We’ve Finished our RTW, so What Was Our Favorite… Food?!

We’ve finished our RTW trip. We get a lot of questions about our favorite things on the trip. We’ve decided to start a new series called “So, What Was Our Favorite…” We visited 29 countries on our RTW: Egypt (just 1 day), South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe (just 1 day), Namibia, Germany (just 1 day), Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia (just Bali), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, and Nepal.

This first edition will cover our 5 favorite cuisines from the countries we visited. These are in order!

5th Favorite: Greek

We spent almost a month in Greece and we only just barely got sick of eating the same kind of food every day. We loved eating delicious Greek salads, and particularly enjoyed slurping up tzatziki sauce. Della, in particular, loved the constant access to delicious olives. Souvlaki wasn’t bad either =)

4th Favorite: Singaporean

We were delighted with the huge variety of food available in Singapore. It is a combination of Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese flavors. We also particularly enjoyed one of their national dishes: laksa.

3rd Favorite: Bosnian

We had been a little tired of some of the food we had been eating in Central Europe which consisted of a lot of heavy meat, starches, and very few vegetables. We were thrilled when we arrived in Bosnia and found much more variety than we had been expecting. We had the best of the meat with cevapi and easy, quick food with burek. But we also suddenly had access to stuffed green peppers. In addition, the food was considerably more affordable than all of our prior countries. Yum!

2nd Favorite: Vietnamese

Overall, the best part of our trip food wise the second half in SE Asia. We really enjoyed all of the noodle and curry dishes in most of the countries in 2015. However, Vietnam really stood out. We had some really great pho, which is one of our go-to foods here at home. But, we also had access to a variety of other delicious Vietnamese foods including spring rolls, bun cha (vermicelli), and many other great soups! Basically, there was very few things we tried in Vietnam that we didn’t love. And, to top it all off, it was quite affordable.

Favorite Food in the World: Thai

This wasn’t unexpected. Thai food is Della’s favorite ethnic cuisine here at home as well. But, the ease of access to really great, really affordable food made Thailand the clear best. They have a wide variety of delightful noodle dishes including some of our favorites: pad thai and pad see ewe. On top of that, we often enjoyed delicious curries of all varieties. Street food was easy to come by and we found several great spring rolls as well. We were excited enough to take a cooking class to learn how to make it easily at home!

Monthly Recap: Month 10

Well, this monthly recap is very late! It would have come out, should everything have been normal, on May 2nd. However, as many of you know, we were actually getting ready to come home after experiencing the Earthquake in Nepal on May 2nd. Because of that earthquake, Month 10 turned out to be the last month of our trip… We had been planning on making it until Month 11, but the world had other plans for us. Month 10 had some great times as well as some not so great times (see aforementioned earthquake). Let’s recap, shall we?!

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Vietnam, China, and NepalSpecial Administrative Regions: 2 (Hong Kong and Macau)

Beds Slept In: Tarps Slept Under:Embassies Slept In: 1 (Hopefully the first and last of our life.)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 7 (My Son Sanctuary, Complex of Hue MonumentsPhong Nha – Ke Bang National ParkCentral Sector of the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long – HanoiHa Long BayHistoric Centre of MacaoKathmandu Valley) *** As of July of 2015, there are have been many new UNESCO sites added! We were pretty excited that two places that we visited on our RTW were now recently added! YAY! Those include Singapore Botanical Gardens (visited in Month 7) and Ephesus (visited in Month 5). Total on RTW: 49

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 4 boats this month.

We traveled 4 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 1 train this month.

We traveled by 2 helicopters this month.

Top Moments:

~ Our biggest emotional high was when we were rescued by helicopter from Bamboo Village in Nepal. We had never ridden in a helicopter before and on that day, we rode two. We couldn’t have had better scenery: the beautiful Himalayas of Nepal. Despite the destruction caused by the earthquake and landslides, Nepal is a gorgeous country, well worth a visit! If you are interested in supporting Nepal after the devastating earthquake, check out some ideas here


Runners Up for Top Moments:

~We had an absolutely lovely day biking through the outskirts of Hoi An. We went a bit off the beaten track and biked through rice fields to a great beach! Good day all around.


~We rushed through Phong Nha National Park in order to see some of the renowned caves there. We struggled with which tour to choose, but ultimately went with a general tour of three caves. It was all amazing, but our favorite part was experiencing swimming through a mud bath in the Dark Cave. It was hard to explain the feeling of floating through a pool of mud – how we imagine it would feel to be on the moon – almost weightless! Overall, a lot of fun!


~We really enjoyed lots of places in Vietnam, but another great day was when we kayaked through the karsts in Lan Ha Bay. We had a lovely day in great scenery!

Getting used to the kayak

Getting used to the kayak

~Another great day was when we took the funicular up Hong Kong Peak. Great weather – it wasn’t too hot way up there, and  you just couldn’t beat the views!



Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:


Honestly, we don’t really remember… Sorry!

Packing Update:

We were glad that we had held on to our colder weather gear because we used every bit of it in Nepal. It was particularly good when we hit an emergency situation and ended up having to sleep outside for 5 nights.

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4)

Eric has read Overkill by James Barrington (2), Gods of War by John Toland (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read Tai-Pan by James Clavell (4)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8, Monthly Recap 9

Budget: Vietnam

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Vietnam. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Vietnam we used the Vietnamese Dong. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 20,000 Dong to $1.00.


Total Spent (20 days): $1324.30

Accommodation: $327.40

We stayed in mostly small hotels and guesthouses. We stayed in one dorm room in Phong Nha.

Activities: $306.80

This included all museum entrance fees. Amazingly, it also included four day tours: Cu Chi Tunnels, My Son, kayaking in Cat Ba, and the most expensive: a cave tour in Phong Nha.

Alcohol: $6.80

We only count alcohol costs when it is not purchased with other food. However, beer is amazingly cheap in Vietnam. This price includes 6 separate instances of buying alcohol (for two).

Food: $259.61

Food is delicious and affordable in Vietnam! Many of our accommodations also included free breakfast!

Miscellaneous: $47.98

This was mostly laundry and sending postcards. We also purchased new sunscreen which was a little expensive. We bought a few souvenirs which we were able to send home with Della’s parents.

Transportation: $257.72

We did quite a bit of moving around in Vietnam. This included buses, an overnight train, air flights, cabs, airport pick ups, and some bike rentals!

Visas: $118

Visas are a bit complicated for Vietnam. First you have to gain an approval letter which you must do before you arrive in the country. There are a couple of options for how to get the approval. We used a website called Hotels in Vietnam. It was a pretty, easy but somewhat expensive and time consuming process. We applied for the letter on the 14th of the month and didn’t get it electronically  until the 17th. Once you have the letter, you print it out and take it with you. When you arrive in Vietnam, you must have the letter and passport photos and you must pay another fee. Even though we did everything right, it still took close to half an hour to get the visas processed in the Saigon airport.

This divides out to $66.22/day which is under $100/day budget! Now that’s what we were hoping for in Asia! We even felt like we splurged on activities and accommodations, and we were able to remain this low, so it just goes to show that Vietnam can be an inexpensive place to travel.



Cruising the Karsts Around Cat Ba, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

One of the biggest tourist draws in all of Vietnam is the scenic UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay on the coast east of Hanoi. We considered a visit there, but when researching came across many stories of how scam-prone it was to take a trip on the bay. We then found out about the neighboring Lan Ha Bay, which also has the characteristic karsts but is further away, so less infiltrated by large tour groups. Another benefit of Lan Ha Bay is that it easily visited as a day trip from the sizable town of Cat Ba, on large Cat Ba Island. This sounded like a better fit for us, so after our time in Hanoi we took a two day trip out there.

Getting There

Based on the advice from Lonely Planet and our Hanoi hotel, we booked a multi-step trip from Hanoi to Cat Ba town using the one company that offers this service – Hoang Long transport. It was a long and somewhat grueling process, but we did make it to Cat Ba as promised with no last minute fees, so we felt it was worth it. The steps were:

  • Taxi from our hotel in Hanoi to the bus station
  • Bus from Hanoi to the Hoang Long office in Haiphong. This bus left earlier than the ticket stated, but went somewhat slow as it would pick up and drop off people anywhere along the road. It was a bit of a strange ride too, because for the first half of the journey they looped a show of old-time Vietnamese music performances about four times over, then for the second half they switched to videos that showed scantily-clad women dancing to pop music.
  • After a wait at the Hoang Long office, a different bus from the office to a ferry terminal on the coast
  • A 30 minute or so ferry ride across a channel to another ferry terminal on Cat Ba Island
  • A bus ride from the ferry terminal to the Hoang Long office in Cat Ba town
  • Walk from the office to our hotel

Where We Stayed

Cat Ba is a big tourist draw, especially in the summer, so there are plenty of big hotels right on the water. We chose the Gieng Ngoc, which was on the somewhat quieter end of the main road. Both the two of us and Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) went for a small upgrade to get a room with a balcony overlooking the water. Our room itself felt a little dated, but the view was quite nice, so we were glad we made that decision.

What We Did

As you might expect, one of the big draws of visiting Cat Ba is taking a tour out into Lan Ha Bay, so our first order of business after getting checked in and grabbing some lunch was to go around town and find a tour for the next day. A few different offices on the main drag offered some decent-sounding tours with both snorkeling and kayaking, but we kept looking because we were hoping to find something that was more oriented to just kayaking. We found just such a tour at Asia Outdoors. Their main focus is rock climbing, but they also offer full-day kayaking tours. We booked one of these for the next day, then asked them for guidance on what to do with the rest of our afternoon.

They recommended that we walk out to the beaches just outside of town. The first beach was just an easy 20-minute walk away.


Wayne is never one to turn down a swim, so he got into his suit and dove right in. The rest of us decided it was a little too chilly, so we just relaxed and watched the groups of Vietnamese teenagers frolic in the surf (maybe they had just graduated like the groups we saw in Hanoi?). Some of them were even playing in organized team activities that we had fun trying to figure out (future Rendezvous games ideas?).

To get to the second beach we took the nice pedestrian path along a cliff face. This gave us an excellent view of the karsts of the bay that we would be kayaking through the next day.

At the second beach Wayne hopped right back in the water.

From the second beach there was a road that led back into town, making for a nice loop. We walked back in and then headed out for dinner (more on that later). After dinner, we enjoyed just walking down the main drag. The teenagers were out in groups and seemingly having a lot of fun. One of the most popular activities was to rent a tandem bicycle and ride up and down the street.

The next day, we woke up bright and early and headed over to the Asia Outdoors office. They rounded up the group of kayakers and rock climbers, then shuffled us into vans for a short trip over to a small harbor. Here we got on the traditional junk boat that was our transportation for the day.

It was a nice large boat with tables and benches downstairs and a platform upstairs. For the first part of the ride, we stayed downstairs and enjoyed the view as we cruised out into Lan Ha Bay. The boat dropped off the people that were going rock climbing, and then we moved up to the top. The boat had to stop at a depot to pick up our kayaks, and then drove us to our first spot.

We got into our kayaks, which were two-person set-ups made up heavy fiberglass. You sat down inside, but no net or anything like that. Della took the back seat. After the group was all in their boats, our guide led us on a tour of the different spots. We kayaked through a hole in a karst, then around some others.

We headed to a place where at high tide you can go in to an isolated lagoon. This is very low tide though, so we had to park a ways a way and walk in over the muddy ground and sharp rocks. It was pretty inside but not too much to see.

Our next stop was a beach, where there was a small cave with a shrine inside. We also tried to help a giant jellyfish that was near the shore get back out in the open water.

We rode into one cave, where we were able to get pretty deep since the tide was so low. We went around another karst, through another opening, and then headed back to the boat. In the distance we could see a karst with a hole underneath that the guide said was on one of the Vietnamese dong notes, but we later couldn’t find it.

Back on the boat, we rode back to pick up the climbers. On the ride over we got to talking with some of the people on the tour, and they were very easy to talk to. During this ride our lunch was ready, so we headed down to the cabin area. It was a variety of Vietnamese dishes served family-style, and all very good. We were stuffed! There was also a pause when we let some overnight guests off, and Wayne and Della took the opportunity to jump in for a quick swim.

The boat drove us back to the kayak depot, where we got out for our second round of kayaking. This was with a larger group since some of the climbers came. This time Eric got in the back.

This trip wasn’t quite as scenic but was still nice. We were led past floating villages, where fisherman live on the water and have large setups to grow fish and to catch squid. We went into a large interior cove of one karst. Della got out and swam here, but didn’t linger long because we had seen a few of the large jellyfish. We road back around through some more karsts and past a sunken concrete boat. Wayne wanted to go out to the open ocean, but no one else did so he didn’t.

We kayaked back to the depot and returned our kayaks. Once everyone was onboard, the boat headed back to harbor. We enjoyed the views of the bay in dwindling sunlight. Peggy stuck up a conversation with a group of New Yorkers who had gotten on at the depot – as it turned out, one of them was the founder of Asia Outdoors, so it was interesting to hear his stories.

The minivans took us back to Cat Ba town, and we rushed to make sure and get good shots of the sunset from the boardwalk and then the rooftop terrace of our hotel. A long day, but a fun one. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and the amount of kayaking seemed to be just right!

The next morning, the two of us just hung out in the room and caught up on the blog, but Wayne and Peggy still had a bit of a sightseeing itch. They hopped on the back of motorbike taxis and took a ride up the hill behind town to the Cannon Fort situated on top. From here they had great panoramic views of the island and the bay beyond. There were also a few exhibits from the fort’s use during the French and American wars.

Where We Ate

As we said, Cat Ba is definitely a tourist town, so there are plenty of places to eat along the main drag, all with about the same menu. It was still early April when we visited though, so some had not yet opened for the season. We tried three different places that were open, and none particularly stood out. They all had seafood dishes which Wayne was interested to sample. Della isn’t as much of a fan of seafood, but was able to find dishes like curries to satisfy her.

On the first night, it was Eric’s birthday, so we also went out in search of “fresh beer,” the very cheap local beer that has been recently brewed (that we first tried in Hoi An). It was a bit of a scavenger hunt, but we finally found one place and enjoyed a couple of glasses.

Getting Away

From Cat Ba, we wanted to get back to Hanoi, and again the recommended way was to book a combination ticket through Hoang Long. We took the 1:30 bus back to the ferry port on Cat Ba island, then the ferry back across to the mainland.

From here our journey changed from what we were expecting. While we were on the ferry, a guy who we didn’t recognize said that the four of us should follow him once we got off. We were a little skeptical, but a big group followed him so we went to investigate. As it turned out, they were a tour group coming back from a multi-day trip and headed back to Hanoi, and the guy we were following was their guide. There were a few empty spots on their minibus transport back, so some arrangement had been made for us to get on that. This saved us from having to transfer to a different bus in Haiphong.

While on this bus, we did witness some of the rudeness that we had been warned to expect in northern Vietnam. Another couple had also gotten on the minibus, seemingly with the same permission from the guide. After a break at a rest stop though, the guide came to the back where they were sitting and stared at them hard for a minute, then asked to see their ticket. They showed it to him, and he accused them of getting on the wrong bus at the rest stop! They protested, and the rest of us backed up their claim that they had been on since the ferry. The guide wasn’t satisfied, and flagged down a passing Hoang Long bus on the highway. Both our bus and that bus pulled over, and the guide tried to get the Hoang Long bus to take this couple. But that bus didn’t like their ticket either, so they had to get back on the minibus. The guide threw his hat down in disgust and sulked the rest of the journey home.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed our time on Cat Ba. It helped that we found a tour that met our desire to kayak so well, and that there was such great weather to allow us to really appreciate the scenery of the karsts. At least for us, choosing to stay on Cat Ba and do a day trip to Lan Ha Bay over cruising into Halong Bay turned out to be the right decision.

Hanoi, Vietnam

We’re going to switch the blog back to talking about some of our other travels on our round-the-world trip, but are hearts are still with Nepal. If you’d like to contribute to help the people of Nepal recover from the devastating earthquake, please visit our page collecting some worthy causes.

After our trip to the caves of Phong Nha in Vietnam, we headed to the capital and center of the northern part of the country, Hanoi. Here we met up with Wayne and Peggy (Della’s parents) once again, and spent three days exploring the sights. Hanoi has an extensive history: founded in 1010, served as the imperial capital until it shifted to Hue in 1802, the capital of North Vietnam, and now the capital of the unified Vietnam.

We had heard mixed reports about the city, with many people saying that the people were unfriendlier than those in Saigon, and that the narrow streets were unsafe to navigate with crazy motorbikes flying around. Also, we wondered how Americans would be received in northern Vietnam, where for so long we had been the enemy. So, we were a little anxious to visit and see how the city would strike us.

Getting There

We ended up using airline points to book a cheap flight from the Phong Nha area directly to Hanoi. The flight was a first for us in that it was on a propeller plane. This made us a little nervous, but it all went smoothly. The flight was so quick that we only got served water!


The Hanoi airport is pretty far out of town, so once we landed we still had a bit of a journey to get into town. There isn’t an easy way to do this, so we booked a private transfer through our hotel.

After we left the baggage claim area, we were a little perturbed that no one was waiting for us with our name on a sign as we had been promised. We stood around for a minute and finally a guy showed up fumbling the sign. He was also messing with his phone and eventually motioned to us to sit while he made some calls. We were pretty confused. Our inquiries were not really answered as he didn’t speak English very well.

Eventually he led us outside and out to the parking area… where we got on a medium-sized bus! We were now very confused since we thought we would be riding in a car. Our “handler” left and went back towards the terminal, leaving us with the bus driver who also didn’t speak much English. The bus then exited the parking area… and went to the international terminal. More confusion. We waited in the pickup area for 10 minutes or so, but no one ever got on. Security eventually motioned to him to leave. He made some phone calls, then exited and drove out to the city.

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

Confused on our private bus from the Hanoi airport

The drive in took almost an hour. We were nervous, but the bus did indeed drop us off right in front of our hotel.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in the Golden Time Hostel 2 (there are three locations in Hanoi), which was more like a hotel despite its name. Probably the best part about the Golden Time was the friendly staff that work at the front desk. Tony and Ahn, a married couple, always greeted us by name and with a smile. There was always coffee, tea and bananas set out all the time as well, which was refreshing after a long day of sightseeing. The included breakfast had a good selection as well. The rooms were nice and spacious, so we slept well. The location was close to the main tourist attractions but not right in the center of the hubbub.The only downside in our opinion was that the bathroom was a bit strange, because the shower drain was in a tub, and the shower curtain didn’t really surround the tub, so it was easy to get water all over the floor where it wouldn’t drain.

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

Posing with Ahn, the friendly proprietor at Golden Time Hostel 2

What We Did

Sightseeing in Hanoi was refreshing just because we finally had relief from the heat! It was a little overcast with occasional light rain, but after weeks of sweltering temperatures we didn’t mind too much.

Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son Temple – This lake in the center of town is pleasant to walk around and a hub of many of the city’s activities. Our hotel was just a block away so we walked by almost every day. There is a legend associated with the lake which states that the Emperor Le Thai To returned a magical sword to a giant turtle that lives in the lake, giving it its name (the English translation is “Lake of the Returned Sword”). A red bridge goes out to the temple on an island in the lake, which contains a stuffed carcass of one of the turtles that still live in the lake. In the mornings you can find local residents doing all sorts of aerobic activities.

Old Quarter – We spent a day just wandering through the maze of narrow streets in the Old Quarter. This is the historic commercial area of the city, and is still buzzing with all sorts of commerce. Interestingly, many of the streets are named after the type of item that was traditionally sold on the street, and in many cases is still sold there today. We especially enjoyed Bamboo Ladder Street and Votive Paper Street. There was also a historic merchant’s home that we visited to get a sense of how the buildings used to look.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum – We had read in advance that the mausoleum housing the preserved body of the national hero Ho Chi Minh (the leader of Vietnamese Communist revolution and first President after independence – their version of George Washington) had limited visiting hours, so we made sure to head over on a morning that it was open. It was more than a quick walk away, and we thought we would save money and hassle by just taking a local bus that Google Maps said would drop us off right in front. But, as we followed the progress of the bus, it took one turn that took it away from the mausoleum, then kept going in that direction. After we passed a giant intersection, we figured we had to get off before we got even further away. We then walked a little bit to get back through the giant intersection and back towards the complex. We hailed a cab, nervous that we would get scammed, but it turned out to be a quick and cheap ride. We never quite figured out why we were on the wrong bus.  We saw the same bus (with the same bus number) later that day near the mausoleum…

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

There were something like eight roads converging at this circle

The guidebook had warned that the mausoleum was popular, so we weren’t surprised to see a large line going into it. We headed around the side of the complex to find the entry point to the amusement park-style line corrals, and kept going… and going… The line had spilled out of a security checkpoint and across the street. We figured that it would take hours to get through the line, and the mausoleum closed in two hours anyway, so we decided that we would not be able to visit after all.

Instead, we went to the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is in the same complex. It told the story of Ho Chi Minh from childhood through the revolution, but also had some random modern art interpretations of the ideas underlying the Communist revolution, so the overall experience was a little confusing, but quite interesting.

Also in the same complex is the One Pillar Pagoda, which as its name implies, is a temple on top of one pillar, built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong. After a brief visit there, we walked to the mausoleum, which was closed for the day. We did get to see a changing of the guards, which was interesting to contrast with the one in Athens. We walked past the current Presidential Palace and tried to make our way to Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House, but ended up lost in a neighborhood and had to give up.

Imperial Citadel – The complex served as the center of the Vietnamese Empire’s military when the capital was in Hue. Much of it has been lost to the ages (and destroyed by the French), and there are still many archaeological excavations uncovering the site. Some bunkers were also built here during the modern war as command centers for the Northern Vietnam army, and were preserved as they were then. We weren’t expecting to spend much time here, but there turned out to be quite a few things to see so we spent almost a whole afternoon. We also enjoyed the extensive bonsai collection as well as high school graduates posing for pictures in traditional outfits.

Temple of Literature – There were also plenty of graduates posing for pictures in the scenic pavilions and courtyards that make up this temple. Fitting, because it was established in 1070 to honor scholars, and dedicated to Confucius, the famous Chinese philosopher. It also served as a university, and you can still see stelae that list those who received doctoral degrees.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum – The small sliver that remains of an old prison built by the French has now been turned into a museum describing its former use. The majority of the exhibits were dedicated to its use by the French to hold and execute Vietnamese political prisoners. There were two small rooms describing its role as a jail for American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war (when they gave it the nickname the “Hanoi Hilton”). The most famous resident was probably John McCain.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum – This modern museum describes the role of women in the culture and history of Vietnam. Special attention was paid to women during the Vietnam War, where they were involved both on the home front as well as on the front lines. The cultural aspects felt a lot like many of the other ethnographic museums we had visited, in that it described the various traditions and clothing (involving women) of the many ethnic groups that make up Vietnam.

Water Puppet Show – We took in one of the performances of this unique art form that started in the rice paddies of North Vietnam. This puppet show uses water as the stage for many small vignettes using different puppets, accompanied by a small traditional orchestra. We were fascinated the whole time by the spectacle.

54 Traditions Gallery – Wayne and Peggy know one of the founders of this neat collection of artifacts from the different cultures found in Vietnam (the name comes from the fact that there are 54 different cultures!). Their friend Mark gave us a nice tour of their collection, where we feel like we barely scratched the surface of all of the interesting stories associated with the items. Wayne and Peggy purchased a nice artifact that was once part of an altar in a temple.

Street Hair Cut – Wayne needed a trim, so he went just down the street from the hotel to a barber set up on the street. He got a nice cut for a very good price, and a good story to tell!

Zumba Class – See the separate post.

Where We Ate

Hanoi is known as one of the best places to get some Vietnamese street food, and we didn’t delay testing this out. We had our first lunch at a little place right outside the hotel. Most places just set up little plastic tables and chairs – think what you would use at a kid’s tea party. We crouched down into these chairs and ordered their main dish, bun cha, which is sweetly-marinated grilled pork served with a broth over vermicelli noodles. We also had Hanoi-style spring rolls, meaning they are fried (we decided we preferred the fresh ones to fried).


Hanoi also has plenty of small sit-down restaurants in the area of the Old Quarter, and we visited a few. The first night we went to Minh Thuy’s in the main backpacker area. Eric and Peggy got the specialty called xoi xeo, which was a yellow sticky rice.


On the night of the water puppet show, we needed a place to eat quickly, so Tony at the hotel recommended New Day, which turned out to be a great call. We were worried that there was no seating, but they found a place to squeeze us in. For food, we were able to select a bunch of premade dishes from cafeteria-style trays and get them brought to our table promptly. It was all very tasty, so much so that we went back on our last night in town (but that time ordered from a menu).


The night after the Zumba class, we wanted something simple and close, so we headed to a small place just around the corner from the hotel called Bahn Xeo Zon. As the name suggests, their specialty is bahn xeo, the Vietnamese savory pancake. Their version was probably the best one we had in Vietnam. Eric got a crab-flavored noodle soup called bun rieu cua.

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

Bun rieu cua in the foreground, Della enjoying a banh xeo in the background

We also splurged one evening and got some gelato from a fancy place on the same block as the hotel. It was a little overpriced but the service and presentation were excellent.


Final Thoughts

Hanoi greatly exceeded our expectations! We found the city’s ancient and recent history enlightening to explore, and the food was all very good and cheap. We didn’t find that people treated us poorly; the service was at the same high level that received throughout Vietnam. The weather was a little gloomy, but never kept us from doing what we wanted. Even with our jam-packed three days, there are plenty of things we feel like we missed out on. Hopefully we can figure out how to fit Hanoi back into future travels.

Small Comforts: Cool Weather!

There are a few small comforts that we run into now and then that really make us feel better while traveling…

We’ve been traveling in SE Asia since January, and with a few exceptions (most notably the first part of our trip in Myanmar), we have been hot. Now, I don’t mean hot the way our hometown of Denver is hot. It can get pretty high on the temperature scale, but thankfully, home doesn’t deliver on the humidity.

Since we hit Singapore back in late January, we have been dealing with off the charts heat and humidity. We went through what was locally described as unseasonably hot weather in Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, and in the middle parts of Vietnam.

We had even planned our trip throughout the region with heat in mind. We purposefully left Vietnam for our last stop because we knew that central and northern Vietnam would be cooler. When we hit Hoi  An and Hue and we were still sweating through our shirts, we were a bit disappointed.

However, when we got to Hanoi, we finally got the weather we needed. Normally we are not thrilled with cloudy, dreary weather. But we got it every single day in Hanoi and we loved every second of it!

This was us in Hue. Yes… we were a bit gross…


This was us in Hanoi. Cool, cloudy weather, yay!


Zumba Round the World: Hanoi

It had been ages since we had been to a real Zumba class! We visited one in Dallas when we were home for the holidays, but not since then. We’d had a chance to experience a few other aerobics classes in Phnom Penh, Sukhothai, and Bangkok, but we were itching for another real Zumba class experience.

When we arrived in Hanoi and searched the Zumba website, we knew we might be in luck. However, the class we actually went to was found just as we were walking around the city. There was a gym called XFitness only a few blocks from our hotel and it had a sign for Zumba in the window!


We found out that we could buy a day pass for 110,000 dong (around $5.00), which is quite expensive for Vietnam standards but not too bad for a Zumba class by US standards. The gym was fancy with luxurious locker rooms and even a sauna, so we decided to come for a 6:20 class on the following day.

We were quite exhausted after a long day on our feet sightseeing in Hanoi so were feeling a little lazy about getting to the class. But, like most things, we knew we would be glad once we were there, so we pushed ourselves out the door, through the rainy weather, up the elevator to the 7th floor for XFitness, and into the class.

The class was excellent! It was very high energy and included a lot of reggaeton and popular music. There were actually two instructors. We never really could figure out who was the main instructor and who was learning… or maybe this class just normally has 2! They were both young women with great moves and a lot of energy.

We both had to work hard to keep up with the class, but Eric was pleased that he was not the only guy there! We think we were a bit of a novelty in the class, which is strange because Hanoi seemed to be a very cosmopolitan city. But most people seemed quite surprised to see us there and weren’t sure what to make of it.

We thanked one of the instructors afterwards, but she didn’t seem to speak too much English. Another woman told us that it was a new job for that instructor, so we congratulated her on a job well done and headed out to clean up in the locker rooms. (We didn’t make use of the sauna though!)

Overall, we had a great time and were quite excited to finally get into another Zumba class!

Using Points to Fly Cheaply Around Asia

In the past we’ve tried to use our frequent flyer points for as many flights as possible, but within Asia we have actually struggled to find ways to fly for free. The points we have just didn’t help for flying to the places that we would have liked to go. But recently we’ve been able to figure a few out!

Phong Nha to Hanoi for $6.58

This one was a last-minute decision. To get from the caves of Phong Nha to Hanoi in northern Vietnam was not as easy as we had originally anticipated. We thought that there would be multiple transport options, but as it turned out, the only bus from the village was a night bus, and the train (from the closest city of Dong Hoi) would take 11 hours and either involve an overnight stretch or take an entire day. All sounded like grueling options.

We were really struggling to choose the best of these limited options, and then we thought outside of the box. Using the wikipedia page for Hanoi’s airport (a top tip for figuring out what you can do), we saw that there was a direct flight on Vietnam Airlines from Dong Hoi to Hanoi. We ran an award flight search on Air France, and saw that we could use their Flying Blue miles to fly on this flight (since Air France and Vietnam Airlines are partners) – for $3.29 in fees plus 10,000 Flying Blue miles per person.

Even with a private transfer to Dong Hoi airport, this worked out as cheaper than the train (which we had been leaning towards) and got us there significantly earlier. To get the Air France Flying Blue miles, we were able to transfer our existing points from American Express Membership Rewards that we had gotten as a signup bonus for a couple of different American Express cards.


On a propeller plane!


Hanoi to Hong Kong for $64

With Vietnam Airlines being a Sky Team alliance partner with Air France, our flights within and from Vietnam were prime targets to use the Flying Blue miles on. We were also able to snag a ticket to Hong Kong on a Vietnam Airlines flight using the Flying Blue miles as well. We got the necessary 10,000 Flying Blue miles each by transferring some more of our American Express Membership Rewards points. The fees were $31.90 per person.


Hong Kong to Kathmandu for $79

Hong Kong’s airport is the hub for two major airlines that are a part of the oneworld alliance, so we figured that using points for one of those alliance partners would work well for our flights to or from there. We were able to use this to our advantage to get a flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu in Nepal.

We found a reward flight on the Hong Kong-based airline Dragonair that we were able to book using our British Airways Avios points. We were able to get the required number of Avios by combining some Avios we had left over from signing up for the British Airways credit card with even more of our American Express Membership Rewards points that we could transfer in. The final cost was 10,000 Avios and $39.47 in fees per person.

Airline Alliances and Transfer Partners

These three examples just go to show how flexible you have to be when booking an award flight. Knowing which airlines partner with other airlines through alliances is huge – we greatly benefited from Vietnam Airlines being in an alliance with Air France and Dragonair with British Airways. Here’s a good infographic explaining the different alliances.

Having points in a program that can be transferred to multiple partners is also a great benefit. We didn’t have to earn Air France miles or British Airways Avios directly; instead, we could just use our American Express points for both. For more information on transferable points, check out this resource.

We have a few more award flights lined up that we are excited to share with you soon!

Fantastic Caves in Phong Na, Vietnam

We had read a couple articles informing us that not so long ago, people had discovered one of the biggest caves in the world in Phong Nha National Park in Vietnam. While we knew we weren’t going to be able to afford the $3000 fee to explore that cave, it did start us looking into the region. We discovered that it was a beautiful place full of large and interesting caves. We’ve had quite a few fun adventures in caves, so we were sold! We left Wayne and Peggy in Hue with plans to meet them again in Hanoi.

Getting There

Many people just do day trips to the caves, but we thought it was a bit too far for a comfortable day trip, plus we thought the area had enough to do to warrant an overnight stay.  We purchased a tourist minibus straight from Hue to the town near Phong Nha. The minibus was just fine, quite comfortable. It wasn’t even full, which feels like a rarity.

We stopped for our bathroom break at an interesting place that we had never heard of. It was a local Catholic church called Our Lady of La Vang that has a neat origin story involving the Virgin Mary appearing to settlers in that region. It was heavily damaged – we assumed from the war with America. However, they had rebuilt a new building for the church attached to the old steeple. In addition, there is a huge statue of Mary nearby. It also appeared that you could purchase large bottles of holy water to take away with you. We didn’t, but a Vietnamese family on our bus did!

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the main hostel in town, the Easy Tiger. It was fine, but was a large hostel with only dorm rooms. We never enjoy staying in dorm rooms – although as far as dorms go, these weren’t too bad: comfortable beds with only 4 to a room.

We had been hoping to stay at a place that we had read about called the Phong Nha Farmstay which was a lovely guesthouse out in the country, but unfortunately they were full. The book also made it sound like the town was super small with not a lot of services, so we jumped on booking the Easy Tiger as soon as we could. When we arrived though, we saw that the town was actually booming and there would have been plenty of other places to stay. Probably where we could have gotten a private room for even cheaper than what we paid for the dorm. So, next time we’ll know!

The Easy Tiger did have free breakfast and a large common area/restaurant which was nice. This did cause us to end up being more social and meeting more other travelers than we had done in a while!

What We Did

The Easy Tiger also provided some of the more interesting tours of the region. There were lots offered and we spent a significant part of our first day making decisions relating to the tours (and how we were actually going to leave Phong Nha and get to Hanoi… but that is a different story!) After agonizing for what seemed like hours, we picked the cheapest tour which also took us to the most amount of caves.

We started the tour at 8:45 the following morning. We were picked up by minibus and whisked off into the national park. The park is absolutely gorgeous. The mountains are covered in brilliant green jungle. We were also excited because for the first time in ages, it wasn’t glaringly hot. Still humid, but a much more comfortable temperature.

We enjoyed some of the stops along the way where our guides explained more about the formation of the park (large limestone karsts) and more about what happened in this area during the American War. It was heavily bombed as the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through. For those who don’t know, the Ho Chi Minh trail was a path that the North Vietnamese used to supply their fighters in the South during the war. The trail was over 2000 km long and made its way through Laos and Cambodia before arriving in South Vietnam. The US bombed the trail constantly so it was a huge amount of work for the North Vietnamese Army and volunteers to continually rebuild it.

We learned that many of the volunteers working on this section of road were young – in their 20s – and many of them died doing this work. Our first main stop was called the 8 Lady Cave. It currently houses a temple to remember 8 youths who died here. They climbed into the cave for shelter during US bombing, but then the entrance caved in. Apparently they lived in the cave for 9 days before they died.

Our next stop was significantly less solemn. We headed to Paradise Cave which used to have the title of the longest cave in Asia. There is currently 1 km open to the general public. The cave was lovely with large formations – both stalactites and stalagmites. Perhaps the most distinctive thing we saw though was some sort of Asian music star filming a music video in the cave!

After a delicious, large lunch, the group headed to the next stop which was called the Dark Cave. This part of the day involved many steps. First we had to find working life jackets and headlamps. We say “had to find” because it was a bit difficult. Most of the life vests did not have working buckles to hold them on. Eric found one of the few that had three working ones while Della’s had only 1 and a half. Della ended up having to trade with the guide to get a working head lamp…


After we “geared up” we headed to a zipline! Della was a little unsure given the quality of the other gear, but the zipline seemed to be in much better condition than the life vests. We took a long zip across the river with no problems. Once on the other side, we slipped into the water for a quick swim to the cave entrance. We flipped on our headlamps and entered the Dark Cave.


The walk was a bit difficult as we were in bare feet having to climb over sharp limestone formations. However, after a short time it got a bit better as we started to walk in mud. Then the mud got deeper, over our feet, up to our ankles, up to our knees!

Before we knew it we were walking in mud waist deep! After a final climb over a rock and slip and slide, we were actually swimming in the mud! Now this was something we had never experienced before. It was heavy, making it a bit harder to move than you’re used to. But at the same time, it made you feel incredibly light because you could literally float on top of it as soon as you picked up your feet. Once the whole group was in the mud pool, our guide instructed us to turn off our lights. It’s hard to describe exactly what this felt like. In the pitch black, with the mud messing with our sense of gravity, we imagine it felt like we were floating in outer space. It was truly a unique and wonderful experience… too bad we have no pictures of it to share! You’ll just have to go and do it for yourself.

After our mud swim, we came back into the main section of the cave and rinsed ourselves in the stream running through. We then took an enjoyable swim through the cave in the dark. Finally, we headed back out where we jumped on to kayaks to bring us back across the river. But our day was not done! We all had one last chance to do a quick zip line out to drop into the river. It was an exhilarating way to end an excellent day.

The river we ziplined over twice and the kayaks we used to cross once

The river we ziplined over twice and the kayaks we used to cross once

What We Ate

Nothing we ate in Phong Nha was exciting. Our first night we found a small restaurant where we had uninspiring soup and rice. The second evening, we ate with some of our new friends from the tour at the hostel. We had pizza for the first time in months. It was OK…

Final Thoughts

We only stayed in Phong Nha for 2 nights, but it is a place that deserves a lot longer than that. The area is absolutely stunning and we wish we could have spent more time exploring it. The cave tour we did was pricy, but great. There are also several other cave tours offered that we wish we could have tried. Perhaps we’ll have to come back here in the future!