Ha Long Bay Vietnam
Photo Credit: Grumpysumpy
Taking a cruise on a Halong Bay junk has long been on our wanderlist. In fact, it's item #24 on our 30 before 30 list. And we even put it on our Vision Board for this year. So you can imagine our excitement when we finally got to Hanoi, just a few hour's drive away from Halong Bay.

There were many tour options. Way too many in fact. There's the flashpacker option which meant you had to cough up $74 for a 3day/2night tour. There was the backpacker option, which was affordable at $40 but may not be worth the expense and the effort. Then there's the dirt cheap Day Tour option for only $15 through Sinh Cafe Tours where you get exactly what you pay for.

I took the last option because of several reasons: The weather was cold and cloudy. That meant I had to freeze half to death before I can enjoy the view of the ocean and limestone karsts. Forget about spending the night and looking at a starry sky. I also wanted to spend as little as possible from our hard-saved Escape Fund.

Being the party girl that she is, Chichi chose the 2 days/ 1 night party boat cruise.This was a great chance for us to compare notes and share it with you guys. That's coming up next!

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When we got to the pier to start the cruise, I was disappointed. The reality doesn't live up to the fantasy. Not even close. Here's why:

Funky Weather

Being a photography enthusiast, I was really intent on getting great shots from the junk. But the weather was cold and a thick fog followed us everywhere. Not the conditions I was hoping for. I froze every time I climbed up the deck to take some shots of the limestone mountains.

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Where did the pretty sails go?

The first thing I noticed when I got to the pier was the huge number of boats. They all had Vietnamese flags on them. But no sails. Did we just pay 15 bucks to ride a funk (fake junk)? Where were the pretty sails of my Halong Bay dreams?

Every time I saw a poster of Halong  Bay, the boats would always have red or yellow sails which gave a splash of color in the vastness of the ocean. I asked the guide why we didn't see any pretty junks. He gave me vague answer saying there were only few of those around since they are regulated by the government. I just stared at him in disbelief.

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Stopovers Galore

There were several stopovers on our trip. On the ride to get to the pier, we stopped by Ruby Souvenir shop for more than 30 minutes each way. There were also many stopovers on the cruise at the 'floating markets' that sold fish, fruits and what else- more souvenirs. We might as well have stopped by a personalcreations.com baby gifts shop too!

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But is wasn't all bad. There were some good things that came out of Halong Bay day tour:

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Meet the Germans

We sat across across a couple from Bavaria, Sebastian & Tina. They have also been traveling for some months and we swapped travel stories. I used up all of my German vocabulary (all 3 sentences of it). They had considered traveling in the Philippines and we told them about the beautiful beaches of Palawan and stunning terraces of Sagada, They were a fun couple and we enjoyed hanging out with them for the day.


Spelunking Wonderland

The last stop on our cruise was a nice surprise: Sung Sot Cave, which means Cave of Surprises, is the biggest and finest cave in Halong Bay. The caves are cavernous and immense and there were dazzling lights to guide the way. This was the Disney Land of caves!

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Bang for the Buck

Our Halong Bay cruise may be dismal, but for only $15 we sure got our money's worth. Although it didn't live up to our expectations, it's still worth going. Much of our enjoyment also depended on the people we ended up with on the boat. It may not be as fantastic as my Halong Bay fantasy, but being there, marveling at the beauty of the place and sharing it with others was still a memorable experience.

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If you are planning on a Halong Bay Cruise, there are several tour operators in Hanoi's backpacker central that offer many options. These are the questions you might want to ask before booking:

-How much does the tour cost and what is included?
-How many people will be on the cruise?
-Is there a refund/reschedule in case the weather conditions are bad?
-Is hotel pick up and meals included in the price?

Make sure you get your money's worth!

Sole Sister Chichi's Halong Bay party tour cruise is coming up next...

What is your Halong Bay fantasy/experience like? Share your stories by leaving a comment below.


More Vietnam stories in the works,
Sole Sister Lois
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Madurai

This is part 8 of Lois' Misadventures in India series. If you haven't met her other sister in Varkala, click here.

Everywhere we went in India, we observed how devout the Indian people were in practicing their religion. They prayed and made offerings to the gods every morning. They observed food rituals and abstained from eating beef. They practiced yoga and meditation regularly. (Something I should learn to prevent travel meltdowns)

Our visit to Madurai, an ancient city in Tamil Nadu, just strengthened that observation. The city itself is a dusty maze of overpriced hotels and markets. But in the center of that maze was a gem: the Meenakshi Sundareswar Temple.
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Madurai

You might encounter some jokesters at the entrance, asking you to leave your shoes at their shop to avoid the locker fee at the temple. Pay no attention to them. There is no such fee and all they want is to entice you to see their wares.

Madurai

Painted in vibrant colors, the temple was built in honor of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva. All the 14 towers are decorated  with paintings and statues of gods and godesses. 

Madurai is built around the Meenakshi Sundareswar Temple. The maze-like, rectangular streets that surround the temple symbolize the structure of the cosmos.

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Madurai


Madurai

Parents often bring their children and infants to the temple to be offered to the gods. They also dip their fingers in bowls of powder to signify purity.

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Madurai

Inside the temple, we saw the most beautiful beast in my life: an elephant that blesses people. When you hand out money or fruits, the elephant takes it and taps you lightly with its trunk. A very clever animal. But the handler was even more clever, refusing the coins that some people held out and asking for bills instead.

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Madurai

Tanya and I were not too keen about being barefoot on some streets that were lined with cow dung and bird poop. But when in Rome... Note that there are markets on every corner selling religious items, souvenirs and even toys!

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Sadhus are mystics or wandering monks. They have left behind all material attachments and are often unshaven and wear little clothing. This particular sadhu was doing a ritual by rolling on the temple floors.

Madurai

Pardon the photo overload. I think I might be needing some document management software pretty soon. And in case you were wondering, all photos are still the beautiful art of Tanya Hotchkiss. 

Have you been to places that just took your breath away like this temple in Madurai? Share your stories by leaving a comment below:

I hate to say it, but my India adventure is almost ending. My last stop is in the mountains of Kodaikanal. That's coming up next.


Off to see another elephant in Cambodia,
Sole Sister Lois
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Perfect Strangers
The Sole Sister creed
Traveling requires a lot of resourcefulness and creativity. It gets even better when you don't have much money. Then you're forced to embrace the culture, eat local street food and rely on the kindness of strangers. We've met many such strangers in Vietnam who have shown us generosity and openness that we couldn't help but want to share that with you:

Coocked by My Mom Series [2]
Photo Credit: miwaza
The Vietnamese Who Was Really Filipino 

Hoi An. We had gone out with other backpackers and ended up at the only place that was still open past midnight- a bar with a pool table. We played for a few hours and then invited a guy sitting alone to play with us. He was a pool hustler, actually. He beat nearly all the guys at nine ball. When he sat with us, he introduced himself as Nesty and we took him for a local guy. When we told him we were from the Philippines, he was a bit shocked and told us he was also Filipino and he was working at a hotel in Hoi An. Small world!

The next day, he invited us for dinner. He picked us up from our guesthouse on motorbike and showed us his place. Incidentally, he was also a photography enthusiast who was knowledgeable about equipment and technique and we had plenty to talk about. Nesty was a good cook and he made us some grilled seafood with lots of white rice. It's nice to meet fellow Pinoys on the road. Nesty was proof of how hospitable we really are.

Perfect Strangers
Don't talk to strangers?
Taking Sweets From Strangers

Hanoi. I was reading Glass Palace by the lake when a teenage girl sat beside me. She smiled at me and seemed very friendly. After a few minutes, she handed me a brown paper bag filled sweets and pastries. I declined politely but she was insistent. So I grabbed one. It was a round pastry covered in fresh coconut and tasted very good. We tried to converse with great difficulty. She spoke very little English but our hand gestures and smiles bridged the gap. I learned she was Flo from Laos, a neighboring country. She was working in Vietnam. I told her I was a traveler from the Philippines. Our 'conversation' went on for almost 2 hours. And then she said she had to leave. She left the remaining bag of sweets with me. Flo's generosity touched me deeply because it was so unexpected. She gave me something without asking for anything in return. And it wasn't just the sweets.

Laptop HDR
Photo Credit: uncle_rich0101

Laptop Hospital

Hanoi. I realized I couldn't go online. The problem was, I had downloaded some programs to get on Facebook since it's blocked in Vietnam. That caused some problems with Internet Explorer. There I was, a travel blogger who couldn't go online. I felt like Sole Sister Chichi without her hair dryer! The logical thing to do was to look for a repair shop at the city center. But I was worried it would make a dent on the dwindling escape fund. I took it to the 'Laptop Hospital' anyway. The tech just tinkered on my laptop and got it working within minutes! When I asked him how much it costs, he just smiled politely and said the nicest thing I heard in Hanoi:

It's free!

Seriously? I even offered him some money but he declined it. Even the offer of coffee or beer was also refused because he was still working. He could have charged me an exorbitant amount, but he chose to be generous.

These 3 people may not think much about what they have done. It may be simple acts of kindness. But as a traveler who has very little, these simple gestures are magnified. 


Have you experienced kindness from strangers? Do you share what you have even when traveling?

Paying it forward,
Sole Sister Lois
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Solo Travel Main Pic

When you're on the Banana Pancake trail (the Lonely Planet trail that every Southeast Asian backpacker is following), when you always meet a fellow traveller on every hostel/bar/restaurant you go to, when all roads lead to the backpacker district of that city...it makes me wonder:

Does anyone ever travel solo anymore? 

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MAI PHUONG THUY
The crowds suddenly turn silent as soon as she struts on stage. She has a disarming smile that makes everyone take notice. With her effortless charm and confidence, everyone can see she's a winner. No sleazy stunts, falling off the stage or mention of 'world peace' necessary. She is pure beauty and and elegance in physical form.
That's exactly how we felt when we finally laid our eyes on Hoi An. By this time, I was getting jaded with Vietnam. We've walked the busy streets of Saigon, rode through the breathtaking rolling hills of Dalat, partied on a boat in Nha Trang.  But all I saw were cities, Western influence and modernity.

Where were the quaint little towns? Where were the unique, colorful shops? And how about the slow paced village life that I've always seen portrayed in the travel agency posters? Hoi An has all that and more.

Here's why Hoi An is the evident winner in Vietnam's beauty contest of cities:

Because she stands out in the crowd.

Hoi An


Hoi An
An Bang beach is a less known destination in Hoi An. But if you take the 2.5 km ride via motorbike or a bicycle, you will be rewarded with a quiet beach. A place where you can have a Beer Saigon and just watch the local life pass by. Be careful, you may spend hours here without realizing it!
Hoi An

Because her beauty is simple and effortless.

Hoi An


Hoi An


Hoi An

The ancient ruins of My Son in Hoi An is worth the day trip if you want to see some religious and historical sites. Don't forget to bring your camera since this will be a fantastic photo opportunity. You can also take a slow boat down the river to get back to town.

Because you can see her charm even in little corners.

Hoi An


Hoi An

Hoi An  is the perfect little place for custom made suits and dresses. Many shops boast of beautiful textiles and excellent craftsmanship that would cost you only a fraction of the retail price. 

Hoi An

Because she shines like the Star that she is.

Hoi An


Hoi An

Going around town on motorbike costs you around $3-5 USD and day rentals for bikes would be about $1 USD. This is a fun way to explore this quaint town!

Hoi An

Getting there: Book a flight to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi then take a bus to Hoi An. Or you can do it the Sole Sister way by booking a sleeper bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An through Sinh Cafe's Open Bus Ticket.
Have I convinced you to cast your vote for Hoi An? Isn't she a stunner?

Still amazed by her beauty,
Sole Sister Lois
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Admit it: You have seen this movie a dozen times. You will probably see this movie a dozen times more. You love Kevin and Whitney (before she got into that bad habit of snorting stuff through her nose).

Well, if you must know I had my own bodyguard in Nha Trang: Although, he looked far from looking like Kevin in that suit. In fact, he was shirtless the whole time we were together.

So how much did it cost to have a personal bodyguard in Vietnam's main beach town, Nha Trang?

Read More ...

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Lonely Planet, our trusty guide, said that V Cafe is a Vietnam backpacker's institution that's been around for years. Lois and I decided to have coffee there, not because of that, but because it was near our hostel and they had WIFI and ca phe sua nam for 20,000 VND (1 USD). Perfect ingredients for a working breakfast.
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It was here, while both of us were writing articles for the site, that we met Tim, a burly teddy bear of an Aussie. He heard both of us talking in Filipino and excitedly called his Filipina girlfriend Beatrice (Beya-tris in Filipino but Bee-tris for Westerners, as he would later explain). She was not only Filipino and Bisaya but she's from Cebu too!
Just like that, a bond was formed between the three of us. We bonded over shared experiences with other Pinoy travellers, what's new in the Philippines, if the superclub Embassy was still THE place to be (told her this has been replaced by Republiq) and that the soap opera Mara Clara was again on primetime television.

Plans were immediately made to head out to the old train station called Cremallaire. In the old days, this train brought locals and goods from Dalat to as far as Hanoi.

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We ate pho at the end of the railway and talked for what seemed like hours, completely missing the pagoda that was supposedly right around the corner. Tim and Beatrice, the always-amazing-no-matter-where-you-go pho and the interesting conversation more than made up for that pagoda.

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Plans were again made for dinner that evening. It was an unusually cold Dalat night (even the locals were complaining) and it was the perfect night for Artichoke soup.

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I've learned that with big artichokes like those in Dalat are not meant to swallowed. You suck and chew until you've gotten every ounce of the yummy juice inside. Here's another secret: the best part is the white thing at the heart of the artichoke. It might not look appealing but trust me when I say it tastes like creamy mashed potato. So good! If you get the chance to sample this soup, hoard the whites like crazy and leave the green parts to your friends who don't know better. (Because they don't subscribe to the Sole Sisters. Ha!)

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At one point during the dinner, we couldn't resist asking Beatrice to sing us a song. Tim jokingly replied:
"Ask her to sing Hotel California. She might be the only Filipino singer who doesn't know that song!"
She didn't sing Hotel California but asked what Lois and Hutch's theme song was.  They said they didn't have a theme song but I later found out it's 'Melt With You'. Hush.

In the end, Beatrice sang a 80's hit called 'A Perfect Combination'. Her voice hit every note and rang clear straight into that unusually chilly Dalat night, she gave me goosebumps:
Perfect combination
Lovers you and me
Perfect combination
We couldn't ask for any better
We never found out what Tim and Beatrice's theme song was. Yet everytime I hear that song, I remember this warm, self-deprecating, funny, musician gypsy couple. I've made it my theme song for them.
Perfect combination
We fit to a tee
A perfect combination
We know what takes to last forever together
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