Our Stay at the Hoa Phong Hotel

Hoa Phong Hotel

Our stay in Phong Nha National Park was nothing less than amazing thanks to the wonderful staff at the Hoa Phong Hotel. Lisa and I had planned to go to Phong Nha to see everything the beautiful national park had to offer and after searching Agoda.com for a while we found the lovely Hoa Phong Hotel. The Hoa Phong Hotel rested beneath limestone mountains that surround Phong Nha and 200m from the Song Con River. We had emailed the hotel prior to ask for a pickup at the Dong Hoi Railway Station as well as a room with a double bed with a mountain view. Being surrounded by beautiful limestone mountains we thought why not be able to view them from our room? The Hoa Phong Hotel was quick to respond to us and were delighted to adhere to our requests (seriously it took less than 5 minutes to get a reply from them!).

Mountain view from our window.

We booked three nights for a total of 885,600d ($39 USD) which included a room with a double bed overlooking a behemoth limestone mountain. Free breakfast and coffee was included in our stay which was available from 7:00-10:00 every morning. The hotel also offered guided tours to the many caves that are found in Phong Nha. We decided to do the Discovery Cave Tour which took us to the Botanical Gardens, Paradise Cave, and the Dark Cave. The hotel gave us ample information about the tour and told us their favorite things about it.

On our last day, the Hoa Phong Hotel helped us find a bus that would take us back to the Dong Hoi Railway Station and even offered to let us keep the room for free until our bus arrived (which was not until 17:00 that evening). The Hoa Phong went above and beyond to make sure Lisa and I had the best experience possible in Phong Nha. I’m definitely going to stay here again next time I find myself in Phong Nha.

Strawberry Garden Homestay

Lisa and I planned to stay in Hoi An for a total of four days and three nights, enough time to relax and enjoy everything the beach city has to offer. What made our stay in Hoi An beyond spectacular was the wonderful Strawberry Garden Homestay and the loving family who took care of us.

Lovely wooden table outside the homestay.

Upon arriving at the Strawberry Garden Homestay, which is located just one kilometer outside of Old Town, we were greeted by our host Ruby. Ruby welcomed us into the homestay, offering us home made tea and delectable local rice snacks. While we sat down and enjoyed the lovely treats in front of us, Ruby told us of all the and tours that her homestay offers as well as what is located nearby. The Strawberry Garden Homestay offers bikes for guests to take to explore the city free of charge. There is also an option for renting a motorbike for 140,000 Dong a day. Free breakfast every morning of your stay which includes a meal plus a drink. All homemade of course. If need be, they offer a laundry service for a nominal fee per kilo.

This dog was so awesome!

One of our biggest joys was playing with their incredibly friendly dog, who was always excited to see us every time we returned to the homestay. The way he crosses his paws when he lays down was almost to cute too handle. Everyday, Ruby would ask us how we were doing and if there was anything she could do to help make our stay better. Ruby made the Strawberry Garden Homestay feel like home for both my wife and I. We even debated staying another few nights due to how wonderful our stay there was! If you ever find yourself in Hoi An, do yourself a favor and spend your stay at the Strawberry Garden Homestay.

Train Travel in Vietnam

Train in Vietnam
First train ride in Vietnam.

Taking the train in Vietnam was an amazing experience that I was fortunate to have. I had read through other blogs that taking a train allows you see the more rural parts of Vietnam that are far from the main cities. Having never taking a train before, I was intrigued by the notion and wanted to experience it for myself.
Lisa and I decided to to book the SE10 train going from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang as our first trip. The trip would take 7 ½ hours to complete and would take us through the rural parts of Vietnam. To get the most out of the experience we chose to take the day train so we could appreciate all the the views as we passed by. We brought two backpacks with us which we stored in the overhead storage compartments above our seats. Throughout the trip, the train would occasionally stop at other stations to pick up fellow backpackers and daily commuters on their way to work.

Where to Buy Tickets

There are a few different ways to purchase a train ticket. You can go to the local train station and purchase a physical ticket there. Go online to sites like Baolau.com, Vietnam-Railway.com, or 12go.asiaand purchase a digital ticket that you can download or print. Or you can purchase train tickets through your hostel, homestay, or hotel. Sometimes you can get a deal with your accommodation where they will arrange a car to drop you off or pick you up from the train station.

We chose Baolau.com to purchase our tickets to Nha Trang from Ho Chi Minh city. We purchased soft seats that cost 189,000VND ($8.32USD) + 10,000VND ($0.44USD) service fee. When we purchased tickets through Baolau.com we were first sent an email receipt of the tickets then had to wait a few minutes to an hour for the actual ticket to be emailed to us. Through Baolau.com we were able to download a PDF file of the train ticket onto our phones which was convenient.

Before boarding our train we took screenshots of our tickets just in case the PDF wouldn’t load and ended up using that to board the train with no problem at all. We met some other travelers who were panicking because they didn’t know if they needed a printed ticket or not, rest assured the screenshot of the ticket is more than enough.
Keep in mind that if you are unsure about something don’t hesitate to ask any employee at the train station. Through our experience the train staff are very helpful and will approach you to see if you’re ok or if you have any questions.

Overhead storage compartments.

Types of Seats

When purchasing train tickets you are given the option of what kind of seat you want. They range from hard seats, soft seats, four person berths and six person berths.
The hard seats are the cheapest option, but the least comfortable. They are wooden benches similar to the ones you would find outside of a train station.
The soft seat is a vinyl-covered seat and is one of the more comfortable of the seating options on the train.
A four-person berth is a room with two bunk beds adjacent to one another. These are used primarily for night travel and are more costly than the soft seat and hard seat option.
The six-person berth is a room with two three-person bunk beds that are adjacent to one another. The six-person berth is cheaper than the four-person berth however you are now dealing with six people sharing the same amount of space that the four-person berth would be sharing.

4 person berth sleeper cabin.

Benefits of Taking a Train

  • Amazing views of the countryside.
  • Inexpensive option for long travel.
  • By taking an overnight train you can eliminate having to find an additional accommodation for the night.
Awesome view of Vietnam’s coast from the train.

Exploring Phong Nha

 

Rice fields Phong Nha.
Rice fields in Phong Nha.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful caves including the largest cave in the world, Hang Son Doong. Take a trip to Paradise Cave that’s over 31 kilometers long or explore the cavernous depths of the Dark Cave. Take a motorbike out and explore the breathtaking landscape filled with towering karsts, lush rice fields, and mesmerizing sunsets. Here is a list of things that are a must do while visiting Phong Nha.

The Botanical Gardens

The Botanical Gardens offers guests a glimpse of the wildlife that inhabit Phong Nha. There is a monkey enclosure that provides refuge for local monkeys and offers protection from poachers. You can purchase fruit from the general store there to feed the monkeys. A nature trail to the right of the monkey inclosure takes you through the forest to a beautiful waterfall that cascades down the mountain.

Paradise Cave

At the length of over 31 kilometers, Paradise Cave is one of the longest caves in the world. Most tours only allow you to view the first kilometer of the cave which is still a pretty big distance. Descend into the depths of the cave and you can see just how vast its caverns really are thanks to the well-lit wooden walkway. Enormous stalagmites rise from the floor of the cave that look otherworldly. The only thing to match the size of the stalagmites were the daunting stalactites that converged down from the cave ceiling.

Paradise Cave
Inside Paradise Cave.

Dark Cave

For those seeking an adventure go check out the Dark Cave by the Chay River. The Dark Cave can only be viewed through tours which include a 400 meter zipline from the wildlife observation to the caves entrance. For those who don’t want to zipline, kayaks are available for use to get to the cave entrance. Headlamps and other gear are provided to help guests traverse the pitch black cave. A cavern inside the cave is filled with rich mineral mud that guests are allowed to take a dip in. Afterwards jump into the river to wash off and enjoy another zipline that takes you from the landing near the Dark Cave Restaurant into the river. A trip to the Dark Cave is a must for outdoor enthusiasts!
Check out our post about the Discovery Caves Tour to read about our first hand account of seeing the Botanical Gardens, Paradise Cave, and the Dark Cave!

The Duck Stop

The Duck Stop is must-see for anyone traveling to Phong Nha who wants to enjoy a cold beer and feed some friendly ducks. Located just 15 minutes by bike from the main road on Phong Nha, visitors can feed the ducks, have a delicious pancake meal, and ride a water buffalo named Donald Trump. The farmer who runs the Duck Stop is eager to show visitors a good time and will give a tour of the farm.

Duckstop
Biking through the mud to the Duck Stop

The Pub with Cold Beer

The Pub with Cold Beer
The Pub with Cold Beer.

If you take a ride to the Duck Stop then you’re bound to ride past the Pub with Cold Beer. As the name suggests, this stop has chilled beer to cool you down from the heat of Phong Nha. Not to be confused by two other stops with the same name, this pub has tables, bathrooms, and a view overlooking a small river. You can stay the night at the Pub with Cold Beer as it is also a homestay.

 

Shipping Stuff from Hanoi, Vietnam

World map
Awesome world map at the post office.

Are you like me and have to constantly knock things out of your Wife’s hands as she tries to buy anything and everything she sees? You find yourself in Hoi An trying to talk your wife out of buying leather oxford shoes just because she can? You end up having to remind her that living out of two backpacks doesn’t allow for non-essential items due to the lack of storage space. Then she hits back with “Fine, we’ll just have to ship it back home.” That leaves you standing there looking like a dumbass because you forgot that was even an option. Go to the next scene where you’re standing inside the International Post Office in Hanoi with a backpack full of goodies that you and your now stoked wife stockpiled through your travels.

So here I am about to walk you through my experience shipping things back home from Vietnam.

At our hotel in Hanoi, Lisa and I emptied out one of our backpacks and filled it to the brim with everything we wished to part from. Extra clothes we realized we didn’t need, two of Lisa’s hats (the rice picking hat and the army helmet), packs of Vietnamese coffee, a hammock that we never used, and random little trinkets. With the backpack loaded, we made our way to the International Post Office to ship the heavy bastard to Lisa’s mom’s house in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lisa’s vietnamese army helmet.

At the International Post Office we were asked to fill out a form indicating what we were shipping, how many items, and where we were shipping the package. We were also given the option of shipping the package by air or by sea. Shipping by air was more expensive, but was much faster than shipping by sea. Because we were shipping to Thailand, air shipping wasn’t that much more than shipping by sea (normally the price gap is much larger).

Post Office
Lisa filling out shipping information.

Lisa handed the completed form to the clerk at the counter which she then input into the computer system. After printing out the correct postage, the clerk brought us a large cardboard box in which to put our stuff in for shipping. Lisa took charge of placing everything in the box neatly ( I swear she is the queen of Tetris-ing things) while I handed her stuff. The post office clerk supplied us with tape in which Lisa graciously accepted and began taping the box up like the Ark of the Covenant going to Area 51. Needless to say, Lisa made sure that box wasn’t going to open no matter what.  

That box is packed to the brim!

Box sealed shut, I brought it over to the scale to have it weighed. The overall price of shipping depended on the actual weight of the entire box. All in all the priced turned out to be 1,300,000d ($57.30 USD) to ship the package by air to Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were told that our package would take three weeks to ship from  Hanoi, Vietnam to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It was as simple as that. Now we know there’s an easy way to get rid of excess luggage and continue to travel lightly. We were able to dump a 45 liter backpack worth of things into a box to ship back home. That’s a whole backpack we don’t need to lug around any more! It may cost a bit more, but hey it’s worth it.

 

Recommended Apps for Travel

maps.me

A great app to help you find your way around is maps.me. This app offers offline maps to help you navigate when wifi is not available. A life saver when you arrive in a new city and have to find your way to your hotel or hostel.

XE Currency

This app is a currency converter that also adds the ability to inform you on the current exchange rate. This app comes in handy when looking for the best exchange rate and when bargaining prices at markets.

Walking Street in Hoi An.
Walking Street in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Google Translate

Google’s translating app that can help you overcome language barriers in a pinch. It displays translation in audio and text format.

Skype

Skype allows its users to make free voice calls, video calls, and instant messages while in wifi. You can also get a Skype number which allows you to make phone calls to mobile and landline numbers. With Skype Credit you can add funds to your account and pay a flat rate of 2.3 cents per minute to any phone number around the world. Skype also has a three subscription plans including their World plan of unlimited mins for $13.99 per month that allows unlimited call time to over 63 different countries.
Skype is helpful when you need to contact a business while abroad and need a phone number to do so. With Skype there are no contracts to sign so when you are out of Skype Credit or your subscription ends you are done. Skype is available on all devices and platforms so there is no need to worry about compatibility issues.

WhatsApp

A safe and secure messaging app that helps when trying to contact businesses. This app helped me a lot when I needed to contact a hotel for information.

AirBnB

AirBnB is a great way to find affordable homes to stay in while abroad. Once you have created an account you can start looking for cool and interesting places to stay during your travels. Safe and very easy to use.

Agoda.com

Agoda helps you find affordable hotels to stay in and compares prices with other hotel apps. Perfect for those looking for the best deal on where to stay.

Kayak.com

Kayak is a great app that can help you find the cheapest flights available and will alert you when there’s a promotional offer or a sales drop.

SeatGuru

SeatGuru offers seat maps, seat reviews, and overall aircraft layouts for travelers who want to find the most comfortable flights. Recommended for travelers taking long international flights where the quality of seat definitely matters.

Google Photos

Everyone takes photos while abroad to showcase their adventures for family and friends back home. With Google Photos, travelers don’t have to worry about losing the photos with the automatic cloud storage option.

Netflix

There will be times when you’re in transit for hours upon hours at a time and you’ll need something to help pass the time. For 9.99 USD a month, Netflix offers thousands of movies and tv shows available for download offline to help pass the time during the long hauls.

5 Things to Check Out in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh is an energetic city in southern Vietnam that is a must stop for any traveler. As our first destination in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was a lot to take in all at once. Here is a list of things that we did during our stay that really made the trip for us.  Check out our post on our YouTube channel here to watch how our days in Ho Chi Minh transpired.

1. War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

A trip to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh is a must for anyone who wants to know more about the American war in Vietnam. Once called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum offers an in depth look at one of the most controversial wars in history. Displayed inside the museum are hundreds of photos from over 133 war photographers including the legendary Tim Page. Ak-47s, grenade launchers, and other weapons used during the war are showcased throughout the museum. Just outside of the museum visitors can view tanks, fighter jets, and artillery weapons used by American and North Vietnamese militaries. The museum is open between the hours of 7:30am-12:00pm and 1:30pm-5:00pm with the admission price of 15,000d. For more information visit http://warremnantsmuseum.com/

Ballistic Shells
Ballistic shells used during the Vietnam War.

2. Notre Dame Cathedral

With 40 meter high towers tipped with iron spires, red brick walls stained-glass windows, the Notre Dame Cathedral is truly a sight to behold. Built between 1877 and 1883, the cathedral has been a place for prayer for worship for those living in Ho Chi Minh City. Visitors to the cathedral are offered information from English-speaking staff from the hours of 9:00am-11:00am Monday through Saturday. Fun fact for those who love photography: across the street to the left of the cathedral there is a woman who sells bird feed for visitors to feed the local pigeons. The pigeons are friendly and will get very close to visitors feeding them. When timed right, you can get the most epic shot of the birds scattering away from the street and arching over the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

3. Central Post Office

Located just to the right of the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office showcases beautiful French architecture from a time long ago. Built between 1886 and 1891, this still operational post office displays historic maps of Vietnam on its massive interior walls as well as a large mosaic of Ho Chi Minh just at the end of the its grand hall. Although some credit the design to the great Gustave Eiffel, it was actually designed another French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux. The Central Post Office is the perfect place to pick up and mail out that postcard to family and friends back home.

 

Central Post Office.
Central Post Office.

4. Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels
Lisa inside the Cu Chi Tunnels

My trip to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels was one of favorite activities near Ho Chi Minh City. Located about 45 minutes outside of Ho Chi Minh, the Cu Chi Tunnels is a series of underground tunnels that were once used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. A tour to the tunnels offers a look into the lives of the Viet Cong fighting during the war. Visitors are offered demonstrations of booby traps, hand-made weaponry, and structural secrets of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong. There is even an option to shoot an AK-47 or a M1-Carbine at a shooting range located near the tunnels(costs $25 for one clip of ammo). Last, but not least, visitors actually get a chance to descend into the real Cu Chi Tunnels and crawl through the narrow passages that extend up to 60 meters!

Cu Chi Tunnels
Paul crawling through Cu Chi Tunnels.

5. The Ben Thanh Street Food Market

For a foodie like me, street food is life. So when I heard that there was a market solely dedicated to street food I jumped on that like white on rice. The Ben Thanh Street Food Market has dozens of food stalls serving the best viet-noms(see what I did there?) in Ho Chi Minh. Spring rolls, Banh Mi sandwiches, and a plethora of fried noodle dishes to name a few things you can find there. Thirsty? They have local beers on tap for those who want to cool off from the city heat. Music is played over the speakers throughout the market giving out a chill relaxed vibe. To top that all off, free Wifi is available throughout the entire market so there’s no need to worry about that Instragram pic of your spring rolls not loading up.

Ben Thanh Food Market
Street art at Ben Thanh Food Market.

 

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