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