Thursday, July 31, 2014

Our Two Day Motorcycle Northern Vietnam Diaries

By Lina Eroh

Northeast Vietnam boasts nature as you've never seen it, and as you only can atop a bright yellow motorbike. Black rock forests, rice terraces climbing to the clouds, and unscalable mountains would be enough to make the area around Ha Giang a must-visit destination, but when you add in the ubiquitous presence of the Black Hmong, our two day motorbike Vietnam becomes a can't miss.

Motorcycle Northern Vietnam

Mention Ha Giang in conversation and you'll get one of two responses: a confused brain-searching look, or a reverence that passes across the listener's face. The towns in Vietnam's far northeast aren't on many itineraries, but for those in the know, they're top destinations that boast the best of the North's mind-boggling landscape. Even the NY Times got in on the craze a few years ago, writing what can only be described as an adjective-filled ode to the area.

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam 2

I'm not sure how we decided to travel here, but decide we did, even though we had only three days before our flight out of the country and nothing at all prearranged.This is a different Vietnam, one where hotel workers speak no English; where live pigs and chickens are transported atop motorbikes; where you get dog meat when you order vegetables and noodles; and where being foreign (and especially white) means everyone in town comes to watch you talk, walk, and eat.

This is a place where you need a permit to spend the night, one where electric pink scarves and high-pitched screams of "hello" from the cliffs above the road are the only things that alert you to the presence of people. It's a place where children carry double their weight of sticks in bamboo baskets upon their backs, where men dress in high-necked black tunics and matching berets, and where the "forests" are black stone.

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam 3

It's really a land like no other, and it can only be properly explored on a motorbike and with sufficient time. The first thing we learned, and quickly, was that with no prearrangements, we would lose a day in Ha Giang. This would be bad enough if we had ample time, given that Ha Giang isn't the greatest city, but it was worse given that we only had three days to begin with.

The shortest trip with the most "bang for the buck" takes you to the town of Dong Van, then on to Meo Vac, and then back to Ha Giang. It's 330km and lets you drive the most famous portion of the road, but doesn't allow much time for interacting with the locals, trekking, or letting your butt rest from the motorbike.

Motorcycling Northern Vietnam 4

Dong Van had a few restaurants, but most seem to close around 6pm. We ate at the fried rice place across from our homestay. The meal, at 40,000D, was pretty good and extremely filling. For breakfast, you can try bahn cuon, a rice crepe stuffed with beef.

Recommended tours by ActiveTravel Asia:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trekking Northwestern Vietnam

By Audrey
A knock on the carriage door. The scent of fresh coffee being poured into cups. The gold duvet wrapped around my body. Thick fog hanging over the sleeping hills. The halt of the train pulling into Lao Cai – a train station which lies only 1 kilometer away from the Vietnam-China border. A little van chugging uphill as it follows the curvature of the mountains.

That was my introduction to Sapa and I felt like I was falling into a dream as opposed to waking from one.

There was something magical about travelling all night aboard a train and waking up to an entirely different landscape in such a remote part of the country. How was this still Vietnam? But that’s the thing about this country, it has one of the most diverse terrains; you can be in a bustling city like Hanoi fighting scooters for a little trekking Sapa in one day, and then you can find yourself wandering the streets of a small hillside village the next.

Sapa won me over with its mountain views and small town feel on the first day, but it was things like pumpkin soup, water buffaloes roaming the streets, gnocchi Bolognese, fresh mountain air, and strawberry tea, that made me want to linger. (Yes, most of my reasons are food, but trust me, this town knows what it’s doing in the cooking department.)

Here are a few photos from my time in Sapa:

Trekking Sapa
Stunning terrace field
Sapa Vietnam
Enthralling scenery
Sapa, Vietnam 2
H'mong woman plays with her daughter
Sapa Vietnam 3
A man balances two baskets on the back of his motorcycle

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Confession in Sapa, Vietnam

I've first heard of the Hmong tribe when I read the beginning chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed (sequel to Eat Pray Love).If you haven't read it yet, this is the book where Gilbert faces her fears about getting married (again) by traveling in Asia and asking people about their views on marriage.

So she travels to northern Vietnam to visit a Hmong household. She asked the women questions like: “When did you realize that your husband might be somebody you wanted to marry?” Finally when Gilbert asks, “But when did you fall in love with him?” and “What do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?” the roomful of Hmong women broke out laughing. It was as though she asked them to purchase some calcium supplements! They found her questions downright silly. Gilbert then concluded that the Hmong women do not place their marriages in the center of their emotional lives as do women in the West.

Travel Sapa, Vietnam

As I read this book, I vowed to travel to Vietnam and meet these Hmong people myself. They seemed like such an extraordinary bunch! I would later find out that they were much more than that. They were one of the most beautiful tribe I've ever laid eyes on! I finally had my chance after our Halong Bay adventure. Last stop in Vietnam : the rice terraces of Sapa!

Sapa, Vietnam 2

My first encounter with a Hmong girl was at the town square where the Hmong women were selling clothes, jewelry and souvenirs. I went in a photo frenzy. They were so colorful, beautiful and just plain photogenic! I absolutely forgot the number one rule of travel portrait photography.

The rice terraces are the main attraction of Sapa. Starting trekking Sapa tour out was pretty easy. We followed a well worn path down the slopes. But after a while, the path got muddy and steep and it got harder and harder for us to walk our way down.
Sapa Vietnam 3
A nearby Hmong farmer saw our predicament and smiled at us shyly. He then walked down and showed us the way. He walked with us the whole way and even guided us back to town after the trek. We couldn't imagine how he hiked through the muddy terraces in rubber slippers but he was smiling the entire time. His act of kindness just validated what I already knew about the Hmong tribe: that they are a warm and exceptionally friendly people.

I have to confess though, I didn't really finish the book Committed. It lacked the excitement and wonder of Eat Pray Love. I was bored out of my mind when she got to the part about the history of marriage. I felt like I was back in college with a stack of books for 'required reading'. But something great came out of those first few chapters for me. I came to Sapa, Vietnam to encounter a beautiful town and experience its enchanting people. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The real exploration of tribal cultures Vietnam by motorcycling

By  Phil 
The weather was perfect with the sun out shining bright, no clouds and a fresh breeze blowing in our faces as we started motorbike tour Northern Vietnam. With the best still to come, the scenery was already amazing. As we were climbing up the narrow road, sheer limestone cliffs and surrounding mountains became our constant companions.

Motorcycling Vietnam

We stopped here and there but our first stop would be a small village not too far from Ha Giang. We just had a rough description of how to get there and where to turn but we eventually found it. Taking a hidden side road, crossing a rusty and suspiciously careening and creaking hanging bridge, we pulled into a small and very modest village. As usual the first ones to greet us were the local kids, screaming and shouting wondering what these strange visitors were up to. After wandering around the village for a while, I noticed a small and house with smoke rising out of its little chimney. I was attracted by loud laughter coming from the inside and I decided to give in to my curiosity and have a quick peek. As soon as the family inside spotted me, there was no turning back. I was happily welcomed and dragged inside. It was dim inside with only a couple of windows letting a bit of light in and the room was filled with thick smoke from the fireplace. It seemed to be one big family with several kids, their parents, grandparents and what seemed to be aunts and uncles.

Motorbike Vietnam tour

The very vital grandmother instantly offered us some homemade rice wine. As guests you can’t refuse such an offer so we went along and had one and then a few more. This stuff is strong and hence it didn’t miss its purpose. A bit tipsy, communicating all of sudden got a little bit easier. With a loosened tongue, our basic Vietnamese and the help of a little phrasebook, it actually worked out quite well and we had a great time. Right when we were about to leave and continue our trip, the family insisted for us to stay for lunch which they had prepared in the meantime.With every one of them being pretty assertive, there was again no way to refuse their generous offer. We all sat down on the floor, smiled at each other and ate. It was an experience I will never forget. This family didn’t have much, not even running water, but they were happy to share their meal with two foreigners they had just met. The kindness and open-heartedness of the people in South East Asia once again left me in astonishment.

We said good bye to our friendly hosts and continued our journey to Dong Van. We still had quite a ways to go and time had flown by. As we crossed a beautiful mountain pass with the poetic name of Heaven’s Gate on the way up, we still took our time and stopped several times to take in the beautiful scenery or to get our picture taken with local kids we met by the road. After a while dawn set in and dipped the landscape in a yellow and purple hue. As the last sun rays made it over the mountain tops, we had our first encounters with some of the regions ethnic minorities. Most of them Hmong, with the men dressed in high-necked tunics and matching berets and the women wearing colorful headdresses, carrying heave bamboo baskets on their back. It was so impressive and so different from we had seen before, that we forgot about time. Riding along the serpentine like road in darkness was exhilarating and a bit intimidating at the same time but after a good hour we finally and safely pulled into Dong Van.

Motorbike Northern Vietnam

The weekly market, a very important event for the local hill tribes, was scheduled for the next day. Good timing for us but since we arrived late, most of the hotels and guesthouses were already fully booked. After asking around, we finally found a hotel which had a room. It was actually a nice place and the owners even had arranged our permits at the local police station, which are still needed to tour the Ha Giang region. We finished the day at a local BBQ place where we were once again invited for rice wine. And yet again, we had a great time with the locals and this time it ended not only tipsy but pretty much drunk.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Surreal experience in Sapa, Vietnam

By Asha and Ryan
Sapa – or more accurately, the mountainous countryside around Sapa – is the most stunningly beautiful place we have been since leaving the islands of Thailand’s Krabi provence a few months ago. On this point, Asha and I both agree.

To get to Sapa we took an overnight sleeper train (our favourite mode of transportation) from Hanoi to the border town of Lao Cai, however a bone rattling fever made the trip pretty awful and sleep hard to come by for me. Our hotel (Hanoi Guesthouse – probably the best place we have stayed this year, i think they will get their own post on here later) were incredibly helpful, booking our train tickets, calling out next hotel to organise our pickup at the other end, organising a taxi to the train station and even sending someone from the hotel on motorbike behind our taxi to make sure we got on the right train. In a place like Hanoi, where travelling can be a bit of a headache at times, having this kind of service is just fantastic.

Sapa, Vietnam

From Lao Cai it was only one hour by bus to Sapa, a trip that revealed to us just how mesmerising the scenery in this part of Vietnam is. The region is full of soaring peaks and steep valleys, with terraced fields, rice paddies and thatched roofed villages turning the region (as Asha said) into something out of a National Geographic magazine. Add women in traditional dress (usually chasing you down to sell you their handicrafts), snotty nosed kids and families planting rice across the valley, and yeah, you get the picture.

Sapa is a tourist town high in the mountains, close Fansipan (Vietnam’s highest peak), and it immediately felt very different from everywhere else we had been in south-east asia. The temparatures in Sapa are much lower than everywhere else, with winter temperatures often dropping below freezing and snow even falls from time to time. But its summer now, and we were blessed with some gorgeous sunny afternoons and a cool breeze, allthough at time clouds did sweep in and blanket the town white.

In Sapa it felt like the heat and humidity that had clung to our skin and clothes for the last 3 months had finally dropped away, and the fresh mountain air had our spirits soaring (after my fever had passed).

Travel Sapa, Vietnam

Our hotel was more akin to a mountain chalet, with open fireplaces in each room and wood paneling. The landing in front of our room overlooked the huge valley and distant peaks, but a box of kittens living in the woodshed behind our room was of far more interest to Asha, who was constantly sneaking out to check on them and win the trust of the mother. “She trusts me, I am one of them now”

Apart from gazing at the view and watching endless activity going on in the terraced fields and paddies below and above us, the only real activities we did in Sapa were trekking (well, walking really, but trekking sounds way better) to Cat Cat Village, and doing a Vietnamese cooking course.

The trekking Sapa took a few hours, and it was great to get out and into the countryside, to walk through villages and fields and see people going about their day to day. The return journey however was a bit more difficult, as it didn’t seem to register on the first leg that the return would be all uphill, and all steep. But some strenuous exercise, lungfuls of cool mountain air and a much needed release of endorphins had us pretty content that afternoon, and watching the hawks win in the late afternoon breeze topped it all off.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The best thing about travelling Vietnam

By Asha and Ryan
Back in Melbourne, we were always big fans of Vietnamese rolls, whether it was vietnam roast chicken rolls with pockets of eye-watering chillies from Jenny’s Hot Breads in Camberwell, pate-filled deliciousness from Johnston street, pork meatball rolls from that joint near Barkly square or bbq pork from Sunny’s on Smith St.  All super fresh, with crunchy baguettes and delicious fillings – and usually costing less than $3.

Well, Vietnam did not let us down, especially in Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, or whatever) which seemed to be the capital for vietnamese rolls (called Banh Mi).  The rolls are often sold from street vendors, but it is best to get them straight from the bakery itself.

Banh Mi Vietnam

Banh my Vietnam

Our typical Banh Mi experience was this:  a fresh, crusty rolled, cut and spread with a lard/butter/something yellow, and then spread with pate, stuffed with three different types of pork meat (yay for mystery meats), along with pickled carrot and other vegetables, chilli, coriander, chilli sauce and a dash of fish sauce.  That normally costs around 10,000 dong (50 cents).

I think its silly to judge a food culture by what its very best dishes are – i think you need to look at the quality of the everyday, easily available street food because that is the real food culture, and in this regard Vietnam was amazing.

Roll your own fresh spring rolls

fresh sring roll Vietnam

Fried spring rolls are great, but good fresh spring rolls are even better.  And having all of the ingredients brought to the table so you can add whatever you want and roll it up – well, you just made Asha’s day.  Fresh spring rolls – in particular some we had in Hanoi – are just amazing.  Take a piece of rice paper, add some beef pan-fried in lemongrass, vermicelli noodles, pineapple (yep pineapple – it was a revelation), lettuce, vietnamese mint, chilli and heaps of other unnamed herbs and roll tightly. Dip into a sweet, fishy dipping sauce and put that glorious thing in your mouth!

Cheap Beer (Seriously, freakishly cheap) 

Beer IVietnam

Cans and bottles of beer in Vietnam are cheap enough, but draught beer (beer on tap) is ridiculously so. Even at some tourist restaurants you  can get a large glass of cold draught beer for 3000 dong (thats about 15 cents).  And the beers aren’t bad – sure, the gas coming of the 15 cent a glass stuff might have a eggy scent to it – but you get over that.

Our favourite Vietnamese beers included the super cheap Saigon (Asha favourite), Bia Ha Noi (which I was warned by a fellow traveller had given him the squirts, “i think they use dodgy water” he said, but i had no troubles with it), Larue – actually there seemed to be a beer named after each significant place in the country.  Its hot, its humid – the conditions where light tasting beers like these do there best work.

We were also surprised at Vietnam’s drinking culture – or that there was one.  But at 5pm on a friday afternoon in Hanoi, its amazing to see hundreds of people sitting on impossibly tiny plastic stools on corners around the old town drinking cold beers and having very loud conversations.

We’d heard our fair share of Vietnam horror stories before we’d even arrived. Tales of complex taxi scams, dodgy hotels, drive-by bag snatching, toddlers picking your pockets etc etc. Although we were a little intimidated by all the stories, we were determined not to be taken advantage of (much). In my opinion things weren’t nearly as bad as people say they are. Either that or we may have just been lucky. That being said we took the usual precautions: My bag was practically stapled and duct taped to my body at all times, we always took legit taxis and monitored the meters with our hawk eyes and generally avoided flashing our fat stacks of cash around for all to see. All in all we came away from Vietnam completely unscathed (or that we know of).

Hotel quality and level of service
Vietnam is light years ahead of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos when it comes to hospitality.  So often on this trip asking a question at reception has been met with confused looks or half-hearted responses.  In Vietnam it was hard to head out the door without first being made to debrief the hotel staff on what we were doing, so they could show us the best way to get there, give us tips on what to see, and make sure we had a map and knew to watch out for bag-snatchers.  So many times the staff would go out of there way to help us with our travel plans (at one hotel, the doorman rode his motorbike behind our taxi to the train station, organised our tickets, and then took our bags onto the train to make sure we got into the correct cabin).  Its great to return to your hotel at the end of the day to find two smiling staff members in reception who seem genuinely pumped that you have returned, with beaming smiles and plenty of questions about your day.

Added to this was the quality of the hotels.  We have spent on average $20 a night on accommodation between us, and in Vietnam this gets you a much nicer room than in Laos or Thailand.  Everywhere we stayed was great.


Coffee Vietnam

The coffee in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted. It’s thick, black, strong and very caffeinated. And we love it.Coffee is made using individual metal filters placed over the cup. The ground coffee and water is placed in the top and the coffee slowly drips through (see more here via this sassy video). If you like your coffee with milk, the Vietnamese will throw in a generous dollop or two of condensed milk, which is probably the only substance that’s able to penetrate the concentrated coffee sludge. The bean itself has a distinctive vanilla smell to it that you really can taste in the finish product.Thats it really – we loved travelling Vietnam.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A real exploration of Vietnam by motorbike

By Phil D
I was meant to travel Vietnam a lot earlier, right after my Cambodia trip, but a rather spontaneous change of my itinerary forced me to postpone this adventure by more than three months. Having finally booked my ticket to Hanoi and a rough outline of places to visit in my head, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A good amount of fellow travelers told me a lot of good things about the country. Others said that they didn’t like the people and their attitude and that the country has already become too touristy. By that time I had already been to 7 other countries and I was worried that Vietnam would just not be able to fascinate me anymore. Luckily I was very wrong and it turned out to be a great trip, with all kinds of different adventures, beautiful places and memorable encounters with the locals.

Temple litureature Vietnam

For many, arriving in Hanoi is sort of a huge culture shock. It is loud, it is busy and it can be quiet dirty at times. I wasn’t too overwhelmed and actually got to like it pretty much right away. It’s a very dynamic city, the street food is marvelous and, contrary to what I have heard before, I found the locals very friendly. What I found very striking and what accompanied me as we traveled across the country was Vietnam’s ambivalent relation to the past and present. On the one hand the country’s history plays a very important role and sometimes seems to even dominate its society. The colonial times, the Vietnam War but also all of the ancient history – in an abstract way it is something that is ever-present wherever you go. On the other hand you will see a country that is on the move, values change, a new middle-class is emerging and the young people want to advance, leave things behind and move forward. In Hanoi this interesting mix became most evident.

Motorbike Vietnam

So what about the tourism in Vietnam? It is said that Vietnam is the touristiest Southeast Asian country just after Thailand. It is true that these days the country gets a huge influx of tourists of all kinds – backpackers as well as all inclusive tours from Europe, the US and China. But there are still ways to dodge the crowds. Our motorbike trip across the mountains of Ha Giang was a perfect example for this. It is a bit out of the way, it takes some time, it might be inconvenient for some but for us the adventure we got in exchange was more than rewarding. Beautiful scenery, authentic hill tribes and yet not a lot of tourists made it one of the best trips of my entire journey.

At the same time, things can become very touristy. Good examples would be the tours of Halong Bay (which I did but did not even cover here), in my opinion one of the most overrated things ever, the still picturesque Hoi An and beach getaways like Nha Trang. I guess it depends what you are after and how you define a great holiday. The good thing about Vietnam is, that it offers a little bit of everything.

Motorbike Northern Vietnam

One thing is for sure though; Vietnam is the perfect country to be explored by motorbike. As most of you might know by now, it is my preferred type of transport anyhow. But Vietnam offers a great variety of exciting and interesting motorbike tours. At first my plan was to buy a bike in Hanoi and then drive down all the way to Saigon to sell it. But I soon realized that, in order to travel without time pressure, this endeavor would take more than a month. Some people do it in 2-3 weeks but I think besides the riding and a severe butt pain at the end, a trip like that wouldn’t be that enjoyable. I opted for renting here and there, either for day trips or extended road trips. Looking back at it, this was the best decision and enabled us to make the most out of the 4 weeks we had. I can recommend doing the Ha Giang loop in the North, going from Hue to Hoi and via Danang and day tours in Dalat or the Mekong Delta. Every one of these trips was worth it and with an average price of about 5-7 USD per day for a bike, it’s affordable as well.

I was positively surprised by the Vietnamese people as I heard a few bad stories before. Everyone was friendly and helpful and we had some great encounters with the locals. They can be very straight forward and they do let it show if they are not content with something. But once you learn how to interpret this, everything is fine. What I found frustrating at times was the fact that you had to haggle for literally everything. Transport, goods and sometimes even a bottle of water. To a certain degree this can be found in all of Southeast Asia and it’s normal but here it was a little too much. It seemed like people perceive Western tourists as moneybags and always try to extract the biggest amount of money as possible. As I later learned, this as well has its roots in former governmental policies and is only slowly changing. At the end of my trip the constant haggling and the abstract feeling of being overcharged just became very tiring.

I finished my journey in the Mekong Delta which somehow felt like coming home or the end of an important part of my trip. I had followed this “Mother of Waters” all the way down from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia before making it here, where the stream empties into the South China Sea. The river had accompanied me for a long time and it made for some great memories along its banks. As different as the countries are the Mekong flows through, as different are the many faces of the river itself. From a slow and lazy stream to wild and roaring waterfalls and finally branching out into a network of small distributaries – the Mekong represents the many facets of South East Asia and I am sure that one day I will explore its origins in China and Tibet.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Flying over Inle Lake, Myanmar on Hot Air Balloon

InleLake is the largest lake of Myanmar, nested among mountains of the Shan State. Inlelake is often known as the top places in Myanmar for trekking and adventures. Adding more activities to adventure lovers, ActiveTravel Asia introduce a new product –Inlehot air balloon – for new and unique experience when travelling to Myanmar.

Myanmar Hot Air Ballon

How the trip look like?
The passengers will rise up early for being collected from hotel and transfer by boat to the balloon point. The morning mist of the lake is also a nice image to enjoy the trip from beginning. Arriving in the balloon checking point, an experience UK-licensed Commercial Balloon Pilot will provide a comprehensive safety briefing. After that, the balloon will take off gently. The flight duration is about 1 hour.

What is the highlights?
The passenger will certainly enjoy the best panoramic view of the lake when the balloon gets the standard height. Depending on the wind, the view can be various with:
- Motorized canoes transporting visitors along the main canal from Nyaungshwe on a day’s expedition
- Inthafish men is rowing the boats with one legs
- The layered mountain surrounding the lake
- Floating vegetables and gardens

In some occasions of festivals or better weather with strong winds, the passengers will have lucky         chances to witness:
- Inle famous festivals at hidden villages under the shadow of the mountain
- Across the bird sanctuary
- Or even to even to Ywama village with its tall teak stilted houses and its famous floating market. 
The passengers booking Balloon trip will enjoy fresh tee, coffees and light cake before taking off. After landing, enjoy fresh water, fruit juice, fruit and a celebratory champagne style chilled sparkling wine in glass flutes whilst the enthusiastic crew pack the balloon away. 

Is that trip safe?
All pilots are UK-licensed Commercial Balloon Pilot who are well trained and experienced with balloon ride control.

If the winds are too light for the balloon to cross the lake, the pilots are experienced enough with advanced practicedto land the balloon at the top a purpose-built floating balloon platform that follows the balloon all the time. The balloon will then be “sailed” back to shore, adding an extra dimension to morning’s flight.

How to book?
The trip is taking the very first flight on Oct 2014. And now open for booking via our website ActiveTravel Myanmar. With new hot air balloon trip in Inle, now passengers have more options to take balloon ride: in Bagan, in Mandalay and in Inle Lake (Myanmar)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Seven things must do in Hanoi

By Phil D
After my Myanmar adventure, I flew into Hanoi for about a month of traveling Vietnam. My plan was to cross the country all the way from the North down to the South and into the Mekong Delta. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. On the one hand I was excited to explore a new country, sample the famous Vietnamese cuisine and embark on a promising motorbike adventure Northern Vietnam. On the other hand I was a little skeptical after hearing stories about crime, people constantly being overcharged and certain places already spoilt by mass tourism.  But I wanted to see for myself and tried to keep a positive attitude. After a day in Hanoi, I met up with Angel from Canada who I had met in Bagan, Myanmar.  We arranged to team up and travel together for a bit with Hanoi being our starting point. Hanoi may not have the tropical charm of Saigon but makes up for it with some of the best street food in Asia, a lot of culture and history and a likable type of gruffness and authenticity. Here are my personal highlights which you should definitely check out:

1. Old Quarter
No Hanoi trip would be complete without spending some time in its Old Quarter and luckily our hotel was right next to it. The quarter features the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi and is the only remaining merchants’ quarter in the whole of Vietnam. It was founded in the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and back then consisted of only 36 streets. Each one of these was home of one of the guilds and bore the name of their craft which is still the case today. Hang Bac (Silver Street) was home to the silversmiths, in Hang Lan Ong (Herb Street) you can buy all sorts of herbal medicinal products and Hang Ca (Fish Street) is the home of the fish mongers. Although these names no longer necessarily represent what is sold there it is still the best place in Hanoi to buy anything from souvenirs and fake designer label goods to traditional medicines and Buddhist artifacts. Even if you’re not shopping, it is superb place to immerse yourself into the daily Vietnamese life.

Hanoi old quarter

2. Hoan Kiem Lake
Named after an ancient legend, Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the restored sword) is the epicenter of old Hanoi and serves as sort of a focal point for its public life. In the early mornings you can watch locals practicing Tai Chi on its shores, it’s a popular spot for young couples to spend time in each other’s arms on one of the park benches and at night it makes for a great panorama. The small Ngoc Son Temple is located on a little island at the northern end of the lake. During daytime it can be accesses via a an old red wooden bridge, the Bridge of the Rising Sun. The pleasant surroundings of the lake make for a nice break after having toured the Old Quarter.

Hoan Kiem Lake

3. Temple of Literature and University of Vietnam
About 2km west of Ho Kiem Lake you will find Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. It was built in 1070 and was dedicated to Confucius whose influence is still an important part of Vietnamese culture. The temple honors Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. A few years later Vietnam’s first university was founded here.The temple is a great place to wander around, unwind and explore the many pavilions, pagodas, courtyards and gardens.  If it’s not too crowded, the temple makes for a good sanctuary from the traffic outside.

Temple of Literature

4.Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The place where Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, or affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ho”, is kept. The Mausoleum is an impressive Russian style building always guarded by two soldiers dresses in white. You can actually go inside to pay your respect but lines are supposed to be long and you have to adhere to an elaborate set of rules as you enter. In the end we are talking about Vietnam’s holiest of holies. Unfortunately we were not able to go inside since the mausoleum was closed during our stay (as it usually is during October and November).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

5. Hoa Lo Prison Museum
The Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in 1896 and was used to incarcerate “anti-colonial revolutionaries”. After the French were ousted in 1954 and during the Vietnam war, it was mainly shot down American pilots who were detained in the prison. It was then when it received its new name: The Hanoi Hilton. An interesting artifact is the flight suit of former senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and photographs of his capture by Hanoi locals.

6. Eat Phở
Hanoi is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest food capitals and a street-eater’s paradise with plenty of options for those who want to eat like a local. Vietnam’s and especially Hanoi’s signature dish is Phở, a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. The dish comes with plenty of garnishes like onions, basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges. There are two varieties of Phở: Phở Ga which is made with chicken and Phở Bo which is made with beef.  It’s fresh, light and is traditionally served as breakfast food. Very small, very local, very cheap and very tasty.

Pho, Vietnam

7. Drink Bia hơi
Bia hơi is a specialty of the North and probably the cheapest beer in the world. The light beer is brewed daily, matured for a short period of time and then delivered to the many bars around Hanoi. These popular street corner places are referred to as beer stations and that’s what they are. You sit down on small plastic stools, order a beer accompanied by peanuts and that’s it. Locals love it and if you pick one of the non-touristy places outside the Old Town, it’s a truly authentic experience. Since the beer is brewed daily, quality varies from day to day. I actually liked it. Downing a few after a long day wandering around a city was nice and the good best thing about it is that it’s so cheap. One glass for about 3.000 VND to 5.000 VND which is equivalent to about 15 USc to 25 USc.

Beer hoi, Hanoi

Hanoi was a great start for my Vietnam trip. It takes a bit getting used to it with the crazy people and the constant hustle and bustle in the Old Quarter. But then it’s a great place to immerse into the Vietnamese culture and daily life. There is a lot to do and see, by day and by night and the food, especially the street food is amazing. I think after Thailand, this was the second best I tried during my entire trip. Good value and the friendliest and most helpful staff ever.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Impressive Hoian ancient town

By Daniel Noll

Hoi An is considered the architectural and culinary gem of Central Vietnam, receiving the stamp of approval from UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. We arrived there on a tourist bus from Danang and were dragged through the typical Vietnamese tour routine.

Hoian Vietnam

The bus conveniently stopped at one hotel where we got a hard sell. Those tourists who returned to the bus were taken to a second hotel, with guesthouse touts literally following the bus until its final destination. We had expected Hoi An to be over-touristed, but we weren’t expecting this intense welcome. Once we broke free from the bus and the touts, we felt the laid-back (as much as is possible in Vietnam) feel of Hoi An’s old town.

Hoian ancient tow

Hoi An served as a major trading port in the 16th and 17th century, making it home to many Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and French traders. You can still see the Chinese influence today – in the architecture and families descended from the original Chinese traders. Merchant houses line the streets and are usually outfitted with a storefront on the ground floor and living quarters in the back or on the second floor. Today, the storefronts are mostly full of souvenir shops, tailor shops, or restaurants catering to tourists.

Cycling Hoian

We filled our days in Hoi An easily, spending time at tailor shops, taking cycling tour Hoi An and cooking course, eating  specialties like cao lau and wantons, and just wandering around the windy streets. We found people friendly and not as jaded by tourism as we would have expected given the number of tourists coursing through the town. It makes for a pleasant break from the intensity of Vietnam’s big cities.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The truly exploration of Mekong Delta by bike

By Vince Robbins
Biking Mekong tour started on the blast road. It was significantly less stressful than the heavy traffic of the city, and the countryside has some beautiful stretches. The road-side restaurants along the way had very limited menus but made up for it with the dozens of hammocks, turning short pit-stops into slightly longer than expected nap-time. It just makes so much sense! I really want to introduce the hammock-restaurant to stretches of American highways (patent pending).

Biking Mekong

After getting lost several times, we eventually made it to Can Tho just after dark, and managed to find a hotel with essentially no idea where we were or where we were going. After having dinner at a little restaurant called “Mekong,” which was delicious and cheap, we ran into a woman who convinced us to get a boat to the floating market at 5:30am. I don’t think I’ve been up before 8 am in five years. How she convinced me to agree to that is something that should be studied by business negotiators at Fortune 500 companies. She convinced us that you have to get down the river to the market bright and early to catch the action.

Biking Mekong Delta Vietnam

It ended up being a great decision; the city was dark and quiet as we walked to the water, and the little motorboat ride down the river at sunrise was peaceful and gorgeous. To be honest I didn’t know much of what to expect at a floating market, but I assumed some sort of hover-craft would be involved. Suddenly we were amidst small- to medium-sized vessels, bobbing about each other, linking up to transfer cargo between them. Our guide/driver cut off the engine and rowed us between the boats, some selling watermelons and pineapples, others offering all kinds of fresh seafood. It seemed to be primarily larger commodity wholesale, but the vendors were happy to unload individual items to us as well. I grabbed some pastries from a baked goods boat, while Canadian Ryan flagged down the watermelon cruise liner. We also linked up with a coffee vendor who managed to transfer a few cups of steaming coffee to us while bobbing back and forth alongside our boat (without spilling a drop). Luckyly,  Mekong tour brings us truly experience in Vietnam. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

How to trek Sapa in right way

By Robyn
Sapa is renowned for its phenomenal trekking Vietnam. Hills stretch into the clouds and valleys plummet to the floor with such speed and force that it is hard to imagine how people manage to live off the land. Yet, as far as the eye can see, steps of rice paddy fields stretch across these astounding gradients with such precision and innovation that could only have been created by the resilient Vietnamese.

Trekking Sapa

The rice field hills are an awe inspiring spectacle only to be broken by the occasional waterfall, nestle of jungle or bamboo forest, making it the ideal place to go trekking Sapa.  But unfortunately, like so many wonderful parts of the world, it has become very cramped with tourists and subsequently hagglers and other annoying quirks that follow the industry. Sadly it is very easy to go to Sapa and have a very shallow experience, superficially coated with unauthentic tourist fluff instead of the real deal. Here are a few tricks to make sure you have an authentic trekking experience.

Trekking Sapa Vietnam

There is no better way to understand someone else’s culture than to be invited into their home for a night. And the fascinating minority tribes of the Sapa region are no exception. You won’t get a toilet but if you’re happy to squat behind the bamboo you will not only get a loo with a spectacular view but you will have a much more exciting story to tell when you get back home. The bed will be warm, hard but warm, and the food will be fantastic. So keep an open mind and learn what it is like to survive on the hills of Sapa.

From rain, to heat , to freezing conditions. Make sure your overnight bag has it all. Of course it depends on what time of year you go as the weather does vary – but even though the days may be warm and sunny the temperatures can drop at night to extremely cold conditions. Make sure you have a clean set of clothes to sleep in as it is highly likely that everything from your socks to your t-shirt will be caked in mud by the time you have finished your first day of trekking and throw in a waterproof jacket or umbrella in case it suddenly decides to rain. Then it’s all the usual; torch, toilet paper, camera, water.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

ActiveTravel Asia introducing Myanmar Tours Booking Website in Spanish

Continuing the success of Myanmar adventures website in English, ActiveTravel Asia has introduced a new website in Spanish about booking tours to Myanmar (Burma) – VIAJEBIRMANIA.COM.

MYANMAR, July 2014 - ActiveTravel Asia is a long standing name of adventure travel to Indochina countries including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. With the strong emerge of Burma market and high demand from Spanish speaking countries, ActiveTravel Asia decided to make a website for native Spanish speakers easily booking a package to the hidden country – Myanmar (Burma).


The website is built by the latest modern technology but overall, the website is a completion of the most essential information to plan a trip to Myanmar in Spanish. The website offers various length packages dividing in different themes of activities. The most popular theme is Classic tours which include easy to moderate physical activities covering most popular destination of Myanmar (Birmina). The second is AdventureTours consisting of trekking, hiking trips and focusing on traveler experience. The third is Special tours– a selection of one-of-a-kind packages which are often very unique programs such as Putao rafting or diving in Mergui tours...and even some tours not operated regularly. The last tour category is Combined Tours (ViajesCombinados). That is some suggestions of excursion in other Indochina countries which well match with a Myanmar tour package.

The website also gives some essential information for visitors ready to book a tour to Burma confidently. The trip planners can find information from physical facts of Myanmar to hidden tips – some most important among those tips are how to get Visa on Arrival to Myanmar. The difficulty of Visa for countries without Burmese embassies and consulates is no more with the back end supporting team.

“We are proudly to be some of the very first travel agencies offering Myanmar tours in Spanish”, said Bobby Nguyen, supervisor of this project and GM of ActiveTravel Asia. “We have seen the rapid increase in demand from Spanish markets recently and we have strong capacity of human resource. We can supply 24/7 Spanish speaking consultants and qualified Spanish speaking tour guides in Myanmar. With our experience and understanding of destination, we are confident to offer Spanish tourists best packages to Myanmar in their native language”.

ActiveTravel Asia is an adventure brand name under management of Holiday Indochina who has strong experience at Burma market. The website is now opening for requests and bookings 24/7 with Spanish speaking consultancy at VIAJEBIRMANIA.COM.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Five things travelers should experience Vietnam

By Jessica Korteman
Vietnam had been on our travel wish-list for some time, not only because it was where Hai was born but because almost every traveler we met raved about it, and we can understand why. We spent three weeks traveling Vietnam. It’s do-able but we’d recommend a month if you have it to cover the long distances and account for delays. Here are our top picks from our time in this wonderfully chaotic and colorful nation.

1. Go South 
The Mekong Delta region is worth the trip south from Ho Chi Minh City. Not only is there a super-relaxed vibe, but you’ll eat some of the most delicious food Vietnam has to offer, the kind that makes you want to lick your plate clean or slurp every last mouthful of broth from your finished noodle soup. Don’t even get me started on the coffee: hands down the best we tasted in the country.

Coffee Hanoi

2. Get to know Vietnam’s war history from the Vietnamese perspective                
Vietnam is much more than a war, but you can’t put what you experience in the country into context without knowing something about it. And there are many opportunities to get in touch with Vietnam’s war past.

While it is super touristy and you’ll be herded around like cattle, take a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to experience the underground guerrilla network for yourself. Crawling through the hot and narrow tunnels will give you a momentary sense of what conditions must have been like during conflict. Then learn more about the Vietnam War and the effects of Agent Orange at Ho Chi Minh’s War Remnants Museum. It’s not an easy visit, but you’ll come out humbled about the gravity of war and its ongoing legacy. Most Củ Chi tunnel tours swing by the War Remnants Museum on the way back for those who’d like to make it a full day outing.

3. Get a bus from your bus                                                                 
Most bus companies operate a free shuttle service from bus stations to your hotel in town. They are usually unmarked and unpublicized to foreigners so that the taxi services inevitably waiting for you as soon as you step out of the bus can make their dong out of you. Watch the locals and follow their lead. Sometimes it takes a few minutes for the buses/vans to come, so don’t be put off by the empty bus station and save yourself a most likely inflated trip into town.

4. Take a free walking tour in Hanoi  

                                              Walking Hanoi

Want to experience the capital from a local’s perspective without paying for and joining a tour group. They are a student-run organization who provide free English guiding services around the city. While they have some itineraries on their website, these are just as some inspiration. You can go wherever you like for a full or half day depending on your interests. You’ll just need to cover the costs of the student(s) – admission fees, lunch etc and any tips you may want to give. The tour is always private even if you are a solo traveler so you can be sure to have a very personalized experience and lots of interaction with your new friend.

5. Whatever you do, get to Sapa

Trekking Sapa

Sapa is not only one of the most spectacular places you will ever see, but it is so different to other parts of Vietnam that you won’t have truly experienced all that the country has to offer without going here. Go straight to trekking Sapa for a true village homestay experience and we promise you won’t regret it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Surreal experience cycling Vietnam

By Baerbel
After strenuous days in the mountains and as Johan had caught a cold we spent a lazy day in Ha Giang before moving on to our next destination Sapa with the highest mountains in Vietnam. It took us three uneventful days on ever undulating roads to get to Cao Lai, a town at the bottom of the mountain that leads to Sapa and a border crossing to China. 

Biking Vietnam

The next morning was my birthday and Johan organized a nice breakfast at a 3-star hotel next door. When we entered the breakfast room at 6am sharp our table was nicely decorated, ‘Happy birthday’ music was playing and a few minutes later I got a bunch of flowers and balloons! What a lovely and surprise. It is unforgettable menmories in active travel Vietnam trip.

Travel Vietnam

By 7am we had filled our stomachs with yummy food, decorated my bike nicely and were ready for another challenge. 36km uphill to Sapa, while the first 6km started easy as the road was mainly flat with just a few very short climbs not even worth mentioning. The real challenge begun afterwards. To make the climbing more fun (as if it was fun at all!!!) we played a game: boot camp with Baerbel the drill master. One set consisting of three times 20 minutes climbing followed by a five-minute break. The last 20 minutes were followed by a 15-minute break. This worked quite well except for the very end where ascents became so steep that we had to stop almost every kilometer. But we managed all way up to 1,600m in 4.5 hours without pushing our bikes. The rest of the afternoon we relaxed and ate delicious food.

Biking Northern Vietnam

We spent two more days in Sapa to recharge our batteries and while we didn’t really like the mountain resort itself as it is far too touristic for us we enjoyed the cool temperatures in the mid 20′s and the food and relaxed atmosphere of our hotel. We also had great views of the Fan Xi Pan, the highest mountain in Indochina with an altitude of over 3,143m.

Northern Vietnam

The day of our departure was another challenging biking Vietnam, even if only for the first part as we took Vietnam’s highest road leading over a 2,100m pass. We tackled the tough climb with mostly over 10% grades in about two hours and were rewarded with one of the most stunning views into the valley. From the top we could see the road winding down and were very much looking forward to a 30-kilometer downhill ride! A fantastic one with many stops to take pictures.