Nicaragua in November ’13

7 Dec

The Background

A group of 17 of us flew into Managua on November 1, 2013 (on different flights), stayed at Maderas Village for 10 days before 12 people in our group went back to Toronto and the remaining 5 of us set off to explore some more of the country, backpacker style.

To see photos of Nicaragua through my lens:

For those less about the pictures and more about the info, read on to find out about Maderas, Granada, San Juan del Sur, Ometepe, León and Las Peñitas. By request, I also included a packing list based on a 2 – 4 week trip.

MADERAS

 Transport

  • Fidel is the name of the driver we used when we needed to go somewhere. All rides from Maderas (to Granada for a day trip and to/from the airport) were arranged by Danielle who works at Maderas Village.
  • We arranged a shuttle van from the airport to Maderas and with 6 people per car it was approx. $35/person but for our friends that arrived in a pair it was $50/person. (The drivers all stopped at a gas station so we could pick up cans of beer for the ride to Maderas)
  • If you rent a car, make sure it’s an SUV, but honestly I would recommend not – the roads can be sketchy, especially if it rains, and it’s vacation so people are rarely not cocktailing in some respect.
  • At some point, you WILL ride in the bed of a truck, maybe in the pouring rain!

Drinks

  • At Maderas Village, beer is $1.50 and cocktails are $3.50 – I recommend Peppermint Paddy’s (cold peppermint tea and rum concoction – not actually called peppermint paddy’s but they’ll know what you mean;), caprhinias & mojitos
  • At the beach bar (not Tacos Locos but the one directly across from it) they have an afternoon 2 for 1 special on cocktails like daiquiris, mojitos, etc. Perfect for sunsets.
  • The local beer is Tona (pronounced: tone-ya)

Where/What to Eat

  • If you’re not planning to eat dinner at Maderas Village, let Danielle know as early in the day as possible – especially if it’s Monday (sushi night – one of their cooks was a former sushi sous-chef).
  • Definitely go to Pizza Night which is organized by Danielle at Maderas Village and I think happens on Wedesdays – you’ll never see anyone so passionate about pizza as Sergio.
  • Though they have a menu posted on their board they’re open to modifications (I highly recommend asking for peanut butter and/or Nutella for your banana pancakes – life changing.)
  • The hot sauce is amaze balls – you can pick it up from any convenience store in the nearby town, San Juan de Sur.
  • Eat lunch at Tacos Locas  - right on the beach and big portions (share a plate of nachos and either chicken or fish tacos – they are UNREAL). Spend some time talking to Alberto about baseball – if you’re lucky he might invite you to watch one of his games.
  • If you get pizza at the little place just before you get to the beach, make sure their oven is already on before you order or it is a 2-hour wait (they turn it on around 3pm so if you go after 5pm that’s usually ok).
  • A good lunch spot it Juanita’s Kitchen, which is to the right (past Tacos Locos) and along the beach (make sure you go before high tide or it’s a bit of a precarious walk back to Maderas!)
  • There is a lobster spot that’s also supposed to be really good for lunch but is a 2- 3 hour excursion as it’s a bit of a walk (ask Danielle at Maderas and she’ll tell you how to get there!)

 Activities

  • All the girls did the 1 hour horseback ride along the hilly roads and they take you for a little ride along the beach – I think it was $20 or $25 per person
  • Our guy friends did a day-long deep sea fishing trip which they said was more of a booze cruise – booze is included but the guys picked up extra beer/rum for the day – I don’t know how much it was.
  • There is a catamaran booze cruise that you can arrange with Danielle and I think it’s something like $75/person (none of our group did this but I think it’s from noon – 6pm and you have to let Danielle know 1 day in advance)
  • Gump is the yoga teacher there and he teaches on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and I think it’s $10/class (1.5 – 2 hours long). We were told he would teach additional classes for a higher fee but we asked him to teach on a Sunday and it’s his day off so we didn’t end up doing yoga that day. Anyone that did yoga said it wasn’t really their preferred style (to each his/her own!) and 2 of our girlfriends ended up leading classes for our group in one of the cottages we rented.
  • The surfing is good and appeals to all levels – there’s some decent white wash for beginners (better when it’s not low tide) and a break further out for the more experienced. You can rent surf boards right on the beach for $10/day or $5 for an hour – they have a pretty good range of board sizes (bigger & wider for beginners, shorter for more experienced surfers).
  • If you want to get a massage there (Dunia is the girl’s name) book it about a week in advance to make sure she’s available
  • We did a day trip to Granada and left around 8am and came home around 9pm or so and Granada is about 2 – 2.5 hours from Maderas Village. We hired private cars through Danielle at Maderas and did the following: stopped on an active volcano (we drove up, didn’t hike), visited a market (touristy), then got dropped off in the city centre. We had lunch at a restaurant called Kelly’s (Irish bar that serves Mexican and lured us in with 2 for 1 cocktails) then walked down to the lake (can be a bit dangerous down there we were warned but I never felt unsafe – we went in daylight) and back up to the city centre.
  • We visited a cigar spot – they make cigars in the front and have a pool in the back (our photos from this look like we shot a rap video in Pablo Escobar’s pool). The cigar shop is calledMombacho and is owned by a friend of Dickie’s (one of the owners at Maderas Village). He arranged it so we paid $20 which got us a tour and you actually see people rolling the cigars (15 – 20 minutes), a cigar, pool time and open bar for 2 hours. I’m pretty sure for a few extra dollars you can learn to roll cigars yourself. Ask for Eric (Canadian) or Claudio (Italian). If you can, go out to dinner with these guys after the shop closes and they’ll show you a fun night (ask them to take you to the German restaurant in the company car).  

Maderas Village Accommodations 

  • There is no hot water, but you don’t need it or want it (it’s not cold either, more lukewarm)
  • It is about a 5 minute walk down a gravelly hill to the beach (and a slightly slower, longer walk back up)
  • There is a main building, 2 cottages (1 is a 3-bedroom, 1 is a 2-bedroom), a dorm and little casitas – I would reco either the 2-bedroom cottage or a casita per couple (the casitas each have a little loft area and you can watch the monkeys in the AM!)

Maderas Beach

  • It’s pretty safe to leave your bags during the day – I left my beach bag of money, cameras and my iPhone on the beach every day while I surfed and so did everyone else and nothing got stolen.
  • Low tide is in the AM and if you’re an ok surfer, there’s barely a line-up on the break in the AM. By midday, the San Juan del Sur crowd comes in in carloads and it gets much busier in the afternoon when it’s higher tide.
  • Check the surf report nightly – no 2 days were the same.

Maderas Village Animals 

  • Murray, Luna and Pataya are the pups that hang out there – all of them are really sweet but don’t let them lick/bite your face, I saw Murray eat horse poop
  • The howler monkeys in the morning are LOUD – it seriously sounds like something out of Jumanji, or as our friend put it, bear dragons. Between these furry friends and the sunrising at 5:30am, it’s early to bed, early to rise!

 

SAN JUAN DEL SUR 

Maderas to San Juan

  • This is 25 – 35 minutes from Maderas Village as the road in/out of MV is pretty rough

Activities

  • The guy that works at Tacos Lacos plays baseball in a men’s league (not pro at all, more like adult house league) but it’s a big deal there – our guy friends went to the game, ate the local food (vigarone, pronounced vig-a-rone) and you can get drinks there and they said it was awesome! The game was in San Juan del Sur, about 30 minutes by car from Maderas Village
  • Sunday Funday is a themed pool crawl that is organized by one of my high school friends, Megan, who is a partner at the Naked Tiger. You can buy your tickets and get your Sunday Funday tank at Naked Tiger for $10 and a shuttle picks you up there, you go to a really nice resort (I think it was called Pelican Eye), then back to Naked Tiger for dinner/swimming. Next you go into San Juan where there are a few bar stops (Pacha Mama is one of them). This is very Aussie-focused and it’s a pretty young crowd but there were enough of us that we had a lot of fun! (PS Don’t go in the Pacha Mama pool, it’s GROSS.)

Where/What to Eat

  • There is a popular gringo hangout for breaky called El Gato Negro Café which has pretty much anything you could want – the bagels and the apple caramel pancakes are killer
  • There is a French lady who owns a chicken joint on the main strip in town – our buds ate there and LOVED it

 

OMETEPE

Transport

  • Was about a 1 hour drive from San Juan del Sur by private car to the port where you catch the ferry to the little jungle island
  • The ferry runs about every hour or two and you have the option of taking the big, slower ferry (better for those prone to sea sickness)
  • At the port, we arranged with a man named Hector to be picked up on the island by his cousin who drove us to our hotel (roughly 45 minutes from the port on the island)

Accommodations

  • Little Morgan is the hostel for those who like to party and offer various ‘challenges’ like downing 3 shots followed by a line of coke and then a line of K (my guess is that it’s full of hard partying Aussies – I didn’t stay here)
  • We stayed at a place called Santa Cruz. A snake curled up in my rocking chair and a woman woke up with a scorpion on her hand (the snake was non-venomous and scorpions aren’t deadly in Nicaragua so this could have happened anywhere and wasn’t really dangerous, just terrifying).

Where to Eat

  • We were only there for 1 night so we had dinner and breakfast at our hotel
  • At lunch we went to this little vegetarian restaurant right on the main road and on the beach in Santa Domingo – about halfway between our hotel and Agua de Ojo – the family’s restaurant was knocked to the ground days before we arrived over a political dispute but cooked for us out of their home kitchen (highly recommended!)

Activities

  • We rented bikes for $6/day to ride around the island (they were not in the best of condition which made the hills pretty difficult)
  • It was a half hour ride from our hostel to Agua de Ojo which is this amazing natural spring in the middle of the jungle (note: not a hot spring!) – they do sell food, booze and water there and entry to the spring is $3
  • We heard Magdelena was a good lookout spot but didn’t make it there
  • There are day tours that will take you to all of the must-see spots on the island if you prefer that to biking and if you only have a short time, I would recommend that if you want to see more

LÉON

Transport

  • After taking the 1 hour ferry ride from the island back to port, Hector’s friend was ready with his pick-up truck to take us to Léon (if you have more than 4 people, be very clear about the kind of vehicle you want – we had a 5-seater pick-up truck with 6 people for the 3 hours journey which ended up taking 5 – 6 hours because of traffic – NOT comfortable!)

Accommodations

  • A brand new hotel opened while we there (Nov 2013) called Azul. They don’t have a website yet, but they have a beautiful open area for eating/drinking/playing cards, a clean pool, small but brand new, clean rooms with an AC option & TV and an en-suite bathroom for $20 – $30/night. This was the promotional/grand opening price and will be going up to $40 – $50/night.

Where to Eat

  • If you like any sort of meat, Carnivores is for you and is conveniently located right beside Azul
  • We ordered a bunch of apps & mains for the table to share and everything was really good!

Activities

  • It’s a small colonial town with lots of beautiful churches, including the largest church in Central/South America
  • One of the churches has a lookout that is perfect for a beautiful sunset view
  • We went to a local blanket factory where you can buy locally made blankets at wholesale prices
  • Lots of restaurants, cafes, etc.
  • We didn’t do this, but you can go volcano boarding (we saw the aftermath of this on quite a few travelers – serious volcano rubble burns after sliding out), turtle hatching and you can hike up an active volcano at night and actually see the glowing lava

LAS PEÑITAS

Transport

  • We took a taxi from Léon which is approximately 20 – 30 minutes (approximately $5 – $10 per person and there were 5 of us but there is also a shuttle that runs back and forth)

Accommodations

  • We stayed at the basic, friendly, Canadian-owned (Val & Ryan) Lazy Turtle which is about a 2 minute walk to the beach
  • We had originally booked to stay at Oasis which is right on the beach but there was a mix-up in terms of how many nights we were booked to stay

Where to Eat

  • The enchiladas made by Val were out-of-this-world good and they have a number of burger and Mexican options on the regular menu
  • We also ate at a large outdoor restaurant just a few doors down from the Lazy Turtle which was ok and it looked like a pizza place will be opening in December of 2013 right next door

Activities

  • Surfing
  • Turtle hatching
  • Beach bonfire & mojitos at Pirate (7 minute walk from Lazy Turtle) – wear bug spray, I got attacked by sand fleas

GRANADA

Transport

  • We went twice – once from Maderas (see above) and once from Las PeÑitas which was about 2 or 3 hours by private car arranged by Val and Ryan at the Lazy Turtle

 Accommodations

  • We stayed at Oasis for $20 or $20/night (I think) and it had lots of hammocks for reading, free coffee & tea and a small but clean pool

RANDOM FACTS

  • Justin Bobby from The Hills owns a hair salon on the main street in San Juan del Sur called Brush Your Hair and can be found about town
  • Scorpion bites are not lethal in Nicaragua unless you have an allergy and the effects include tingling/numbness of the tongue and last for an hour or two
  • Keep the hashtag alive: #NicaNonsense (secondary hashtag: #NicaPlease)
  • Nothing dries at Maderas b/c of the humidity (at the end of our stay we learned that they do have a secret dryer though if you’re desperate ;)
  • I brushed my teeth in the water the whole time and was fine but depends what you’re comfortable with
  • Pay for your Maderas Village accoms and meals in cash or you will pay an additional 17% on your total for using Visa (you don’t pay per drink or per meal, they give you a total at the end of your stay – to give you an idea, our group had tabs of approx. $1,200 – $1,500 for 10 days which included our rooms, our meals and our drinks)
  • In terms of currency, you can use either American or Cordobas very easily ($1USD = 25 cordobas)
  • There is no ATM in Maderas – go there with the money you intend to spend (each room has a safe)

PACKING LIST (3 – 4 weeks) 

For Surfing

  • Zinc
  • SPF 60 (at least for your face and your bum if you’re surfing)
  • SPF 30 (if you prefer for your body)
  • Rashguard
  • Crap bikini bottom/boardies to surf in – the surf wax will get all over
  • TIGHT sportsbra
  • Leave-in conditioner (if you’re surfing, it’s a life-saver!)

For Horseback riding

  • 3/4 Lulus
  • Tank or t-shirt
  • Sport socks
  • Running shoes

For Yoga

  • Yoga shorts or leggings
  • Tank top
  • Sports bra

Documents/Financial

  • Passport
  • Bank card
  • Visa
  • US cash – factor in your ride from the airport, activities and paying your Maderas Village bill (each lunch/dinner meal is $10 – $15 per person, breakfast is $3.50 – $6.50 per person)
  • Make sure you scan your passport, bank card and Visa and load the images to Dropbox to make sure you always have your info in case anything is lost/stolen

Clothes

  • 1 – 2 pairs of shorts
  • 1 pair of boardies or sports shorts
  • 1 onesie
  • 1 – 2 skirts
  • 1 – 2 sundresses
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 5 – 7 tanks/t-shirts
  • 1 long sleeve
  • 1 hoodie or sweater
  • 1 pair of flip flops
  • 1 pair of gladiators
  • 1 pair of Toms
  • 1 pair of running shoes
  • 1 beach bag (a dry sac is awesome if you have a camera)
  • 3 – 4 bikinis
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • 1 clutch/purse

Toiletries & Misc

  • 1 travel towel
  • 1 sarong
  • Shampoo
  • Conditioner
  • Body wash or soap
  • Toothbrush
  • Travel toothpaste
  • Razor
  • Aloe
  • Headlamp/flashlight
  • Water bottle (free refills at Maderas Village!)
  • Bug spray
  • Hair elastic/headband/butterfly clip
  • Brush
  • Camera + charger / Phone + charger (turn on your airplane mode & use wifi!)
  • Memory card
  • Book or e-reader
  • Blow up pillow for travelling
  • Chapstick

 Drugs

  • Advil
  • Tylenol cold & flu
  • Tylenol sinus
  • Immodium
  • Zantac-150 (works better than Benadryl as an antihistamine and doubles for indigestion)
  • Gravol – non–drowsy
  • Ear drops that evaporate water (post-surfing/scuba driving)
  • Adavan/Valium for flying

Top 10 List: Vietnam

2 Sep

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The Top 10 Things to Know About Vietnam (in no particular order):

10. Halong Bai. While it is an amazing place in terms of landscape the photos will have you believe it’s far less crowded with tourists than it actually is. The water is also laden with garbage which up close doesn’t have the same appeal as what you might see in a brochure.

9. Bus washrooms. They’re always ‘locked for your convenience’ so they won’t smell up the bus. I guess it depends on your definition of ‘convenience’…

8. The propaganda. Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels was a very one-sided representation of the Vietnam War (or American War as it is called in Vietnam).

7. The currency. It’s called Dong. Pardon my juvenile sense of humour but it makes me giggle.

6. Vinpearl. From taking the world’s longest cable car ride over the ocean to having unlimited access to rides, the water park, the aquarium and the arcade for the fixed price of $20 made for a very fun day. (And while it doesn’t appear to be culturally rich on the surface, it is how local families spend a fun day together.)

4. The scuba diving. While our 2 dives in Nha Trang were good it was disappointing to learn that we wouldn’t be seeing any sharks, turtles or rays as we were told that ‘anything big’ is killed. (The language barrier prevented us from understanding why.)

3. Pho. Actually pronounced like the French word for fire, feux, was incredible from the south through to the north. The most flavourful was definitely pho bo (beef pho).

2. The sand dunes in Mui Ne. Crazy carpeting down the dunes combined with a wicked storm rolling in made for a pretty amazing experience (though I still prefer crazy carpeting down snow hills, but that’s just the Canadian in me).

1. The people. I had heard that of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that Vietnamese people would be the least friendly, however, aside from the one cab driver in Hanoi, I had a wonderful experience with Vietnamese people throughout the country.

Hanoi & Halong Bai, Vietnam

2 Sep

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Hanoi & Halong Bai, Vietnam

We were greeted in Hanoi by grey sky and drizzle. As such we opted to take a cab to our hotel instead of the less expensive motorbikeoption.Our driver was pushy and quoted an insanely high price for the short ride and as such we requested he go by the meter. He reluctantly agreed and to drive up the fare took the longest way possible to our hotel. (We know because J.J. was following along on a map.) When we’d ask him to turn down streets to shorten the trip he would ignore us as the amount on the meter grew higher.

We paid him without tipping (he didn’t even drive us to our hotel but rather dropped us off on a main street) and walked to our hotel. Thankfully our room was ready and after quickly booking our overnight boat trip to Halong Bai for the following morning we spent the rest of the day sleeping, waking up only for dinner. J.J. wanted to try a restaurant nearby called La Place where we had a table on the second floor overlooking a beautiful old church. After a good meal, our only one that day, it was back to bed.

The tour operator of our overnight boat cruise to Halong Bai picked us up by bus at our hotel early the next morning. We joined about 15 people on the bus as we made our way to the boat docks 2 and a half hours from Hanoi. We arrived at port and soon discovered the most touristy place we’d been in Vietnam. Throngs of travellers carrying backpacks and wheelie bags and ranging in age from toddlers to elderly were herded like cattle by their guides to their respective white junk boats (some junkier than others) which lined the harbour.

We took a smaller covered wooden boat out to our junk boat where we were directed to the dining room located on the boat’s second level. There we were given the itinerary for the next 2 days and then given our room keys. The walls of our cabin room were wood paneled as were the floors and the ceiling. We had a large window looking out at the many other junk boats crowding the bai and we could see the shore we’d left behind. The washroom was tiled and we soon learned that unless the motor was running the toilet wouldn’t flush.

Once settled we headed back upstairs to the dining room for lunch where we joined a Swiss mother and daughter at their table. The menu consisted mostly of seafood but we’d communicated that I couldn’t/wouldn’t eat seafood and alternative dishes were brought for me – all deep fried except for a delicious beef dish.

After lunch we cruised to Hang Sung Sot (Surprise Cave) where we walked up the many steps and around the looping wooden path through the cave’s 3 chambers. At one point J.J. and I stopped to look at a phallic looking rock lit by a pink spotlight. We joked about this formation and later learning from our trusty Lonely Planet that this rock is often appropriately referred to as ‘Cock Rock’.

We boarded our junk boat and cruised by a number of women rowing covered wooden boats stocked with snacks of Oreos, Lay’s and Fanta for sale as we made our way to a wooden floating dock lined with life jackets, paddles and kayaks. As the sky began to turn an ominous dark gray our boat docked at this small and unsteady platform so that we could kayak around the bai. J.J. and I paddled around getting up close and personal with the huge rock formations jutting out of the water, much like the bays surrounding Koh Phi Phi that we’d seen last year in Thailand. At one point we paddled over to what we thought was a plastic bag floating near the surface but upon getting a closer look, discovered an enormous throbbing jellyfish. We saw 3 more just like it on our way back to the floating dock. So much for swimming in the bai, at least for me.  J.J. braved the jellyfish infested waters as I waited on the boat. I told him it was lucky for both of us that if he got stung he’d be able to pee on himself.

We had tea and fruit on the deck of the boat before it was time to shower off the caves, and for some, the salt water of the bai, before it was time for dinner. We re-joined the Swiss mother and daughter duo and once again I was bombarded by a number of deep fried so-so dishes as well as one delicious chicken dish. Once we had finished eating, J.J. and I headed to the top deck of the boat to avoid the karaoke that was about to begin in the dining room and to try to get some slow exposure shots of the lightning storm that was now in full effect. Unfortunately we weren’t as successful with the lightning photos in Halong Bai as we had been in Mui Ne. Back in our room we were lulled to sleep by a tone-deaf karaoke version of Sha-La-La-La-La.

The next morning we were greeted by another grey and rainy sky but still enjoyed the view of Halong Bai (from some angles you could see very few other junk boats) while we sipped hot tea and ate amazing local fruit as we slowly cruised back toward the harbour. Over breakfast we got to talking to 2 women on a long weekend holiday from Singapore. We were then joined by a Malaysian woman who had lived for the past 17 years in California with her husband. She talked our ears off about anything and everything from her huge tomatos that she grew to make 80 gallons of tomato sauce which she gives away as gifts as well as to charity. She then told us about her 4 cats, 2 outdoor and 2 indoor, and proceeded to show us videos she had taken of her one sneaky cat taking a flying leap at the door handle of a closed door, opening it and looking around slyly before walking through the doorway.

The Malaysian woman’s sister interrupted her chatter to ask if we could launch the karaoke DVD. Somehow these ladies persuaded J.J. to join them. Surprisingly this is the first time I’ve really heard J.J. sing and what’s more surprising was 1) J.J. can make his voice sound like Elvis when singing Pretty Woman (I videotaped this but he has sworn me not to share the footage) and 2) J.J. got totally hooked, singing 4 or 5 songs solo.

We made a short stop in a local fishing village which consisted of families living on boats who fished for a living. There was even a floating school for the children of fishermen and women. After a wet tour around the area in small uncovered boats it was time to complete our journey back to the harbour.n After a quick sit-down lunch at a local restaurant we were in a minivan that would take us back to Hanoi for our final night in Vietnam.We checked back into our hotel in the evening and had a low key late dinner at the nearby Gecko restaurant, followed by a walk in the rain before calling it a night.

The next morning we slept in and took our time getting ready for the day knowing that we’d be travelling to Bangkok later that night, arriving at BKK at 2am. We started our day with a delicious breakfast and well-made coffee at Paris Deli where we took advantage of the free wifi to email home.

Next we walked off in search of Old Quarter, the part of town that came recommended by the Swiss mother and daughter from our Halong Bai cruise. Old Quarter was a bustling area of shops full of merchandise that spilled out onto the sidewalks, motorbikes buzzing past and the scent of various street foods being cooked up. Some of the streets are dead-ends made of cobblestone while others are paved and wind around, connecting to others.

The afternoon heat was rising and as we came across Highlands Coffee in the city centre we decided to escape to the air conditioning for a cold drink. The coffee shop was located on the second floor of the building and while J.J. waited for our drinks I took the camera outside to capture some of the madness of the streets of Hanoi from a bird’s eye view.

By sunset the clouds had rolled in and it was growing more and more stormy looking and so we opted to walk back to the area of town along the water back to where our hotel was located in case the clouds opened up. We popped into a few shops as we walked along reading menus before finding a restaurant that served Pad Thai where we got a jump start on our upcoming journey to Bangkok.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to change and collect our things before the cab came to collect us for the airport. We drove the hour-long drive to the airport and after 3 weeks it was time to say tam biet to Vietnam.

Dong Hoi, Vietnam

2 Sep

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Dong Hoi, Vietnam

Dong Hoi is not really a major destination and therefore the bus going to Hanoi simply drops passengers off along the main road of Dong Hoi on its way through town. J.J. and I arrived there long after dark and found our hotel, Nam Long, relatively quickly and without incident. We fell into the bunk beds we were given and were asleep within minutes.

In the morning it was raining which was less than ideal for our plans of renting a motorbike and driving up to Phong Nha Cave, Vietnam’s largest. Given that we had an overnight bus booked that night for Hanoi it was now or never so we suited up in our rain jackets and hopped on our rented motorbike with only a hand drawn map given to us by the receptionist at our hotel (the hotel was fresh out of maps of the area).

What should have been a 1 hour journey to the cave ended up being 3 and a half with a near running out of petrol. Luckily along one of our many wrong turns we ran into a small fuelling station where we were able to fill up and continue on in search of Phong Nha Cave. Eventually we arrived, just in time for the last trip of the day. We purchased our tickets and boarded our private boat (normally they fill the boat with tourists but with the rain and being the end of the day it was just the 2 of us) and travelled along the water. Our boat floated right into the mouth of the cave and dropped J.J. off on a dark sandy beach, lit only by the coloured spotlights aimed at the cave walls which allowed us to see the different shapes and textures. It honestly looked just like the illustrations from the Magic Schoolbus book about caves with its stalagmites.

We made our way through the huge cave and eventually came out the other side into the light where we met the driver and skipper of our boat. On our ride back to where we had parked our motorbike it began to rain and we had a wet and dark ride to our hotel as the sun set while we were riding. Luckily we had a much easier time making our way back than we had on the way to the cave. We warmed up at the hotel with big bowls of chicken soup before having to walk the 5 minutes down the road where we’d catch the night bus to Hanoi.

We’d purchased our bus ticket from Dong Hoi to Hanoi through our hotel in Hoi An and had been given a building address where we were to meet the bus. When we found the address we discovered it wasn’t the address of a building but rather the address of an entire block. We asked some local people passing by and they confirmed that we were in fact at the correct address but they didn’t know anything about it being a bus pick-up location. Luckily J.J. had credit on his phone and was able to call the number listed on our bus ticket. The person on the other end of the phone told us that we were in the wrong location and would need to take a cab to the correct location 15 minutes away.

We hailed a cab and put the driver on the phone with the person we’d been speaking to at the bus company. They exchanged words in Vietnamese and the cab driver began driving. The bus company rang J.J.’s phone 5 or 6 more times on the 15-minute drive to find out our location because for the first time in history a SE Asian bus was running early and was already at the pick-up location. We made it onto the sleeper bus and made our way to our seats. Once again we were at the very back and assigned to the seat against the window and the one next to it. Unfortunately a Vietnamese man had decided he didn’t want the worst seat on the bus, the middle seat, and was sound asleep in the window seat, snoring something fierce. In addition this particular bus was lacking anything in the way of shocks. The road from Dong Hoi to Hoi An is anything but smooth and every time we’d hit a bump every single person on the bus would catch air. It was actually pretty funny to see a bus full of sleeping people being tossed up in unison as though they were lying out on a trampoline as someone bounced around.

We didn’t sleep a wink that night and arrived in grey and rainy Hanoi the following morning completely exhausted.

Hoi An, Vietnam

2 Sep

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Hoi An, Vietnam

We arrived in Hoi An, the Vietnamese town known for its tailoring industry, at 7:30am, 1 and a half hours later than we had been told, and made our way to the hotel where we’d made a reservation the night before while on the bus. We weren’t able to check in until 11am but were offered the massive hotel buffet breakfast for only $2 USD and use of the pool while we waited.

After a dip and some breakfast J.J. and I met an American girl from California, Cassi, who had been travelling on her own around the world for the past year. She recommended what to see in Zanzibar and Morocco and also a local tailor, Louise from the family-run Lang Bian. J.J. wanted to have some custom shirts made and I had been compiling a folder of images on our net book of dresses I loved but could never afford at store prices on my backpacker budget.

After we’d checked into our hotel room we set out to visit the tailor Cassi had recommended as well as A Dong Silk which was recommended by Lonely Planet. We examined the samples showcased in both shops before I decided to have 2 skirts and a dress made and J.J. decided to have 5 shirts made at Lang Bian. The prices were cheaper and the craftsmanship and fabrics the same as A Dong Silk. J.J. still liked a number of the materials offered by A Dong Silk though and opted to have them make an additional 4 shirts for him, 7 of 9 of these are plaid. In short, J.J.’s style remains the same as it was when we left Canada in January.

After placing our orders and being measured we explored a bit of Hoi An. The streets are lined with hotels, bars and restaurants, each one decorated with the same paper lanterns, the only difference being how many are used. The number of tailor shops along every single street and in every alleyway is overwhelming. There’s something like 500 tailors in Hoi An! The tailor shops all have their best work displayed on mannequins outside of their storefronts and the clothing consists mostly of men’s suits, men’s and women’s winter dress coats and replicas of the Wedding Party section of J. Crew’s online catalogue.

After wandering around a while we met up with Olivia, Troy and Pato who had finally made it to Hoi An. We visited a local restaurant for some gentle pinting and an early dinner and the boys continued to try to out-do one another at pool. Before we knew it, it was dark. We paid our tab and headed for a walk around town where we enjoyed the lantern-lit streets and people watching along the river which included a newlywed couple having their photo taken in a wooden rowboat as they set candlelit lanterns down in the water.

We found a gelato shop and ate as we continued to wander. Eventually we found ourselves at the busy Now and Then bar frequented by travellers where we had one last drink and a few last games of pool before trying to find our way back to our hotels through the winding streets.

In the morning J.J. and I enjoyed our big buffet breakfast that was included in the cost of our room before borrowing an umbrella from the hotel and hopping in a cab that would take us to Pacific Hospital. My ear was still bothering me from when we had gone diving in Nha Trang and after consulting with my trusty Canadian team of medical professionals (thank you Jenn, Shobhan and Party Marty!) I decided to have it checked out.

After waiting all of 30 seconds I was seen by a doctor who first examined each of my ears using a light and his naked eye. Next I was walked into a room where the doctor used a wand with a light and a camera on the end to look inside each of my ears. The images recorded by the camera were brought up on a computer screen and the doctor allowed J.J. to take photos of them so that we could send them to Jenn and Shobhan back in Toronto. They confirmed what the doctor had said, that I had an ear infection and they OK’d the antibiotics I’d been prescribed. $65 USD later we were on our way back to town for our first fittings at the tailor shops where we’d placed our orders the day before.

We started at Lang Bian. One of the skirts I had ordered fit perfectly right off the bat while the other required only a very minor adjustment. J.J.’s shirts needed to be let out slightly as they were a little too slim fitting. My dress wasn’t ready yet so we headed over to A Dong Silk so that J.J. could try on his other 4 shirts. As at Lang Bian these shirts also needed to be let out slightly. J.J. explained that he’d lost weight travelling but when we return to Canada he’ll be at a desk 5 days a week and may gain a few lbs. The tiny Vietnamese woman at A Dong Silk looked at him and in the stern tone of a teacher’s voice disciplining a naughty child she said “You go to gym.”

It was a gray and rainy day so we took advantage of the complimentary use of umbrellas offered by our hotel and walked around town until it was time for our evening fittings. My dress was ready and fit perfectly and the skirt that had needed to be slightly altered was now ready. While J.J. tried on his 5 plaid shirts at Lang Bian and subsequently his 4 shirts at A Dong Silk I wrote the copy for Louise’s website and flipped through the many books of clothing articles she could sew.

Olivia, Troy and Pato met us at Lang Bian to go to dinner together. We took Louise’s recommendation and followed one of her employees down a series of alleyways to a hidden Vietnamese restaurant. Plastic tables and chairs were set up outside under the bright glow of intense fluorescent lighting and without ordering a thing food began piling up on our table. Our server came over and explained in broken English that we were to eat until we were full. She showed us how to roll everything on the plates into a piece of rice paper. We later learned that they show foreigners to roll more than the locals in hopes that they eat more and since you pay for what you eat, pay a bigger tab at the end of the meal.

Troy, who tends to prefer Western food (he admits to never having liked an Asian dish he’s tried), and Pato, who normally isn’t picky (everything is ‘amazing!’) didn’t think much of the food. Poor Pato had to excuse himself mid-meal to douse his face and hair with water from the sink situated in the middle of the restaurant in an attempt to make himself feel better.

After dinner we again took a walk along the river in search of gelato before heading to Before and Now for a drink and some pool. The boys quickly abandoned Olivia and I for the tables at which point 3 Australian guys took their seats and began talking with us. Eventually they bought Olivia and I a drink. When the boys noticed we were be chatted up we learned how not jealous they are. Troy’s reaction was to sarcastically joke that we looked like we were having the time of our lives before getting back to his pool game while J.J.’s only concern was that he and Troy would be paying for the Aussie boys’ drinks, never thinking maybe the guys had bought us a round.

From Before and Now we hired motorbike drivers to take us to a popular tourist bar where the writing’s literally on the wall (Sharpie markers are provided to customers as they are encouraged to sign what little white space is left on the walls and ceiling), the lights are dim and the pool table is covered and used as a make-shift dance floor. The DJ played music from his iTunes library while sipping beer at the bar and lucky for me (unlucky for J.J.) he had the entire Dr. Dre Chronic 2001 album and some early Eminem and Jay-Z – all of which he played. The short story is I had a rap-off with an Eminem wanna-be from England and wound up voiceless the following morning. CK lives on…

We met Olivia, Troy and Pato by chance for one last lunch before we’d be going our separate ways – J.J. and I taking a 10-hour bus ride to Dong Hoi and the others making the 3-hour trip to Hue.

Nha Trang, Vietnam

2 Sep

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Nha Trang, Vietnam

The bus arrived around 1pm to Vietnam Austria to pick us up for the 5 and a half hour ride from Mui Ne to Nha Trang. What was different about this bus in relation to the last was that there was no assigned seating. Being some of the last to board to bus J.J. and I wound up with 2 seats over the back wheel and mine was awkwardly reclined without having the ability to adjust. Every time we hit a bump I was bounced forward and then back. Oh the joys of bussing around the world.

We arrived in Nha Trang just as it was getting dark and had a cab take us to our hotel, Hien Mai, where we checked in and got cleaned up for dinner. J.J. had read good things about Yen’s Vietnamese Restaurant on Trip Advisor which named it as one of the best places to eat in Nha Trang. I would tend to agree and highly recommend the fresh spring rolls (no shrimp) and bo pho (or beef pho).

After dinner we took a walk around town to get our bearings so that in the morning we’d have some idea where to go to look into scuba diving. We found the Sailing Club where we intended to book our scuba trip the following morning and walked back to our hotel through the lively streets which were lined with bars, restaurants, hotels and backpackers. Before crashing for the night we sent Olivia a Facebook message to see if she, Troy and Pato wanted to meet up in the morning.

We woke up relatively early and made our way downstairs for the breakfast of an entire loaf of French bread and eggs that was included in our room price. There, I checked my messages and found that Olivia had written us back. They proposed we visit Vinpearl, a nearby amusement park located on an island reachable by the world’s longest cable car ride over the ocean. We planned to meet at the Sailing Club after J.J. and I arranged our dives for the following day. For $50 USD each we would get 2 hour-long Fun Dives (just the dive master, J.J. and I as opposed to a 4-person group), food, drinks and transportation to and from the boat to the Sailing Club.

The 5 of us caught a taxi which drove us the 6km to the gondola that would take us to Vinpearl, but first stopped along the way so that we could purchase our tickets to the theme park. For 450,000 dong we had a round trip ride on the cable car, entrance to the park, unlimited access to the rides, water park, aquarium and arcade.

We started our day on the rides which are somewhere between the rides at Centreville and the Wonderland. We ended the rides with the swings and were all feeling dizzy and hot so we made our way to the water park. We purchased lockers for our dry clothes and shoes and spent hours racing down the slides, being spun and bounced around a 5-person inner tube, relaxing along the lazy river. Our time in the water park ended when we realized that Pato had lost the key to his locker on one of the particularly bouncy water slides. We searched the pools at the bottom of each of the slides, borrowing goggles from local Vietnamese kids but had no luck.

Because Pato couldn’t remember his locker number and because it was possible for anyone that happened to find his key to claim the contents of his locker we headed back to retrieve our things. By then it had begun to lightly rain and so we changed into dry clothes and decided to get some food before hitting the aquarium. Just like home amusement park food and drink is incredibly over-priced.

At the aquarium we got a sneak preview of what we might expect to see on our dives the following day – reef sharks, rays, eels, lobsters, clown fish, etc. My favourite part was the glass tunnel that you could walk through on a moving sidewalk that allowed the rays and sharks to swim overhead.

Just as the sun was beginning to set we lined up in the longest line of the day for the 2-man luge ride. J.J. sat in the back and steered while I tried my best to take photos of the amazing sunset taking place over the ocean in front of us. It was no easy task with all of the twists, turns, speed and abrupt stops which I’m sure comes through in the photos.

Next we hit the arcade which was definitely heaven on earth for J.J. due to the unlimited lives we all received as part of the one-time cost of 450,000 dong we’d paid that morning. They had any game you could imagine, including 2 mechanical bulls. I convinced J.J. to have a bull-riding competition and he was on the mats within seconds. The Vinpearl employee operating the bull’s movements seemed to have a great time bucking me around for the next 5 minutes. I know that doesn’t seem like long but my leg, arm and neck muscles would beg to differ. (Houstina and Clegger I don’t know how you girls did this while drinking in Scottsdale!)

Going back to Nha Trang it was dark and the towers of gondola were lit with white neon lights to make each one look like mini Eiffel Towers. We enjoyed a tired 10-minute ride back to the mainland before catching a taxi to take us back to town. J.J. and I split off from the group as we were staying at a different hotel. On our way back we stopped at Good Morning Vietnam for dinner – an odd name for an Italian restaurant. There, we had an amazing meal of pumpkin ravioli with a butter sage sauce – ravioli is something I had been missing from home so this was an awesome treat, though relatively pricey by backpacker standards for Vietnam.

Before going up to bed we decided to try to book a bus to Hoi An but had no luck. The guy at the front desk told us that all of the bus companies were closed for the evening and that we would have to try again in the morning before leaving for scuba.

In the morning we had a quick breakfast and again checked on the bus situation. Again we had no luck but gave the guy at the front desk our phone number so that he could text us if he managed to secure 2 tickets for the following morning’s bus. If not, we said we would walk around to some of the travel agencies to check for ourselves.

We left the hotel for the Sailing Club where we and the rest of the people on our dive boat were shuttled to the pier where we met our dive master for the day, a Vietnamese guy named Tahn. We got suited up, J.J. strapped on his GoPro camera, completed our buddy checks (I was surprised how much we remembered for not having dove in a year and a half!) and hit the open sea.

For the first 10 seconds, as with the first time I ever tried diving, I had a mini panic attack. Our first dive had us swimming through caves and despite my claustrophobia I didn’t have any trouble with this. The visibility was good and we saw lots of brightly coloured fish and coral but unfortunately no sharks, turtles or rays. Back on the boat I asked Tanh if we could expect to see any of those on our second dive and he told me that we wouldn’t because ‘anything big is killed’. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand why due to the language barrier but my best guess would be that they’re fished for.

After a lunch of chicken curry and rice and after discovering that J.J. had mistakenly thought he’d turned on his GoPro but in fact had turned it off, we took the boat to the second dive site of the day which was a reef site. We again geared up and this time made double sure the camera was on before jumping in the water. As we were descending I was unable to equalize my left ear. Stupidly I continued to descend and eventually encountered a pain so terrible that my eyes began to water inside my mask. Within 15 seconds the pain subsided, though I could feel that my ear still felt popped, but I was able to enjoy the dive.

Once back at the surface I remained unable to clear my left ear. From the Sailing Club where we were dropped off we decided to head back to the hotel to shower off the salt water. My ear was still bothering me and had begun to ache which in turn caused me to feel a bit unbalanced and nauseous. J.J. sweetly paid a visit to the Sailing Club to see if they had any recommendations and they pointed him to a nearby pharmacy where he purchased ear drops for swimmer’s ear.

Olivia, Troy and Pato had purchased a bus ticket to Hoi An for that night and since we wouldn’t be headed there until the following night we joined them while they had dinner and waited for their bus to arrive. When it was time for them to head back to their hotel to collect their bags we said our see-you-soon’s and made our way to a nearby restaurant called Lanterns that was recommended by Lonely Planet.

After dinner we visited a hostel called Backpackers where we were able to book a sleeper bus ticket to take us to Hoi An the following evening. We headed back to our hotel where I used the swimmer’s ear drops and in the morning I felt much better but still not 100%.

After breakfast at the hotel we packed up and checked out of our hotel, locking our bags together in the lobby where we would leave them until it was time for us to catch the bus to Hoi An. We decided to take a walk around since we’d spent little time in town during the days and were surprised to run into Olivia, Troy and Pato. Apparently the hotel had received a message the day before that they wouldn’t be able to get on the bus but had never passed it along to them. Instead they were told they’d have to take the bus the same night as us.

After agreeing to meet for dinner and to wait for the bus together J.J. and I headed to the restaurant at the Sailing Club located right on the beach. We had drinks (club soda and fresh fruit juice) and took advantage of the free wifi that was offered there until it was time to go back to our hotel. There we were able to use the staff shower before going to Backpackers to meet Olivia, Troy and Pato for dinner.

J.J. and I were picked up first and Olivia, Troy and Pato were told they were on a different bus. We wished them luck in getting to Hoi An and told them to send us a Facebook message to let us know if they had successfully made it. J.J. and I boarded the bus and found our seats. Instead of the individual lay down seats we were at the very back of the bus in a tight row of 5 lay down seats. Luckily we had the window and the seat next to it and not the middle seat which is the worst seat on the bus. We settled in for the 11-hour journey, but first a 1-hour stop for seemingly no reason about 5 minutes away from where we were picked up.

Mui Ne, Vietnam

26 Aug

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Mui Ne, Vietnam

The bus ride to Mui Ne, a beach town known for kite surfing, was 5 hours from HCMC and luckily for us we had a comfortable sleeper bus. (The sleeper buses in Vietnam are more like the first class seats in a plane that totally recline into a horizontal position and less like a lazy boy chair.) We were dropped off on the main street at the hottest point of the day which is usually around 1pm or 2pm and we hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. It hadn’t occurred to us that it might be busy as it was the weekend and Mui Ne was a popular getaway for HCMC folk. Sweating buckets we gave up looking for budget options and decided to splurge ($30) for one night only on an air conditioned bungalow at Thuy Thuy. The hotel had a beautiful pool, a gym, full restaurant and even an adorable puppy running around the grounds.

Once we had gotten settled and dropped off our bags we visited the more hostel-like accommodations of Austria Vietnam across the street and booked a room there for the following 2 nights. Once we had sorted ourselves out for our stay in Mui Ne, I changed into my bathing suit and hit the pool to read my Lonely Planet Vietnam while J.J. rested as he still wasn’t feeling well.

After the sun had set we decided to scope out the restaurant scene. As we crossed the street who did we run into but Olivia, Troy and Pato! They too were looking for somewhere to eat dinner and invited us to join them. We didn’t make it a late night as we were trying to get J.J. healthy again.

First thing in the morning we packed up our things and moved to the less luxurious but beachfront Vietnam Austria before venturing next door to Joe’s where we had breakfast and some amazing coffee. We spent the morning reading a book (J.J.) and German fashion magazines found in the lobby of the hotel (me) in the lounge chairs set up overlooking the ocean. Whenever I took a break from reading (ok, looking at the pictures because I can’t read German) I was graced with an amazing view of turquoise water dotted with kite surfers and wind surfers being pushed along the sea.

In the afternoon we met Olivia, Troy and Pato at their hotel just down the road for a group tour of the sites around Mui Ne. We were picked up by a jeep that resembled something that may have been used in the war by the army. Our trip started with a visit to Fairy Stream which is a very shallow red-brown coloured stream enclosed by amazing red sand dunes, some of which had hardened into rock-like formations, and lush greenery. Along the way we stopped to allow Troy the opportunity to ride an ostrich which was hilarious for us, but I think if it had been me I would have been scared. The ostrich ran quite quickly, bucking around, and turning its head back to face Troy as it opened its beak wide. Strange little tourist attraction, the ostrich riding.

Our next stop was a local fishing village. We were able to walk down the cement steps from the road down to the ocean where we could get a close-up look at the local fisherman casting their rods and their nets into the ocean and pulling in the day’s catches as a number of kids rode their bicycles along the wet sand. I have to say, the smell of the fishing village didn’t really do much to stimulate my appetite.

We left the fishing village in search of the white sand dunes. Here we could rent an ATV to drive up and down the rolling dunes as well as rent crazy carpets to toboggan down the sloping sand. Unfortunately the ATV rentals were expensive (relatively, of course) and we would have had to wait for someone to return one so instead we headed off toward the dunes on foot, crazy carpets in hand.

As we got further away from small warehouse-like building where we had parked the jeep dark clouds began to roll in, replacing the clear blue sky of earlier that day. Eventually the wind also began to pick up and let me tell you that being sand-blasted from all angles in what is essentially a desert is not so much fun. We walked back to where the jeep was parked just as big rain drops began to fall. In no time at all we and the other tourists and our drivers were huddled under the awning of the warehouse watching a killer thunder and lightning storm roll in.

The locals played a rowdy game of cards for money and as we watched we noticed a family of puppies huddled under the table of the card game. I spent the duration of the storm luring out the puppies one at time and cuddling with them before sending them back under the table to snuggle with their mum, dad, brothers and sisters.

Our final stop of the tour was to be the red sand dunes which is said to be incredible for sunset. Unfortunately by the time the storm passed and the rain lightened up it was already beginning to fall dark. Instead we headed home to shower off our sandy bodies before meeting up again for dinner.

We chose a BBQ place called Hoang Vu along the main road and we all had the mixed kebabs which were delicious, so much so that Troy and J.J. had 2 full dinners. We then visited Joe’s next to our hotel for a drink and some live music before calling it a night.

The next morning we slept in a little bit and headed next door to Joe’s for breakfast, where the food is good and the service is generally not. Every time we’ve gone there I feel like ordering a smile, but they have pancakes with real Canadian maple syrup and good coffee so you can understand its appeal. When we were finished we went back to Vietnam Austria to meet an Aussie who ran local kite boarding lessons. We wanted to talk cost as well as time commitment. Unfortunately with plans to leave Mui Ne the following morning and the wind conditions not being consistently great we didn’t have enough time, though it was cheaper to learn to kite surf in Mui Ne than it was in Bali. Instead of learning the sport we opted for a laid back beach day, again watching the kite boarders and wind surfers.

At dinner time J.J. and I set off in search of Snow, a restaurant we’d learned about in Lonely Planet. Unfortunately it was further down the road than we were willing to walk and as we came upon Hoang Vu we decided to eat there for a second night in a row. Again it was delicious!

Back at Vietnam Austria J.J. used the slow exposure feature of his camera to get some amazing shots of the lightning seemingly striking into the ocean. We then booked a bus ticket and a hotel for the following day in Nha Trang, another beach destination known in Vietnam for its scuba diving and island amusement park.

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