Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:
Part 1: Major Transportation
Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.
Estimated Expense: $2,400
Actual Expense: $1,358
Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042
Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.
Part 2: In-Country Costs
Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
Actual Expense: $9,323
Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997
But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.
Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
Actual Expense: $9,323
Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787
We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.
Tucked behind a tourist’s t-shirt shop and silk store is one of Hanoi’s not-so-secret coffee shops, except for the fact that it’s easily missed by the casual walker-by. It sits near a congested traffic “circle” in the old quarter, which is surrounded by numerous other similar shops enticing customers with a lakeside view.
But Cafe Pho Co, isn’t out front trying to lure the crowds in. It’s hidden behind these shops, down a dark alley, behind some bird cages, past a bonsai tree, and up several stair cases. Walking in you’ll feel like you’re intruding because in most similar alleys around Hanoi you’ll find local residences. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one family residing behind the doors of this cafe.
We ordered at the bottom of the stairs, for me- a Vietnamese egg coffee. Super creamy, lots of sweet, but not enough kick for me. Either way, we enjoyed the view, sipped on my dessert of a coffee and peaked around to find the various eccentricities of the place.
The Reunification Palace in Saigon was nothing I expected. Expertly designed and decorated, it’s more a lesson in style than history until you stumble down the stairway into the basement bunker. This is where the war was fought. With telephones, communication devices, and maps upon maps on the walls, the drama that took place down there is still present. The upstairs is just as dramatic but in a completely different direction. The juxtaposition of grit and glamour makes it all the more alluring. Take a peek into the palace.
While we were in Hanoi, we knew we had to take the opportunity to shoot east to Halong Bay and jump on a Junk Boat cruise. Junk boats are a popular tour in Halong Bay, as that’s really the only way you can see it, so there are many options to choose from, obviously with a huge range in price. We ended up on an IndoChina Junk boat, more out of availability, but left with a good feeling about how they run their business. Throughout the trip our guide, Hung, explained to us reasons why we go to certain places, reasons why we visit certain villages, and helped us understand the good they are trying to do for the tourism industry in Halong Bay.
Halong Bay is very beautiful. Monolithic islands of limestone dot the water in every direction to what seems like infinity. The water is calm and that’s basically it. That’s the scene for the few days on the junk boat, and outside of the extensively planned meals and some kayaking mixed in, you’re left to entertain yourself staring into the bay (or in the evening- drink heavily after you’ve thrown in the towel on squid fishing). It’s a nice respite from Hanoi, that’s for sure.
Speaking in tourism terms, Halong Bay can we divided into three sections: Ha Long Bay Center, Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Most junk boat tours tour through Halong Bay Center but IndoChina Junk has managed to wiggle their way into the less trafficked area of Bai Tu Long Bay to offer their clients a much calmer Halong Bay experience. They developed a program called “For a Green Halong Bay” which is supported by the government and the residents of Halong Bay. It is a two part project that focuses on removal and treatment of waste as well as mangrove reforestation in Bai Tu Long Bay and building new cultural houses and schools in fishing villages. Tourism is slowly taking its toll on Halong Bay. Mangroves have been cleared to make way for all the tourist boats and pollution is on the rise among other things. Indochina Junk is trying to reverse it’s impact by actively putting forth energy and constructive processes into the places they visit with their tours.
Vung Vieng fishing village is one such example. This fishing village is located in a pocket of limestone islands, sheltering the residents from strong winds and choppy water. We noticed the second we arrived that it was so much warmer inside their watery home. Hung told us that in the beginning the residents of the village did not like tourists. Indochina Junk ended up striking a deal with the residents. They would help clean up their waters (they were very polluted from day to day activity), they would build a new floating school, and they would exchange the foam floats that hold up their floating houses for plastic ones that would be a long term sustainable solution for them and the environment in which they live.
This junk boat operator also decided to buy a cave, Thien Canh Son cave, that is. Located in a small island in Bai Tu Long Bay, it is only for visitors of Indochina Junk. This is where they hold the final dinner of the cruise. Now, getting rights to an island was no easy task. There were people living their for gosh sakes. They ended up striking another deal by providing these cave dwellers with alternative lodging.
They also now run a kayak shop on the island that houses Thien Canh Son cave, that gives the clients of Indochina Junk a chance to paddle around the islands themselves.
An optional, additional night to add onto your Halong Bay tour involves a village homestay on the mainland in Yen Duc Village. The name of this village may sound familiar as it provided us with a great place to ride our bikes. But it was another strategic decision for Indochina Junk. After scouting several villages for a homestay, Yen Duc Village was the winner. Recognized as a national relic in 1993, the village retains traditional agricultural features and a offers a peaceful peek into rural Vietnamese life. When we asked Huong, our guide, what the village people thought of its new place in tourism, she basically said the same thing as the residents of the fishing village. It was a change indeed. At first unwelcome, but with the cleanliness and beautification of the village brought about by the new relationship as well as the creation of new jobs for the villagers, the locals will give you a nice hearty wave and hello upon seeing a foreign face.
When we were kayaking one day there was a lonely bottle floating in the water that Hung went over to snag for the trash. Now, I’m not sure if everything Indochina junk does is perfect, as nothing is, and I’m sure they’ve had their bumps along the way, but it’s clear that they’re taking their effect on the environment seriously and doing their part in retaining the natural beauty of Halong Bay.
Like most SE Asian countries, Vietnam is an assault on the senses, sometimes for good and sometimes not. Between sidestepping your way around sidewalks, scooting through motor scooters, and saying no countless times to ladies trying to stuff your faces with donuts on the street, the cities of Vietnam will have you screaming ‘Serenity now!’ in no time flat. Luckily, there are other places. Unfortunately, most people opt to see these places on stuffy tour buses with more stuffy tourists which will also not lessen your need for serenity. Skip the buses, don’t skip the countryside, and hop on a bicycle. Two wheels gives you much needed freedom to explore the peacefulness that exists outside of the city limits. And while this mode of transportation can probably help you find tranquility in many other places other than Vietnam, I found it particularly awesome here. Below are a few places we jumped off the bandwagon and onto a bike. Serenity now (insanity later)!
We were torn on what to do in Ninh Binh. It is a little town and used as a jumping off point for exploring two popular tourist destinations, Tam Coc and the Hoa Lu temples. There are many tours that will take you through these places for a good amount of money and some quality time in an air conditioned bus, hooray. We went in a different direction and took the local bus to Ninh Binh. From there we rented bicycles (relatively new ones for a change) and lost our way into the countryside and into the beauty of Trang An. This was probably one of my most favorite days on our whole trip thus far.
Yen Duc Village Homestay
After a two day sailing cruise around Halong Bay we opted for a one night stay at the Yen Duc Village Homestay. This is an up and coming tourist village but with it being so new our foreign faces were in for a lot of staring time. Here, besides catching fish with bamboo baskets, planting a garden, visiting the morning market, and learning how to make a northern Vietnamese dessert we also got some bike riding time in. Although we had a guide for the tour, it was a pleasant ride around a little village with some beautiful scenery and of course an abundance of rice fields.
Hue is an historic town. Boasting several ancient tombs and an ancient citadel along the river, there’s enough to see for a few days. Usually, the tombs are best seen by boat tour. Unfortunately for us it was quite chilly and rainy while we were there so the boat tour was pretty out of the question. Instead, we took a break in the rain to bicycle down to the Tu Duc Tomb to nose around. We passed through tiny streets, cemeteries, people being people, all stuff that you can easily miss on a boat or a bus. I enjoyed the tomb way more than I thought I would and if we had more time I would have liked to explore all three major stops. After the tombs we regrouped and decided to head out to a handmade bridge in the countryside. Commissioned by a little old lady a long time ago, this bridge was quite small. And while the destination might not be all it’s cracked up to be, getting there was the fun part. We passed little kids playing badminton with cardboard box lids and decided to buy them some real racquets. Seeing as it was late in the day we passed many farmers tending their fields, fishing, and picking morning glory from its murky living space, and we were provided tea and dried ginger snacks from a very nice lady at the bridge. All thanks to the humble bicycle.
The Mekong Delta was another question mark in our trip. Do we go or not go? Do we go there for a few days or take a day trip from Saigon? Looking into it further, it seemed that the day trips were a whole lot of driving and not a whole lot of doing much of anything. Most of them head to My Tho which is the northernmost town of the delta and I’m guessing the most overrun with visitors. After reading some travel blogs and conducting a little more research we decided to go for it, but to go further into the delta than most people. Here, we opted for another homestay, Nguyen Shack, which is a little down the river from the town of Can Tho. We took a bus to Can Tho, then a taxi to a bridge and then from the bridge they came and picked us up from a tiny dock and took us to the homestay by boat. Boat is the only way in and out. Peaceful and inviting on all accounts. I knew I wanted to do two things in the delta: go to the floating market, and go bike riding. Unfortunately we were only able to go to the floating market as Nick came down with something, but I assure you the bike riding would have been awesome. The guy who manages the place offers bike tours for a few bucks or you can just take bikes for free and ride around yourself. He’s even nice enough to draw you a little map of where to go. That was what we were going to do had it all worked out.
But not everything always comes up evens. Next time. Even so, Vietnam by bike is beautiful and undiscovered. Find your own bliss on two wheels.