Just off the Western coast of Malaysia lies the bustling island of Penang where the colonial city of Georgetown is located. Georgetown is known for its delicious food and alluring street out found throughout the city. Lisa and I made it our mission to seek out the street art in Georgetown and share its beauty with everyone.
This is the first of many Photo Diary entries to come! Stay tuned for more!
I had read that the caves in Phong Nha were a must see when traveling through the mountainous region in Vietnam. I asked our hotel what tours they recommended to see the different cave networks and they recommended a tour through Discovery Tours. Discovery Tours had a tour package that would take us to the Botanical Gardens, Paradise Cave, and the Dark Cave. It included hotel pickup, entrance fees, an english speaking guide, lunch at the Dark Cave Restaurant, zip-lining, kayaking, and a mud bath in Dark Cave. To top that off, at the end of the tour you receive a free complimentary cocktail. The tour cost Lisa and I 2,781,000d($122 USD) for the whole package. Discovery Tours would pick us up from our hotel at 7:30 and return us to our hotel at 16:00 making the tour roughly six hours long.
Check out our YouTube post on our Discovery Caves Tour Here.
What To Bring
-A swimsuit -Change of Clothes -A towel -Waterproof Camera with floatation attachment (Our tour guide informed us that we wouldn’t be allowed to bring our camera into the dark cave unless it had those two features). -Comfortable Hiking Shoes
The Botanical Gardens
The tour van picked us up from our hotel around 7:30, just late enough that we could still catch breakfast. After rounding up the other tour guests from their respected hotels, we headed north to our first destination; the Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens offered us a glimpse of the wild life that inhabited Phong Nha. They had a monkey enclosure that provided refuge for local monkeys and protected them from poachers. We were allowed to feed the monkeys fruits that were offered at the general store. Lisa had saved a banana from breakfast and gave it to the eagerly awaiting monkeys. They were stoked for their treat! After viewing the monkey inclosure, our guide took us through a nature trail that cut through deeper into the forest. On the trail, we encountered wooden bridges, streams, and tons of lush vegetation. Watch your step though! Due to the streams and vegetation it was easy to lose your footing or trip on a root. The trail ended at a scenic point that overlooked a beautiful waterfall cascading into the forest below. The whole tour lasted maybe twenty minutes total, making it short and sweet.
The next stop on the tour was the Paradise Cave, one of the longest caves in the world. The cave from start to finish is a total of 31.4 kilometers, but the tour only allowed access to the first kilometer from the entrance of the cave. The stairs leading up to the entrance of the cave was a journey and a half. It took about fifteen minutes for Lisa and I to scale the stairs to get to the front entrance of the cave.. We were allowed one hour and fifteen minutes to explore the cave, which our guide told us was more than enough time to walk the entire length and back. Entering the cave, we descended down a wooden walkway to the floor of the cave which is lined with lights illuminating the vast cavern. The sight was truly one to behold! Enormous stalagmites rose from the cavern that looked other worldly. The only thing to match the size of the stalagmites were the daunting stalactites that converged down from the cave ceiling. What caught my eyes though were the shallow pools surrounding some of the stalagmites that were so calm they acted like mirrors on the cave floor. It took Lisa and I about forty five minutes to walk through the entire cavern, and that included us stopping and taking pictures.
The Dark Cave was our third and final stop of the tour. The shuttle dropped us off in front of the Dark Cave restaurant, where we had our complimentary lunch that was included in the tour. There our tour group was divided into two tables; one dedicated for vegetarians. Servers placed one large serving tray on each table that had enough food to serve 6+ people! The tray included fried pork, grilled chicken, BBQ pork ribs, long white noodles, an array of fruits and vegetables, noodles, white rice and sticky rice. Between the six of us at our table, there was still a ton of food left over.
After lunch, we had the option of either kayaking to the cave entrance or zipline to it. I opted to zipline, because why not? Lisa and I changed into our swimsuits and put our bags back on the van. Once everyone was changed into swimsuit attire, our tour guide then took us to an area where we signed health wavers and got fitted with life vests, helmets, and zipline girdles. There we also had an option to buy a little foam floatation device for 10,000d that we could attach to our waterproof cameras ( they wouldn’t allow us to take our cameras in without one). Once we were all geared up we walked over to a tower by the Dark Cave Restaurant where we would take the zipline to the Dark Cave Entrance. The zipline is 400 meters long and 20 meters at its highest and, according to our guide, is the longest zipline in all of Vietnam. This was my very first zipline ever so I was nervous as hell walking up to it. When my turn came to strap in I took a deep breath, lifted my feet, and held on for dear life. The view was l breathtaking (literally and figuratively) as I zipped down over the river. Coming to a sudden stop at the bottom, I joined Lisa and the rest of the tour group.
There was a wooden walkway just like the one we saw at Paradise Cave that we followed into the Dark Cave. We were instructed to turn on our headlamps and walk cautiously on the walkway. The water from the river had made the walkway so slippery that I was surprised that I didn’t eat it at certain points. The walkway ended just inside the mouth of the cave and we had to wade through water which ranged from knee to ankle deep. About 20 meters into the cave we were solely reliant on the light from our headlamps to see. Eventually we made our way to the back of the cave where we were lead by our guide through a narrow crevice on the cave wall. Be careful when walking through the crevice for there are rocks that protrude sharply from the ground. I learned the hard way when I stubbed my toe on one while I was taking a video. The crevice opened up into a small cavern that was filled with mud (this is the mud bath advertised in the tour). The mud isn’t thick like you would think and makes you very buoyant to the point where you can just lay on your back and float. We returned to the main cavern where our tour guide enticed us to slide down a slope into the water of the cave. I should’ve learned not to do that when I witnessed Lisa going down first and almost flew off the slope. It was fun, but left a bruise or two on my butt. In the water we washed off all the excess mud and dirt from the mud bath and headed to the mouth of the cave.
When we exited the cave we were given kayaks to take back to the landing by the Dark Cave Restaurant. Our guide said we could swim back if we wanted to, but after the long day we opted for the kayak. At the landing most of us just hung out and swam in the river. They also had a small zipline that tour guests can use to jump into the river. Once everyone had their fill of the river we went back to the restaurant to have our complimentary cocktail. Lisa and I talked with the other guests about the tour while we sipped on our rum and cokes. Definitely a great way to end a long day of exploring caves. When the rum bottles ran dry, we loaded up into our tour van and headed back into town.
The whole experience was amazing and I would definitely do it again. It was fun feeding the monkeys at the Botanical Garden and we learned a lot about the wildlife in Phong Nha from our tour guide. The breaktaking views of the cavern in Paradise Cave left us in awe as we snapped off picture after picture. The Dark Cave was definitely the highlight of the tour with the zipline, kayaking, and the plunge into the depths of the cave itself.
Vietnam is one of the most sought after destinations in South East Asia by backpackers across the world. Here are a few tips and tricks for those thinking about making the journey to this beautiful country.
Most Places Accept U.S. Currency
Most if not all places in Vietnam accept USD($)as a form of payment, but to get the most out of your money it’s best to use Vietnamese Dong.
Majority of Places will Charge 3% More if You Use Your Credit Card
Hotels, restaurants, and even some tour agencies will allow you to use your card, but will charge you 2-3% extra. As convenient as it can be to just charge things on you card, it’s still best to use cash to save the most money.
Look for Accommodations that include Breakfast
Booking a room that includes free breakfast can help save you tons of money. Plus, aren’t the best things free?
Arrange to Have Your Hotel Send a Car to Pick You Up
When arriving to a new city either by plane, bus, or train you will be bombarded by taxi drivers looking to rip off tired travelers. To avoid scams its safer to have your hotel arrange a car to pick you up.
Tipping is not Expected Except Near Tourist Spots
In general, most Vietnamese restaurants don’t expect you to tip. Due to the influx of tourism in the recent years, restaurants in and near popular tourist destinations have become more accepting of tip. An acceptable tip for good service is about 5-10%.
Bargaining down prices at street markets is widely acceptable and, if done right, can get the item down 50% of the asking price! A good technique to use is the “walk away”. Simply by saying that the item is too expensive and walking away from the merchant will usually cause the merchant to drop the price considerably. Even tours and accomodations can be talked down in price. One exception to bargaining is never to bargain over the price of food. That’s just rude.
Take Overnight Trains and Sleeper Buses
A great way to save money traveling through Vietnam is to take the overnight trains and sleeper buses. Like killing two birds with one stone, an overnight train or a sleeper bus takes care of both travel and lodging for the day. Be sure to stock up on snacks before getting on a sleeper bus because you never when the bus is going to stop and for how long. Also be conscious about your water intake during a bus ride; some sleeper buses do not contain bathrooms.
Download the Google Translate App
A shout out to Google for creating the amazing Google Translate app! This app has helped me out many times in my travels in Vietnam when it came to overcoming the language barrier. The app is completely free and will come in handy when trying to communicate to hotel staff, taxis, and merchants.
While Lisa and I were enjoying the wonderful village of Pushkar, we decided that we wanted to do at least one tour during our stay. The staff at our hotel recommended that we try a camel safari tour through the desert just outside the city. Lisa and I had never done that before and thought that would be a great experience. The tour agency we went through was called Pushkar Sun Dune Camel and Horse Safari. For 700 rupees each, Lisa and I opted for the sunset camel safari which was about two hours. We would be provided transportation to and from our hotel as well as an English speaking tour guide.
Around 5:15pm a tuktuk arrived at our hotel to take us to the starting point of our camel tour. I was excited! I had never ridden a camel before or any animal of that size for that matter. Lisa and I sat on the rear of the tuktuk as it sped through the city traffic.
The Starting Point
Once we arrived at the dropoff, I could see two camels laying out in the sand near the road. The camels paid no attention to the strangers approaching them. Too preoccupied with their evening meal of grain. Even though the camels were laying down they were still massive! From floor to their head was about five feet at least and about eight feet long. Two young men approached us as we were gawking at the camels. One of them introduced himself as our tour guide and indicated that the other was his assistant. Our guide’s name is Raul, and he works for the Pushkar Sun Dune Camel and Horse Safari.
Meet the Camels
Raul introduced us to our camels one by one. The one I picked out was named Romeo and Lisa’s camel was named Jimmy. You would think that we’d get a lecture or some type of tutorial on how to ride a camel, but no. Raul asked me to hang my backpack off the front of the saddle then mount the camel. I was a bit nervous getting on my camel, especially since he(Romeo) watched me the entire time I was near him. Once I was on, Raul instructed me to lean back as much as I could. Before I could ask why, Romeo stood up back legs first which caused my body to lurch forward. Then Romeo proceeded to stand up on all fours finally leveling me out. I watched Lisa go through the same steps: Awkwardly getting on the camel, laughing as she flew forward when the camel stood up, and being completely mesmerized by being on a freakin’ camel!
As we rode off towards the sunset, our guide Raul would serenade us with traditional Indian songs as we trudged through the desert. At one point we spotted a wild Antelope grazing on the little vegetation was found amongst the sands. Without warning, the reigns of my camel fell off and the two guides had to slowly approach my camel and attempt to put the reigns back on. I thought that at any moment my camel might take off running with me on its back! Good thing our guides were experienced and easily placed the reigns back on without any incident.
The Gypsy Stop
Towards dusk we came across a Gypsy camp where other camel tour groups had joined together. Raul informed us that this was a free stop where we could watch Gypsys’ perform traditional songs and dances. One performance I enjoyed in particular involved two Gypsy woman dancing while balancing bowls on their heads which were lit on fire!
Lisa and I watched the dancers for about fifteen minutes before we started walking around the encampment. We saw tons of other camels with intricate designs shaved into their hides. Some even had gold and silver nose rings that would compliment their heavily adorned saddles.
As the Gypsy performances came to an end, people started returning to their camels and chariots. Lisa and I found our camels and awaited for Raul and his assistant to join us before we mounted our camels and set off. The ride back to our starting point was calm and relaxing. The sunset was a glowing brilliantly behind us as the moon was illuminating our path ahead. Raul continued telling Lisa and I other facts about the desert as well as historical information about Pushkar itself.
We had reached the end of the tour at around 7:30 just as the sun had completely disappeared over the horizon. Lisa and I disembarked off our camels one by one with the assistance of Raul. Raul’s assistant grabbed two bags of grain and placed them in front of our camels. Lisa and I took a seat next to the camp and Raul offered us some hot chai tea. As we drank our chai, we watched enormous fruit bats fly over head silhouetted by the moon. Sipping chai next to camels underneath a full desert moon was just the way I wanted to spend my evening.
Once Lisa and I had finished our chai tea, Raul gave us a ride back into Pushkar and dropped us off back at our hotel. We thanked him so much for such an amazing and authentic experience.
A Wonderful Experience
Overall, the tour was amazing and definitely worth trying if you ever find yourself in Pushkar. Riding the camels through the desert was an experience by itself, but watching Gypsy performances as well as viewing the sunset on the back of a camel was truly spectacular. Next time we would want to try the overnight camel safari where we would be able to camp out in the desert!
Hoi An was one of the most enchanting cities we were able to visit during our travels in Vietnam. From the pastel-colored buildings, delicious food, and rooftop cafes. It’s hard for one not to fall in love with Hoi An. If you find yourself in this beautiful city on the coast here’s a few things I recommend you try to enrich your stay.
The Cheapest of Beer
First things first, you have arrived in the land of incredibly cheap beer! I know other cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi boast about their cheap beer, but only in Hoi An can you find it everywhere! Some restaurants sell it as low as 3,000d ($0.13 USD)! The beer is brewed fresh from the restaurant you’re buying it from, which is why it is so cheap. I know what you’re thinking, because of the price it must be poor quality right? WRONG! I had a fresh beer at the Fish and Chips restaurant that was 3,000d and that was one of the most refreshing beers I had in Vietnam! Not saying that there are some out there that do taste like what you would imagine a beer under 0.50 cents would taste like. I had one beer near the night market that gave me a headache within a few sips, but that was the one out of 5 different restaurants that I sampled.
Get Something Tailored
You want to get a suit tailored just to your liking? Hoi An is the place to do it! With a plethora of tailors throughout the city you can find one that suits your needs (see what I did there?). Just making my way old town I biked by at least half a dozen tailors displaying their work in front of their shops. And by cheap, I mean custom three piece suit around $50 bucks kind of cheap. The shops are able to make a suit or dress for you in just a few days time making it very convenient for those spending only a small time in Hoi An.
Stay at a Homestay
If you’re planning on spending some time in Hoi An I highly recommend that you stay in one of the many homestays available in the town. Why a homestay? For one, most if not all of the homestays offer free bike rentals which is an awesome way to explore the town for no money. Two, the families at the homestays are incredibly friendly and will offer advice on what to do and see in Hoi An. The homestay Lisa and I stayed at, The Strawberry Garden Homestay, offered free bike rentals and free breakfast every morning. Our host, Ruby, helped us with any questions we had and even helped us arrange a private car to take us to Da Nang. Click Hereto read a detailed post about our stay at the Strawberry Garden Homestay.
Get a Custom Stamp Made
Do you wish to immortalize your face in the form of a stamp? Well I got some good news for you! There is a shop in Hoi An that will do just that! For just 300,000d($13.21 USD) you can get a custom stamp made of any picture. Located at 48B Bach Dang St. Hoi An, the lovely lady at Kha Dau Nghe Thuat shop will make you a customized stamp that she hand makes herself! Perfect for stamping all those postcards you still need to mail out! It takes about day to make and will last a lifetime.
Check out the Japanese Covered Bridge
Built in the late 1700’s, the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge is a sight to see for anyone visiting Hoi An. The Japanese Bridge is a reminder of how culturally diverse Hoi An was in the past and arguably still is. You can purchase the Hoi An Tourist ticket at the price of 120,000d to cross the bridge and see the temple at the other side. The Hoi An Tourist ticket allows you access to other historical buildings and landmarks in Hoi An. The Japanese Bridge can get pretty crowded so I recommend seeing it as early in the day as possible to avoid the crowds.
Shopping at the Night Market
If you love shopping as much as Lisa does, then Hoi An is your land of milk and honey. Hoi An has dozens upon dozens of shops sporting anything from homemade lanterns to custom leather boots. There is a night market located across the river from Old Town where you can find a whole bunch of goodies like paper pop-up cards, Vietnamese rice picking hats, and oriental fans. At the night market you can find the shops that sell the handmade lanterns that Hoi An is renown for. Even if you don’t buy one, they make for an amazing picture, just be sure to take it while the merchant is making a sale otherwise they might get annoyed. The night market also has a bunch of food carts so you can fill your appetite while you shop till you drop.
Watch the Lanterns in the River
One of the most dazzling sights to see in Hoi An are the lanterns floating down the Thu Bon River. For a small fee, you can purchase a floating lantern from the dozens of merchants near the boats by the river. I enjoyed watching the lanterns from the bridges that stretched across the river. There’s something very mystical about watching them float on by past the sampans to their destination unknown.
Take a Cooking Class
Want to learn a new recipe to impress your friends back home? Try taking a cooking class at one of the restaurants in Hoi An. Learn how to make Cau Lau, a traditional noodle dish that is local to Hoi An and is a dish you can’t skip out on. Made with pork, noodles, and vegetables that traditionally can only be found in Hoi An.
Get Leather Made
For every tailor in Hoi An there’s a leather shop to match it. Leather is everywhere in Hoi An! You can get anything from wallets, purses, satchels to jackets, shoes, and even backpacks! Just make sure the shop you’re buying from is selling you “true” leather. Some shops sell a product si-mi-li which they try and pass as leather, but its not. The price for the leather goods is incredibly cheap for what they are. I almost bought myself a pair of custom oxfords for 1,300,000d (that’s $57.82 USD!) just because of the price! The turnaround time is unreal as well with most things taking only a few hours to a day to make.
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.
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.
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.