Japan: A Taste of Tokyo

After a long flight from Bangkok to Tokyo which included a long stopover in Malaysia, we were finally out of Southeast Asia. For the first time in over 2 months, we were no longer on the ‘normal’ backpacking route of travelling Asia. As regular readers of this blog know, we absolutely loved our time in Southeast Asia and anyone who is thinking about going should definitely go. However, the idea of going and visiting Japan really excited us especially as we knew we were going to attempt to climb Mt. Fuji.

Starting our Japan adventures in Tokyo, we started by exploring the city on foot. Tokyo like many other developed capitals is extremely expensive, and taxis are no exception. When we arrived at Tokyo airport, the public transport system was closed as it was the early hours of the morning. This meant we had to take a taxi which ended up costing us the equivalent of £60 between us for around a 15-minute taxi ride. As you can imagine, we quickly decided that walking was the best option.

As the main point of our trip to Japan was going to Fuji, we didn’t have a long stay in Tokyo. This meant that we had to prioritise what we wanted to see. During our time in Malaysia, we had met someone who had visited Tokyo many times. When we discussed that we were going to Japan but dedicated most of our time to climbing Fuji, he soon started ranting about just how great Tokyo is and how you could easily spend two weeks there. With this in mind, we decided months in advance that for this reason, we would have to be wary of time and make sure we see some of the main points of Tokyo. Therefore we wanted to try and get a mix of activities that were relatively cheap but also relaxing, as we wanted to rest for the long climb to Fuji. So, we decided to start the day by walking around the Imperial Palace Gardens which was genuinely a really nice pastime. Although the gardens aren’t anything particularly special, it was nice to just take a stroll around the nice scenery and be able to talk about our trip so far. Again walking on foot for about an hour we decided to head to Sensoji Temple. The walk allowed us to experience Tokyo in ways that if we had decided to get public transport we would never have seen. During our walk, we saw authentic Japanese markets, restaurants and shops which was something really cool to see as obviously they’re so different to what you see anywhere else. We were pleasantly shocked how cool the temple was when we first got there. The tourist information centre gives you a map where you go and visit the different points around the temples, which included a five-story Pagoda. Sensoji Temple is Tokyo’s oldest temple so it was quite remarkable that the temple was still in such good condition. After walking around the temple area for some time, we decided we wanted to go and visit the World Trade Centre in the heart of Tokyo. One of the reasons for this was to see the stunning views that many people had talked to us about. When we arrived at the World Trade Centre, we ended up spending over an hour just looking at the magnificent views of the city on every side. On days where the visibility is clear, you can apparently see Mt. Fuji from this tower. Unfortunately for us, this wasn’t the case.

 

Something that was quite a unique experience, and one we definitely weren’t expecting, is nearly having a Buddhist conversion. As we were walking around the city towards the end of our day, we were invited to a temple by a Japanese tour guide. Whilst in the temple we were asked if we wanted to take part in some Buddhist rituals and chanting. As we always like to take in the culture of any place, we started taking part in the rituals. As soon as we finished we were asked many times whether or not we wanted to convert to Buddhism and the language barrier made the experience very funny. Although many people may not like this to happen to them, it was one of those random funny moments that when you look back on your trip it just adds to the experience. All in all, it was fun to take part in the rituals, even though we didn’t want to convert.

 

The Kawasaki Daishi Temple is one area that we would highly recommend visiting when in Tokyo. If you like history, culture, traditions and authenticity, then this area has all of that combined into one. The temple was founded in 1128 and is a sect of Shingon Buddhism. The temple is actually a stunning piece of architecture, and if you would like to get involved in Buddhist rituals the temple allows anyone to take part in these. Furthermore, and something that personally I really appreciated about the area, was the surrounding marketplace. The marketplace had great energy and sold all kinds of weird and wonderful items. Something that you want to take advantage of is the free sweet tasters that they give out. Although we found some of the sweets to be absolutely disgusting, you can’t turn down free food, especially when you don’t want to pay Tokyo prices!

Obviously, when you’re in Japan you have to try Japanese foods. During our trip to Japan, we tried many. In Tokyo, we tried Sushi and as someone who personally hates it, I can admit that it is a lot better in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world I have had it. As a group, we tried many different Sushi’s and even ordered more after our first three trays! For all you sushi lovers, Tokyo is the place to eat your sushi!

26943579_10215394779646671_190014742_n

Overall, although there were some good things to do, and we didn’t have much time at all in Tokyo, the hype that surrounds the city for us did not live up to our expectations. Many of our friends say they would love to go to Tokyo, and we aware that if we went back and spent more time there then maybe we would love it too, but the general feeling we got was just not really a place where we would want to spend much time. The city itself feels more tailored towards business people, rather than travellers, and the cost is another factor. I’m sure you could have some very fancy nights out which would be a lot of fun, they were just well above our pay grade. When we left Tokyo to travel to Fuji, we instantly fell in love with the place, and it has made us want to go back to Japan and travel around its other cities.

View the rest of our Tokyo pictures here

Siem Reap: Cambodia’s Gem

After a 6hour bus trip from Phnom Penh, the three of us finally arrived in Siem Reap. Unfortunately, one of us was ill during our last day in Phnom Penh so as we arrived we chilled in the hostel, appropriately called the Siem Reap Hostel. We would recommend this hostel for anyone who wants to chill but also meet people! The hostel is really big, has its own happy hour deal and a big pool. Additionally, the hostel offers many tours which are easy to sign up to and transport to other places around Southeast Asia.

After chilling and settling into our new place, we finally met up with our friend that had already been in Cambodia volunteering for 5 weeks. During the night we hit Pub Street which is the go-to place for anyone wanting to have a great night. Pub Street has many bars, clubs and restaurants and the drinks are super cheap! During our first night, we visited Temple Bar which had its own live music and bean bag sitting area on the open air top floor. Beers were about US$1, which is actually at the upper end of the price range! This was really chill and enjoyable, and it set the tone for the rest of our travels in Siem Reap. There’s also a night market pretty close to pub street and the hostel which is worth checking out.

The next day we wanted to try something different than just looking at temples or what we have experienced on our trip so far. Max and his volunteering group asked us if we wanted to join them driving quadbikes around Siem Reap. We didn’t hesitate to accept! Although this may not be for everyone, we absolutely loved it. What made it even better was it started pouring down with rain which meant that it was more slippy which made it more fun! During our quad bike adventure, we mainly stuck to the rural parts of Siem Reap, which were stunning. Staying in the rural areas also meant that many times we got the opportunity to really go full throttle, allowing the whole experience to be more enjoyable.

Quads

Something that we really wanted to do and were incredibly excited about was a Cambodian cooking class. As we previously mentioned in our Phnom Penh post, Cambodian food was incredible. This cooking class only proved to us how amazing the food was. The cooking class was split up into different sections. You originally get picked up at your hostel and drive to a local village where you give them food as an offering, and in return, they show you around their home, and how they grow and cook their own food. The money you spent on your cooking class goes into the local villages who provide the school with the food in the first place. This was one of the reasons why we were so happy to do the cooking class, as we were helping the local village as well as educating ourselves on how to cook local Cambodian food. We got to cook minced fish sticks, a Cambodian yellow curry, and a rice desert referred to as a cake to locals, but I would say it was more of a cross between a pancake and a waffle. We even were given a cookbook to keep the recipes we just followed and more. It’s safe to say that this is something we recommend any food lover to give it a go.

We also visited the Siem Reap circus, which again the money goes into educating the people who perform in the circus. Cambodia has many schemes like this where the money you pay directly goes back into educating people. Although at first, the circus seemed quite expensive, around $20. It was totally worth it, as for over an hour and a half you were constantly entertained and we really could not recommend this enough. I think we laughed for the whole time, and it was such an enjoyable activity.

We were recommended to visit Phnom Kulen Mountain by our friend Max who had already visited. However, even though we enjoyed our visit here, we had already pre-booked our tour before visiting. Although we got to visit some temples along the way as well as getting our food included, this was very expensive, and I would suggest not to pre-book a tour beforehand, something we have spoken about numerous times in our past articles.  The recommendation from Max was good and if we had just booked a tour to get there through our hostel we would have saved a lot of money. Our tour was about £90 each when we booked, and although we got a private car, tour guide (who was very good), and $10 back to spend on lunch, we could have probably got a tour for less than a third of this price. Nevertheless, Kulen Mountain is definitely worth a visit. The waterfall is stunning, and you can also take a swim! Just don’t repeat our mistake of trying to swim underneath the waterfall itself, there’s a lot of water and it feels like you’re being slapped! Phnom Kulen is considered a sacred mountain, as shown by the huge Buddha at the top, so obviously be respectful.

One of if not the biggest reason for visiting Siem Reap is to see Angkor Wat, and even if this isn’t the purpose of your visit you really must give it a day. Built in the early 12th Century, Angkor Wat is the biggest religious structure in the world, earning its title as one of the world wonders, and truly makes for a spectacular visit. Many people think that Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple due to Cambodia being a predominantly Buddhist nation. However, although some of the smaller surrounding temples are Buddhist, Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple. Usually, people go for sunset or sunrise as it makes for a fantastic view and picture opportunity. We decided to go for sunrise, but unfortunately, the weather let us down and it was very cloudy, somewhat degrading the experience. Nevertheless, it was still incredible to see Angkor Wat in the dark and slowly being lit up. Another plus is that when its dusk, it’s easier to get a picture without capturing many people in your pictures, as there are so many people who go and visit Angkor Wat. Whilst visiting Angkor Wat we also saw the other Angkor Temples, known as for example, Bayon, Baphuon, the Terrace of Elephants and Ta Prohm.  After Angkor Wat, our favourite was Ta Prohm. Given the nickname the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ after Angelina Jolie visited to film for the 2001 movie, Ta Prohm is hidden in the jungle, somewhat isolated from most of the other Angkor Temples. What made this temple really stand out from the rest was how it had aged over the centuries. Huge trees have grown up through the temple, and though some people might argue that the ‘damage’ has ruined the temple, it really added to the authenticity for us. Although it was an incredible experience visiting all these temples, it does get repetitive later in the day. After spending hours and hours visiting these temples we did decide to call it a day as we didn’t want to ruin our experience. This is something we would say to look out for as some people have said they found it a little ‘boring’ after making the effort to see all of the temples. The guidebook we had, said it recommended devoting at least 3 days to the temples, but if you get up for the sunrise like we did, I think one is sufficient unless you really would like to see all of them.

On our last day in Siem Reap, we took a motorbike tour around the city and its rural areas, so we could experience and understand Cambodian culture better. During our tour, we visited a local school, where our money was going to provide the school with teachers, textbooks and equipment. Like the cooking class, this was one of the reasons why we were happy to pay for the tour. We also visited local rice fields, cattle farms as well as other local Cambodian agriculture in order to understand why Cambodia is a farming nation and the development that is taking place within Siem Reap. At the end of our tour, we were asked to donate a sum of money that we thought was adequate for the tour, as well as going to help the school develop. Minimum donations are $50 which may sound expensive. However, we did have an entire day motorbike tour, free food, and the money goes to a great cause! As you know from our other posts, if something is not worth it, or overpriced we aren’t scared to say it. Nevertheless, this tour was genuinely worth at least $50!

To end our stay in Siem Reap, we again hit pub street with Max and his friends from his volunteering course. This time we went to the club area of Temple Bar, which was incredible and something we just didn’t expect from Cambodia. The nightlife down Pub Street is genuinely amazing and if you haven’t visited, or don’t plan on going then you’re missing out on a great aspect Siem Reap offers. Siem Reap was my favourite place in Cambodia, and one of my favourite places in Southeast Asia. If we hadn’t pre-booked our flights to Vietnam beforehand, we would have definitely stayed a little longer. Siem Reap is a great mix of chilled, friendly and crazy. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything more you could ask for!

View the rest of our Cambodia pictures here

Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s Old City

After spending the last 9 days in Malaysia, we flew out from KL and arrived in Phnom Penh. As we arrived in the late afternoon we decided to just walk around our hostel and sample some Cambodian food. Our first experiences of Asia were Hong Kong and Malaysia which are much different to Cambodia. Like Hong Kong, where it felt everyone had somewhere to go, Phnom Penh was just so busy. It was a bit of a culture shock as we learned as soon as we got out of the airport the roads were mental!

Before expanding on our trip to Cambodia, we would just like to point out that Cambodian food is incredible. Although most of our posts have raved about the food, (and deservedly so) we really did appreciate the Cambodian food. Not only the food, but the culture and people are incredible. Everyone is so friendly, and really make you feel welcome. You hear a lot of scare stories as Cambodia is a relatively poor country compared to other SEA countries, but we always felt safe and welcomed where ever we went.

For our first proper day, we relaxed and took things nice and slow. As we had scheduled to have a lot of time in Phnom Penh we didn’t feel the need to rush things. Although we spent way too much time in Phnom Penh (one of the many mistakes we have learned from), there were still lots for us to see and get involved with. We started our trip by just walking around the city and getting a feel for Phnom Penh. In other words, we just wanted to chill whilst still enjoying our time. As is very common in Cambodia, we were soon stopped by so many different Tuk-Tuk drivers asking us if we wanted a tour of X, Y, and Z. Some people may be put off by this constant nagging, but just remember your business is how they make a living and feed their families, and usually, the Tuk-Tuk drivers were very friendly. After a bit of persuasion, we decided to take a Tuk-Tuk city tour around the city, in which we saw the old city and the newly built part. During our trip, we stopped at many attractions, like the war monument, many Buddhists temples, and the Grand Palace. Although our day was pretty ‘tame’ compared to our whole Asia experience, for once it was nice to chill and just take in the city. The breeze you get in the back of a Tuk-Tuk is always very welcome!

During our second day, we decided to again go by Tuk-Tuk and experience Phnom Penh. During the day we visited Monkey temple, where we got to hand feed some bananas to the monkeys there. One little monkey wasn’t allowed to be fed as the big monkey, unfortunately, get very territorial over the bananas. After we visited a temple in the shape of a boat, a quite strange temple, and you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that it’s called Boat temple. This was included in the package we negotiated down, but if it wasn’t we wouldn’t recommend. The temple is nothing special and not worth going out of your way in our opinion. An activity we did enjoy was visiting Silk Island and its surrounding temples. Having to get a ferry boat over, we first visited a family’s house to see the weaving process. It looks quite a difficult task, and if you like you can purchase a pure silk scarf, tablecloth or other garments at a much lower price than you would get it at home. We then went to a more ‘industrial’ place (although not like you would see at home) where they made silk on a slightly larger scale. We got to see the silkworms here and learned more about how the silk was actually produced. There are a few other attractions at the site, such as a few (caged) animals. One of our highlights of our day was sitting on a big swing chair and just looking over the river and listening to our tour guide tell us about his life, and experience with the Khmer Rouge. Although we had to leave just before seeing a good sunset, it was a really enjoyable way to end our trip to silk island. We made one more stop off at the so-called Golden Temple. Again, the name literally explains what it is, a golden temple. However, unlike the Boat Temple, we really enjoyed walking around all the golden temples and buddhas. It had a lot more to offer and a lot more to see. Throughout our trip to Asia thus far, we had been trying local cuisine wherever we went. However, we decided to go and eat some western food at a burger place close to our hostel. The place called ‘Cousins’ was a French-owned restaurant and it served amazing food. The burgers were some of the best we have ever had, and we didn’t think we would be saying that in Cambodia.

The next day involved a bike tour that we had booked before leaving for Asia. The tour group consisted of us, two Australian guys, and our tour guide.  After cycling for a couple of hours, we reached our first destination, another silk weaving family. Here we tried some locally grown fruit: rambutans, mangosteens and dragon fruits. I have to say that these tasted delicious. After we had eaten we set off again and stopped at a local primary school where the kids suddenly became more interested in us than they did their studies. This was great fun as every child wanted a hug and a high five. The Cambodian children almost made you feel like you were a celebrity, and this was another fitting example of the welcoming feeling you got from the place. Finally, we ended our 5hour cycle tour seeing some temples and being blessed by a monk. We found this very interesting and enjoyed the experience as we had never been blessed by a Buddhist monk before.

On day 4, we met up with a friend that we had met in Malaysia. After having a catch-up and breakfast together, we decided to visit the Royal Palace and the National Museum and not do much else. The Royal Palace was a great piece of architecture, but it seemed a bit pricey for what you get to do. You are not allowed to walk inside the actual palace, which for us really killed the buzz. Nevertheless, the National Museum was very interesting and had hundreds and hundreds of artifacts spanning back over 1000 years. The Museum was a time warp into Cambodian culture and history and is worth taking a look.  Most of you will be happy to know that beer is incredibly cheap in Cambodia. With beer only being 50 cents during happy hour, we decided to have a little bit of a night out for the first time since arriving in Phnom Penh. We eventually stopped at an Irish bar at the end of our pub crawl and watch Wimbledon, where Nadal lost in nearly a 5-hour match. Safe to say one of us wasn’t happy the match went on too long.

Even though we went out the night before, we got up early so we could visit Tuol Sleng Prison (S21) and Cheoung Ek Killing Fields. As someone who is immensely interested in history and politics, learning about the genocide in Cambodia really frustrated me.  In the West, we don’t get taught about it, either at all or in any kind of depth. It’s hard to believe that the atrocities committed here by the Khmer Rouge happened only 40 years ago, and the places both feel so surreal. Almost all the local people of Cambodia have been affected by and lost family members to the evil deeds of the Polpot Regime. It made us reflect just how lucky we are that not only are we able to live in a free country, but were able to visit Cambodia and learn about the culture, history and the remarkable progress it has made since. One of the policies of the Khmer Rouge was to execute any educated people to prevent possible uprisings, and it is thought by many that this is a large part of the causation of Cambodia’s poverty-stricken situation. Comparable only to places such as Auschwitz, if you visit the country you really must visit these places to be able to take into consideration the scale of the nefariousness of the Khmer Rouge.

On our final day in Phnom Penh, we decided to make it all about the markets. The Central Market in the daytime is huge and is so easy to get lost in (trust us, we did). We must have walked down the same aisle thinking it was a different one over 5 times. As someone who doesn’t have a massive interest in markets, I had to say I really did enjoy this one. In fact, both of us did! With clothes being so cheap, we decided to buy a few tops each as we wanted something that would fit the climate and also stop the constant “Tuk-Tuk?” calls. Obviously, we opted for the ‘No Tuk-Tuk T-shirt’ each, and you’ll be surprised to hear that they didn’t work.

All in all, although we agreed that we spent far too long in Phnom Penh and could have done everything in a much smaller time frame, we did thoroughly enjoy our stay. The people really did make us feel welcome, especially our Hostel, the Sla Boutique which we can recommend. We would defiantly recommend visiting Phnom Penh so you can visit S21 and the Killing Fields, but we wouldn’t stay there as long if we went back. Again, it comes down to not pre-booking your travel arrangements, as we would have left for Siem Reap a couple of days earlier if we hadn’t already paid for the bus and hostel.

View the rest of our Cambodia pictures here

 

Chiang Mai & Pai: Hidden Gems

After spending three nights in Bangkok, we had caught up on sleep and felt refreshed. Because we went back to Koh Tao to do our diving course and had to be back in Bangkok to fly to Tokyo four days later, we decided to take a flight to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand.

Limited on time, we knew that we had to make the most of what little we had in the north. Throughout our travels, we had heard many stories about Pai and how we HAD to go there. As the saying goes “All roads lead to Pai.” Making sure we arrived in Chiang Mai early to have the most time possible, we wasted no time in getting on the sightseeing. We checked into Chiangmai Gate Capsule Hostel, which we would highly recommend. The hostel is cheap, around £4-5 a night, and the woman at reception was incredibly helpful. The hostel offers a huge range of tours and activities that the lady will book for you, often as discounted prices, and if you booked through her the lady gives benefits such as free accommodation for one night. She even included breakfast when the tour was leaving early! We booked an elephant sanctuary tour and our bus to Pai with her, and we couldn’t help but leave a 5-star review. Our only regret is we cannot remember the lady’s name!

Hostel

After checking in, we went to get some food at a place called ‘SP Chicken’. This was recommended by our dive instructor Jason, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. He told us it was some of the best chicken he had ever had, and soon it would be some of the best we ever had. Remarkable prices and great taste, it made the 30minute walk from the hostel worthwhile. We then decided to start visiting the temples which are located all over Chiang Mai. We first visited Wat Chedi Luang where we were impressed with the architecture of the building as well as the amazing paintings inside. However, this did have a ‘No women allowed’ sign, which we didn’t know about beforehand, so make sure you research places before you go! Nevertheless, it did not put us off from going to see another temple, where we had to take a taxi truck up the mountain to go and see it. Wat Prathap Doi Suthep has to be one of the best temples or religious buildings that we have ever seen. Honestly, we cannot stress just how amazing this temple was. It was made up of many gold buildings and amazing paintings throughout the entire site. A little tip, don’t pay for the lift to the top from the bottom. They advertise that there’s a lot of stairs but it’s not worth paying for the lift. During the night time, we decided to check out Chiang Mai’s night market which was surprisingly much better than we anticipated. Stalls, food, and entertainment everywhere really made the market have a great atmosphere for everyone to get involved in.

The next morning, we woke up nice and early to meet our guide to take us to the elephant sanctuary. After about an hour and a half bus ride, which we shared with people from all over the world, we finally arrived. After having a brief introduction and an explanation why there is a need for an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai (there are many), we got to feed the elephants with bananas and sugar cane. After having fun feeding all the elephants we had to make our own scrubbers to clean the elephants. This ended up the staff getting everyone drenched and turned into a massive water fight! We then had lunch and bonded with the rest of our group before trekking to a waterfall where we all swam. The highlight of the day and there were many, was white water rafting down a river which was an incredible experience. The entire day put on by the elephant sanctuary was amazing and we would highly recommend visiting. Unfortunately, none of us remember the name of the sanctuary but if you do stay at the hostel it is the one advertised. However, the day wasn’t over yet! We asked the hostel where we could eat good Thai food. She recommended We’s restaurant, which was around the corner from our hostel. We decided to eat the Khao Soi, and what a good decision it was. A traditional Northern Thai dish, the Khao Soi was ridiculously cheap and probably the best food we had had all of the trip, which is saying a lot as we had great food in every place we visited. We would 100% recommend trying Koh Soi at We’s. We liked it so much we tried going back the next day, but it was closed. After eating some of the greatest food we have ever tasted we ended the night watching Thai boxing. As someone who hasn’t watched much Thai boxing, it began quite slow and laboured. Before it stepped up and really got intense with one fighter having a bloody nose and being knocked down three or four times before finally winning.

The next day we again had to wake up early to catch our bus we arranged through the hostel to Pai. Taking around 2 hours to get there we arrived at our hostel, The Famous Circus Hostel. This hostel is the definition of chill. It had its own pool, overlooking a phenomenal view of the mountain range, as well as hammocks around the courtyard for you to just chill and watch the world go by. After checking in at midday, we quickly hired some motorbikes so we could ride around and see all the amazing sites Pai had to offer. We started by seeing some incredible waterfalls before seeing the white Buddha. One of the funniest things was when we visited the hot springs. We were not aware that there were two different types of hot spring; one for people to bathe in, and one in which you can boil an egg. To our demise, we sat in the wrong one for way too long. What is supposed to be a relaxing and soothing activity turned out to be quite painful – a mistake we only learned about when we got back to the hostel and don’t want you to repeat! After emerging very red from the spring, we travelled to Pai canyon where we saw spectacular views of the countryside and its mountain ranges. Pai has some wonderful views, and if the waterfalls don’t win you over then the views from Pai canyon will!

On our final day in Pai, we watched the McGregor-Mayweather fight with locals and other visitors of the town. One benefit of the time difference was that we got the fight at about 10am local time, so didn’t have to wait up until the early hours of the morning like we would have had to in the UK! The atmosphere was buzzing in all the bars and it was amazing to be in there. After the fight, we had some time and petrol left, so we rode around Pai for a while and just took in all its spectacular scenery. Something we all agreed on, we wish that we had more time in Pai because it truly was an amazing place, with so much more to offer than what we saw. We spent just over 48 hours in Pai but could have easily spent a week. It’s definitely on the list of places to revisit. Later that afternoon we headed back to Bangkok to get our flight to Japan, where we would attempt to climb Mt Fuji.

View the rest of our Thailand pictures Here

 

Vietnam: Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

After the three of us had finally met up in the final few days of our time in Siem Reap, we were ready to start Vietnam together. After waiting for more than an hour to get our visa sorted in the airport, we were finally ready to set foot into Vietnam. Side note: If you are from the UK and are travelling to Vietnam for more than 15 days you will have to pay $25 for a visa.

Before we started our Asia trip, we had researched what were the best things to do in Vietnam. We found 3 activities which looked awesome; trips to places called Ha Long Bay and Sapa, and a weeklong venture called The Buffalo Run, which takes you down the coast from Hanoi to Hoi An. We did all of these with a group called Vietnam Backpacker Hostels, who organise various expeditions as well as running five top quality hostels in different cities in Vietnam.

Our adventure started in Hanoi, where we had one day to spend before heading off to Ha Long Bay. We stayed at Downtown Vietnam Backpackers Hostel and we would highly recommend this hostel for anyone looking to have a good time (particularly a good night). What made this hostel so good is that they made it easy to organise different trips to anywhere in Vietnam. They made your stay convenient as well as fun, with a happy hour of free drinks and a great pub crawl.

sapa walk

During our one day stay in Hanoi we went on the free walking tour that the hostel offers. The free walk was okay, nothing special, but it was free and it was a way of experiencing the city quickly. The tour was also a good way to meet some people before we left to Ha Long Bay. During the night time, we went around Hoàn Kiếm Lake which is where Hanoi comes alive. Here, there are plenty of street performers and games for everyone to get involved in. We partook in and won a tug of war consisting of over 50 people! When we got back to the hostel the free pub crawl was very tempting, however, as we had to wake up early for Ha Long Bay we decided to give it a miss. Nevertheless, we would recommend this bar crawl as so many people said they had a great time and an easy way to find all the best bars and clubs.

The journey to Ha Long Bay wasn’t the shortest of our travels; the two buses and two ferries took about five and a half hours in total, setting off at 6:30am. Luckily, Vietnam Backpacker Hostels include a breakfast with your stay, and are up to make it before this time. The difference with booking your Ha Long Bay trip with VBH is that you get to go to Castaway Island. Here, you can explore the bay as well as have a continuous three day/two night party (if you survive through it all!). This is a must do! Not only do you get your own private island, but you can participate in activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, wake boarding, and high-speed tubing.  However, if filming with a go-pro do be careful whilst doing these activities. We give this warning as unfortunately we lost a go-pro whilst kayaking and lost 3 weeks-worth of films on it (most of Ha Long Bay). Regardless, we couldn’t let this get us down as you’re constantly meeting new people and having fun in so many ways that you soon forget about all your problems.

Additionally, the second day on the Island you get your own private ‘sightseeing tour’ (read: booze cruise), where you start the day with a shotgun and end the day wasted.  The booze cruise was so much fun and all three of us had such an amazing time. Being able to tour Ha Long Bay, with people from all over the world with a beer in your hand made you realise just how luck you were. The only down to all of this was as you can see by some of our pictures the weather wasn’t always amazing. So at the beginning of the day there was no sun and one of us decided to go on the cruise with no top on. Literally the minute as the boat lifted its anchor, the sun came out meaning that by the time we got back to the Island, someone was extremely red and blisters were already forming. Nevertheless, being able to kayak and jump off the boat into clear blue water around Ha Long Bay was an awesome experience and it is something that every traveller coming to Vietnam should check out. There is a lot of drinking, but the islands of Ha Long Bay are genuinely incredible to see. We met a lot of amazing people, some we would later meet again in Vietnam, and it was an experience that we will never forget.

View the rest of our Vietnam pictures here.