6 things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam – A cultural gem tucked away in paradise

After spending the best week of my life exploring Son Doong (The World’s Largest Cave) I ventured southward towards Hoi An, Vietnam.  It began with a Boomerang Bus trip to Hue City where I spent one night before jumping on a motorbike for a day of cruising which delivered me to Hoi An.  I heard wonderful things about Hoi An before arriving and couldn’t wait to find out for myself.  Friends from home told me it was a must see hidden gem.  Friends in Korea informed me it was a tailoring capital of the world and new buddies in Vietnam told me I could be there in time for the full moon lantern festival!

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The motorbike ride was an exhilarating experience that I highly recommend to any backpackers in Vietnam.  From Hue to Hoi An or vice versa you can cheaply rent a motor bike with a group of backpackers and deliver it to the next hostel.  For a few extra bucks they’ll ship your bags on the bus with less adventurous travelers.  The trip south from Hue takes you over the Hai Van pass commanding a stunning view of the ocean with northern Vietnam above and Danang City to the south. (Danang City houses the closest airport to Hoi An & is only a $10 cab ride away).

Once you arrive in Hoi An you’ll be sure to enjoy a relaxing stay whether for few days or a weeks.  I thought I’d only be there a few days and stayed all week!  So, what is there to do in Hoi An?

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Top 10 Travel Photos of 2014 #1

2014 was my most traveled year yet.  I had the good fortune to bring in the New Year in the Philippines before returning to my job in South Korea.  Summer vacation was spent backpacking Vietnam and Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) brought me to Japan.  I ventured to Shanghai before heading back to America for the end of the year holidays and all along these crazy adventures my camera followed me.  Tens of thousands of pictures were narrowed down to roughly 30 finalists before I selected my top 10 travel photos of 2014!

#1 brings us back to Son Doong, the world’s largest cave, the deep in the jungles of Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park, Vietnam!   Its no surprise that my favorite photo of 2014 comes from the most amazing adventure I’ve ever taken.  The photo comes from deep within Son Doong in a section of the cave known as Watch out for Dinosaurs; a doline (collapsed ceiling) allowing light to pour in resulting in the spectacular jungle.  Cave formations are covered a splendor that can only be found in Son Doong are seen in the distance as the jungle’s heat mixing with cool cave air generates the cloud just slightly obscuring the far wall.

I hope you enjoyed these travel shots!  Stay tuned for some honorable mentions that barely missed the top 10!

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What is your favorite one of my photos from 2014?  How about your own favorite shot?

 Check out #2 here!

 For the best of 2013 go here!

Top 10 Travel Photos of 2014 #4

2014 was my most traveled year yet.  I had the good fortune to bring in the New Year in the Philippines before returning to my job in South Korea.  Summer vacation was spent backpacking Vietnam and Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) brought me to Japan.  I ventured to Shanghai before heading back to America for the end of the year holidays and all along these crazy adventures my camera followed me.  Tens of thousands of pictures were narrowed down to roughly 30 finalists before I selected my top 10 travel photos of 2014!

#4 comes from Hang En’s glorious campsite.  After a half day trekking through the jungles of Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park in Vietnam we came to the entrance of the world’s 3rd largest cave.  The following day we would make it to the world’s largest cave, Son Doong but first it was time to relax in these lush pools and enjoy some rice wine!  If you ever have the good fortune of visiting Vietnam be sure to check out Oxalis Adventure Tours and this world class adventure.

 

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Check out #3 here!
Check out #5 here!

Son Doong Day 4 – The most glorious bath ever taken

Grimy and ready for a bath, we arrived at Son Doong Camp 2 after frolicking beneath the Great Wall of Vietnam in the muddy Passchendaele Trench.  We were greeted with our porter’s friendly smiles.  Most of them refused a hug and instead adroitly maneuvering a cup of tea into my hand convincing me to chow down on a scrumptious lunch.  We cleaned off (barely) and ate up before setting off again.  Ahead of us were two dolines and hundreds of meters of cave between the jungles; with any luck we’d arrive in time to take a detour to our first scrub since the river crossing near the cave’s entrance._DSC8071

Our bittersweet departure meant that we would soon be leaving this enchanted fantasy world.  A world of awe inspiring natural beauty just around each bend.  Beauty shrouded in a seemingly endless blackness that melts away as we approach.  Son Doong captivated us on the way in and was sure to follow through on its promise to amaze as we climbed back into the Garden of Edam._DSC8090

 

Immediately the heat began beating down on us; a gentle reminder that deep inside Vietnam’s Phong Nha Quang Binh National Park Queen ruled with a merciless red-hot fist.  With every step, with every boulder, every precipice we surpassed Mother Nature continued to crank up the heat.  Just past noon we happily took a shady break in the jungle but quickly moved on; we were even more excited to descend the far side of this mini-mountain in search of cooler temperatures.  Resting at the edge of the shade we pondered abandoning our lives awaiting us back home and simply turning back into the wonderland._DSC8094

 

A cold rinse in the cave’s river was enough to motivate my legs so the dreams quickly dispersed and off we went venturing back into the refreshing darkness.  The descent grew trickier as the trail fell lower; we took a different path with massive razor sharp boulders lining the trail.  No, not lining the trail.  They were the trail!  These multi-meter jagged edges were common throughout Son Doong but never before in such prevalence.  One thing was certain, this passage made me incredibly thankful for Oxalis’s bright orange Kevlar-like gloves.  I paused to don the glowing gauntlets and by happenschance turned around catching a truly magical sight.

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Rain began to fall in the doline behind us!  Floating hundreds of meters down amusingly similar to snow in the 40+ degree Celsius forest I couldn’t help but crack a smile!  Slowly the flurry transformed into a downpour and I decided to snap one quick photo before turning back around.  I thought it would be best to continue onward before the already slick rocks became even more perilous.  The maze of boulders beneath me made for slow going but luckily the rest of my party wasn’t far ahead.  Before I knew it I approached a sheer cliff where a few of my companions lingered.

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Dozens of meters below we could make out the faint sound of hear a stream in the pitch black.  We weren’t heading all the way to that tumultuous waterway but our 10 meter journey required a safety rope.  Deb began tying a bowline around us before guiding each of us one by one along the last few meters of this descent.  One at a time we half climbed-half swung from razors edge to the safety ropes.  Mr. Ky awaited us below as the river grew into a thunderous echo throughout the chamber!  After a quick horizontal stint we finally began to emerge from a small tunnel; our campsite directly in front of us and the doline to the left illuminated the end of today’s journey._DSC8124

If trekking teaches you anything its certainly that just because something is within your sight that doesn’t make it “close.”  Another hour or so of bouldering brought us back to the world’s best campsite.  We dropped our packs and grabbed some soap, tonight we could gloriously clean off 3 days of filth.  Mud, BO and grime combined with other unpleasantries Son Doong threw at us turning each of us into a foul aromatic concoction!  Miraculously the journey to this narrow waterway brought us past yet another marvel; a chamber who’s walls were lined with million year old fossils!  In awe of these creatures frozen for eternity we eventually surrendered to the thought of being clean and sought out that refreshing water.

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Swimming into the chilly creek was another reminder how deep we were.  The water felt great but it was enough to prickle your goose bumps.  I should point out that our bathtub was narrower than an airplane aisle; we had to go in single-file for a scrub; oh and it was deep.  Who knows how deep but within seconds none of us could stand and we began bracing our backs and legs on opposite walls.  Getting out proved even more difficult that returning as the first bathers stayed near the edge and we swam under or somehow gallivanted over each other.

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I ventured further for a blind swim as the rocky walls gave way to an expansive chamber.  Without light to guide me I decided it best to keep my journey to a minimum.  There was no way of telling how big it truly was but swimming back to the small gap with light and playful sounds of new friends was an entirely unique experience for my senses.  Practically no sound came from the river or cave down here and there was definitely a complete lack of light.  I imagined myself being in a sensory deprivation tank in a psych experiment before freaking myself out and heading for shore.

After some extensive scrubbing we were all sufficiently “not dirty.”  No one was clean.  We were still in the jungle after all and bathed while wearing some of the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever had the misfortune of donning.  Oh well, it’ll have to do until tomorrow night when we can have a proper swim in Hang En!  We ventured back to our campsite with the world’s best bathroom view.

By the time we arrived the fried chicken and array of Vietnamese delicacies complimenting Howard’s chips were ready.  Everyone enjoyed the rest of the rice wine with this meal since a few porters promised to rush ahead and get another shipment from a friend meeting him on the road (they do this all the time and love their rice wine even more than we do!)  After eating the meal a few of the Vietnamese joined us for a game of Tien Len and somehow our faces were all covered in charcoal as punishment for losing again!  So much for that bath.

When the rice wine ran out talk about how porters like to arm wrestle began rustling around the table.  Trying our luck amongst the foreigners a few matches gave clear results.  The most obvious was that I wasn’t going to win.  Toby, Chris & Julian all fought hard but Julian came out as our champion in a finals match between Julian and Toby that the porters were placing bets on!

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Moments later a heavily tattooed porter showed up; the one who had recently spent a few years in Taiwan but more importantly had schlepped over 70kg all day!  Julian stood half a head taller and clearly had broader shoulders.  But this guy was a muscle man for a living.  He was clearly in better shape than any of us and was the porter’s favorite.

Thanh walked over to referee announcing a best of 3 matches.  First and last would be lefty!  A murmur went through the crowd as most of the contestants groaned.  All but Toby  who hid his left handed dominance in our preliminary matches.  He suddenly became a surprise favorite and the bets started to bring our campsite to a dull roar when Thanh gathered everyone’s attention for the first match: Julian vs. our tattooed trekker. Continue reading

Castaway on an island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam – Day 2

Waking up on Castaway’s boat in Ha Long Bay and walking to the sundeck for a relaxing morning would have been fantastic.  It was cloudy and we had to transfer to a smaller boat soon after breakfast and hustled across the side to the other vessel.  A few hours on these choppy seas caused the worst hangovers to grow exponentially worse.  Luckily that wasn’t me.

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I jumped up and down enjoying the sway of the ocean while dancing to a fellow traveler’s tunes.  Some of my companions huddled inside fearing each swell while the bravest of us enjoyed the salty spray aboard the bow.  Green islands skirted along either side towering over of us when suddenly someone spotted a massive jellyfish off of starboard._DSC9518 _DSC9525 _DSC9531 _DSC9547

Lighthouses and tour boats grew scarcer the further away from the mainland we sailed.  Unfortunately the trail of littler seemed to intensify as each luxury liner was replaced with smaller local fishing & market boats.  Around the next bend we began spotting small floating houses and villages; their nets already hauled in from a morning catch.  It was suddenly clear that no one wanted to haul the trash that these natives generated and we all felt a twinge of guilt for bringing even more garbage to the seas.  At least everything we brought would stay aboard and get shipped back to shore.

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Slowly the waves died down and a happy calm swam across the ship.  Our vessel turned and glided between the green monsters which now protected us from each treacherous wave.  As the waters calmed we began to see more floating houses and islands with tropical beaches.  Most of these lush paradises were devoid of all signs of humanity.  Simply a beautiful beach protected by an overgrown jungle filled mountain.

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Before we knew it our boat slowed and turned towards one such beach.  Castaway Island was clearly inhabited, albiet there were a few shanties, a solitary bar and 2 docks roped off in the waters.  We landed, had a beer and found out that electricity would only be on for a few hours in the evening.  Rock climbing began after lunch as did tubing and some other festivities.

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After eating I tried my luck at rock climbing debuting the cliffs for our trip.  Without too much struggle I reached the peak of the “easy” climb.  It was by no means easy but certainly a ton of fun.  I took my free beer for making it up and waited while plotting my ascent of the “hard” path to secure 2 more cold ones.

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My 1st belayer's awesome tatoo!

My 1st belayer’s awesome tatoo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile tubing began with a hilarious group of Brits who affectionately referred to me as “dirty Mike” and themselves as “& tha boys.”  Conner an unusually short gentleman was hilariously tossed great distances from the tube; a fate I later found out that it was inevitable as I too flew into the tropical waters.  (no one went nearly as far as Conner in this dwarf tossing experiment)

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After getting a good laugh I took a chance on the tough climb.  Harnessing up, my belayer (who was an expert climber) gave me some last bits of advice.

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“Keep breathing.  Follow the crack on the right.  At one point you’ll need to brace your back legs and use a technique called ‘stemming’.”

Alright, I thought to myself.  I got this!

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