Hoi An Photo Tour

I took a photography tour in Hoi An and wish I would have taken one before we embarked on our trip.  Our group went to the outskirts of Hoi An to take photos and it was easy to approach people and ask for a photo since everyone knew our tour guide.  I learned a lot about my camera (read: get rid of it and buy a new one).  We lost light quickly, but these were my best shots of the day.

Buffing things up for Tet

Buffing things up for Tet



With our instructor, who speaks perfect Vietnamese


It’s amazing what people can fit on motorbikes here. This is a common sight. Add a few more people to this bike and put a cell phone or a cigarette in the driver’s hand and that would also be quite normal. Drivers are very coordinated 🙂

On to the rice paddies:

In the rice paddys

Working hard in the rice paddy



My favorite shot of the day

My favorite shot of the day

Planting peanuts

Planting peanuts



We had lost the magic hour sunlight at this point but still got some decent shots back in the village, and got to say hi to a bunch of kiddos:





We learned panning, and I was stoked… but then I tried again after the class and couldn’t re-create it (the background won’t blur). Photographer friends, what am I doing wrong?


And finally, some night shots: I don’t have this perfected but it was really fun messing around with different exposures:




Overall, a fun, informative day taking photos!


Early Retirement in Hoi An

Our plan was to park in Hoi An and find a volunteer gig for a couple weeks before my family comes to visit. But alas, we arrived in Hoi An to find that most opportunities require a minimum of three months of volunteering. Understandable, considering the training they require, but not something that worked for us.

So we decided to do the next best thing: early retirement.

We have been kicking around Hoi An for two weeks now, and this is what it must feel like to be retired.  We have zero appointments on the schedule each day, and we while away the hours relaxing, drinking beer, going for runs, exploring the town, lounging at the beach, riding our bikes, and eating amazing food. And most of the good friends we have met are over age 65.

Downtown Hoi An

Downtown Hoi An

One of our favorite restaurants

One of our favorite restaurants


Hoi An is known for its lanterns and the town lights up at night.



How cute is this little guy?

There are no words.


One of our favorite sunset spots

One of our favorite sunset spots

Sunset in a bottle

Sunset in a bottle

Our youngest friend

Our youngest friend

Quintessential Hoi An: Conical hats, bikes, and offerings in front of tailor shops.

Quintessential Hoi An: Conical hats, bikes, and offerings in front of tailor shops.


Fancy night out with newly tailored clothes

Fancy night out with newly tailored clothes

Motorbike ride day-trip

Motorbike ride day-trip

Motorbike ride through Hai Van Pass

Motorbike ride through Hai Van Pass

Apparently this is significant.

Apparently this is significant.

We are here in Vietnam for the Tet (New Years) Holiday. Mostly, it means there is an increase in karaoke and public drunkenness.  Also, the city is covered in flowers and kumquat trees and it’s common to see locals carrying gigantic potted plants on the back of their motorcycle, steering with one hand and holding the plant steady with the other.


There are two people on this bike.


So much foliage

Our home base in Hoi An is Homeland River Homestay, located on Cam Nam Island, which is a 10 minute bike ride from the main downtown area.  It was great to be just outside of the busy downtown area, in a quieter section with the waterfront right outside from the back patio.

Back patio of our homestay

Back patio of our homestay



Our running route, right out the back door of our homestay.



Rice cakes on our running route

We were generously invited to our Homestay family’s Tet party along with extended family and their neighbors- there was so much great food, and bottomless cans of beer!

Tet celebration at our Homestay

Tet celebration at our Homestay

Bloggin' on the patio (with Cale just back from a run)

Bloggin’ on the patio (with Cale just back from a run)


Kiddos playing with fire at the Homestay

We were able to find a small volunteer gig that didn’t need a long term commitment, luckily! A school for deaf children called Paddy’s Jewel needed some excel help with their 2015 financials. Bingo, a way we could be useful!  I also got to guest-teach my go-to activity: making pop-up cards with the kids on their last hour of school before the Tet Holiday.  Luckily, pop up card making is a universal language.  The kids were adorable- most of their artwork was just scribbles but some of the older kids made some pretty fancy pop-up cards.

Lanterns on the river, with the Japanese Bridge in the background.

Lanterns on the river, with the Japanese Bridge in the background.

For the new year we took an overnight train back to Saigon for a special treat: my family is coming to visit! They arrive late tonight and we will make our way back north from here. Happy Tet, everyone!

Good Morning, Vietnam!

I have to admit, I was a bit nervous about Vietnam. We had spoken with a growing number of friends, acquaintances, and read various blogger summaries (Nomadic Matt for one) who really didn’t like it here.  So it was a pleasant surprise that we have found we absolutely love Vietnam.

A few things may have helped this first impression.  For starters, I believe the main reason visitors to Vietnam have a bad experience is because they feel they get ripped off or taken advantage of far too much.  But, well, we’ve been traveling for a while, and how should I put it…

We survived Morocco.

In Vietnam, nobody would even think of ‘guiding’ you somewhere you were already walking to, then demanding payment for their service.  We are guaranteed to pay more than locals for just about everything, but for us it’s never been more than a few dollars.  And though they are aggressive salespeople here, they are not personally offended if you say no, and in the end everyone still has a smile on their face.  That’s A-OK in my book.

At any rate, our love for the country started right away with our first full day in Ho Chi Minh City (A place I thought I wouldn’t care for purely because of its size: over seven million people).  The backpacker district we stayed in was entirely walkable (though we definitely had to learn how to cross the street….aaaaack!), there was a nearby park we could run in that had outdoor gym equipment, and everyone was extremely friendly to us.

Cale and I went for a visit to the War Museum.  It had its own slant towards propaganda, but as Cale put it: “I was taught in school that the Vietnam War was a tie!”  So at least this way we got the other side of the story about, as it’s referred to here, “The American War.”

Let me just go on a quick tangent before I continue my love-fest of our first few days in Vietnam.  The U.S. has sure done a lot of terrible things throughout the world, and it is extremely blatant as we have made our way through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Cale and I visited the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) museum in Vientiane which had a fantastic overview of the impact the Vietnam War has had in the years following.  All my stats listed below were taken from this museum.

COPE provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to bomb victims.  Laos was never involved in the Vietnam War but as a neighboring country, Northern Vietnamese were using Laotian land to access the Ho Chi Minh trail to get supplies into Vietnam.  To try and plug the supply line, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombies (sub munitions from cluster bombs), of which 30% failed to detonate. Cluster bombs come in may different forms, but the gist is : many are the size of baseballs, and if they don’t explode on impact, they will explode if touched OR if they are exposed to extreme heat.  Since bombs don’t just disappear when a war ends, 80 million unexploded bombies remained after the war.  25% of villages in Laos are still contaminated.   Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured since after 1974. Of those 20,000, 13,500 lost limb, and 40% were children.  There are 100 new casualties annually.

Many of those affected are kids looking for scrap metal to sell.  It’s a big gimmick in Laos to buy souvenirs made from bombs; it’s a great idea in theory to make something useful out of something that has resulted in so much destruction, but think about how they get that scrap metal: it just encourages kids to go out and risk their lives searching for it.  Many other injuries come from farming.  One particularly heartbreaking story told by video documentary was of a man making a fire in his home to cook dinner- something he had done hundreds of times, when a bomb exploded in his house. The heat from the fire had heated up an bombie buried under his dirt floor. He survived but is now blind, leaving his wife to support him and their two kids by rice farming.

Another interview was of a couple telling the story of how their 7-year-old son died.  He and two friends followed some older villagers into the forest to look for scrap metal (the first time the kids had followed along). The older villagers passed on some bombies, knowing they were dangerous but the kids didn’t know.  The boy’s two friends died on impact after trying to pick up a bombie which detonated.  The boy was standing a bit further away and his father found him still alive but badly injured.  They rented a ride in a pickup truck to take him to the nearest hospital… which turned them away since they had no blood and no medicine. They drove to another hospital and it was the same story.  Keep in mind, many villages in Laos are extremely remote with terrible (if any) roads.The guy with the pickup didn’t want the child to die in his truck so they took him home and he died at home.  It’s so heartbreaking, particularly because most of those affected by bombies today are children. Multiply one of these stories by 100 and there you have an idea of what goes on in Laos annually. This certainly highlights the lasting effects of war and makes me even more uneasy about what is happening around the world today.

It’s not an easy feat to clean this up.  They figure the contaminated area of Laos is 87,000 square kilometers (over 1/3 of the country).  Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) clearance progresses extremely slowly, at about 40 square kilometers per year.  UXO Lao is a government organization, employing 1,000 Laotian staff with a few international organizers.  They clear bombies from land (basically by going through carefully with metal detectors and then detonating the area) but it can take 10 days to clear a 100×100 meter space.

Cambodia has a similar story to Laos… they have their own terrible history with the Khmer Rouge in power for so long (we visited the genocide museum at S-21 which was a sickening overview of the terrible history there). Though the U.S. wasn’t connected to the Khmer Rouge, we weren’t blameless in the war here either, and dropped over 2.5 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the war.

At the war museum in Vietnam we learned that, though many U.S. soldiers and their families that were affected by agent orange have been compensated (as much as one can be) monetarily, Vietnamese victims of agent orange haven’t seen any compensation.  This isn’t something that just goes away. Children today are still beinb born without limbs or with mental disorders. This is something that lasts for at least three generations, though it’s unclear when the cycle will end. (Side note- guess who was involved in the making of agent orange?  Dow Chemical and Monsanto).

Anyway (sorry- that was a long downer of a side note), Cale and I emerged from the war museum in Ho Chi Minh fully depressed so decided to grab a beer at the minimart and go to the park to sit and drink away our sorrows.

We hadn’t been there for long when an older man came up to us and started talking.  We are always a bit wary of this and had our guard up, kind of wondering when he was going to ask us for something.  Well, he never did, and pretty soon there was a younger woman who approached us and joined the conversation.  The man said – “oh yeah that’s my student.”  And that’s when it clicked: I had read somewhere that locals come to the park to practice their English with visiting tourists.  Pretty soon we had a crowd of no less than 15 people around us. We split into two groups and talked… and talked… and talked… until two and a half hours later I needed some water!


Day one at the park in Ho Chi Minh City- and the crowd just got bigger!

We had such great time that we returned the next day and stayed for the same amount of time.  The group was a mix of students from various schools, and locals who just wanted to practice and improve their English conversation skills.  Skill levels ranged from fluent to very-basic English.  But they had some pretty great questions, like:

“What is love?”

“How does retirement work in the U.S.?”

“We heard about Ferguson, tell us more about race relations?”

“Why is sustainability important in business?” Oh heyyyy BGI!


Triple Bottoms Up!

I realized later that some of them thought I was legit Ellen Degenerous.  And one guy clarified: “no it’s like 70% Ellen, and 30% Miley Cyrus.”

It felt like having fans… and I was OK with it!

I had an equal amount of questions for the crowd about life in Vietnam and the upcoming Tet holiday, what sites I should see, what foods to eat, what towns they were from, etc.

So this was our warm welcome to Vietnam via the park in Ho Chi Minh.  What a fantastic first impression.


The beginning of day 2 at the park.



More photos of Vietnam:



Terrible shot of the beautiful Central Post Office Building



Reunification Palace



View from Reunification Palace



The inside of the palace is stuck in the 1960’s




Angkor Wat

A long travel day out of Bangkok, a bit of confusion and bribery at the border, and more train/tuktuk/car transport brought us into Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we planned to stay for a few days in order to see Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is actually the name of just one of hundreds of temples located in the area, built during the Khmer Empire.  The main temples were built in the 1100s and some earlier ones date back to the 800s.  It’s a bit of a pain getting to Siem Reap, but I will say that it’s totally worth flying across the world to go see.

We regretted not getting a tour guide to explain all the intricacies of the temples, but had a fantastic time traveling to various temples by tuk tuk and enjoying the sunny weather and wide open spaces, with ancient ruins everywhere we looked.

Here’s a quick photo album of the amazing temples:


Our first view of Angkor Wat, at sunset.





Looking back towards the entrance






There’s a baby monk in this picture. Do you see him?

Sunrise on day two, back at Angkor Wat:



From Angkor Wat to Angkor Thom:


Entrance gate to Angkor Thom




So many faces!


Bayon Temple:






Climbing up and down to one of the temples. There’s not too much of a concern for liability anywhere in the world other than the USA 🙂


Terrace of the Elephants:



Tombraider Temple:



And some others:




Letting Go in Laos

Sometimes things don’t go exactly as planned. The best way I can express what I was feeling in Laos is this:

Laos needs an operations manager.

Assuming that position will never get posted and filled, I will write a few tips for the future traveler to Laos.

Bus Travel:

If your bus says it will leave at 7am, consider yourself lucky if it leaves before 9am. Don’t be surprised if the seat in front of you is broken so that the man in said seat is basically napping in your lap the entire time.  After leaving two hours late, the bus driver will immediately pull into the gas station next door to fill up.

Your journey will always be 10 hours or more, no matter how far you are going. Rule of thumb: double the expected time on the bus to figure out your actual arrival time.

Buy some pills from a questionable stand on the side of the road. Don’t hesitate to take them, despite the fact that the ingredients listed are in Lao and there’s no way to tell what you’re actually taking.  You will need them for the twisty, bumpy ride ahead.

About 10% of the bus riders will be throwing up their breakfast. Sometimes that number includes you. But this issue has been considered; everyone is conveniently provided with a plastic bag for their own personal puke.

The bus you are on is guaranteed to break down at some point. Sometimes within 10 minutes of leaving the station. Don’t worry, you can relieve yourself on the side of the road, along with the other 30 passengers, as you wait two more hours for the bus driver to fix the bus by removing some engine parts.


Broken Bus


If you choose the alternative bus option, a 15 seat minibus, it will almost always contain 20 passengers. They won’t sell your seat, but they may sell your lap.

Slow Boat Travel:

This is a lovely way to travel. Just know that slow boats may pack just enough people on to come to the brink of sinking. If it sinks.. safety first!  The boat has windows so you can easily escape. Just watch out for water snakes.


Crowded Slowboat



Mmmm, cold Beerlao on the Mekong. A lovely way to travel through Laos.

Innertube Travel:

This is the best way to travel, albeit the slowest. It’s still ok to go tube the river if it’s cloudy, the numerous bars along the way will have fires going which you can crowd around, shivering in your swimsuit. This was the most organized form of travel we experienced, complete with rented tubes and tuk tuk rides to the put-in spot.

Tubing in VangVieng. Photo courtesy of Edwin Sia, one of our tubing buddies!

Tubing in VangVieng. Photo courtesy of Edwin Sia, one of our tubing buddies!



-If you find 100 earwigs on the walls of your pre-paid hotel room, “don’t worry, they don’t bite.  They just crawl in your ears.”

-Your hotel manager greets you at the door on evening number three of your pre-paid stay to say: ‘We moved you into a smaller, much smellier room. Don’t worry! We moved all your stuff for you!” Fair warning.

-Your hotel room will not have a window, so don’t expect to be able to escape in case of a fire.


-The tour you booked that comes with lunch may instead come with a bag of raw meat and no means to cook it.

-Expect food poisoning at some point in your journey, even if you have successfully dodged the raw meat lunch.


Grumpy Sarah

Needless to say, we ran into a string of bad luck while we were there. So much so that we couldn’t bear the thought of another curvy bus ride to get to the relaxing southern half of the country, and instead took a night train back to Bangkok in order to make our way to Cambodia.

The lesson from all this:

Let it go! Laos was a lovely country as soon as we realized that we would reach our destination… eventually.  We just needed to sit back and relax (and recover from the food poisoning) before we figured it out.

Cale has reminded me about seventeen times on this trip that:

1) There is more than one way to do something,

2) There isn’t a ‘wrong way,’ and

3) That my way is not necessarily the ‘only’ right way.

Obviously that’s entirely false and my way is always the best and most efficient way. But in Southeast Asia, I’m learning to let it go, and in the words of the great Taylor Swift, ‘shake it off.’ Hopefully it’s a skill I can carry back home with me.

And with that, I will leave you with some nice, relaxing photos of beautiful Laos:


Cats love Cale. Taken at Daauw Home in Huay Xai


New Years at Daauw Home in Huay Xai

New Years at Daauw Home in Huay Xai


Sunset over Thailand from Laos, in Huay Xai



Treehouse Lyfe at the Gibbons Experience.



Ahhhh Slowboats. So much better than busses.



Landing two days later in Luang Prabang.



Luang Prabang



Waterfall outside of Luang Prabang



Beautiful landscape in VangVieng



In the capitol, Vientianne



City Monks in Vientianne


Gibbon Experience in Laos

How to fly through the jungle like a Gibbon Monkey:

Step 1: Take life-threatening minivan ride from Chiang Mai to the Laotian border

Step 2: overpay for a bus to take you from one border booth checking out of Thailand to another border booth checking into Laos

Step 3: Take some time for mild amazement and confusion about how SE Asian border crossings seem to deal in US Dollars

Step 4: Tuk tuk to Huay Xai, check in at the Gibbon Experience office and get ready to spend 3 days and 2 nights in the jungle!

Step 5: take a tuk tuk to a hill town, two hours away.

Step 6: hike through the jungle with 7 of your newest friends.


It’s a jungle out there!



Hiking hiking hiking






Malta and the trees


Step 7: tie a rope attached to a rusty carabiner onto your belt and jump off a cliff. (in other words, learn to zipline):



Step 8: Explore your new digs, and if you could just get over your fear of heights real quick, that would be really convenient right about now.


Our guide zipping into our first treehouse



And zipping out the other side



Bathroom with a view (50 meters high)



Bathroom at our second treehouse


I had a really hard time getting photos but you get the gist




Shower drainage system


Step 9: Climb under your warm blanket and fall asleep to the sounds of the forest. Wake up to hear Gibbon Monkeys in the distance.


Step 10: This is very important. Be sure that you have three Germans in your group. They bring the best booze, and glowsticks, and condiments for your meal… the list goes on. They hired our guides to hike 4 hours to town and back to buy beer for everyone. It was like Christmas morning when the guides zipped back to us with cold Beerlao, and home-made bamboo shooters with LaoLao whiskey. Side note: I swear I’m not an alcoholic. But I really was genuinely excited.


The three stooges



And the meals just magically appeared before our eyes



We didn’t have any Gibbon sightings, but we zip-lined and hiked to our hearts’ content. Off to our next adventure!