Hoi An

Hoi An is a small coastal city in Central Vietnam that served as a trading port between the 15th and 19th century. The preservation of its historic downtown makes it a popular destination for tourists (and a UNESCO world heritage site). Both the layout and the architectural designs reflect the impact foreign trade had on the area. The blend of cultures is both apparent and appealing. Its most iconic monument is the 400 year old Japanese covered bridge.The city also sports a decent beach that was a quick bike ride from downtown.

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There isn’t too much to write about this city. There were no grand adventures or wild stories. We all spent our time strolling the quaint downtown, lying on the beach, and grabbing drinks by the river. The evening of the full moon, all electric lights were shut off and the city was instead lit by Japanese lanterns. Thousands of small candles were sent floating down the river on tiny paper boats. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

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It was a relaxing few days, and it truly was a charming city. Bright colors and flowers adorned the buildings of the small alleyways. Red shutters, blue doors, and yellow walls seemed to be a staple. It was almost perfect.

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Ha Long Bay

There’s an incredible amount of beauty in Vietnam. It’s nearly impossible to see all of it in just 1 month, but Ha Long Bay is a destination that can’t be missed. With Hanoi established as a base camp, it was time to venture to the the sea. There were 2 options for doing Ha Long Bay (actually there are about a million but whatever). The first option is to book a 2 day / 1 night cruise on the bay which typically includes swimming, kayaking, and exploring. You’ll have your own cabin on the cruising boat (‘junk’) and meals are included. The second option is the Castaway’s tour. For the hostel crowd, this is by far the most popular option. People insisted it’s the best time they’ve ever had.  It’s a giant 3day / 2 night party on a private island in the bay. Essentially its spring break on Vietnam. Guess which one I chose…?

Well you’re wrong. It’s sad you think about me that way. I’m an adult. A grown man. I’ve done spring break in Mexico and it was enough ‘spring break’ for a lifetime. My European friends were shocked I chose to forego 3 straight days of inebriated revelry. To be fair their university experiences are vastly different than ours in the States. Luckily my good friend Colleen had also done spring break Mexico 2014 and did not need to repeat it. I don’t think anyone needs a repeat of Puerto Vallarta 2014 to be honest. Anyways, we opted to take a 2day / 1night cruise.

The tour company arranged pretty much everything for us. We were picked up from the hostel in the morning and driven to the harbor at Hai Phong where we caught our ‘Junk’ boat, the Imperial Legend. It didn’t look like much, but it floated and the cabins were actually pretty nice. Plus they had a huge lunch ready for us.

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After an hour of cruising we were out in the midst of Ha Long Bay’s beauty. The bay itself consists of more than 1900 limestone islands, topped with mini rain forests. It’s truly one of the natural wonders of the world and has been a UNESCO world heritage since the 90s. The name Ha Long bay translates to descending dragon bay. Our guide Ling attempted to explain the significance of this, but his english translation was slightly vague. It had something to do with dragons being a symbol of protection in Buddhist tradition. The boat meandered between the islands until it dropped anchor in a small inlet. From here we took off to explore in kayaks. It was a beautiful day and the emerald water was absolutely stunning.

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After returning to our boat, we were treated to some spectacular sunset views before dinner.

The dinner consisted of multiple courses of chicken, beef, noodles, rice, seafood and more. It was delicious and by the end we were stuffed. An awkward hour of Karaoke followed dinner. No one was into it. It was borderline painful. My rendition of Hotel California did not get the crowd going despite me sounding EXACTLY like Don Henley. Colleens perfect Abba performance could not win the audience over either. The Chinese tourists on the boat did not only refuse to participate, but they also refused to smile, speak, and possibly blink. The European tourists abandoned us and thankfully karaoke fizzled out. I chatted with the bar man for a while before bed. He gave me some cool spots to check out on my return to Hanoi.

The following day, Ling led a cooking course after breakfast. It lasted 12min and we just wrapped up spring rolls so I’m not sure why he billed it as a cooking class. After a hardy lunch we arrived back to the harbor and were taken back to Hanoi.

The overall experience was fantastic. In Ha Long Bay, beauty is all around you. The limestone cliffs reflect off the emerald waters while the setting sun dances between the small islands. It’s a sight that can truly take your break away. As one of the highlights of Vietnam, its a destination that can’t be missed.


Cambodia Round 1: Siem Reap

With Thailand in the rear view, I was off to Cambodia! I touched down in Siem Reap on a sizzling Wednesday afternoon and was immediately confused. The visa process was easy enough at the airport and I was cleared to enter the country, but when I went to take out cash from the ATM i was greeted by Andrew Jackson’s face on fresh US 20$ bills. When I checked the exchange counter, the woman explained to me that in the cities the US Dollar is the desired form of currency and the Cambodian Riel is given in the form of change. Basically 4000 riel is 1 dollar, so when something was $4.50 and you gave a $5, you’d get 2000 riel in change. While it was nice to see a familiar currency, the riel change actually ended up being more of a nuisance than anything.

I’m not sure how much I can write on Siem Reap. I spent 4 days there and the city itself is a little underwhelming. It’s the most undeveloped city I’d been too so far. Many of the roads were unpaved, and those that were had not been attended to in some time. Even so, it had its charms. Down town there was the famous Pub Street filled with shops, restaurants, and bars always bustling with activity. You can lose yourself in the night market down there, and I mean that literally. I could not find an exit to the labyrinth of store fronts and food stalls for 20min.

Obviously there is one MAJOR attraction in Siem Reap; Angkor Wat. This UNESCO world heritage site is the largest religious monument in the world. Created in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire to honor the god Vishnu, the temple eventually became a holy Buddhist site. It’s massive size, attention to detail, and beauty make it one of the ancient wonders of the world. There are also monkey’s climbing and playing around every corner, making for an especially fun visit.

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Angkor Wat is not the only temple in the archaeological park of Angkor. You could probably spend 7 whole days exploring the temples but I only had 1 day. My tuk-tuk driver took me around for 5hours and I was able to see 2 other major temples. Bayon is known for the 216 giant smiling faces that are etched into the stone. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century and many believe the faces to be his own.

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The final temple I visited was Ta Prohm. This temple is also on the UNESCO list and is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor region. The ancient ruins are unlike any other in the area, as the trees and forest has weaved itself throughout the ancient stone. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed at Ta Prohm when Angelina was really in her prime.

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You could honestly spend days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. There are so many secret corridors and ally ways to find. The carvings on the walls look the same as they may have 800 years ago. I feel lucky I was able to spend even a single day exploring such an important piece of ancient architectural history.

As a side note, Siem Reap is a GREAT place to party and I certainly took part in that. The mad monkey hostel is legendary. It’s rooftop beach bar is filled in with about 4 inches of sand and things get rowdy. Spent every night out on pub street having a blast with new friends from all over the world. While the scenery, temples, and culture are all essential, I’ve found the best part of the backpacking experience to be the people. The people you meet from around the world make this trip so special. I’ve learned so much about people from Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia. I’ve made friends and learned about their homes and their lives. It makes you realize that no matter where we come from, and how different our cultures are, we’re essentially the same. Especially as travelers, we have similar goals and dreams and ideas. We all see the world as something to be explored and experienced. We all look to learn about other people and other ways of life. We drink together, laugh together, travel together. No matter the religion, the nationality, the race