Ha Long Bay & Hanoi, Vietnam

Is it just me or do all the cities in Vietnam start with H? (Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hanoi, Ha Long…) Anyways… 

The day after arriving in Hanoi, I was picked up early in the morning and took a three hour bus journey to Ha Long Bay (translation: descending dragon bay) for a 2 day/1 night cruise. This was definitely my biggest splurge in Vietnam but totally worth it because the area is a unique Natural Wonder of the World and UNESCO World Heritage site. There are close to 2,000 limestone karsts and isles that jut out of the water like mountain peaks that have been swallowed by the sea. Kinda reminded me of the end of Waterworld. 

There were several boats constructed to resemble the old junk boats with their distinctive, ridged sails, but I was a bit disappointed that the only time the sails were up was when they were docked in the bay whilst transferring tourists. My room was nice - all wood with an ocean view and my own bathroom with hot shower. 

Each meal seemed to have a five course minimum and was pretty meat-heavy, but they gladly accommodated my vegetarian diet. It was a tasty blend of traditional Vietnamese dishes with some western supplements, but honestly it was too much. I had to find the balance between trying not to waste too much while still avoiding a full on food coma. 

On day one, we set sail (figuratively) around 1 and cruised through the monolithic karsts for a few hours. Later we arrived at the Vung Vien Fishing Village where locals paddled small boats full of tourists past floating houses and bunches of boats. Later we had the option to paddle around ourselves in bright blue kayaks, so a new French friend and I spent about an hour exploring the karsts in the immediate vicinity of our boat. It was a bit of a challenge to find our specific boat again because they all kind of look the same as the government mandated that all the boats be painted white a few years ago. That night I opted to be a recluse and relax in my room with my book instead of participating in a "cooking class" to learn how to make spring rolls - again - and the subsequent happy hour and squid fishing. 

Day two involved an early morning Tai Chi class on the top deck (which I supplemented afterwards with some of my own yoga), a buffet breakfast and a trip to Hang Sung Sot, known as Surprise Cave to the hoards of tourists that are herded through it daily. I was a bit disappointed at first because we were packed in like sardines in the first chamber but eventually spread out more in the later, larger chambers. It's the biggest cave I've ever seen and the spectrum of colored lights strategically located throughout the space really enhanced the ambiance. After that it was time to pack and we headed back to the dock to disembark. So it was more of a 24-hour cruise rather than 2 days. 

A few notes on Halong cruises: You kind of get screwed as a solo traveler. They consider the rooms double occupancy so you get charged extra if you're by yourself. My boat charged $110 per person if you're a pair or couple but $160 if you're single. I also booked my trip online before I even got to Hanoi via the Hanoi to Halong website. However, once I arrived at my hostel in Hanoi, I found out that I could have booked cheaper, not to mention more last-minute, through them. It would have cost much less because they pair you up with other solo travelers if you book alone. I wouldn't exactly call it a regret, though, because I did like having my own room without mystery roommate who could have turned out to be awesome, but also could have been a nightmare and tainted my trip. Most of the boats and the itineraries seem to be pretty much the same. 

Hanoi in Northern Vietnam is geographically the largest city in the country but has a slightly smaller population than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). It's still just as chaotic with traffic and you are still risking your life when you attempt to cross the street but overall I preferred Hanoi to its aforementioned, southern counterpart. 

Perhaps it's because I really enjoyed my hostel and the immediate surroundings. I had my own private room with a big, comfy bed and bathroom at Golden Time Hostel for just $16 per night. It was next to a park, which was next to a large & lovely lake, around which was built most of the sites and social scene. 

Upon the recommendation of my sister, I saw a water puppet show on my first night in town, which could alternatively be called Synchronized Marionette Swimming. It's a tradition that dates back to the 11th Century and there's a popular theater in Hanoi that still hosts several performances per day. They have live music and all kinds of puppets from people to dragons to birds, some with special effects like breathing fire or spitting water. All of the singing and speaking is in Vietnamese of course, but it seemed to be a combination of life and legends specific to the country. The puppets grow rice, row boats, catch fish and have a few comedic skits mixed in. This Wikipedia entry features pictures from and information about the actual show that I saw. 

I spent a day walking around the city seeing museums. My first stop was the Vietnam National Museum of History which was a mix of interesting and 'meh.' My favorite exhibit explained the significance of sacred and mythical animals throughout Vietnam. This included relics and descriptions of 27 animals total including everything from elephants and tigers to dragons, phoenixes and garuda birds. Overall worth a quick visit. One other museum is included in the ticket price for this museum: The Museum of the Revolution, which I do not recommend. It's not very well executed and even though I was like literally the only person walking around their half-assed hallways, they kicked me out after about 30 minutes and said the museum was closed. They offered no further explanation so I can only assume it was a lunch break - or maybe the staff just wanted to go home. 

I left and easily found a pedi-cab driver - the most eco-friendly form of transport in the city - who would drive me the 4 km length of the Guinness Book verified world's longest mosaic mural. The work began in 2007 and was created to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Hanoi in 2010. 

I find the idea of many different artists collaborating on a single mural project very communist but I found the corporate sponsorship to be decidedly capitalist.  Still it's pretty impressive, albeit hard to enjoy safely since it's located along one of the busiest roads in the city. And how do the residents show their appreciation for this achievement? By literally pissing on it. I came upon a guy who I thought was admiring the wall as well, only to discover that he was relieving himself. Many other parts of the wall bear the same unmistakable stench of urine as well. Sad. 

My last stop was the Women's Museum, which was fantastic and I highly recommend it. My only regret was not getting there earlier because I only had two hours to explore the multi-story museum. The museum has well-executed exhibits on traditional fashion, domestic and family culture and the women's significant involvement in the wars. 

I really wanted to visit Sapa and see some natural beauty but I didn't have enough time so I instead opted for a day trip to Tam Coc which was much closer and easier to access. We saw a few old temples then toured the area by boat and bike. Locals paddled us in pairs through three natural caves created by the water and karsts similar to Ha Long Bay. And also tried relentlessly to sell us stuff, which was kind of annoying since we were literally a captive audience unless we jumped out of the canoes and swam away. 

The bikes were a bit questionable but we proceeded with the tour anyways. The scenery was lovely and then I couldn't help but laugh uncontrollably when one of the pedals fell off of the bike that another lady on the tour was riding. Our guide ended up switching bikes with her and getting towed back to the base by another guy on our tour. Teamwork! 


Saigon/HCMC, Vietnam

I arrived via the airport in the biggest city in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City, traditionally known - and still widely referred to today - as Saigon. I took a cab to my hostel in the heart of the backpacker district on Bui Vien street located in District 1. 

Saigon has about twice as many districts as Panem in the Hunger Games. The city has 24 total: 7 named urban districts, 7 numbered districts and 5 outer, suburban districts. And each had its own kind of identity. Districts 1 and 3 are in the heart of the city where most of the action is. I later stayed at a friend's place in District 2 which is a short ride from the city and packed with ex-pats who want to live in a quieter area. 

And once I visited the 250 km Cu Chi tunnel network in a village about and hour and a half outside the city, I was like "OMG there's even an underground "district" strategically used to win a war - just like District 13 in the book!" FUN FACT: Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins' father actually did serve in Vietnam so my theory is totally plausible! 

Cu Chi tunnels

Cu Chi tunnels

Despite the infamous war ending exactly 40 years ago, there are reminders of it everywhere and the tourism industry thrives off of it. Much of the art in the Museum was obviously influenced by it. The War Remnants Museum is a must-visit and it was incredible to see the war from the Vietnamese perspective. There were some pretty graphic pictures and stories and also some pretty staggering statistics pertaining to the death and destruction that took place here. My favorite display was the collection of anti-war protest and vietnamese propaganda posters from around the world - some great graphic design pieces there. It seems humanity just can't learn from it's mistakes because there is still so much unnecessary war and violence today. Oh, and despite being American, never did I feel like I was resented for my nationality. I encountered so many people that were just genuinely nice and hospitable. 

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

http://www.vnpropaganda.com/

The most prominent of these awesome people was Tat. So here's how that connection happened: A girl from America (me) meets another girl from London at a meditation retreat in Thailand who's brother was best friends with this guy from Vietnam who also lived and studied in the UK. And Kevin Bacon probably fits in there somewhere too. She introduced us on Facebook and I ended up staying in his otherwise vacant apartment for a few days which I totally appreciated beyond words. Even though I would do the same if the situation were reversed, and I did host several friends and family at my homes in Florida over the years, I have trouble accepting others' sincere generosity like I don't deserve it or something. 

Anyways, every Tuesday, Tat buys pizza for the local orphanage and organizes fun, engaging projects for them. I helped distribute the culinary treat, topped with cheese, shredded shrimp and quail egg, to about 40 orphans ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. Then he led a project instructing the kids how to make multi-colored origami stars which only about half the kids that started had the attention span to actually finish. I made two and gave mine away to the littler ones. I practiced a bit of English with some of the older ones and the smaller ones just wanted attention and often tried to climb me like a tree. Kids just want to be cared for and about no matter what country they're from so I'm glad I could make even the most minuscule impact on their lives. 

I serendipitously met another really cool dude from Nepal at a Vegan restaurant near my hostel. His name is Sramdip and he's a tattoo/street artist as well as fellow vegetarian so we were fast friends. He showed me around the two main street art areas in Saigon. 

The second was a food and music venue called Saigon Outcast which ended up being only about 5 km away from Tat's place in D2. I ended up changing my flight so that I could attend at least the first day of a two day Melting Pot music + arts festival taking place here over the weekend. My favorite of the musical performers was Suboi, a pretty cool and widely-known female Vietnamese rapper. I definitely had to do something artsy/cultural that week because I was missing my own beloved Art Basel back  home in Miami for the first time in several years. 

Anyways, Sramdip (@sramdip on instagram) and another artist Kris alias Frenemy (@frenemylife) from Austin, Texas did some impressive live painting during the event and the air was perfumed with the familiar smell of spray paint fumes. I also met Jimmy, an ambassador for Lovebot (@lovebottherobot), a street art group based out of Toronto that wants to spread love and kindness across the globe. 

I also saw Dennis - alias My German Stalker (lol) - again as this is city number three in which our paths have crossed. We had a drink and caught up at a rooftop bar which overlooked the park, which was packed with people and pop-up venues so we decided to check it out. We took the lift down to street level then explored what turned out to be the Taste of the World Festival, where they had neon-lit kiddie rides, food and drinks from a few other countries and a main stage with a variety of performances from trick bar tending to fire twirling to salsa dancing. 

I spent one day touring the Mekong Delta well outside of the city. I was pretty disappointed not to see a "lively" floating market as promised but the boat and bike rides around the river were ok. I'm glad I got to experience it, but it's mostly just muddy water that seems to flow forever in all directions. 

Altogether I spent a full week in Saigon and miraculously managed not to be trampled by any of the herds of wild scooters roaming the city streets. It's really not a pedestrian-friendly city so I ended up using cabs and Uber (no tuk-tuks here) for the majority of my transportation needs. 

Viva Los Visas

The most time consuming and complicated part of this whole planning process are the visas. Every country has different costs and requirements and procedures and it's kind of like putting together a big puzzle. Again, a great resource for me was Visa HQ.com where you can easily find all the information you need and they can even take care of all of them for you, for a hefty fee. In my case, it would have pretty much doubled the cost of the visas themselves. However, I was able to take care of most of them myself, then left the really finicky one for India up to Visa HQ. (The following info only applies to US Citizens of course and currency is USD.) 

Australia
This one is easy. A tourist visa is $20 AUD and can be applied for online on the ETA website. With this visa, you can stay for up to 90 days at a time and re-entry is permitted within 365 days without needing a new one. I received one during my last trip in March, but I've renewed my passport since then and since my passport number changed, I had to apply for another one. But the turnaround is pretty quick, though and I had an approval email in my inbox in less than 24 hours. 

SIngapore
This one is even easier. No visa required for stays up to 90 days. All I have to do is book a flight! 

Sri Lanka
It's $30 for a double entry tourist e-visa up to 30 days, which is easily attainable online. I talked with my contact in the country since I'm going to be there slightly longer and she said I could easily get it extended there but it will cost between $60-$100 USD. 

India
This one was a particular pain for me since you have to apply for your visa within one month of arrival and I'll already be somewhere in Southeast Asia by then. I attempted to figure this all out on their website but it was super complicated so I just hired VisaHQ to take care of it. For a single entry tourist visa up to 30 days, the embassy fee was $60 and the service fee nearly doubled that cost at $49 but definitely worth it for the peace of mind. 

Indonesia
Also easy. You'll get a 30 day visa on arrival for $25. 

Thailand
Same as Indonesia, you can get a 30 day visa on arrival but I'm going to be there longer than that. My best option is to get the 60 day visa either through VisaHQ (for an additional $79) or at a Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate. Luckily, there is a Royal Thai Consulate in Miami, however with very limited hours, so I completed all the paperwork and actually got approved for a six month visa for $80 (plus about $20 for a prepaid Fedex envelope so they could mail me back my passport since I was moving and wasn't able to drive back to Miami to pick it up.) I was only originally planning to stay in the country for six weeks but I had to get a six month visa since the visa starts from the day you get it approved (which was not mentioned anywhere on the Consulate website that I could find.)  So I guess I have a Plan B and can change my plans if necessary and fly to Thailand at any time in the next few months - but this probably won't happen. 

Cambodia
Easy enough to apply for a visa online for $40, but you have to apply within three months of arrival so I'll have to wait until September. I'm not too worried since I have a three month window. 

VIetnam
Also easy enough to acquire online via myvietnamvisa.com, which is actually a third party that will get you a pre-approval letter for $19.99 so that you are guaranteed a 30 day visa on arrival, which costs another $45 at the airport. You also have to provide 2 passport photos and fill out a form. 

The easiest thing it to just outsource all this work and mail my passport to VisaHQ but it would have cost me an additional $325 in service fees. I'd rather spend that money on some delicious street food or on temple tours. The basic takeaway here is that you'll have the least hassle by just staying in places for less than 30 days, but I'm being a little bit stubborn. Overall, I feel like you are punished for planning in advance when it comes to Visas and it's a bit of a Catch 22 because they want you to have all your flights and things booked before applying, but there's no point in booking travel somewhere if you don't get approved for your visa. Que sera sera.