Sep 5 - Learning Vietnamese

It's been 8 years since I was last in Vietnam. It was an amazing stop on a month long backpacking trip through SE Asia.

We got our visas last week--the process has become amazingly streamlined. I didn't even have to send our passports to the embassy. I sent them an email with some forms and a passport photo and a few days later a couple of neat visas were Fedex'ed back. It was a bit expensive for the visas--I also found that you can get a visa-on-arrival but I didn't want to chance it.

I built a "best-of" itinerary for me and Felipe. We're hitting all the stops I did back in 2008, but doing it more efficiently and with some great experiences bundled in.

I'm also trying to learn Vietnamese. It's a tonal language like Cantonese--that definitely makes it harder to learn. It also has a quirk of referring to people ("you") depending on their sex and status compared to you.

UPDATE: Felipe's sister and niece used the visa-on-arrival option. It was super easy, they did it a week before leaving for Vietnam, and it cost US$20 to pick up at the airport. Everyone was doing it (except us!)


standard VISA: $78
- plus fedex charge: $35
visa on arrival: US$25 + US$19 app fee

Oct 1 - Chaotic Hanoi

Hanoi is crazy. The motorcycles buzz around like bees drunk on nectar. But overall I felt much safer than my last trip here. Cabs would actually use meters, people seemed quite honest, and I felt like I could blend in to the crowd who would have their own smart phones and western clothes.

But I must say that travelling in Hanoi has been incredibly easier than the last time I was here 8 years ago. Technology has made traveling so easy and fun. Last time I was scared of touts and thieves and stayed constantly vigilent, this time I was using a Vietnamese app on my phone to help me speak Vietnamese with the locals. Last time I was staying close to my hotel to make sure I didn't get lost with my simple map, this time we walked around aimlessly wherever we wanted and the just opened up Google Maps to re-orient ourselves to get back home. Last time I ate at all the expensive restaurants gentrified by waves of tourists and expats before me, this time we found local restaurants hidden in alleys away from the hordes. Last time I came to Vietnam not knowing exactly where I would sleep or visit, this time I had the whole itinerary planned out, pre-booked, and pre-paid online, including homestays in the middle of nowhere. Last time I walked everywhere in the sweltering heat for fear of getting robbed by the taxi drivers, this time we pulled out Uber and found a driver who would be tracked from pickup to a safe dropoff. It's really all amazing.

near collision
st joseph cathedral
cyclo ride in hanoi
crossing the street in hanoi
old building
nowhere to avoid the motorcycles
nighttime in hanoi


ATM exch rate: C$1 - 16.750 VND
- I'm dividing all VND by 100K
Hanoi Marvellous Hotel: US$55 / night
dinner, Quan An Ngon: 90 VND
lunch, Koto: 260 VND
lunch, Bun Bo Nam Bo: 65 VND
cyclo, 1 hour: 120 VND
pheva chocolate bar: 120 VND
massage @ Marvellous: 513 VND
ho chi minh museum: 40 VND
fine arts museum: 30 VND
temple of literature: 30 VND
taxi rides within tourist area: 20 VND

All I can say is Wow! The service here was amazing--pretty much the best I've ever experienced from any hotel. They were always very attentive, remembered our names, and offered drinks when we entered the hotel. They even offered our guests drinks without any hesitation. They were trustable and helped organized trips and excursions, and didn't tack on unreasonable charges. The room was fantastic as well, but the service really stood out. As we stayed in more hotels in Hanoi, we realized that the great service has become somewhat a norm here.

Oct 5 - Return to Sapa

We took the night train to Sapa. I love how efficient it is to sleep on a train and wake up in a new world. Sapa has changed a ton in the last 8 years. Busy city with no character and everyone and every place geared to tourists. Luckily. I read about this before coming to Sapa and instead reserved a homestay in the next town over, Ta Van. Here we were away from the tourists and the touts. Sleeping in our own little villa with a breathtaking view of The Valley and local rice fields. The hike to the nearby waterfall proved again that the local ladies do really help--I was thankful that I had a little Hmong woman to lean on as I teetered on the wall of the rice paddy. We also hiked through a bamboo forest--very cool as we were surrounded by tall stalks of green and brown. Some people think that you pick your Hmong guide, but really it's them that pick you! We figured that we were just pawns in their complex structured system of determining guides for tourists, making it look like they stumbled upon you by chance, and the acceptable methods of payment.

sapaly train to sapa
early morning arrival in sapa
golden rice homestay
rice fields
more rice fields
heart of hmong
enjoying the view
hiking in ta van
barber shop
eating pho
balancing on rice paddies
rice paddy walk
bamboo forest
top of the waterfall
hiking back to tavan
view from our homestay


train, hanoi to sapa return: C$103
- booked with C$12 fee
- note to self: do not book full cabin (too noisy with extra beds clanging around)
- sapa park entrace fee: 75 VND
- bus, train station to sapa: 80 VND
- cab, sapa to tavan: 90 - 100 VND
- coconut: 35 VND

A homestay that I book on Airbnb. It i right in the park so you need to pay the park fee just to get to the hotel. And the taxis there run about 100 VND. We only stayed one night but it was pretty amazing--I wouldn't hesitate to stay here longer. The view is spectacular from the bottom of the valley--you see the rice paddys all up the side. With your own little villa in the middle of nowhere, it was an amazing experience.

Oct 7 - Long Time No Halong

Like Sapa, Halong Bay has changed so much since I was here 8 years ago. The area around the bay has absolutely exploded with the tourism--with its own Ferris wheel and gondola making the Bay look like a burgeoning mini Las Vegas. A bit gaudy and touristy.

This trip I upgraded from the backpacker boat from last time (sometimes you gotta please who you're with!). We got a cabin on the wooden junk Dragon's Pearl. What a difference! Air conditioned rooms with picture windows and fancy bathrooms. I can't remember if I even had a functional washroom on the backpackers boat! No drinking games this time, but a more relaxing trip--I think I like that in my old age. The thing I didn't like too much was the group on the boat. They were more reserved, mostly couples, average age 40, not that social of a group. that I'm writing this, I'm realizing we fit into that exact description.

But I think Halong Bay has become a bit of a victim to its own success. We took a tour to the neighbouring Bai Tu Long Bay which is less touristy, and even then It feels like being on a tourist assembly line where you are quickly shuffled from one place to the next--everything working like clockwork. The only genuine part of the trip were the grand karst rocks--I'm not even sure if the colour of the water was supposed to be like that. Our guide told his jokes and quips with ho-hum delivery--bored with the hundreds of times he's told the joke before. Maybe it's because I've been here twice now, but the Halong Bay experience feels more like tourist trap than compared to 8 years ago. What a shame.

We also ended up buying one of the thread art at the Hong Ngoc Handicraft Center on the way to Halong. I remember we stopped here the first time I was in Halong, I was amazed at the intricate and time-consuming thread paintings they made. It's still damn impressive and we totally overpaid!

sewing art
touristy ha long bay
tons of boats
bai tu long bay
fishing village
fishing boats
vietnam hat
kayaking in the bay
view of dragon pearl


Bai Tu Long Bay, Indochina Junk (Dragon's Pearl): C$377 / 2ppl / night. I would stay this is not really worth the money.
Vietnamese lady thread art: US$92


Oct 9 - Loving Yen Duc

We spent the night in a small village about an hour ride from Halong Bay. What an amazing experience! This was the quaint local experience I was hoping to find. I've been to "home-stays" before but this felt like a "village-stay"--the whole village was so welcoming to us. The air smelled of rice--I didn't even notice rice had a smell. We would take bicycles and ride through the village, the local market, and the rice fields. In the afternoon, the guide gathered a group of performers with local instruments to perform a Vietnamese opera. And all the time we were fed local dishes and delicacies.

We had a great guide, Gi, explaining to us the town and her experiences growing up there. She brought us to a local broom maker who has been making brooms out of rice stalks for over 40 years! Even though we had no clue what she was saying she showed us how to tie the straw around to make our own little broom. Her laugh and excitement was infectious. Cute lady.

local music show
trying out the instruments
morning bikeride
me in the hat again
fishing for dinner
doubling on a bike
local art
hazy sunrise in yen duc
cycling with joe & renee
under an arch
view from the market
ingredients for my ginger tea
drying rice
yen duc countryside
in the house of the broommaker
making a broom
broom making tips
lazy day
sleeping vietnamese cat
the finished product!
water puppets in yen duc


Yen Duc, Indochina Junk (Viet House): C$377 / 2ppl / night. Amazing experience!

Oct 12 - New Clothes in Hoi An

I think Hoi An has experience the same growth and success in tourism as Halong Bay. But instead of the gaudy transformation, it has continued to develop itself as a pretty town--known for its craftspeople and tailors. Even the touristy part of the town isn't so bad--it still feels somewhat small town.

I came here thinking that only the girls would be interested in getting clothes made but after arriving at Yaly and seeing the different fabrics and talking with the friendly and professional sales ladies, it became quickly clear that I needed to buy a lot of freshly tailored clothes. A fitted blue suit with flashy blue paisley lining--sure! Checkered dress shirts with that cool button to pull up the sleeves--I'll take two! A tweed vest, do I even wear vests?--yes please! But overall a fantastic and interesting experience. The last time I was in Hoi An, I got some cheap shirts that I threw away without wearing. This time I went to the best, and now I know why they excel. Definitely a highlight of Hoi An for us.

On the way back to the airport we did a couple hours stop at Marble Mountain. The sculptures, caves, and temples were impressive and fantastic to explore.

buying rain smock
bike riding in hoi an
lantern shop
bamboo root carver
hoi an street
clothes making in yaly
picking out fabric
hoi an night market
dragon guardian
temple tops
buddha shrine cave
marble mountain
little altar
walking in the rain


cab, Da Nang to Hanoi: 200 VND
- with stop at Marble Mountain: 330
Quoc An Ngon tailors:
- white shirt with cuffs: US$30
Yaly tailors:
- 2-piece suit: US$215
- fancy lining in suit: US$10
- tweed vest: US$55
- checkered dress shirt: US$35
dinner, Streets: 170 VND
lunch, Hola Taco: 160 VND
bunch of langsat: 20 VND
- same price in Toronto: C$20!