All throughout Asia, especially Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, the streets were absolutely flooded with thousands and thousands of motorbikes! Among these bikes, we often saw some motorbikes carrying HUGE and random objects… Mattresses, furniture, plants, long pipes, and sometimes up to SIX people on one bike!! I was amused and fascinated by this “phenomenon,” so I spent a great deal of time throughout these countries capturing as many photos of different bikes that I could!
You see, owning and driving a motorbike is one of the cheaper modes of transportation in Asia (and pretty much the rest of the world for that matter) and the majority of people we encountered in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand seemed to mostly only drive motorbikes. And since this is usually the ONLY way for these people to get around town, they have to be creative and skilled (and have good balance!) to pull off transporting some of these heavy or huge items.
So… I’m not going to go on a long story about motorbikes or provide any facts or history on them this time… I’m simply going to do exactly as the title of this blog says: post a bunch of funny (and interesting) photos of motorbikes across Asia 🙂 Enjoy!
One person . . .
Two people . . .
Three people . . .
Four . . .
And of course, make sure when you’re on your bike to cover EVERY inch of skin!
Learn how to fit all your bags around the bike… in front, on the sides, on the back, anywhere and everywhere!
If you have really large and heavy bags, no worries… just pile them on and make them fit however you can!
If you can’t strap it in or hold onto it yourself, just bring along a friend to help hold stuff! (how in the WORLD is the woman on the left even staying on!?)
If you’re going somewhere and need to bring the kids, just pile them onto your bike! (with no helmets… yikes!)
You really can carry ANYTHING on a motorbike…
Plants/veggies Tires Bubble wrap!?
Gas tanks (yikes!) Long piping A tree!?
If it’s raining, no need to wait it out… just bring a friend (or two) and an umbrella…
Why not use your motorbike to sell your goods?
Or to sell food…
And if you need to move furniture, you don’t need a truck… just use your motorbike!
To move a mattress…
A door (seriously!??)…
A fish tank A table An air conditioner A pane of glass
And if it doesn’t quite fit on the bike, just attach a trailer, and the possibilities are endless!
And the motherload…
And, of course, once we were in Asia for five months, we got somewhat “skilled” as well… transporting ALL of our luggage on our motorbike in Koh Phangan from our house to the ferry dock (just picture James in the front seat—he had to get off the bike to snap this photo—and notice his HUGE backpack stuffed in the front area!!) Weeee!
And, James also successfully transported himself and two other people (our friends, Andy and Liz) on one motorbike across town a few times!
Good work, good work!
Hope you enjoyed all those photos… because I sure enjoyed taking them!
After FIVE full months on the road; endless trips on planes, trains, and buses; hundreds of miles walked; constant stresses over language barriers and searching for food; and the most sicknesses in a short amount of time than we’ve EVER experienced before (thank you, China)… it was time for a BREAK and time for recharging our “traveling batteries.” We needed a bit of normalcy and one constant place to call “home” for awhile, and we needed it NOW! Koh Phangan, a cute little island off the coast of Southern Thailand, answered our call.
James’ aunt Lori (among other of our family members) was elated about this decision, and she put it perfectly by stating something about how a lot of our trip we had been spending SO much time trying to fulfill the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, water, etc. In our normal, everyday lives back home, we never even thought about these things, and I doubt YOU do, either. You go to sleep, you wake up, you eat breakfast, go to work, eat lunch and dinner, go out to eat at your favorite restaurants when you want to, and you turn on the faucet or go to the water dispenser and fill up your glass when you need to. Sure, you might budget and shop smartly, but you probably have food around you at all times and familiar grocery stores and restaurants are plentiful wherever you look! Your life is often routine and for the most part I’m sure you rarely stress about food, shelter, or water.
SO… the fact that James and I had been jumping country to country, moving city to city every 3-7 days, we were just plain EXHAUSTED from it all and just needed to STOP and settle.
And, settle we DID!
We did some research before arriving in Koh Phangan on places to live, but found that very few house rentals were listed on the internet, and the ones that we found were grossly overpriced and/or required a 75-100% paypal deposit beforehand—not safe! Upon reading advice online to just show up on the island and ask around, we booked a hostel for three nights and our goal was to secure a house rental within that time period. Fingers crossed! And on the second day, we ending up calling a woman who could, “Show us some places.” The funny thing is, she showed us only one place, and it was EXACTLY what we were looking for! It was close to town, close to a
grocery store, but far enough away to be quiet and NOT touristy. The house was near the beach and had an air conditioner, equipped kitchen, WIFI, hot water shower, TV with a couple cable channels, and a lovely outdoor patio. The landlord woman seemed cute and pleasant and spoke good English, and we swiftly negotiated the monthly price from 12,000 baht ($390 USD) to $10,000 ($320 USD). PERFECT!
Next, we needed to secure some kind of personal transportation, since the only other way to get around on the island was by foot or by taxi. Again, after online research of motorbike rental companies we could trust and stopping by a few places in person, we bargained down a month-long motorbike rental to a measly 3,000 baht ($96.)
So, YES, you read right: For a mere $420 US dollars, we had a fully furnished apartment and good transportation for ONE WHOLE glorious MONTH! Think about that compared to a nightly charge at a hotel back in the states!
Our first couple weeks at the house involved doing a whole lot of NOTHING, which was WONDERFUL and MUCH NEEDED. We slept in, watched a lot of movies, went running every day, cooked our own food for all three meals per day, did a ton of computer work on creative stuff, caught up on expenses, and finally were able to reply to long-lost emails and reconnect with family and friends over video chat. At the end of week one, I was starting to feel a bit “guilty,” since we barely left the house AT ALL, except to exercise or to take a trip to the grocery store. That’s my usual instinct of not wanting to miss out on anything (I always try to do WAY too much and see WAY too many things in general and end up overwhelmed or exhausted in the end because of it), but I had to fight those feelings away and just RELAX. And I managed to really enjoy that time of NOT HAVING TO RESEARCH ANY TRAVEL-RELATED STUFF!
During the month we were on Koh Phangan, we spent some time exploring a few of the many beautiful beaches on the island, taking a few nice drives on our motorbike up the coast, and enjoying a few dinners out on the town. We also took a nice weekend trip to the nearby island, Koh Tao, for some scuba diving, but I’ll talk about that in a different upcoming post. In addition, we decided to partake in some of the craziness around town…
One thing that IS very exciting and fun about Koh Phangan is all the parties around the island. Koh Phangan is known notoriously for its monthly “Full Moon Parties,” as well as the bi-monthly “Half Moon Parties,” and monthly “Black Moon Party.” In addition, there is pretty much some kind of crazy party every night of the week at other resorts and places around town, including
boat parties, pool parties, jungle parties, and waterfall parties. You name it, they probably have it here. Because of this, Koh Phangan has gotten a reputation (good or bad, you decide!) of being PARTY CENTRAL. Unfortunately, people don’t realize the island itself is beautiful and there are many areas and beaches on the island that are calm, relaxing, full of beauty, and are NOT affected by the party area of the island. And fortunately, I did a bit of research to make sure we were staying in an area that wasn’t full of drunken tourists, and we ending up having the perfect mix of our own little paradise with an easy taxi ride into town to attend some of the crazy parties.
And let me tell you – the parties were AWESOME! James and I aren’t HUGE party people, but we like to drink and dance and have a good time, and we were happy to find our own place at each of the four parties we attended throughout the month we were in Koh Phangan.
First up: Jungle Waterfall Party (July 20). We took a $3 taxi ride up a mountain to a hiking trail, and then needed to hike another good 20 minutes by foot over the hill and down into an oasis type area. We got there early enough so that we paid NO entrance fee, and the excitement grew as we walked closer and closer to a black-lighted dance floor with fire twirlers and all! Music was pumping and artists around the area were painting neon creatures onto tanned bodies. We grabbed a drink and sat down for awhile, just taking in the craziness around us. People at the party were VERY friendly and talkative, we quickly made friends and worked our way to the dance floor. At some point in the night, a man came over with SCORPIONS and volunteers would stand with their eyes closed as they placed these HUGE scorpions all over THEIR FACES! It was quite an astonishing spectacle to watch . . . I really couldn’t believe somebody would VOLUNTEER for that! But I’m glad they did; I’ve NEVER seen anything that excitingly horrifying in my life!
Next up: Full Moon Party (July 24). WHAT A NIGHT! Party on the beach all night, fire twirlers, multiple music stages, and more! Originally, I was a bit worried about this party being TOO crazy or annoyingly crowded (again, we aren’t the biggest of partiers: definitely no drugs and rarely drink heavily), but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the party beach area wasn’t TOO crowded and people seemed happy overall. We were able to easily move about the long stretch of beach as freely as we wanted, could choose which music stage to stop and dance at whenever we pleased. Walking into the area, we saw a bunch of fun party-goers painting each other with neon colors, and decided to join in on the fun!… when in Rome, right?
Once we were in the main party beach area, we spent hours dancing at different stages, sitting on the beach, eating random foods, watching fire twirlers perform (and almost hit James with a wild out-of-control fire bit!), watching idiot drunkards do “the limbo” under a fire-lit pole, watching other SUPER idiot drunkards climb a tall fence and dangle off the top, watching other idiot drunkards fling themselves off the second floor of a building down an inflatable slide, and watching all kinds of other debauchery go on all over the beaches. And suddenly we noticed the sky getting brighter and brighter as THE SUN CAME UP!! Yes, we made it all night until the sunrise, and headed back home at 7am. We truly earned our “Full Moon Party badge” for sure!
Next party: Coral Bungalows Pool Party (August 5). This was a bit more laid back night, but still one of our favorite party experiences in Koh Phangan! The party was hosted at a hotel and we were SUPER happy that beers were only 40 baht ($1.33), a steal! We met a fun group of people from The Netherlands and spent the whole night chatting, dancing, and swimming with them. And—THE POOL! The water was warm, full of fun and friendly people, and the music was fun and upbeat. We closed down the party (around 3am) and went home having spent only around $10 each for taxi and beers all night!
Last party: Half Moon Party (August 14). We were excited to attend this party with FRIENDS this time! We met this great couple, Andy and Liz, back in April in China, and had met up with them again in Thailand a couple times (they are also doing an around-the-world trip), so we were excited to be reunited for a fun Koh Phangan party. In addition, another couple they befriended in Laos also joined us for the fun. We pre-partied at their hotel, which ended up being the most fun of the night! We sat at a little table on the beach, had drinks, painted each other’s faces and arms, and took a bunch of goofy photos. Once we got to the Half Moon Party grounds, we actually had to pay about $16 USD each to get in (super expensive for Thailand!), and James and I were a bit dismayed by just how CROWDED the area was! If we were early 20-something club hoppers, we would totally be in paradise. But for 30-ish travelers just going along for the ride… it was a bit overwhelming. Every dance area was MOBBED, it was hard to move around anywhere, drinks were expensive (well, “expensive” being $2.60 per small beer), people were constantly knocking into you and spilling drinks, and fights were breaking out here and there throughout the crowd. It was definitely AN EXPERIENCE overall, and we had fun dancing with our little group and enjoying the music. But after we had been “spoiled” by the previous three parties, it was a bit more of a letdown to pay SO much money (by Thai standards) and not be as fun as our other party experiences.
Overall, the party experiences were really fun and added a little extra excitement to our relaxing Koh Phangan island experience. And along with our relaxation and many romantic times (including a VERY SPECIAL “HAPPENING” that will be mentioned in an upcoming post!!), it was definitely the time of our lives!
In the end, we LOVED our month on Koh Phangan and REALLY REALLY wished we could have stayed longer! Normally, we have been a bit more flexible on this trip and could have stayed a little longer, but in this case we had already booked flights and made plans to meet some of our good friends from the US in Australia… sooooo…. buh bye, Koh Phangan!
We had SUCH a lovely time, but we WILL be back some day!
To see photos from Koh Phangan, click here. (more photos coming soon)
Interesting trip fact: We never actually planned to come to Vietnam on our RTW trip… it was more a “maybe” on our list. However, the more people kept talking about how wonderful the country was, the more intrigued we became… so we soon found ourselves making our way down the Vietnam coastline. When researching places to visit in the country, I came across some interesting cities in Central Vietnam including Hue, Hoi An, and Nha Trang, so we made plans to hit them on the way down to Ho Chi Minh / Saigon (in the south).
Below is a summary of our experiences in the three cities we visited in central Vietnam.
If you are a history buff, then Hue—which is pronounced: “Who-A”—is not to be missed. The city was Vietnam’s national capital until 1945, and it served as the political, cultural and religious center of Vietnam under the control of the Nguyen Dynasty. During the Vietnam War, Hue’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a very vulnerable position. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the city suffered considerable damage, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings, as well as the massacre of around 3,000 people at Hue by the communist forces.
One of the main attractions in Hue is the Citadel, which is the complex that used to house the government when the city was the capital. We spent a day around the large complex of temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates, shops, and galleries. The damage suffered by the old bombings was extremely evident here, as some areas of the Citadel are now only empty fields, bits of walls, and an explanatory plaque. But there were quite a few buildings that still were standing, and it was interesting to explore the area and read about the history. It also was a HOT HOT day (mid to high 90s and humid), so it was a bit of a slow-going afternoon for us.
Besides the citadel, we also visited one of the MANY Emperor tombs in the area: Tu Duc Tomb. Hue is home to over six different massive tombs, built by past emperors that—as it states in some history books—had nothing else to do with their time than build themselves elaborate tombs… hah! And ELABORATE they certainly are! Tu Duc Tomb was a sprawling complex around a lake, with wooden pavilions and tombs and temples dedicated to wives and favored courtesans. Pretty excessive for burial grounds, don’t you think? In addition, we visited the Thien Mu Pagoda in town, and were lucky to be there at a time when the Buddhist monks were singing and performing some kind of religious ceremony. We rented a motorbike two of the days we were there (again, for $5/day), as it made it SO much easier to jet around the city to the places we wanted to visit… but Hue was a LOT more crowded than it had been on Cat Ba Island… and the traffic became a bit stressful at times! [Click here to see James and I riding a motorbike in crazy Hue traffic.]
In all, we spent six days in Hue (June 4-10)—but only that long because James got some awful stomach sickness and was wiped out for several days (after a day or two of antibiotics, though, he immediately began to improve.) Hue wasn’t really my favorite city, and I probably could have skipped it and been fine with that, but if you are a history buff and enjoy exploring ancient Government buildings and Emperor tombs, then allow yourself 3-4 days to see everything in the city.
Hoi An is one of the more popular destinations for tourists, and we could definitely see why: it’s a unique, charismatic, ancient trading town that is an exceptionally well-preserved and has a charm like no other! The city itself is actually recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, so that’s reason enough to want to check it out.
The streets themselves in Hoi An are narrow and full of yellow colored ancient shops and restaurants, often with beautiful multi-colored lanterns strung across the walkway. In addition, the town has enforced restrictions around town of NO TRAFFIC—including motorbikes—so you can freely stroll down the quaint town roads without the traffic noise or worry about getting hit by a motorbike (which is a constant concern in most other cities and towns in Vietnam). A small river winds through the downtown area, and at night it is very lively with music, people, performances, and boat rides. For a small charge, you can purchase a floating paper lantern, light the candle inside, make a wish, and release it into the water and watch it float down the river.
We spent four days in Hoi An (June 10-14) and really soaked up the culture, and in turn, had many wonderful experiences and lasting memories. We took a cooking class at a local restaurant called “Green Mango” which was not only extremely educational, but resulted in a very tasty meal as well! Most cooking classes you take in Hoi An sometimes have up to 25+ people, but we got lucky at this place and ended up being the ONLY ONES in class on this particular day! So we basically got a “private class” for the price of the normal one—bonus! We also were allowed to
choose five items on the menu of 20+ items that we would like to cook, so we chose prawn and mango spring rolls, smokey eggplant salad, lemongrass marinated chicken, blackened sea bass, and mango crème brule for dessert. Mr. Hai is the owner and chef of the restaurant, and we benefitted from his knowledge and expertise. We started the day by walking through the local market, tasting and smelling herbs and vegetables, and Mr. Hai would point out different seafood and vegetable items and explain how and when to purchase the right types. Back at the restaurant, we began with the food: preparing sauces, putting shrimp on skewers, and rolling spring rolls. After a few hours of the three of us working feverishly to prep the meal, we sat down and were rewarded with a wonderful spread. SO much food that we actually had to take some back with us to our hotel! I think what was most interesting to me about this class, though, is all the VERY different spices and mixes he used, which gave us an insight into how Vietnamese food is prepared compared to others.
While we were in Hoi An, we also spent time at a tailor shop, where James was fitted for a CUSTOM tailored suit! Hoi An is known as one of the cheapest places in the world to get good quality custom clothing. For a mere $250 USD or so and only two days of work, you can actually get a suit completely custom made from head to toe, including the fabric choice inside and out. After James’ initial fabric consultation, suit style choice, and thorough measurements, he went back to the shop two more times for fittings and alterations. The result in the end: A gorgeous gray custom-fitted suit, a custom-fitted shirt, and nice tie: ALL for only $250! James says the suit and shirt really “fits like a glove” and he’s never looked or felt better in a suit. Not bad for something that normally costs from $1,000 to $15,000 anywhere else in the world!
Other things we did in Hoi An: strolled the quaint streets and window-shopped, meandered through the many art stores admiring the beautiful Vietnamese paintings on display, rented a motorbike one day and went to the beach, and one night we actually found a restaurant that had Mexican food—tacos and nachos—that actually tasted pretty GREAT, which was VERY EXCITING!! (I’ve really missed Mexican food more than anything on this trip, but most places in other countries that we’ve tried have pretty horrible food which tastes nothing like REAL Mexican food!)
One of the nights in Hoi An, we decided to indulge in a NICE dinner at a fancier restaurant and got all dressed up (or as dressed up as we can get on our trip with our limited wardrobe), and had a lovely meal: a starter dish of blue cheese wrapped grapes with pecans, fancy fish entrees with potatoes and vegetables, and we each had a drink as well. Note: back home we would normally do this maybe once a month, but this is the FIRST time on our trip in four months that we’ve had a “fancy” meal with an actual appetizer and cocktails as well! After months on end of eating street food, cheap food, and half-effort cooking in ill-equipped kitchens, this was something we DEFINITELY needed, and it was extra nice that we happened to have the whole upstairs of the restaurant with a balcony view all to ourselves! Funny thing is, it “only” cost us around $40 for this elaborate meal, whereas at home a dinner and drinks at a restaurant of the same caliber would have been closer to $100+! After dinner, we strolled along the cute streets of Hoi An, and wandered down to a boat on the river that has been made into a floating “bar” and stopped for a couple drinks. What a nice experience, sitting at a table on a tiny boat, live guitar music playing, and the company of your loved one. It was a wonderful night! [Click here to see a video of us on the “bar boat”]
Overall, Hoi An was one of our favorite cities in Vietnam for its old style charm, culture, food, and overall atmosphere. I highly suggest a visit there if you plan a trip to Vietnam!
People flock to the city of Nha Trang mainly for its beaches, clean sand, clear ocean waters, and mild temperatures year round. However, the forecast for the three days we would be there (June 14-17) was unfortunately CLOUDY, CLOUDY, CLOUDY…. with some rain as well. So instead of hitting the beach, we visited some pretty cool sights around town: Long So’n Pagoda, Po Nagar temple, and Cho Dam Market. The Long So’n Pagoda is home to two large white Buddha statues, which were very intricate, impressive, and just plain cool to see close up in person. While we were in the area, we saw that there was a large bell and a singing monk nearby, so we decided to see what it was all about… we walked over, were told to squat down under the bell and sit on the bench: so we were both basically sitting INSIDE the large bell. The monk took a mallet and “gonged” the bell we were sitting inside and he began to sing. We weren’t really sure what was happening, or what he was
singing, but we assumed we were being given a blessing. Next, we were off to Po Nagar Temple, which resembles the style of the Cambodian temple, Angkor Wat. It was pretty impressive despite its smaller size, and we enjoyed watching a dance show next to the temple with women balancing pots on their heads. [Click here to see a video of the beautiful dancers at Po Nagar Temple.] On our second day in Nha Trang, we visited Cho Dam Market, which is just a huge market with many vendors selling various different goods, from produce and meat to t-shirts and jewelry.
One of the nights when we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant, we happened to randomly stumble across a brochure that listed volunteer opportunities in the area, so we talked to the waitress to inquire further. We found out that we could volunteer on Monday morning to help prepare and hand out free food to the locals and, in addition, we could visit an orphanage in the afternoon to play with the kids and learn more about all of them. Sounds great, sign us up!
That Monday, we got up bright and early and headed to the restaurant (called “Lanterns”) and began dishing out food into small self-serve type Styrofoam containers. One scoop of rice, one spoonful of beef, two squares of cooked egg, and a spoonful of veggies… next! Man, it was SO hot that morning there, I was trying not to drip sweat into the food as we worked tirelessly to prepare the food for the crowd that would soon gather. But it felt good to be helping out the girls there with the prep, and soon would help the people in the community who would come for their free meal. Personally, I was pleased to know the meal being handed out was a “well rounded” one, with veggies and a good amount of protein, and it was humbling to know that the owner of the restaurant actually does this EVERY Monday and the money to fund the food comes from his own pocket! Noon hit, and there was a big crowd gathered outside already, waiting to receive their delicious and free meals. I began to hand them out, one by one, but it was a bit overwhelming, as there was pushing and line skipping starting to begin among the people. It was interesting to see that most of the people who came for the meal didn’t seem or “look” particularly homeless; most of them were actually bicycle taxi drivers around town or those with manual labor jobs in the city. In fact, it occurred to us that we hadn’t really seen many or ANY beggars or homeless people at all in Vietnam so far. We speculated that people with less money here just work lower-paid jobs to make ends meet, rather than sit on the side of the road and wait for a handout… but it could really just be speculation.
Anyway, later on that afternoon, we returned to the same restaurant, as one of the girls there was going to escort us to the orphanage. Apparently this do-good restaurant ALSO supports several local orphanages in the area, and upon request and availability, anybody can volunteer to visit one of them and spend time with the kids. So off we went! The orphanage was actually right in town, and on the way we stopped to get milk boxes (basically boxes of milk, similar to the juice boxes we have in the US) and balloons to bring to the kids. When we arrived, the 15 or so kids were SO intrigued by us, and as soon as James brought out a balloon and started to blow it up, the frenzy started! We only spent about a half hour there, but seeing so many smiles on the kids’ faces were enough to brighten our day! And even though it was a short amount of time, we were also touched by how easily a couple of the kids took to us; grabbing onto our hands and not letting go, or sitting in our laps, arms around us, with that look in their eyes basically saying, “Take me with you.” Awwww… [Click here to see a video of us at the orphanage with the kids.]
The night we were to leave Nha Trang, the skies opened up and DUMPED a ton of rain on the city. Within a matter of only two hours, the streets nearby our hostel were completely FLOODED, with water up to mid-calf height! [Click here to see a video of the flooded streets.] We were scheduled to take an overnight bus to Saigon that night, so a few of the kind workers at our hostel HOISTED our heavy bags on their shoulders and waded through the water to toss them onto the bus for us. How nice! Guess it was good to get out of town at that moment, because who knew if the flooding would continue for the following days thereafter!
In the end, our experience in Nha Trang was really great! . . . although we found it kind of funny that usually the ONLY or main reason people go there is for the beaches, and we barely stepped foot on the sand. Either way, Nha Trang is a suggested city to visit… but be aware that it is also a HUGE backpacker party town, so if you’re not keen to half-dressed Western girls drunkenly stumbling through the streets and large Western men starting bar fights (which we actually witnessed)… then you might want to skip this town!
Most cities in Vietnam are bustling with many colorful people, shops, and thousands of motorbikes… it can be quite hectic! That is exactly what we experienced as soon as we landed (on May 26th) in the northern part of the country in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.
In the shuttle van from the Hanoi airport to our hotel, we faced an insane barrage of motorbikes all over the road, with anywhere from one to FIVE riders on each bike (including children and babies), weaving back and forth and around cars and buses, and riding less than one foot from each other. It was a pretty incredible “show” to watch with your own two eyes! And that’s just from INSIDE a vehicle: try walking along the sidewalk-less roads of Hanoi or trying to cross the street as a pedestrian. There was definitely a learning curve here, in regards to our manner of crossing the road.
We thought China was busy with so many motorbikes on the road, but Vietnam was a whole different ballgame. In China, you really needed to WATCH OUT, because the motorbikes and cars would run you over in a moment, no problem, no blinking… so you just waited FOREVER for a break in traffic and RAN! In Vietnam, however, there rarely was a break in traffic, and you simply had to hold your breath, say a little prayer, and step out into the middle of the insane traffic, keep moving at a constant pace, and watch as all the traffic fluidly zoomed around you. When you reached the middle of the road to face the oncoming traffic in the opposite direction, it was the same thing. In general, when crossing the road as a pedestrian in Vietnam, you are better off just GOING, rather than hesitating. The motorbikes pretty much all expect you to be confident about crossing the road, and they will, in turn, be confident about NOT running you over. It was quite an interesting dynamic that took a week or two to get used to, and to be a lot more confident about crossing the road and trusting that you wouldn’t be run down by a motorbike. It was like the video game “Frogger,” but in real life. [Click here to see a video of the crazy Hanoi traffic!]
Hanoi was an OK city, and we spent three days there… which was probably one day too long. To us, there weren’t many desirable activities to engage in, and it was basically just “a big city” and that was that. We did, however, take the time we were there to enjoy a fun and slightly silly “Water Puppet Show” at night, stroll along the Hoan Kiem Lake nearby, sample a few lovely Vietnamese dishes, visit the Hoa Lo Prison—which was used during the Vietnam War to house political prisoners and POWs (including John McCain), and marvel at old aircraft and tanks at the Vietnam Military History Museum. Oh yea, and we attempted to do a walking tour of the old quarter of Hanoi city—from a Lonely Planet guide—but that was pretty much a joke, as the street layout there is a complex myriad of interconnecting streets and was very confusing; we were lost like 90% of the time. AND it was like 95-105 degrees and we were soaked in sweat and exhausted. Fun! 🙂
So… it was a WELCOME change to head out of the hot and energetic city of Hanoi to a lovely little piece of relaxation: Cat Ba Island. Cat Ba is located in the world renowned and GORGEOUS Halong Bay in Vietnam. Actually, most travelers who visit the northern part of Vietnam usually skip Hanoi and go directly to Halong Bay, and the majority of them often spend a night or two on a boat tour, floating around in the bay. Upon research and chatting with other travelers, we found that a LOT of these boat tours were quite disappointing, disorganized, overcrowded, and not really worth the money: well, UNLESS you drop a ton of cash on a “luxury” tour. Since we were in no position to spend that type of money and are now more “do it yourself” type of travelers, we took public transportation (bus to bus to ferry to bus) and made our way DIRECTLY to Cat Ba Island.
The bright and sunny afternoon we arrived on the Island (on May 29th), we immediately headed down to the main wharf area for sunset after we checked in to our hotel. As soon as we sat by the water, the bargaining began (as it does throughout most of Asia), and we haggled with the Vietnamese woman in the area to get our beers for $1 each, brilliant! It was truly a wonderful moment, sitting together by the water, sharing beers over meaningful conversation, and we both just soaked in the atmosphere and conversation and smiled.
The next few days were so lovely, as we spent most of the time jetting around the Island on a moped, relaxing on one of the three Cat Ba beaches, or enjoying time in and on the water. I think the one main thing we will both remember in such a reminiscent way about the Island, and Vietnam in general, is our time zooming around on the motorbike we rented… which, by the way, cost only $5 for the entire day! They didn’t ask for a driver’s license, we didn’t even fill out any forms, and we weren’t asked to leave a deposit. Heck, we didn’t even pay for the rental until we got back! Yea… we just got on and drove. Gotta love Vietnam! Of course, we took it easy in the beginning and practiced around the flat beach areas, especially since James has never actually driven a motorcycle or moped until now. But on the Island, there is a LOT less traffic than mainland, and you don’t really drive fast enough for anything major to happen. And in case it does: well, that’s why we have good, full-coverage international health insurance, right? 😉
Anyway, we coasted around Cat Ba Island, through the mountains, along the gorgeous coastline, past many lush green fields with workers farming the land, all adorned with the typical conical Vietnamese hats. We visited “Hospital Cave” one day, which was apparently used during war times to hide injured soldiers and such, and another day we visited the National Park and did a pretty difficult, hot, humid, and buggy hike up the mountain to a tower that provided some pretty gorgeous views of the surrounding forests. Occasionally, as we were driving around the Island, a car or bus would whizz by, and once in awhile we shared the road with other motorbikes, cows, goats, and sheep! I sat on the back of the bike with a huge smile across my face, taking it all in, hanging tightly around James’ waist, and just appreciating the amazing experience and the lovely views. Many times in the days we spent on the motorbike, James expressed how freeing, exciting, and wonderful the experience was for him as well:
“I tend to play it safe more often than not so I never understood the appeal of driving a motorcycle. However, after speeding around a few winding roads through the countryside and overlooking the beautiful Vietnam coastline (with a cute girl hanging around my waist)… Yea, I definitely saw the appeal.”
[Click here to see a cool video summary of one of our days around the Island on the motorbike.]
The three beaches on Cat Ba were small, although clean and inviting. We chose to spend most of our time on “Cat Ba 3” beach, as they actually had dancey-type music playing on the speaker system, and that’s definitely my type of beach hang out! The water was warm and the waves were large enough to body surf. Now… all I really needed was a tropical drink, and I’d be set!
We also took a one-day boat tour of Halong Bay, which is a MUST for any visitor to the area. We booked through “Cat Ba Ventures” and had a really wonderful experience! The day started out by slowly coasting past the beautiful rock formations that Halong Bay is recognized for, along with small fishing villages and floating villages as well. At one point, we stopped in an area and transferred to kayaks, and then spent a good hour kayaking around the bay, through cool caves, and into a beautiful cove where we watched hundreds of cool-looking jellyfish glide through the water beneath us. After a enjoyable lunch and a little swimming, we visited a cave and climbed up a slope of the mountain for some pretty breathtaking views of the bay, which was also ideal for some amazing photo opportunities. Next, the boat docked for awhile in another part of the bay, and we were able to swim a bit out to shore to a tiny deserted beach and we spent some time searching for beautiful sea shells. Lastly, we stopped at “Monkey Island” for a snack and more relaxing, and watched as some other tourists fed some of the wild monkeys that live on the Island. It was a very rewarding and wonderful day, and some of our best memories from the Island. [Click here to see a fun summary video of our whole day tour experience!]
Overall, our five days on Cat Ba Island was our favorite experience in Vietnam! Between the gorgeous ocean views, the relaxation on the beaches, and the freedom to jet around the Island on our own motorbike, it was a perfect little Island experience. It was also a nice ESCAPE that we both really needed at that point in our travels, and we thoroughly enjoyed and soaked it all in.
And it also was relaxation definitely needed, since the couple weeks ahead would be a lot busier, bouncing from one Vietnamese city to the next! To be continued in a future post . . .
Click here to see photos from our three days in Hanoi, Vietnam
Click here to see photos from Catba Island and Halong Bay.