can hold up a trip for a week before the waters recede.
 The grapth which reveals the avarage temp and avarage rainfall

The hot season will see temperatures averaging 30°C, with the south staying warm all year round and the north seeing winter trends averaging 15°C. Depending on the time of year, it would be advisable to take a jacket to keep off the chill, especially if riding in the highlands, and a hat to protect against the sun.

Other Considerations
Visas must be applied for at least six months prior to entry date. Tourist visas are granted for one month, but may be extended after arrival in Vietnam, and only allow one entry into the country. Tourists must fill out arrival/departure papers and declaration papers, keeping both with the passport at all times. It is also recommended having a few extra passport-size photos with you as local authorities may request these and it is always a good idea to stay on the good side of authorities.

 Visas must be applied for at least six months prior to entry date

With over two-thirds of its roads unpaved and those paved roads sporting an abundance of potholes, the road conditions almost require a mountain bike. Most hotels, cafes and GHs will rent bicycles while also providing fairly dependable service options at the same time. Expect to spend about $20 a day renting a bike, or see your airline about their rules for taking your own with you.

The lush landscapes and warm hospitality provide anyone with a good biking tour of Vietnam. Take the time to look around and smell the proverbial “roses”.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Good morning Vietnam!

As I woke up around 6am last Wednesday to the sun streaming through the bay windows in our hotel room in Cat Ba Island, I walked over to the window that overlooked Ha Long Bay, an off-shoot of the China Sea, opened it and yelled out “Good Morning Vietnam!” Yes, I’m a dork. But it had to be done.

 The calm sea in Vietnam is suitable for leisuring

Two of my girlfriends and I (that also love to travel) decided to book a 10 day trip to Vietnam. Why Vietnam you might ask? Why not? None of us had been there yet, and since we all have the same goal of visiting everywhere in the world, it seemed fitting…. And I can tell you that it didn’t disappoint. I highly, highly recommend Vietnam to anyone that likes sun and beauty and a good bang for your buck. I also highly recommend bringing an extra suitcase for all of the silk scarves, ties and pearls you will purchase while you are there. And maybe even allow an extra couple of days to get clothes tailored specifically to you. I mean, you can pick out exactly the outfits you want, and have them custom made to fit you perfectly… for super cheap! I learned this however on my last day in Vietnam, so I will save that for my next visit. This trip I was forced to leave solely with my newly purchased bootleg Samsonite luggage packed full of silk scarves and ties and jewelry and even a quilt, all hand made in the places where I visited. And they are all gorgeous.

A silk bag from Vietnam 

But because there is so much to do and see in Vietnam, we focused our travels on the Northern part of the country, visiting Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, Hanoi, Perfume Pagoda and Sapa. Over the next few days I will write blog posts on each of those places, because there is just too much to write in one little blog post, and each place was so amazing and different from the next that they each deserve their own entry. However, overall this was truly an amazing experience. One which included so much laughter, and forged memories, and good friends made, that it will be hard to top in future trips. Somehow, even though we had nothing planned other than our flights and a few nights booked at the Hilton using my Hilton points, we managed to figure out what to do, and how to do it, regardless of the arduous language barrier. Everything worked out perfectly…. From our private party boat which carted us across Ha Long Bay over to Cat Ba Island… to the Fancy Pants Express train that waited for us to depart while we finished getting our pedicures…to our new friend So who invited us into her home and cooked us a meal as we warmed up by an open fire to dry off after hiking through the forest in the rain. Everything was perfect, and looking back, I am amazed that it worked out so well.
 Halong Bay - The National Tresure and World Heritage as well 

 Cat Ba Island in the morning

I’m looking forward to going back there someday, the next time with Cameron (who probably wasn’t super thrilled with me taking off for 2 weeks right after we got engaged and right before he is moving to Chicago for the summer….but hopefully his new endless supply of silk ties will help make amends…) and taking him to meet my new Vietnamese friends, and showing him all of the cool places that I fell in love with, and spending more time visiting Southern Vietnam and branching out to Thailand and Cambodia and Laos. I absolutely adore Vietnam, and I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to visit such an amazing country!



This is a picture of the 3 of us - my friends Brittany and Brook, just before we hopped in one of those boats and headed up to Perfume Pagoda!


And this is a picture of me with my new friend So inside her house warming up... you can see I'm all wet from the rain. She dressed us all in her clothes that she made. This particular coat is indigenous to her tribe and took her over a year to make by hand out of hemp.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Six days in Hanoi, Vietnam

'Madam, Motor'... 'Madam, Motor' This is how most of the Vietnamese motor-bikers in Hanoi used to approach me, trying to convince me to get on their bike for a ride for a certain amount of money.

 Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam

For those who didn't experience Vietnam yet, please be advised that crossing the streets is a challenge.

The country in general and Hanoi in particular, is humming and buzzing with traffic. A steady stream of motorbikes, rickshaws and cars driving around in both directions. Not once, did I join a group of people or someone else just to cross the street, and I won't lie if I say that sometimes I just hold my breath, praying silently I will make it safe to the other side of the street.

 Ma May street, Hanoi

I arrived to Hanoi at the end of January, few days after Tet Holiday and the streets of the city were even more buzzing and humming, especially during night time, when families went out for dinner, ice cream treat and some loud Karaoke.

I arrived to Hanoi planning on staying for only two days but ended up staying for longer.

One of the reasons was the place I've stayed. I booked a room in Hanoi Hibiscus Hotel, a family hotel, few meters away from the Saint Joseph's Cathedral in the Old Quarter and it instantly became my 'home away from home' place to stay. The central location of the hotel and the friendly professional staff, made my stay much easier than in Ho Chi Minh City, where I landed, which has inspired some culture shock.

The variety of places to see and visit, the comfortable weather at that time of year, the great street food and the sense of tourism, made the North of Vietnam more welcoming and easier to travel.

 You may meet many venders on the streets

I've booked an initial tour to get to know some parts of the city with Hanoi City Tours, a free tour by a local young student, who wants to improve his/hers English skills and at the same time introduce and promote their city.

I chose to have my guided tour in the Old Quarter or what called the '36 Streets', a labyrinth of old streets, evolved in the 13th century when artisan guilds were concentrated along each of the original 36 lanes, and clustered by speciality; Silver street (where you can find silver jewelry as well as gravestones), Silk Street, Mats Street, Paper Street, etc. Each of the 36 craft guilds once had its own communal house, however, like most of the quarter's pagoda and temples, they were shut down during the communist takeover and transformed into schools or public housing.

In the outskirts of the Old Quarter, there is the Temple of Literature (located to the south of the Fine Arts Museum at Pho Quoc Tu Giam street). When it was first built, it was the school of the Elite of the Nation and Vietnam's first University. After passing exams at the local levels, scholars who wanted to become seniors came here to study for rigorous examinations. It got its name 'Temple of Literature' at the beginning of the 19th century, and now serves as a place where people and mostly students come and write a prayer and a wish and ask for success in their studies. If you want to be like the locals, have your wish or prayer written by one of the calligraphers outside the temple.

 The temple of Literature

One of the most beautiful pagodas that exists in Hanoi is the Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is located beside the Red River and perhaps is the oldest one in Hanoi, dated from the year of 1639.

I was there one afternoon watching the crowd lighting perfumed incense and giving fruits and fake money to their Gods, just at the last days of Tet Holiday.

While you are in the area, you can walk along the river towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Presidential Palacenear by. Make sure to check the opening hours in advance and the strict rules of the mausoleum. By the time I got there by noon, it was already closed.

Even though I didn't plan it, I paid a visit to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the infamous Hanoi Hilton. The prison was used by the French people who imprisoned, tortured and guillotined Vietnamese revolutionaries, and later on was used by the Vietnamese who prisoned American pilots, including the Republican senator John McCain.

One notices the hinted propaganda by the way the Vietnamese represent themselves as considerate to the American needs.

From Hanoi, it is very easy to book a day-or two day trips to Halong Bay or book a midnight train to Sapa in the North.

 Enjoy a relaxing day at Sapa- The town in cloud

April is a great time to visit Vietnam. The weather is comfortable, the trees are blooming and the food is always great.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Karst Mountains in the Sea: Halong Bay

Halong bay is where the karst mountains, the same we saw in Yangshuo and near the Perfume Pagoda, rise from the sea, resulting in more amazing scenery. We took a 3 day Halong Day tour from Hanoi


It takes 4 hours for the bus to take us to Halong city, where we step on board for a tour through the bay. Despite the mediocre weather, the scenery is great. We are most amazed by the erosion at the base of the karst structures. Some of them look as if they might collapse anytime.


Halfway through the boat trip, we set foot on one of the 3000 islands in the bay. Here we visit a cave with numerous stalagmites and stalagtites, underground rivers, and lakes. And after the second half of the boat trip, we arrive at Cat Ba island, where we will stay for two nights.

Cat Ba town

Cat Ba town is a small village on Cat Ba island in Halong Bay. It has a harbor and lots of hotels. But in the low season, there are few tourists and little action. We attempt visiting some bars and discotheques, but they are as good as deserted. So we head back to the hotel where we chat with our fellow tour companions.
Cat Ba island consists of a National Park covering half the island. The second day of the tour start with a hike through it. We are put in an old, uncomfortable Russian bus. It first brings us to a cave, where a hospital was situated during the American war, and where the Vietnamese army stayed to attack American airplanes. A war veteran comments on life in the cave in these days. He also starts singing some war songs, accompanied by the Vietnamese clapping their hands. We are amazed by the enthusiasm, after all those years.

Hiking in Cat Ba National Park

After the musical intermezzo we move on to the Cat Ba National Park. We have a choice of a long or a short route, and choose the short one. It leads us up some steep, slippery paths, and we have to climb with hands and feet at some points. In the end we reach one of the highest peaks on the island with a nice view over the mountains. After enjoying it, we climb down, which is more difficult than up, but less exhausting. When we come back, we are glad not to have chosen the long route.


The afternoon is planned for a trip to the beach. Although the sun doesn't shine, we take a look around and we find two lovely bays with beaches and rocks. On our way to the beaches, we find a number of used injection needles. According to the bartender in the hotel, though, there is no drugs problem on the island

The third day of the tour is mostly spent by the trip back from Halong Bay to Hanoi. On the boat, we see the many floating houses in the harbor and around the islands. Our estimate is that half the population of Cat Ba lives in the water, close to the nets with which they earn their money. Some floating houses have an electricity wire to the shore, and even an antenna for TV reception.

Back in Hanoi, the weather got even colder. We are glad to move on to Hue the next day. Besides a little warmer, we hope this town is a little less crowded with motorbikes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Embracing adventure in Vietnam

I clung white-knuckled to the back of my friend's motorbike as the two of us zipped around the streets of Hanoi. We buzzed past a man sitting in a barber's chair on the sidewalk of a main road. The man was peering into an oval mirror tacked to a tree as the barber clipped away.
"See! O.I.V!" my friend said.
"What?" I asked, trying to figure out what I had seen as much as what he just said.
"O.I.V.," he repeated. "Only in Vietnam."
It was the first day of my 11-day tour through northern and central Vietnam, and the adventure had just begun.
Vietnam was never at the top of my list of places to visit -- that is until my old roommate from Atlanta took a job in Hanoi. When my rock-climbing partner, with a level of sanity as questionable as my own, found out climbing was on our itinerary, he decided to join in. We'd start in Hanoi and take in the city sights, make our way to Cat Ba Island for a little climbing and finally to Hoi An along the central coast for some relaxation.
Hanoi at street level
We flew in to the capital, where traffic signals and street signs, if they exist, seem more like suggestions than law. The streets are the heart and soul of Hanoi. They're where people gather for everything from dinner to shoe repair, and the only way to take in the city is to plunge into the traffic. So we did, starting with a walking tour of the Old Quarter.
The narrow streets at Old Quater, Hanoi

Roughly 1,000 years old, the Old Quarter developed as craftsmen gathered around the old palace to peddle their wares. The narrow streets eventually became the central marketplace and business area, but it retains much of its ancient charm. The buildings are only a few stories tall, narrow and deep, and artisans and merchants still line the sidewalks. The streets are named after what you may find on them -- tinwork on Hang Thiec and silk on Hang Gai. Hang Dau was once home to fragrant oil merchants, but now tourists and locals walk the street looking for a great deal on shoes.
After watching a tinsmith melt and mold what appeared to be a sprinkler head, another wonder of the Hanoi streets caught my eye, or rather my taste buds. On the balcony of a coffee shop near the Old Quarter, I had my first sip of café sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee). It is dark and thick like espresso, but served iced and creamed with a couple of spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk. I was addicted at first sip.

Vietnamese iced coffee
Climbing on Cat Ba Island
One taxi, three buses and a speedboat away from Hanoi we found the small island of Cat Ba in Halong Bay.
Halong Bay was named one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature in 2011 and is easily recognized by the hundreds of limestone karsts that jut sharply out of the turquoise waters.
Where much of the area has watered down the wilderness experience to cater to tourists, Cat Ba attracts a more low-maintenance traveler -- the "Tây ba lô. "It means 'Western backpacker,' " my friend explained. Cat Ba is a popular spot for backpackers from all over the world who have developed a reputation for their stinginess. Accommodations are basic, and prices are low. Tall, narrow hotels line the main road, each with an amazing view of the harbor. Rooms go for dollars a day, and the cafes feature fresh seafood on the cheap. But the real draw of the island is away from the main drag, so our first morning we caught a ride on a tourist boat to a beachside climbing site.
Take a cruise and relax in Ha Long Bay

As we meandered through the waters of the bay, a unique nautical culture revealed itself. Because the land is often too rocky to cultivate but the bay is rich in sea life, locals have made the water their home.
Large networks of floating villages hide in the shadows of the karsts. Brightly colored huts are built on grids of floating barrels and beams with frontyards made of fishing nets.
Our boat dropped anchor off the shore of a deserted beach. We loaded our climbing gear onto kayaks and paddled over. We scaled the jagged walls of Tiger and Moody's beaches in solitude, taking in the beauty of Halong Bay from the top of the vertical cliffs.
In addition to experiencing the bay's natural beauty, you can't help but stumble upon history.We explored the island during a break between climbing routes and found a natural cave with a man-made concrete slab for a floor, most likely created as a hideout during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it's known in Vietnam). Although I never discovered the history of that exact cave, back on Cat Ba we toured another war-era relic with a local guide.
Hospital Cave is a three story, bomb-proof structure built into a natural cave. It was a hospital and a safe house for the Viet Cong during the war, complete with a kitchen, surgical rooms and a theater.
We also traded $8 cash for two motorbikes (no rental agreement required) and sped up the windy, lush road to Cannon Fort. Cannon Fort was built in the 1940s and later used during the war. Two cannons remain hidden in its crevices, and it's a spectacular place to take in a sunset.
High class in Hoi An
After braving the traffic in the city and the cliffs (and jellyfish) of the bay, I deemed the last part of our trip as R&R time, and the ancient city of Hoi An did not disappoint. Most port cities in Vietnam have met one of two fates: They have either grown into large industrial harbors such as Da Nang or shriveled over time.
Hoi An is different. Its narrow streets with lantern-lit storefronts and a fusion of various styles of traditional Asian architecture give it a quaint feel.
Hoi An at night with many lanterns

Two of the city's specialties are clothing and food. The first you can get made to order. The second you can make yourself. Every other storefront in the old town is a tailor's shop where you can design your own clothing, pick the fabrics and have it sewn overnight. If you find the right tailor, you can walk away with quality, high-style clothing made to fit at big-box store prices.
As for the food, Hoi An is a unique blend of northern and southern flavors with specialties such as white rose dumplings and the Hoi An pancake. Many of the cafes offer cooking classes so you can master the flavors of the city and take them home with you.
Our cooking class started with a tour of the local market, where we picked up a few fresh ingredients and learned about the local food culture. It turns out turmeric will cure all that ails you, according to Vietnamese tradition, and durian -- a very smelly fruit -- is an acquired taste.
After a leisurely boat ride, we arrived at the Red Bridge Cooking School. Under its thatched portico, we learned to make rice paper and spring rolls, cook in a clay pot and fry Banh Xeo, a shrimp and rice pancake.
Trying to re-create that rice paper turned into an epic disaster back in the States, but for an afternoon, we were masters of the trade.
Not for everyone, not forever
From the madness of Hanoi to the untamed beauty of Cat Ba -- each of our destinations offered a unique glimpse into Vietnamese culture. It's not for everyone, but for those willing to brave the unknown, the country is ripe with untapped adventures.
Hurry though. Sprawling resorts are popping up, and the booming tourism business has many young people learning how to cater to the nuances of Western culture more often than celebrating their own.
Vietnam is a country on the cusp. In another decade, it may be a cookie-cutter tourist oasis. But for now, the spirit of Vietnam remains.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Do’s and Don’ts When Travelling in Vietnam

Vietnam is a friendly country that is generally safe to travel to and full of wonders like Hanoi, the Mekong Delta and let’s not forget the always scrumptious roasted sparrow entrees!

The Vietnamese are very appreciative if they see you trying to abide by their customs, and very forgiving when you get it wrong, but just in case here is a quick list of  Do’s and Don’ts for traveling in Vietnam.

DON'T:

- Wear shorts or old T-shirts to visit a Pagoda, they won’t let you in. Be sure to dress conservatively and dress for the occasion, you are after all visiting a piece of history

- Sit with your feet pointing towards a family altar if you are staying in someone’s house.

- Take pictures of anything to do with the military, this can be considered a breach of national security and trust us, you don’t want to see the inside of a Vietnamese jail.

- Take video cameras into the small villages, it is considered very intrusive and they’ll be too polite to ask you to stop filming.    

- Display any personal displays of affection! Just don’t do it. Find a hostel, hotel, whatever suits – but anything beyond holding hands is seriously frowned upon.

- Expect to sleep late as Vietnam starts moving at 6am and the noise can be overwhelming.

DO 

- Dress conservatively, especially you ladies out there. The dress code is more relaxed in major cities but do yourself (and the Vietnamese) a favor - don’t wear booty shorts to the fish market.

- Drink loads of water as you’re wandering around checking out the sights. The heat can be oppressive and heat stroke can be a real killjoy, so take our advice and drink up (water that is)!


- Hold your bag in front of you and wrap it around a limb when riding in a Cyclo – bag snatching is a big problem and if you are looking at a Pagoda there’s a good chance someone’s looking at your bag.

- If you’re invited into a local’s home (which is really the only way to travel), be sure to take your shoes off at the entrance.

- Travel by train, it’s one of the best ways to see the country through the eyes of the locals (prepare for the trains to be late and smelly – but that’s part of the charm, right?)

- Carry a bit of toilet paper with you at all times – we won’t go into detail – just trust us.

- Make sure that you have a hotel/hostel business card from the reception desk. This will make your return to the hotel in a taxi or cyclo much easier.


- Do expect to pay less for a beer than a bottle of water – but remember our hydration tip above!

There is no greater way to experience a culture and participate in a local community, than to become involved in a volunteer project during your travels. Vietnam offers ample opportunities to aid in developmental, environmental and educational projects throughout the country.  Our friends at Buffalo Tours can help you find out more about travelling responsibly while visiting Vietnam.

Read more stories from Active Travel Asia to help keep you travelling safely. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In Touch with the Real World: Vietnam Bicycle Tour

Because the technology makes traveling easier than it was hundreds years ago, today people fly from places to places to experience the different cultures in various countries. Vietnam, however, is one place that people think it is the place left in the world that is so close to the “reality.” Many destinations have not yet been explored by travelers.

Vietnam is a bicycle-friendly country. Many people use bikes to commute in Vietnam. Bicycle travelers, Bill Fridl, Patrick Morris and David Foster chose their ways to discover the country. They cycled in Vietnam between 1995 and 2000. If you choose this method to sightsee in Vietnam, time can be the issue. Plan a trip with time flexibility to ensure a good quality trip. Cycling in Vietnam, time and energy are what you need. Knowing basic techniques to take care your bike would be a plus, and you can usually find some locals to help you with the bicycle problems. However, the language barrier could be a challenge.

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