Saturday, February 28, 2015

Swingin' 60's

Fun fact. Most of the expats we've been hanging out with in Nha Trang are over 60. And it's the most rip-roarin' collection of seniors we've ever met in our entire lives. They spend their time partying on booze cruises, playing blues harmonica at the local wine bar, doing frat-style hazing in their running/drinking club ("a drinking club with a running problem"). Dating Vietnamese girls younger than me (but that's a whole 'nother story). Bottom line is, these guys (and gals) have got life by the balls.

It seems that in our generation, with folks living longer than ever and social security not quite cutting the mustard, retirement doesn't promise the golden years it once did. Add to that our lifestyle choices and the debate over whether we'll ever have kids, and retirement can be a pretty scary notion. Will we save enough money to get by? Will we be bored? Lonely? Isolated?

Now we see, there's another possible side to that story. Retire in a developing country where less than a grand per month could support your fully furnished home, a personal cook, maid, and your imported wine-drinking habit. Add to that beautiful beaches, perfect weather, amazing food and endless fellow expats, and I could be sold!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

That time we checked into five hotels in one city.

Tet. Like Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years all rolled into one, it is the massive lunar new year celebration over here. It's also a real pain in the ass. Since the moment we arrived in Vietnam, I've been researching the best place to spend this joyous occasion. And the general consensus tends to be, "anywhere but Vietnam." Great. As I mentioned before - prices quadruple, ATMs run out of cash, everything closes and all of the hotels sell out. But what's even more maddening, is that it's not quite clear WHEN it is. Actual New Years Day this year is on February 18. However, the "holiday" takes place anywhere from a week before to a week after, depending on your source. Trains randomly fill up. Business shut down when they feel like it. It's kind of a mess.

I felt really accomplished when I secured us a place to stay from Monday 2/16 to Friday 2/20, figuring that would basically have us covered. Well, two places - we had to move, cause no single place was free for the five day stretch. Little did we know, when the Friday busses were sold out and we decided to extend our visit through the weekend, that the entire city of Nha Trang would be 80% booked. Guess we should have figured as much.

Anyhow, we managed to find a place nearby online and swooped it up immediately, relieved to have an affordable roof over our head for the next few nights. That morning we scarfed down breakfast, quickly packed up, picked our our laundry, and hoofed it over to our new home covered in sweat. The woman at the front desk greeted us with a casual, "Oh, sorry, we canceled your reservation." EXCUSE ME? How can you cancel a reservation you just confirmed YESTERDAY??

Fast forward through a dozen hotel lobbies. A dozen rejections. One tempter tantrum. A gallon of sweat. An hour lost. We finally find a place who will rent us a shitty $10 room for the bargain price of $30. Fine. We climb the elevator-less flights of stairs, drop our bags, and I immediately peel off my soaked clothes and jump in a cold shower. Then I hear an, "Um, babe..." through the door. "WHAT?!" Exasperation. "These aren't bedbugs, are they?"

I come flying out of the shower. Good news is, they are not bedbugs. Bad news is, there are hundreds of them, whatever they are. Climbing up the walls. Covering the ceiling. So tiny, you'd mistake them for flecks of dust if you didn't look closely and realize that they were on the move. Awesome.

In moments, we were downstairs, bags strapped to our backs, being blocked by a very confused staff who did not want to give us our passports back (they have a horrible policy here of making you hand them over for the duration of your visit). We managed to effectively communicate "BUGS" as I mimicked a creature with antennae climbing up a wall, and we hightailed it out of there.

Eventually, we managed to find a passable room, if only for the final two nights before things start to clear up again here (supposedly). Tomorrow, we move into our fifth room of the week, an upgrade from the fourth one we were forced to settle for. And since we aren't sure when we're leaving here, it may or may not be our last! Now we just have to wait for the bus ticket prices to fall back to normal.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Vinpearl Land

I've never been to a water park. Weird, right?

Across the crashing waves of Nha Trang Bay from the mainland lies Vinpearl Island. We'd heard there were some water slides and various other attractions over there, all accessible via the longest over-water cable car in the world. Ticket prices were fairly steep by backpacker budget standards ($25 per person), but we have several days to kill here and figured we may as well check it out.

Some water slides indeed. This place was a legitimate water park, with several slides far too scary for me to take part in, plus a lazy river and the largest wave pool in Southeast Asia. Vinpearl Land also boasts an amusement park with all of the classic carnival rides, a really superb aquarium, and an arcade where all of the games are FREE! To top it all off, it's located smack dab on a beautiful stretch of powder soft, white sand beach where you can sip a $3 cocktail in between attractions. Spotlessly clean, cheap food and plentiful beer. And a mechanical bull. The fun here seriously never ends.

It's such a treat when places exceed our expectations. And we've found that to be quite a common theme here in Vietnam. Worth every penny!!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Almost Locals

It's amazing how much knowing just a few local spots makes you feel at home. Reece and I showed up in Nha Trang not knowing what to expect, having heard mixed things and anticipating that it wouldn't be our cup of tea. The only thing that brought us here, really, was the pending Tet holiday that makes travel incredibly difficult and renders most bars/restaurants/banks/shops closed for a week or more. We figured Nha Trang is touristy enough to have some facilities open, and is on a beach to keep us occupied when all else fails.

We were right, but, more importantly, we were lucky. During our first breakfast here, we struck up a conversation with some local expats who made it their mission to show us around. The rooftop cafe with the best sunset views. The little-known hotel infinity pool that welcomes non-guests to lounge the day away. The lady who gives the best massages, at a steal of $6. The wine bar boasting an incredible cellar, that will allow you to purchase anything you want by the glass. The best spot for pizza, for coffee, for a mud bath, for live music.

Within an hour of cruising around town with these guys, Nha Trang transformed from a place where we were just killing time, to a place we think we'll stay a while. Since we already have some new friends to hang out with.

Monday, February 16, 2015


We’re having a bit of a travel identity crisis. We’re feeling a little… lost? Kind of, well… lazy. So far, Vietnam has been amazing. We love everything we’ve done here. But we’re beginning to have one of those existential what are we really doing feelings. It’s not homesickness, or road-weariness. We’re not tired of traveling. And we’re definitely not ready to go back to work just yet. But we do miss feeling productive. And challenged. And like we belong somewhere, doing something, with a purpose.

Enter, workaway. A website devoted to people who need help with things around the world, and are willing to offer free room and board to folks who are able to give it. Tending a beach bar in Thailand. Harvesting a vineyard in France. Building an eco-lodge in Nicaragua. Teaching English in Spain. Working a dive shop in Australia. The opportunities are interesting, exciting, and endless. And EXACTLY what we’ve been looking for. The chance to get out of hotels for a bit, make some friends, contribute to a project and feel engaged. Not to mention, save some money. I only wish we’d stumbled upon it sooner!! But I know, all things work out for a reason. And we can’t wait to see what types of new and unexpected experiences it may lead to.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hoi An, Vietnam

Not even the throngs of fanny-pack yielding tourists can diminish the charm of Hoi An. A delightful little town perched on a river’s edge, with historic architecture and tons of atmospherics bars and cafes, illuminated by hundreds of colored lanterns as the red sun dips below the horizon and night falls. A marvelously undeveloped stretch of beach within biking distance where the day slips away as you sip chilled wine on a rented sun lounger. We ate well, we drank well, and we barely dragged ourselves away. Since Reece was getting over being sick, it was our duty to relax to the fullest, right??

For photos of our time spent in Hoi An and the nearby beach of An Bang, click HERE.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


If walking into a tailor, picking out your favorite cashmere/wool blend, having all of your measurements taken, attending three fittings, and strolling away 24 hours later with a bespoke suit doesn't make you feel like a baller, then you must be crazy.

If all of the above only cost you $79, then you must be in Vietnam.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Hue, Vietnam

We had two fun nights in Hue before Reece got the swine flu. For our brief album of what seemed to be a neat little town, click HERE. We don't have any sights of historical interest to share, but we can recommend a great hotel with comfy beds, strong AC, and all the movie channels J

Hue is also where we bid farewell to Morrison, after traveling together for a few glorious weeks. Drinking Wall Street whiskey will never be the same without him 

PS: Ask him about the time he got kicked out of a hotel room there.

Pre-flu, we did get a tour of the DMZ (the former border between north and south Vietnam) where we explored the Vinh Moc Tunnels and learned all sorts of war related things. For pics, click HERE.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vinh Moc

As we parted the dense foliage and entered into the cave, my heart immediately started to race. I didn't anticipate that I would feel so nervous. But the damp walls closing in around me, so tight I couldn't stand up straight or spread my arms, made me feel intensely claustrophobic. When the guide told us we'd be descending nearly 100 feet underground, I panicked. But as much as I wanted to turn back, I knew I needed to push on. I clicked on my dull flashlight, searching the tunnel for the signs of life that once resided here. Just then I heard an echoed flapping, and shot my light up in time to catch a bat, wings spread wide coming right towards my face. I screamed, ducked, and thanked god I wasn't one of the many villagers that called this place home for six years while American troops bombed the hell out of the jungle above.

This is not going to be a blog about the Vietnam War (or, as they call it here, the American War). I'll leave that for another writer. This is about the Vinh Moc Tunnels, and how impossible it is for me to wrap my head around a life underground. Each family with a dwelling no bigger than a storage closet. One "bathroom" for 300 people. Women giving birth in there, in pitch blackness. Kids that were five years old before they saw daylight for the first time.

I emerged from the tunnels, sweaty and breathless, into the blinding sunlight. We were on a beach. Birds chirping overhead and waves lapping at the shore. Bomb craters all around, slowly being swallowed by the wilderness. It's easy to forget in this country the things that were going on just 40 years ago. War may be atrocious, for many reasons. But the human ability to adapt, the will to survive, the lengths people can go to and still come out the other side, is nothing short of astounding.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Phong Nha, Vietnam

Phong Nha isn't even IN our Lonely Planet guidebook (which is just one edition old). That's how new it is on the tourist trail.

2.5 million year old Son Doong, the world's largest cave, was just discovered there five years ago. Shortly after, National Geographic Magazine did a spread on the magnificent wonder, and then a few hundred intrepid folks from around the globe came running to see it for themselves. There is only one tour company allowed to operate the trip, and they charge a hefty premium of $3,000 per person for the privilege of being one of the first to step foot in it (after a 260 foot rappel into it). Last year, this included just 214 lucky folks. It was slightly out of our budget, so we toured nearby Hang En (which was featured in the same National Geographic spread) instead.

If you open it, they will come. The modest town of Phong Nha is a'changing in the face of all this attention, fast. Two hotels and a few restaurants dot the one-block tourist strip. Which, according to the owner of the only hostel in town, have been built within the past few months. An ATM machine recently arrived in town, and while we were there they were adding a second. A "tourist center" sparkles on a broad corner, in stark contrast to the undeveloped land that surrounds. It's the kind of place where kids still still marvel at the sight of a foreigner, running out into the streets screaming "Hello!!!!" for the chance at some attention. A welcome change from places where the only thing kids want from us is money. And you can actually bike to the cafe owned by the guy who discovered Son Doong. His wife makes an amazing iced chocolate coffee.

We felt lucky to have the opportunity to witness a place like this before tourism completely transforms it. And a little sad for the locals who likely don't know what's coming. We stayed longer than expected, cause we really enjoyed its beautiful, peaceful vibe. We just hope it manages to hang onto it.

For photos of what Phong Nha may not look like for long, click HERE.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Journey to Hang En

We almost didn’t come to Phong Na National Park. The trip would be difficult, physically and logistically. The weather could be uncooperative. The thing we most wanted to do there, an overnight trek into the third largest cave in the world, was both expensive and daunting. I’d read tales of thigh-deep river crossings. Leeches. Rain and mud and impenetrable jungle. So clearly, we decided to do it. I mean, how many times in our life would we have the opportunity to sleep in a cave?!

And you know what? There were in fact several river crossings (41 each way, to be exact). I did encounter leeches (3 of them). There was rain. There was mud (oh so much mud). There was jungle like I’d never seen. Twelve combined hours of trekking, in soaking wet socks. And it was one of the coolest experiences of my entire life.

The day didn’t begin well. We were running late (as usual). We scarfed down a frantic breakfast with eight minutes to spare before our pick-up. Then we waited. And waited. Anxious. Jittery. Doubtful. Maybe we got left behind. Maybe it’s a sign we shouldn’t go. We haven’t paid anything yet. We could easily go back to bed right now.

We finally inquired with the hostel staff and, sure enough, the tour company had forgotten us. They sent a driver over to pick us up. We were those people strolling into the tour office a half hour late. Great. Now we missed the safety briefing, and our group hates us.

After signing our life away we were transported about an hour into the jungle, which is very newly open to the public. The area played a huge part in the Vietnam war, and has one of the highest concentrations of unexploded bombs in the world. In other words, not the kind of place you want to go roaming around without a licensed guide. Many of the caves here were only discovered recently, including the largest cave in the world – Hang Son Doong – which received its first visitors in 2013. For $3,000 each, we too could have witnessed its splendor! Maybe next time.

After being outfitted with “Vietnamese Chuck Taylors” (perfect for navigating slippery terrain and quickly draining river water), gloves and helmets, we were on our way.

A steep and treacherous decent to the valley below. Our first river crossing. Then another. And another. A picnic lunch of fresh bread, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, tomato, cucumber, bananas and dragon fruit. Oreo cookies. A pee stop in the dense foliage, careful to avoid poison ivy. Walking walking walking. The blessing of beautiful weather. Good conversation. High spirits. Wet legs and wetter feet. Rivers with such a strong current, we’d form a human chain to help one another across. Jaw-dropping landscape. A remote minority village. The village chief. Children. Puppies. Monkeys. A lady bug. Blistered toes. Sore backs. Six harrowing hours later, we reached the entrance to our destination. And that’s when the fun really began.

The entrance to the cave was accessible, of course, by water. Upon reaching the rocky beach inside and switching on our headlamps, we were met by a wall of boulders we must tediously climb before catching a glimpse of where we would sleep for the night. And when we did, it was magic. 

Two perfect rows of tents, dwarfed by the magnitude of the cave enveloping them. A sandy beach dipping into powder blue water. INSIDE A CAVE. Unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere else before. After everyone collected their photos, an equally strenuous decent would take us to our home for the night.

While a team of porters prepared dinner, we navigated the length of the cave to its grand exit, a 400-foot high arch perfectly framing the lush surrounding landscape. It’s scale impossible to capture on camera, if not for those teeny, tiny little specs of people on the ground, right in the center of the opening.

Perhaps my favorite part were these incredible little sand formations, created by water dripping from the cave’s roof far above, eroding the sand everywhere that isn’t protected by a stick or rock. It’s like a mini, accelerated version of earth’s erosion! How cool is that?!

The evening progressed with a BBQ feast, seated together on a large mat while the sliver of daylight above us slipped away. Rice wine flowed and music played and thousand of swallows chirped overhead while our intimate group shared their favorite travel tales.

I’d love to say that we enjoyed the deep slumber of hibernating bears in our cave, but we actually tossed and turned all night on the thin mats beneath us. Nevertheless, we awoke with the suns rays shining brilliantly into the cavern, ready to take on the day. Coffee. Breakfast of spring rolls and banana crepes. Packing up and putting on our cold, wet gear from the day before. And we traipsed into the water for the first of many times that day.

Day #2 introduced us to a jungle downpour, and the leeches that come along with it. They were tinier and much more harmless than I envisioned, but no less creepy. At lunchtime we crouched on a tarp over steaming noodles as rainwater poured down our faces and into our bowls. The final two hours – ascending the vertical path that had brought us in. Fighting our way uphill through slick mud, clinging to roots and vines, sometimes on our hands and knees as we painstakingly made our way back to the start. Huffing. Puffing. Sweating. Swearing. Until… SUCCESS!

Ice cold beers at the top never tasted so good. Dry feet never felt so good. And few experiences of our lives have ever been so good. Cheers!

For a full album of our amazing Hang En adventure, click HERE J

If you are willing to eat it, you should be willing to kill it.

Or, able to convince your husband to kill it for you.

I want to be able to say it was the best chicken I’ve ever had. After biking two hours through intermittent rain, navigating the maze of back roads with a hand drawn map. Having to get off our bikes and walk them through ankle-deep sludge when the tracks became too treacherous. Moaning in exasperation every time we saw another sign saying our destination was just "200 meters" ahead. Getting so much mud crammed in the wheels that they stopped spinning entirely and needing to drag our bikes the rest of the way to the farm we’d heard so much about. Arriving, picking out an unsuspecting chicken, and unceremoniously spilling its blood with a dull blade. Plucking its feathers and watching its swift, expert deconstruction. Waiting an hour while drinking beer and playing pool and being offered rice wine and chicken feet by the local patrons (one of which, we enjoyed).

When the heaping tray of grilled chicken finally arrived, served with a generous bowl of freshly-ground peanut sauce and just-picked garlicky greens and rice, I wish I could say it was the best meal we’ve ever eaten. Cause a chicken died for it. And we were muddy and hungry and exhausted and anxious and it doesn’t get more farm-to-table than this.

But, I can’t. It was kind of tough and a little chewy didn’t have much good meat on it. Maybe that’s how real farm-fresh, hormone-free chickens taste. Maybe it just wasn’t fully grown yet (oh, great, we murdered a teenage chicken?!). Oh, and it was really expensive (by Vietnamese standards). I walked away feeling disappointed. And a little guilty. Confused as to why I’d feel that way, after freely consuming hundreds of chickens (and cows and pigs) in my lifetime. Likely raised in far worse conditions than this, killed en masse and perfectly butchered and packaged for my convenience. Here I was, supporting a farming family directly. Taking full responsibility for the life sacrificed for our meal. It’s an experience that every meat-eater should probably have once in their life. I should embrace it, I think. My feelings were mixed, to say the least.

Sorry veggie friends. It didn't make me want to give up meat or anything crazy like that. Cause it's tasty and the circle of life and all that jazz. But it was an impactful and unforgettable experience, nevertheless.