Hitchin' a Ride

Hello friends and family!

It's been a little while since our last post but we've been in some areas without internet so we're going to attempt to get caught up.

The month in Vietnam went by so fast.  We're on our 10th month of traveling and we can't believe how fast the time is going.  Yet another reminder of how fast life is.  Make sure you take advantage of every second you can.  Even if you're sitting at work or doing something that you don't particularly enjoy remember that every minute is precious.

Ok, enough philosophy, let's get caught up!

We continued to work our way up the coast of Vietnam and we were looking to get off the tourist track a little after being in Hoi An for a week.  We read about a couple of caves that had been discovered within the last 10 years so we decided to check one of them out.  Dong Thien Duong, or Paradise Cave, was discovered in 2005 and is the world's longest cave.  There is no easy route to get there but we read that  Dong Hoi is a good place to base yourself to get to the cave.  We took a taxi to Danang from Hoi An then jumped on a train to Dong Hoi where we would be staying.  We then rented a motorbike to ride the remaining 80 kilometers to the cave.

Here's a quick snapshot of Leanne on the train to Dong Hoi.  The train wasn't incredibly cheap but very scenic.

The beauty on the way to the cave on the motorbike was astounding.

Once you arrive to the park entrance you have to walk about a mile (1.2 kilometers) to a set of 500 steps that lead to the entrance of the cave.  You can also pay a fee to take a little shuttle to the staircase.  We're cheapskates so of course we walked.  Josh was ready to celebrate after making it to 100!

When we entered the cave we were immediately taken aback by how enormous it is.  They've done a really good job of lighting the cave to show many of the stalagmites and stalactites that are there.  It was really beautiful and we're sure that as time goes by the word will get out about how beautiful it is and the tourists will come.  That's good for them because they are ready for it!

Really cool shot of the cave reflecting off a pool of water

Yay!  We're here!

If you're interested in a short video of our trip you can click here:

There is also a short bit on directions to the location at the end. 

In the center of Dong Hoi stands the remnants of an old church that was bombed during the Vietnam war. The sign read "...as a result of American aggression."  That made us feel a bit uncomfortable as we walked around town.  There was an underlying notion that the people of this town were not the biggest fans of Westerners, especially Americans.  

For the most part, they were still pleasant to us apart from a man that yelled a stern "No!" and waved his hand to shoo Josh away when he asked if he had an available room.  We wound up having to stay at one of the only places in town that catered to Westerners.  Because it was off the beaten tourist track it was more of a challenge to find places to eat.  They weren't entirely welcoming us into their restaurants with friendly gestures but on the other hand they weren't being rude to us.  We did manage to find a few small restaurants to grab some local cuisine and were actually charged local prices! It was cheap, cheap, cheap to fill our bellies. Well sort of fill our bellies. Leanne was satisfied while Josh could have eaten at least two more orders and still not have been full. 

We only spent two days in Dong Hoi before making our way to Hanoi.  We made the 12-hour journey via sleeper bus. It was quite an uncomfortable jaunt as we were crammed six deep in a row at the back of the bus.  Josh literally had to hang his legs over the ledge just to fit. Meanwhile, the guy next to him kept trying to use his shoulder as a pillow throughout the night.  Needless to say, we didn't sleep at all that night. 

We arrived in Hanoi around 5:30 a.m. Luckily, we found a hotel that let us check in early. After a quick nap, we hit the crowded, bustling city streets. Josh could hardly contain his excitement when he ran into this A&M super fan as we strolled around the lake. This poor kid was so scared at first when Josh asked him to take a picture. Clearly, the guy had no idea what Josh was talking about or anything about A&M but was kind enough to pose for a quick pic.

We spent the next couple of days checking out the sites in Hanoi.  We stopped by the Temple of Literature which is the oldest national university in Vietnam.  It was founded in 1070 and is dedicated to the teachings of Confucius.  Josh wanted to make sure we were all square with the Buddhists before we headed out. 

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We spent most of the evenings in Hanoi walking around the lake in the old town.  The Christmas lights were out so it made for an extra special walk.

Leanne got into the Christmas spirit!

One of the sad but necessary places to go in Hanoi is the old prison.  This was where Senator John McCain was held as a POW during the Vietnam War.  It was definitely filled with misinformation and propaganda much like the War Remnants Museum we visited in Ho Chi Minh City but we're glad we made the visit.

We took one last stroll around the lake before heading out to Halong City for the next four days.

The overwhelming majority of tourists go to Halong Bay on an organized tour.   Instead of going on a tour we decided to try to go at it alone since we had four days to kill before heading to Bangkok for a couple of days.  This took more planning than we had originally anticipated.  While trying to figure out how to do this we came across more collapsed sidewalks.  It reminded us of our time in Myanmar but luckily this one had already collapsed before we stepped on it. 

One thing we did not anticipate was how difficult it would be to go on a tour of Halong Bay on your own from Halong City.  Unfortunately, the locals do not make this easy.  When you go to the dock it is swarming with scammers and the local mafia presence goes all the way to the people selling tickets to the ferries.  There is a "Public Ferry" that goes around Halong Bay but in order to do this you have to book a tour.  They really don't want tourists coming in and doing these tours on their own and blocked every attempt we made to go on the boat outside of a tour.  We knew there had to be a way of doing this so we walked around the dock trying to buy a ticket from one of the other agents.  We noticed the area where all the tours were going and Josh caught the eye of one of the security guards.  He asked him what we had to do to get on the boat and we saw the sparkle in his eye.  Another bribe attempt!  He tried to get us on a boat with a tour for around $9 each but the boat was full.  He told us to come back the next day at 8:00 and gave us his cell phone number.  We returned the next day and called him and sure enough, it worked!  For $18 he slipped us onto the upper deck of a private boat rented out by a group of Chinese project mangers.  It felt like we were a couple of castaways and we nervously waited for the hammer to drop and be escorted off the boat.

We pulled away from the dock and knew we were in the clear.  Success!!

To view a short video of our trip click below:

Our boat played a game of bumper boats on our way out.

Within the first 5 minutes of the boat ride, Leanne received a text message from her brother, Michael, and sister-in-law, Erin, that she just became an aunt again! We were so excited at the news. Grayson James Hecht is perfect and we look forward to being a virtual aunt and uncle for the next year.

Josh gave a yell in celebration of our successful mission.  Although it was a cloudy day and visibility was minimal on that particular day, we still appreciated the sheer beauty of our surroundings.

Leanne studied the map in an attempt to figure out our route. We didn't really know if we were on a 4-hour, 6-hour or overnight trip. We jumped on the boat without even knowing the itinerary. Josh tried to nonchalantly ask our fellow Chinese friends how long the trip would be. They seemed a bit confused why we were asking that question but they informed us that we were on a 4-hour trip. The head project manager said "I think the owner of the boat sold us both a private trip." We decided it would be best to keep it to ourselves that the owner actually knew he had a couple of stowaways on his boat.

The gang! These guys were so nice. The gentleman on the far right seemed to have a bit of a man crush on Josh. Only the head project manager could speak English and this guy asked him to tell Josh "His hair is beautiful and he looks strong. He looks like a famous artist." Josh was caught off guard by the compliments and replied "Thanks" and then leaned over and whispered to Leanne "I guess?"

We made a pitstop at yet another cave.

This rock is called Cock and Hen. You can't really tell from this angle but it sort of resembles a cock and hen.

The other side of the rocks resembles a fish.

Despite the dreary conditions, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous.

Our Chinese friends informed us that this is a very famous rock for Chinese tourists. We don't know the history of it but we took a picture anyway. We do know that it is one of the Vietnamese bills.

Not a bad way to pass the time.

We returned to the dock and parted way with our boat friends. It was one of those trips we will always remember. We were quite pleased with ourselves for figuring out how to get on a boat and spending minimal money doing it to boot!

The next day we rented a motorbike and headed to a town slightly north of Halong City. These cutie pies were so friendly to us. They epitomize what this trip is all about for us, smiles and peace!

Josh just loves any excuse to ride a motorbike. Check out how small his helmet is and yes, he is riding down the sidewalk. Why? Because he can. 

A few more glimpses of beautiful Halong Bay.

Okay, now we must address an ugly part of this journey. It is considered a delicacy to eat dog meat, especially during the winter. We witnessed these guys picking out their meal. We completely understand that different cultures have different practices and we definitely respect that. However, we were sickened by the whole ordeal so we didn't stick around very long to see much more.  

Thankfully, it's not all a dog eat dog world. This little girl was dressed up for a night on the town and is very much loved by her owner.

Here's another common sight throughout Southeast Asia.  A pig on the back of a motorbike!

During our stay in Halong City, we came to fall in love with a sweet old lady. We referred to her as our Vietnamese grandmother. We ate at her restaurant on three different occasions. We can't say that her food was that tasty but she was just too darn cute and she really liked that we ordered in Vietnamese. They serve their beer over ice and their rice steaming hot. When in Vietnam!

She even took a picture with Leanne.  Of course, Leanne loved her and her "fashion" t-shirt.

We went to a club in Halong City.  Really, it was just an outside patio that blasted loud dance music while everyone sat around and drank beer. Josh got up on the dance floor for a record 30 seconds.

We headed back to Hanoi for one night before catching a flight to Bangkok. We had a two-day stop in Bangkok before making our way to Sri Lanka. While in Bangkok we took the opportunity to indulge in some comfort eating. Leanne was able to get a fabulous fruit shake while Josh ate Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Auntie Anne's pretzels.  These are the faces of some happy campers.

After two days of stocking up on supplies, strolling around fancy air-conditioned malls, eating comfort food and listening to Christmas music,  it was time to say a final farewell to Southeast Asia and make our way to Sri Lanka.

We spent a total of 5 months in Southeast Asia and the trip to Bangkok was bittersweet.  On the one hand, we were on our way to exotic Sri Lanka and India, on the other hand we were saying goodbye to a part of the world that was our home for almost half a year.  We loved Southeast Asia, loved it, but it was time to move along.  We will miss it so much and will cherish our memories of the people, food, and how cheap everything was.  Leanne gave one more goodbye to the king before heading to the airport.  It was his birthday the day we left so his present was getting rid of us!

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time for our flight.  We got checked in, handed our boarding pass, and then told the flight was cancelled.  What?!  We were then told to follow a lady to a bus that would take us to the hotel that the airline would be putting us up in for the night. That was a kind gesture but we weren't taking that as the final outcome of our night. We have been traveling for almost 10 months and haven't had to deal with a cancelled flight yet. We were hoping there would be a way that we could continue our streak of no cancelled flights. Leanne noticed that people were checking in for a flight. We went over to the manager and Leanne played dumb and asked why we were given a boarding pass if passengers where still checking in for the flight. She informed us that our flight was cancelled and that the passengers were checking in for a flight later that night. Leanne batted her eyelashes and kindly asked if there was any possible way we could be put on that flight. The manager smiled and said she would put us on the standby list. Out of a flight of more than 75 passengers, there were six of us that weren't taking a cancelled flight as an answer and were holding hope that we would get on that later flight. Low and behold, we were called to the check-in desk two hours later and were handed boarding passes at 8:45 for the 9:30 flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We quickly made our way through immigration and ran all the way to the gate. We made the flight! Sometimes it works in your favor to ask questions and have patience. 

Goodbye Southeast Asia, hello Sri Lanka!

As always, thanks for following along. Tis' the season for peace, love and happiness and we are full of them all.

Leanne & Josh

Thankful in Vietnam

Hello friends we've met, friends we haven't met yet, and family!  

We're still in Vietnam in Hanoi on the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend.  We sure hope you all enjoyed the holiday and got lots to eat!

When we arrived in Vietnam we had no idea what we were going to do or where we were going to go.  All we knew was that we had a 30-day visa and we flew out of Hanoi on December 3rd.  When we visited the Cu Chi tunnels (or tunners according to our guide) Leanne spoke to an Irish guy who told us we should check out an area called Mui Ne.  We had absolutely no idea what was there but we knew it was a 5-hour bus ride away so we booked the ticket.  It was $5 for a one-way ride and we were on our way.  Before we get to the knitty-gritty we wanted to mention the hotel we stayed at in case anybody is randomly looking for information.  We stayed at a place called Hai Yen.  You can google it to find contact information if you'd like.  The rooms were $16 and were soooo nice.  There was a pool, good internet, and a friendly staff.  The guy that owns the place has his fingers in everything so he seems to keep everything new and clean. 

We rented a motorbike the whole time we were there for $5 a day so were able to explore everything the area has to offer.  Mui Ne is actually a desert.  Did you know they have deserts in Vietnam?  We had no idea.  You learn something everyday.  It's also on the coast so there are plenty of fishermen.

While biking along we came across this local fishing village

Leanne was all smiles at the thought of having some of their haul for dinner

Josh got excited about playing on the sand dunes

So did Leanne!

We tried to roll down the dunes but weren't very successful.  

Selfy shot at the dunes

When riding back along the coast the scenery was absolutely beautiful.

We caught the sunset before heading back

We ate at rows of stands where families sold the catch of the day.  Dinner every night consisted of picking out something and having them grill (or BBQ as they say) it.  You were able to pick what sides would accompany it as well.  We usually picked out a vegetable and had rice, of course.

Scallops and beer!  

The next day we headed to an area called Fairy Stream.  The way it was presented we expected there to be signs but after turning around and driving past it four or five times we finally saw a small sign. We walked down a path and caught this other tiny sign and were able to find it.

It really was a beautiful place.  We hiked up this little stream for about 30 minutes.

We took a few pitstops to climb up the sides and take a few pictures

Leanne posed in the sand formations that have formed from the stream cutting through the sand.

Ahh...that feels nice.  It was really hot.

We originally intended on staying a couple of days but were enjoying the weather so we extended our stay to five days.  We hung out by the pool, ate great seafood, and explored the region for our remaining days.

The fisherman all row around in the these little boats and fish in the mornings.  Do you see the little anchor?  Josh wanted to row around in one of these boats but the opportunity never came up.

We cruised by the fishing village again for another photo opportunity.

One day while riding around we found a huge cemetery right on the coast.  We ended up spending a couple of hours wandering around and checking it out. 

We also came across these guys drying out little fish

Watching the sunset at the dunes

That's Leanne waaayyy off in the distance.

We did not partake in the snake but took a picture of the options on the menu.  Side note, we did not partake in the snake because it was out of our budget at $20 a plate.

It was finally time for us to pry ourselves away from Mui Ne if we were going to see anything else so we had to move along to Nha Trang about 5 hours further up the coast.  Nha Trang is more of a city but still has a really nice beach.  We were only there for a couple of days because we wanted to spend several days in Hoi An (the next stop). 

Here's a picture of some workers shaping the bushes into little boats with scissors.

Everywhere you go in Vietnam you are constantly reminded that you are in a Communist country.  As a matter of fact, Vietnam, China, North Korea, and Cuba are the only communist countries left.

It was pouring rain for the majority of the time we were in Nha Trang so we took that as a sign to make our exit. We hopped aboard a 14-hour sleeper bus to Hoi An where we would spend the next week.

Hoi An is full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shophouses. While most of the shops cater solely to tourists, the area has been preserved largely as is, which is unusual for Vietnam. Almost every shop in the downtown area that isn't a restaurant sells souvenirs ranging from tailor-made clothing, paper lanterns, shoes, bags and jewelry. Hoi An has a long tradition of copying or rapidly making up new garments for travelers. There are so many tailor shops throughout the town. Josh got his shorts fixed and Leanne got a pair of shorts made. Since we are traveling light, that was the only contribution we made to the garment making business of Hoi An.

The night market had so many fresh vegetables. The fresh vegetables and herbs are some of the best things about eating in Vietnam!

Beautiful handmade lanterns.

We ate at this sweet lady's restaurant (really it was her house) twice while we were in Hoi An. Her food was amazing. Each area throughout Vietnam has different speciality foods. Think Texas - Tex-Mex, Georgia - boiled peanuts and Colorado - Rocky Mountain oysters. Hoi An's specialty is rice pancakes and a dish called White Rose.

Yet again, the rain caught up with us. There are opposing monsoon seasons in Vietnam so it is always raining in some part of the country. During this time of the year, the central coast gets hit with rain.

When we say hit, we mean a Mack Truck drives through and smashes it. We actually had to purchase ponchos to wear over our rain jackets because it was raining so hard.

Fortunately for us, the beers were only 14 cents each. This really came in handy on a rainy day. This ring of empties represents 98 cents well spent!

The next day the rain finally subsided so we could get in some sightseeing.

The Japanese Covered Bridge was built in the early 1600's.

Josh couldn't help but smile outside of Hokien (Fujian) Meeting Hall a.k.a. Phuc Kien. Yeah, it made us chuckle too. 

We strolled down lantern lane.

This is one of the many tailor shops in town. However, this one was too fancy for us. We wound up going to a budget tailor shop off the main street. We didn't get a picture of the tailor shop we went to because it was pouring the day we picked up our shorts.  Go figure.

Now those are some large incenses

Rain or shine, these ladies were always hustling to get someone to go on a boat trip down the river.

We took a break to enjoy a cup of coffee and some snacks. The coffee if Vietnam is some of the strongest coffee we have had on our entire trip. It is amazing!

It makes you perk up and get going! Only a minute before this picture was taken, Leanne almost fell asleep on the table. Look at her now!

Yum...White Rose

We visited one of the oldest houses in Hoi An. Believe it or not, the descendants of the original family  still live in the house.

Every tourist takes a picture at this sign.  Including us...

Many of the streets are closed for walking only in the evenings.  It's a nice way to enjoy the lanterns while strolling down the streets.

The weather looked promising so we started this day out sightseeing.  We rode on our bikes to the beach but were caught in a downpour two miles into the ride.

Between rain showers we snuck out and found a sidewalk cafe to enjoy some more cheap beers and food.  We may have been Mrs. Hay's only customers of the night and she was sure happy to have us!

For the next three days we rented another motorbike to check out the surrounding area including Danang and My Son (pronounced me son) Temple.  The weather was spectacular.  We passed by these water buffalos walking through a rice field.  This is what we envision when we think of Vietnam.

We're not sure what they were fishing for but there were men spread throughout trying to catch dinner.

After asking many people where it was we finally found My Son!  It took us a little over an hour but we were able to get directions along the way.  Nobody spoke English so our conversation went something like this:

Us: Xin chao (Hello)
They would then look at us
Us: My Son?
They would point in some direction
Us:  Cam on (Thank you)

We're fluent now!!

My Son is a temple from the Cham era which dates back to the second century.  Unfortunately, many of the remains were damaged by American bombs in the Vietnam War.

Picture opportunities are everywhere.

Just south of Danang is Marble Mountain which has one of the most beautiful caves we had seen to this point.

The rays of sunlight in the cave were pretty unbelievable.

We motored along the coast of the South China Sea

Not a bad place to take a nap.

The beach in Danang was large and deserted during the day.  We had huge stretches of beach completely to ourselves.  Like clockwork, at 4:00 p.m. thousands of locals would come to the beach for evening relaxation.

We stayed at a place called Nature Homestay for part of our time in Hoi An. This was the family we stayed with and they were incredibly friendly.  You can book their rooms on Agoda.com.  We're even Facebook friends now!  Ha.

For Thanksgiving we were very sad to not be home celebrating with our countrymen so we decided to have our own little celebration.  We "splurged" by going to a happy hour special at a swanky golf course designed by Greg Norman.  We really considered playing a round but there were two factors that made us decide not to:

1)  Wow!!  That place was expensive.  We're pretty sure you could support a Vietnamese Village for 6 months for the price of one round
2)  Leanne has never played golf so she would have had to drive the cart while Josh played a round.  Obviously, great for Josh but not Leanne.

We settled on the driving range special of 100 balls and a pitcher of beer each.  It was still expensive for us but it was a holiday so it was ok.  Josh tried his best to teach Leanne since it was her first time swinging a club.  She did really well!

Now this is living!!

After golf we rode to the beach in Danang in pursuit of our Thanksgiving feast at a nice seaside restaurant.  We ate crab soup, grilled squid, and a big bowl of rice.  Rice for Thanksgiving?  This is Asia!!  Speaking of that, we definitely missed the traditional Thanksgiving food and we wouldn't exactly call it a feast because the portions were still Asian sized.  Still, the meal was delicious and the company was great.

Here's to being thankful, no matter what country you're from!

We miss you all! Thanks for following.

Leanne & Josh