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Archive for February 2018

A Week in Hoi An

If you’ve read my post about the time I spent in Pai a couple weeks ago, you’ll know that I had a horrible stomach virus that lasted for five days. Well, it turned out to not be the only time I would get sick in Asia. I was healthy for about a week while I was in Hanoi, then I caught a bad cold on my last day of the Castaways Island tour in Halong Bay.

Having a cold is bad enough, but it gets worse. On the third day of my cold, I had a 16-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi to Da Nang (where I would then catch a bus to Hoi An). Shortly after the train started moving at 7:30PM, my right ear started aching. I didn’t manage to get any sleep on that train because I was tossing and turning in excruciating pain all night. When I got up in the morning, the pain had finally subsided but I could still feel that my ear wasn’t quite right. I touched it and felt some nasty earwax-like stuff packed in there. (I’ll spare you the photo of the disgusting dark brown wad that I pulled out.)

Luckily, my ear never hurt again the way it did that night on the train (and there was no more nasty discharge), but I felt some definite discomfort in both ears for several days afterwards. Oh, and I’m currently on Day 12 of my cold as I write this. Ugh.

Anyways. Wanna hear about Hoi An? It’s super picturesque — a world away from Hanoi. Walking through the streets is so much more pleasant here than in Vietnam’s capital. Many of the streets are overhung with colourful lanterns, and the sun actually shines here. My first day in Hoi An was the first time I saw the sun in Vietnam. It never once made an appearance in Hanoi or Halong Bay.

Another thing Hoi An has that Hanoi doesn’t have: a beach! Actually, it has two— Cua Dai and An Bang beaches — but they’re both on the same strip of sand that’s several kilometres long. If you’re on Cua Dai beach and you walk west, eventually you’ll be on An Bang beach. I can’t say which of the two is better; they both seemed equally nice to me.

Although Hoi An is attractive during the day, it truly shines after dark. The only light in the evening comes from the strings of lanterns hanging above the streets and the silk lanterns floating in the water. My phone takes terrible pictures in the dark, but I hope these will somewhat convey the magic of Hoi An at night.

Other than its beautiful lanterns, Hoi An’s biggest claim to fame is its proliferation of tailor shops. Pretty much everyone who visits Hoi An gets at least one item of clothing custom-made. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in the city, all offering custom-made clothing for a fraction of the price that you would pay at home.

I decided to have a dress made. Before I left for my trip, I found a few pictures of dresses I liked so that I could show the tailors what I wanted. The hard part was choosing which tailor to go to. I had heard that Bebe is widely considered one of the best tailor shops in Hoi An, but also one of the most expensive. I decided to go and inquire how much it would be to have the dress I wanted made. I sat down with a consultant and showed her a couple pictures of the dress. She told me it would cost $100USD to have it made. No way am I paying that much for a simple sundress, custom-made or not, so I thanked her for her time and left.

After that I decided to just wander down the street and pick a tailor shop at random. I didn’t need something super high-quality; I just wanted a cool souvenir. I walked into a shop and showed the lady inside a picture of the dress I wanted. She told me it would cost $35USD. I asked if she could bring that down to $30 and she agreed. She then took my measurements and made a little sketch of what the dress would look like. I paid her a deposit of 500,000VND, then she wrote me a receipt and told me to come back in two days to try on the dress.

I didn’t have high hopes for how the dress would turn out. I knew the quality wasn’t going to be anywhere near the quality I would get at Bebe, and I had a feeling the dress was going to end up looking nothing like the picture.

When I went back to the shop two days later and tried on the dress, I wasn’t happy with it. I wanted to ask the tailor to make some adjustments to it, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was that I wanted changed. I left disappointed, but glad that I had only spent $30USD and not $100USD.

The next day, I decided to give the dress a second chance. After all, people often don’t like their new haircut the first time they see it, right? It usually takes a while to get used to. Sometimes it’s the same with clothes. So I tried on the dress at my hostel, and when I looked in the mirror I realized it’s actually not half-bad. I spent some time twirling around in it and checking it out from every angle, and I came to the conclusion that it’s actually pretty cute. Go figure.

Here I am in the dress:

Besides the lanterns, the beaches, and the tailor shops, there isn’t a whole lot to do in Hoi An, so I decided to take a day trip. I chose to visit the Marble Mountains, a group of five marble and limestone mountains located between Hoi An and Da Nang. Each of the mountains is named after an element (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth), with Water Mountain being the one with most of the attractions and the one everybody visits. I climbed the steps up the mountain and explored the beautiful pagodas and mystical caves dotted all around it. If you go, be sure not to miss Huyen Khong cave. It’s definitely the coolest cave on the mountain.

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Entering Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Hoi An

Huyen Khong cave

Pagodas and caves are nice and all, but the main reason I went to the Marble Mountains was for these views of Da Nang from the top of Water Mountain.

Getting to the Marble Mountains from Hoi An is super easy. Just walk to the bus station and take the yellow #1 bus heading towards Da Nang. The bus costs 30,000VND (at least that’s what they always charge me, but I think locals only pay 20,000) and the ride only takes about half an hour. From the bus stop, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the main mountain.

To conclude, Hoi An is a very pretty town that definitely deserves at least a day’s exploration. To be honest, I feel like a week is too long to spend here though. I had trouble keeping myself occupied, but my hostel and train ticket were already booked so I had to stick it out. Don’t get me wrong, I like Hoi An a lot; it’s just that there’s not a ton to do there. By the end of the week, I was so ready to leave.

Next stop: the beach town of Nha Trang!

A Week in Hanoi 

Read More →

6 Days in Pai, Thailand

Unfortunately, I was super sick for five out of the six days that I was in Pai. I drank quite a bit the night before I left Chiang Mai, so when I woke up feeling nauseous the next morning I thought it was just a hangover. While I was waiting for the minivan to Pai to come and pick me up at 10:00, I threw up. I then proceeded to throw up four or five more times in the minivan on the winding road to Pai. (Good thing I had brought a plastic bag with me, and my fellow minivan passengers were well-equipped with plastic bags too.) I spent the rest of the day puking and didn’t leave my hostel, except briefly to go and buy some fruit because that was the only thing I felt like I could eat.

I felt a little better when I woke up the next morning, but after walking around a bit I realized I wasn’t going to be able to accomplish much that day. I felt weak, drowsy, and feverish, and I had no appetite. I managed to walk as far as the famous roadside cafe Coffee in Love, where I hung around for a little while taking pictures of the lovely views.

(I should explain that I can’t drive and would never, ever trust myself in the driver’s seat of anything with more horsepower than a bicycle, so renting a scooter was absolutely out of the question.)

After that, I went straight back to my hostel and once again didn’t leave except to buy some fruit so I wouldn’t starve to death.

When I woke up on the third day, same thing. I felt fine when I opened my eyes, but shortly after I set out on my walk, my stomach started feeling funny and I realized I wasn’t going to make it very far. My original plan was to walk as far as Mae Yen waterfall, which I had seen described on some website as an easy stroll. Well, it sure wasn’t going to be an easy stroll for me that day. When I looked at my map, I saw that Wat Phra That Mae Yen (Pai’s temple on a hill) and its giant white Buddha statue were much closer, so I directed my steps towards them instead. It would have been a nice, easy walk if I hadn’t been sick, but I had a pretty rough time in my condition. I made it there however, and the view was worth it.

Guess what I did afterwards? Yup, I headed straight back to my hostel and crawled into bed. By the end of the day, I felt so much worse than I had at the beginning. Not a good sign of things to come, I thought.

On the morning of my fourth day in Pai, I again woke up feeling okay. I was finally feeling well enough to eat something other than fruit or smoothies, so I walked to a cafe across from the bus station and ordered a bowl of muesli with fruit and yogurt. As I had expected, I started feeling sick while I was eating. However, I was determined not to waste a whole day lying in bed, so I decided to walk to Hyun Lai Viewpoint.

Oh man, was that a rough walk. It was 5.7km there and 5.7km back, and my stomach was hurting the entire time. I felt like I was going to pass out by the time I reached the viewpoint. The first thing I did when I got there was to sit down in the shade and not move for about 15 minutes. The view at Hyun Lai was certainly nice, and I recommend going if you’re in Pai. Was it worth nearly killing myself over? Probably not.

Later that day, I decided that my illness wasn’t going to disappear by itself, so I walked to a pharmacy and picked up some meds that the pharmacist recommended.

On Day 5 I decided to give my body a break and just stay in bed all day, only emerging from my room to get something to eat or drink. It was obvious I was severely dehydrated, so I was trying my best to drink as much water as I could. Even though I was extremely tired in the afternoon, I forced myself to stay up, sipping water constantly. Around 4.30PM, I decided to take a couple of the charcoal pills that the pharmacist had given me. After taking the first one, I felt super full because of all the water I had just drunk, so I had to wait a few seconds before taking the second one. Just then I felt a sudden urge to vomit so I ran to the bathroom, where I puked so violently that a bit of it splashed up out of the toilet into my face. It was the first time I had thrown up since I got off the minivan from Chiang Mai.

Great, I thought. Now I’m puking again. I resolved to go to the hospital in the morning.

But then a funny thing happened. I felt much better after I had thrown up, probably the best I had felt since arriving in Pai. After a couple of hours, I was still feeling so good that I decided to go and check out the night market that runs every night from 6-10 on Pai’s Walking Street. I even managed to sample quite a bit of food without feeling sick! Dared I to hope that I might be on the road to recovery?

Pai’s night market, by the way, was far less crowded than the night markets in Chiang Mai, and was as a result much more pleasant to stroll through.

After checking out the night market, I went back to my hostel. Turned out they were having a barbecue for guests that night, so I hung around outside for a little while, chatting and watching people play beer pong. I bailed early though, since these kinds of things are not so much fun when you’re sober. (I felt like it would be a few days before I was brave enough to drink alcohol again.)

Turned out I was right about being on the road to recovery. On my last day in Pai, I felt almost completely back to normal. Yay! I felt so good, in fact, that I decided to walk all the way to one of the attractions I had most wanted to see in Pai: the Land Split.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Land Split was created in 2008 when a farmer woke up and saw that his farmland had suddenly been split in two by seismic forces. Since he couldn’t use the land for farming anymore, he decided to turn it into a tourist attraction.

When you arrive at the Land Split, the landowners immediately offer you a delicious spread of food from their garden. The food doesn’t cost anything; just put however much you want to give into the donation box. How awesome is that?

The split itself is pretty cool. I would definitely say it’s worth a look if you’re in Pai.

When I got back to my hostel, I found out that a bunch of people were taking a taxi to Pai Canyon at 5:00 to watch the sunset. I jumped at the opportunity to go with them. Pai Canyon was the #1 thing I most wanted to see in Pai, but since it was so far away (about 10km from my hostel), and since I was leaving Pai the next morning, I had given up hope of being able to see it.

That would have been the hugest shame, because Pai Canyon was even cooler than I had expected it to be. It’s definitely my favourite place in Pai. If you’re in town, don’t even think about missing Pai Canyon.

Watching the sunset at Pai Canyon was a perfect ending to an otherwise shitty stay in Pai. I left town the next day wishing that I could have explored Pai a little more, but feeling satisfied that I had managed to hit up all of the sights that I really had my heart set on.

Fingers crossed I can make it through the rest of this trip without getting sick again!

Next stop: Hanoi, Vietnam!

5 Days in Chiang Mai, Thailand 

The second stop on my Southeast Asia tour was Chiang Mai, the second-largest city in Thailand. It was a nice change of pace from hectic Bangkok, with a much more chilled-out vibe.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Chiang Mai was to go and visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the temple at the top of Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep). I took a red songthaew up the mountain for 50 baht, and another one back to the city centre at the end of my visit for 60 baht. When my songthaew dropped me off at the top of the mountain, I ascended a beautiful dragon staircase up to the temple. From there you can supposedly see over the entire Chiang Mai valley. To be honest, the view was a little disappointing when I went because it wasn’t a clear day, so I couldn’t see very well. Still, it was a memorable excursion and I’m glad I went.

My second night in Chiang Mai was a Sunday, so I had to pay a visit to the city’s famous Sunday night market. When I arrived around 6:30 or 6:45PM, the market was busy but not unbearably so. There was still plenty of room to move around and look at everything. Within about 15 minutes though, the streets were so packed that I could hardly move. It completely ruined the experience for me because I could hardly even see what was being sold at each stand, let alone be able to cross the street and walk over to a stand that looked interesting. Everybody was inching along at a snail’s pace because it was impossible to move any faster, and all I could see on any side of me were people, people, and more people. You should definitely check out the Sunday night market, but I strongly advise you to get there as soon as it opens in order to avoid the insane crowds. (The market runs from 6:00PM till midnight.)

Besides the famous Sunday one, there are a few other night markets in Chiang Mai to check out. I went to the best-known one, the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, to the east of the old city. I enjoyed idly wandering among the stands selling clothes, food, and various bric-a-brac. The night bazaar is open every night of the year from dusk till midnight, and it wasn’t nearly as busy as the Sunday night market when I went. I could actually walk at a reasonable pace in any direction I wanted. It was quite an enjoyable way to spend my evening. Don’t miss it if you’re in Chiang Mai.

Some people will probably hate me for this, but I couldn’t leave Chiang Mai without visiting Tiger Kingdom. I debated with myself for a long time whether I should go or not because I know a lot of people believe tiger tourism is unethical. I support animal rights as much as the next person, and I would hate to think I’m giving my money to a company that mistreats animals. But I wanted a photo of me petting a baby tiger so so so badly that in this case my self-interest won out. I was too weak to resist the desire for an Instagram photo that would make my followers weep with jealousy. Please believe that I spent a considerable amount of time researching ethical ways of seeing tigers, and it looked like Tiger Kingdom was the only semi-ethical option that would be available to me on this trip. Honestly, it didn’t seem to me that the tigers at Tiger Kingdom have it that bad. They all looked pretty healthy and didn’t appear to be in any kind of distress. Furthermore, I believe Tiger Kingdom when they claim that they don’t drug or sedate the animals. The tigers I saw there certainly seemed to spend a lot of time sleeping, but have you ever met a cat who didn’t?

Anyways, I’m sorry but I went to Tiger Kingdom. I found a tuk-tuk driver who agreed to take me there and back for 500 baht round-trip. After arriving and looking at the price list, I decided to only pay to go into the cage with the smallest tigers because damn is this place expensive. I paid 1200 baht to go into a pen with an adorable 3.5-month-old female tiger for probably 10 or 15 minutes. There was a professional photographer constantly snapping pictures of me and telling me to look at the camera and smile as I stroked her back. The whole thing was a little bizarre actually, because it just feels like a photo shoot rather than a genuine experience. I mean, yes, I was mostly there for the purpose of getting a good Instagram photo, but it seemed strange to me that the people who work there were treating it the same way. Like the whole purpose of meeting an exotic animal is to get a staged photo out of the experience. It all felt very fake.

Anyways, the photographer was nice enough to take a bunch of photos of me using my phone, in case I didn’t want to pay 300 baht for a USB with all the photos he took on his fancy camera. It was really nice of him to do that, but unfortunately I didn’t like any of the photos he took with my phone, so I ended up paying for the USB after all. Oh well.

How cool are these photos though, honestly?

I saved something special for my last day in Chiang Mai: a visit to Elephant Nature Park. I paid 2500 baht to spend a day feeding and observing elephants that had been rescued from their former lives of forced labour and abuse. My guide for the day came to pick me up at my hostel around 8:15AM, and I got into his minivan with the 11 other people in my tour group. When we arrived at the park at 9:45, the first thing we did was to take turns feeding watermelon to an elephant. After that, we walked around the park observing other elephants for a while before heading back to the platform for an amazing vegetarian buffet lunch. After lunch we got to watch the elephants bathing in the river. When they were finished bathing, we watched them walk past us to a muddy spot and give themselves a mud bath. Later, after touring the grounds a bit, we went down to the river again, took off our shoes, waded into the river, and threw buckets of water on an elephant while she stood eating bananas. By that point it was 2:30 and time for the ride back to our respective hostels/hotels.

All in all, Elephant Nature Park was a pretty cool experience. I thought I would get tired of seeing elephants after observing the first four or five, but it was actually fascinating watching them perform all their different daily routines. They are truly the most incredible creatures I have ever seen.

Important: Make sure you book your visit to Elephant Nature Park at least a few weeks in advance, because spots are limited and they sell out quickly.

To conclude, Chiang Mai is a great city to spend a few days in. To be honest, there isn’t as much to do here as there is in Bangkok, but it was nice to get out of the big city for a while and just chill out.

Next stop: the Thai hippie town of Pai!