Camino de Santiago Day 18

Sunday, April 24

Carrión de Los Condes to Sahagún

39 km / 25 miles

Wow. What a difference a private room can make; I feel rejuvenated after a relaxing evening. A long, hot shower, blankets and bedding on a non-bunk bed, and just my own space and privacy to be with myself. I am ready for a new day! Except for my very first blister. Noooo!

I left Carrión de Los Condes at 7 am after arranging for my backpack to be sent ahead 26 km (16 miles) to Terradillos de Los Templarios. I made my way out of town and onto a dirt path through farms and fields. What I didn’t know is that I would be on this same straight, never-ending path for most of the day. It was a beautiful day, contrary to yesterday, so I could appreciate the sunshine, blue sky, and green fields. In the northern distance, I could see the Cantabrian Mountains, huge peaks covered in snow, probably fresh from the past few days of storms.

I did surprisingly well today. I made it 26.6 km (16.5 miles) to my destination, Terradillos de Los Templarios by 12:30, only a four and a half hour day. And I felt good. I went to the albergue where I had my backpack shipped. I stared at it. And I decided to keep going. The next town was only 3 km away, and I knew I had to get used to carrying my pack again anyway. I know it’s too heavy (I’m going to send things ahead to Santiago once I get to León), but I thought a few kilometers should be fine.

Well. I made it to the next town, Moratinos (3 km/2 miles). I had a delicious bocadilla (sandwich) and got a cool wax stamp for my credentials. And then I just got up, put my backpack on, and kept walking. This time I made it another 2.5 km (1.5 miles) to San Nicolás del Real Camino. And I still felt good. And I guess the town wasn’t too interesting because I just kept walking. Fernando was with me for a bit of this and we had nice conversation. And we made it another 7 km (4.3 miles) to Sahagún.

I don’t know if you’ve been able to follow along, so I’ll help you out. I pushed myself to walk nearly 40 km (25 miles) over the course of 9 hours. I know I’m still recovering, but my body felt strong and the beautiful sunny weather made for a perfect day to enjoy, especially after the past 4 days in the cold rain.

Fernando and I got in around 4:30, checked in at Albergue de Santa Cruz for €6 a night, and walked around town just a bit (I know, the last thing I want to do or should do is walk more once we get to town). We are officially halfway to Santiago!!!

I am definitely going to sleep well tonight. And hope my body doesn’t hate me too much tomorrow morning. But at least I’m proud of myself for crushing 40 km!

Spent:

€5 Backpack Transport

€2 Coffee

€5.5 Bocadilla

€6 Albergue

€9 Groceries

Total €27.5

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My World Adventure, Month 3 Budget

 

Okay guys, I’ve failed my budget miserably. I made a few too many splurges in January and lost sight of my goals. Here are my January expenses…

Accommodation: $187.79januarybudget.jpg

Food: $131.14

Drink: $118.86

Tourism: $405.15

– Includes $95 Visa extension

Transportation: $496.72

– Includes $290 motorbike purchase, repairs, oil, petrol, parking, etc.

Miscellaneous: $257.77

– Includes $210 suit and shipping

Total:
$1,597.43
$51.53 / day

Before you scold me, I do have a few explanations.

First, I had to extend my Vietnamese visa, costing a whopping $95. This was a necessity, though, as I knew I needed more than one month to see Vietnam properly.

Vietnam has changed their laws so that you must file your extension through a travel agency instead of doing it at Immigration, which used to cost an affordable $10. I filed my extension with Vietnam Backpacker’s. They’re an amazing hostel chain that offer great accommodation throughout Vietnam, tours, and a good time. Since I was short on time, they sent my passport down to their hostel in Hoi An when it was ready, so I didn’t have to wait in Hanoi another 10 days. Thanks guys!

Second, I spent New Year’s Eve and the first two days of January on Vietnam Backpacker’s Castaways Tour in Halong Bay, averaging $108 each day. It was a pricier way to ring in the new year, but a blast.

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Third, I bought a motorbike to ride Vietnam with full intention to sell it when I arrive in Ho Chi Minh City. But as for now, that’s another $290.

And finally, I splurged in Hoi An and bought a suit. Not just any suit though. Hoi An is famous for inexpensive tailor shops boasting great quality and fast turnover. I spent $165 ($45 on shipping) on a custom-designed, custom-fitted suit. It took 3 days, with 4 fittings and alterations. In the States, I would have spent at least $500 on that.

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So with the last three luxury expenses added up, I spent an additional $716.00. So if you’re on an extremely tight budget, you can still do a month in Vietnam for $881.43 ($28.43/day).

But I wouldn’t do it any other way. I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam and don’t regret a thing. Hopefully February will be a less expensive month!

Here’s a few more photos from January in Vietnam…

 

xo Michael

Motorbiking Vietnam Part VII: Closing Thoughts

 

And with that, my adventure motorbiking through Vietnam has come to an end. I must say, as amazing as the trip was, it’s a relief to be off my bike. The responsibility and unknowns that come with owning a used bike proved stressful and burdensome.

But it certainly was the trip of a lifetime. Over the past month, I’ve seen the beauty, history, and kindness that is Vietnam. I’ve explored incredible caves and drove some of the most beautiful roads and mountain passes I’ve seen. I’ve learned a lot about the Vietnam War and the country’s history from a different perspective and as an American, have managed to meet incredibly kind locals. I’ve driven in the rain for three straight days, alone, and have broken down too many times to count. I’ve eaten lunch in a local family’s home while a mechanic fixed my bike. And washed it down with homemade rice wine. I’ve met so many other great travelers, who are now good friends. And I’ve been so lucky to have had a (relatively) safe ride down Vietnam.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared for my life at time. The Vietnamese are insane drivers following no road laws. Driving is an art form, as drivers perform impossible maneuvers, weaving in and out of traffic. I had a few brushes with danger and have heard of more serious accidents with travelers, but it’s a part of the experience. Always steer on the side of safety, be alert, and go slow. There comes immense responsibility when motorbiking Vietnam, but immense reward as well. Buses provide convenience and comfort but a motorbike promises adventure and a unique perspective.

 

I covered 2,159 km (or 1,342 miles) in 13 riding days.

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Expenses overview:

Bought for: $290.00

Repairs: $160.14

Gas: $42.67

Sold for: $200

Cost: $292.81

*Most other travelers only lost $50-$100 for their trip. My bike had a little more trouble than most. There’s no way of knowing how good or bad a bike really is until you’re in the middle of your trip. And by that time, there’s nothing you can do but ride on.

 


 

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If anyone is interested in reading an in-depth guide from start to finish on motorbiking Vietnam, I wrote an article for Mad Monkey Hostels (a Cambodia Hostel Company). Become an expert here!

 


 

 

I’ve always been a firm believer that the best way to see a foreign country or city is on your own: no tours, no buses, no pre-booked itineraries. You will understand the country from an authentic, unfiltered perspective.

So if you’re planning on traveling to Vietnam, which you should be, I’d recommend buying your very own motorbike, getting lost, and seeing the true Vietnam.

Happy Motorbiking!

Michael

Motorbiking Vietnam Part VI: Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City

Motorbiking Vietnam Part VI: Mui Ne to Ho Chi Minh City

Duration: 1 riding day, 5 hours

Distance: 230 km

Today was a bittersweet day. I left Mui Ne at 7 am for my finally (motorbike) destination: Ho Chi Minh City. Leaving early meant avoiding the police stop and giving myself plenty of time for pictures along the way. It’s my final day of riding in Vietnam, and today was about soaking it all in, reflecting on how great (and sometimes challenging) buying and riding a motorbike has been, and enjoying the last bits of open road before I return to the bus life.

Sina left yesterday, so today, I’m finishing as I started, alone.  With my bike continuing to make interesting noises, I decided to take the most direct route, leaving the coast and traveling directly west. The ride was pretty easy, with a few stops for pictures and coffee.

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I got a bit anxious entering Ho Chi Minh, as I’ve heard nightmare stories about the saturation of traffic. Driving in cities is already stressful, so Vietnam’s traffic congestion made it a bit worse. But as I entered the city, I wondered where this infamous traffic was. Each turn I approached, I thought for sure, I would be entering chaos. But no. The streets were fairly empty. Perhaps I entered the city from the right side or that everyone really has left for Tet (Chinese New Year). Although I was a tad disappointed, I was relieved as I pulled up to my hostel and dismounted Eagle for the last time.

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Ho Chi Minh City 

So, Ho Chi Minh is a large city, bustling with traffic and people (usually). I was there for the Chinese New Year, Tet, and found the city to be relatively quiet, as most people leave the city and travel home to be with their families.

War Remnants Museum

Definitely see the War Remnants Museum. It’s an informative insight into the Vietnam/American War from the Vietnamese side. Be prepared for disturbing facts, shocking stories, and gruesome photographs. It’s a heavy day, but an important one. The Museum is just 15,000 VND (less than $1) to enter.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

These fascinating tunnels were created during the Vietnam War, serving as hiding spots for soldiers, hospitals, living quarters, and communication and supply lines. There are also war traps on display, old tanks, and a shooting range. Expect busloads of tourists and hot, claustrophobic tunnels. I found the Vinh Moc Tunnels, just north of Hue, more extensive and less crowded (like, no one else… I was the only person there).

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Notre-Dame Cathedral and Post Office

Two neighboring sites in Ho Chi Minh, built in the 19th century, these buildings boast beautiful French architecture.

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Where to Stay

The backpacker district is pretty condensed to one or two streets: Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien. Hostels, bars, restaurants, and travel agencies line these streets. In the morning and evening, the streets are lined with departing travelers and buses.

HideOut Hostel and Vietnam Inn Saigon are great hostels for the party-seeking backpacker, but come with a price. I opted for Rou Hostel, which was a ten minute walk from the main area, and above Rou Vegetarian Restaurant. For $5, the hostel was a fantastic value. Rooms were very clean, beds were full sized, and the staff was very kind. But in a city where everyone is hanging out on the streets, most hostels will do.

 

xo Michael

Motorbiking Vietnam Part V: Da Lat to Mui Ne

Motorbiking Vietnam Part V: Da Lat to Mui Ne

Duration: 1 riding day, 4.5 hours

Distance: 150 km

Sina and I left for Mui Ne on February 3rd, after a fun few days in Da Lat. In fact, we may even have been a bit hungover. Our first challenge of the day was the monster hill from Da Lat Family Hostel to the main road, as it’s narrow and difficult to climb without a head start. Sina needed a local to push her up to get started, while Eagle and I surprisingly made it up to the top without problem. Yay!

As we left Da Lat, we descended the mountains, riding switchbacks with amazing views. The temperature also increased dramatically as we got passed the mountains, slapping us with intense winds of hot air. As the land flattened out, the landscape got drier, dustier, and more desert-like.

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About 30 km outside of Mui Ne, I began to get nervous. I had heard rumors of large police activity outside of Mui Ne, pulling foreigners over and fining them arbitrarily. Technically, it is illegal for foreigners to own and drive motorbikes in Vietnam. They do not honor International Driver’s Licenses, only Vietnamese licenses, which are quite difficult to attain. Luckily, we made it to Long Son Mui Ne Campground, 12 km outside of Mui Ne, without any police in sight.

*Tip: Keep a “fake” wallet on you with a couple hundred thousand Dong. Police will try to fine to 500,000 Dong or more, but may accept a smaller bribe.

*If they pull you over, turn your bike off and put the keys in your pocket. If they get a hold of your keys, passport, or registration blue card, they will ask for ridiculous amounts of money to get them back.

*Police hang out just south of Long Son Mui Ne Campground from 9 am – 5 pm most days. So if you need to get into or out of town, go early in the morning or in the evening.

Mui Ne

While on the ocean, Mui Ne is not a huge beach town, since it faces strong winds. Beaches are also quite littered, with just about anything and everything washed up. I’ve seen light bulbs, shampoo, and tons of plastic. And because it is so windy, Mui Ne is popular among kite surfers!

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The Fairy Stream is a flow of water sourced from underneath the sand dunes and canyons. While at some points it becomes waist deep, it’s mostly an inch or so of water the runs to the ocean, winding past red canyons and sand dunes.

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The White Sand Dunes are amazing! Sina and I went for sunset, after most tourists had already left. The dunes themselves transport you to Africa, as the white hills and ripples do not feel like Vietnam. And the sunset was amazing, one of the better ones I’ve experienced. (Don’t worry, San Diego, you’ve still got it.)

PS Sina and I might’ve gotten carried away with pictures…

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The Red Sand Dunes are less exciting and much smaller. They’re still worth a visit, as they’re on the way into town. And get ready for a bunch of children that will run at you trying to sell you sleds.

Where to Stay
If you want a different hostel experience, stay at Long Son Mui Ne Campground. Single and group tents line the property and beach front, giving a more raw and simple stay. People lounge around all day, soaking up the sun on the beach or relaxing in the common area on the many couches and oversized bean bags. For just $4, Long Son Campground promises a chill, relaxing stay. Take advantage of their daily $1 specials on food and drinks and their Friday special on tents: just $1 for the night.

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Sunrise at Long Son Mui Ne Campgrounds.

Motorbiking Vietnam Part III: Hoi An to Nha Trang

Motorbiking Vietnam Part III: Hoi An to Nha Trang

Duration: 3 riding days

Distance: 720 km

Stopped in Kon Tum, Tuy Hoa

In Hoi An, I met Sina from Germany, who is also riding down south. We left together for Nha Trang, covering 720 km over the course of 3 days, averaging 240 km per day. We decided to drive back onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail instead of the coastal route, hoping to avoid trucks and buses. It was a long few days, driving through small villages, mountains, cities, and even the clouds at one point. It was both super hot in the sun and freezing cold high up in the mountains.

We stopped overnight in Kon Tum and Tuy Hoa on our way, two smaller cities with little to do. So maybe it was a good thing I got food poisoning on day two. I think it’s from some local food I ate, possibly intestines, and I was sick and feverish all evening. The next day, I was feeling a bit better, and pushed on to get to Nha Trang.

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Coffee break for Winnie and Eagle.

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A few tips for long drives: stay hydrated, take breaks, and don’t push it. I developed a pain in my eyes from focusing on the road for 8+ hours a day and not drinking enough water. Take your time.

Nha Trang

So, a lot of backpackers have said that Nha Trang is nothing special. But I had to see it for myself. And it is nothing special. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like Vietnam.

Nha Trang is overrun with Russian tourists, resorts, and little Vietnamese culture. It’s very much a vacation town, with an expensive water park, fancy restaurants, and pricey hotel sky bars. For us, a couple days on the beach were just enough.

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There is, of course, a backpackers neighborhood near the beach where budget hotels and restaurants make Nha Trang a bit more palatable. We stayed at Mojzo Inn and were pleased by the staff. Tween and her other colleagues learned our names before we got off our motorbikes, had cold water ready for us, and even carried our bags to our room. For just $7/night for a dorm, including breakfast, Mojzo Inn was a great place to stay.

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Michael

Hoi An, Vietnam

So I made it to the halfway point, Hoi An, Vietnam! It’s a charming town with a lot of it’s cultural and historical features in tact. And here are just of a few of the many things I did during my visit…

Explore the Old Quarter

Charming, old world buildings, tailor shops, and vibrant colored lanterns line the streets of the Old Quarter. Take an afternoon to stroll down the many beautiful roads, without having to worry about cars or motorbikes; The Old Quarter is a walking and cycling area only.

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Beach

An Bang beach is the place to be. It’s just 4 km from town, and offers views of Da Nang to the north and the Cham Islands to the east. There are tons of lounge chairs that are free with any purchase from the local restaurants. Act as if you’re not going to order a passionfruit mojito, I dare you.

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We made a new friend – MEOW! She works at one of the local restaurants and was so much fun!

Get a Suit

I don’t care if you don’t want one, don’t need one, or “can’t afford one.” From the minute you walk into one of the hundreds of tailor shops, you’re in for an incredible experience. I chose Kimmy’s Custom Tailoring. Doug and Kim, the managers, oversaw everything from selecting colors, fabrics, and alterations. They provided complimentary water, beer, and even a free tie. For a custom-made, custom-tailored suit, I paid $160. You can’t get a good suit off the rack for under $200 back in the States, so this was a no-brainer. And you’re also paying for a few days of royalty, as Kimmy and her team take such great care of her customers. Go to Hoi An, and buy a suit. Or four.

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My Son

Maybe 50 km outside of Hoi An is My Son, ruins of Hindu temple dating back to the 4th Century AD. Like many other towns and sites in Vietnam, it was destroyed from heavy US bombing in the Vietnam War. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the overgrown ruins in the jungle have survived for so many years. It’s 150,000 Dong, but worth it if you’re into Vietnamese history.

 

Where to Stay

hoiansunflowerSunflower – Many backpackers stay at the Sunflower Hotel, costing $8/night for a dorm. It has a pool, a restaurant/bar area, and a free shuttle to the Old Quarter, as it’s a 20 minute walk from town. And it has an amazing buffet breakfast included: think fresh pancakes, omelets, fruit, cereal, rice, vegetables, noodles, coffee, and peanut butter. Yes, peanut butter. Apparently, it’s an American thing, but I’ve missed peanut butter so much. I filled an entire coffee mug with peanut butter.

Hoa Binh – This hostel is about the same as the Sunflower, running $7/night for a dorm with the very same incredible buffet breakfast. It isn’t as social as Sunflower, but is much closer to the Old Quarter, about 5 minutes walking.

DK’s House – Okay, so this hostel is owned by the amazing Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel group. However, a dorm costs $11/night, which I found a bit ridiculous, especially since the included breakfast isn’t nearly as amazing as it’s competitors. They do offer great tours of the city and surrounding area, some also on the pricier side, but it’s always full and promises a good time. Friends and I stayed at Sunflower, but walked 5 minutes to DK’s to enjoy the party scene and nightly pub crawls.

xo Michael

Motorbiking Vietnam Part I: Hanoi to Phong Nha

So, despite all fear and inexperience, I bought a motorcycle.

Backpackers either take overnight buses or motorbike Vietnam. And when faced with the choice, it was an easy one obvious one. Let me be clear: I’ve never ridden a motorbike before, let alone on a long-distance trip in a foreign country. But how exciting do overnight buses sound…?

I bought a manual Honda Win 100cc. It’s the most typical motorbike backpackers buy to ride Vietnam, either Hanoi (north) to Ho Chi Minh City (south) or vice versa. And once you arrive in your destination city, you sell your bike to a fellow backpacker traveling in the opposite direction. I’ve started in Hanoi and will be riding south to Ho Chi Minh City over the next 5 weeks.

If you’re interested in doing the same, follow my journey through the country! I’ll be giving you all the details on my ride: where I’ve stayed, where I’ve stopped, and what I’ve done completely wrong.

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Motorbiking Vietnam: Part Ihanoiphongnhamap

Hanoi – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Duration: 4 riding days

Distance: 591 km

The safest, most scenic route to go south is the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s through the countryside and mountains, and therefore much less direct but more beautiful than the coastal Highway-1, full of trucks and buses with zero mercy for motorbikes.


 

Hanoi to Ninh Binh / Tam Coc – 100 km (61 miles)

On January 10th, I left Hanoi for Tam Coc, Vietnam. It was a bit scary setting off, on my own, on a motorbike I just learned how to drive. Hanoi is a scary city, with herds of motorbikes weaving in and out of each other through the tiny city streets.

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After about 3 hours, though, I successfully made it to Tam Coc, home to giant limestone karsts towering above rice paddies. In Tam Coc, there are multiple boat landings where you can hire a row boat and guide to take you through the rice paddies and through caves. It costs about 130,000 Dong per person for entry and 150,000 Dong per boat. Go with two other people (3 person max) and split the boat fare.

 

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There is also the Bich Dong Pagoda, just a few kilometers from town. While the pagoda itself isn’t necessarily spectacular, you can climb through caves and up to the top of the mountain with beautiful views of surrounding rice paddies.

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The entrance to the Bich Dong Pagoda.

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Views from the mountain-top

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Panorama views of Tam Coc

Where to Stay

I stayed at Tam Coc Backpacker’s Hostel, which cost $7/night for a dorm room (20 beds) including breakfast. It’s one of the only hostels in Tam Coc and the staff will help you plan your visit. Many people stay just outside of Tam Coc, in the main city of Ninh Binh.


 

Tam Coc to Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park – 490 km
This leg of the trip was a “nightmare.” It took 3 days to get 490 km, two days of which I drove in the cold rain for hours. And as I was just getting acclimated to my bike, I broke down many, many times. Let’s just say I visited 6 different mechanics on this leg of the trip and fell off twice. But it wouldn’t be nearly as fun without a little challenge.

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A family’s home that I slept overnight in.

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Rain.

And on my last breakdown before the national park, a family invited me in for lunch as the mechanic fixed my bike. I enjoyed one of the most delicious meals of rice, vegetables, pork, peanuts, and fish, washed down with a little rice whiskey. Though the family spoke nearly no English, they were so kind, gracious, and welcoming. And they refused to accept any money at all. Maybe breaking down isn’t so bad!

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Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and should be on every traveler’s itinerary. It is home to caves, mountains, and a major location of the Vietnam (American) War. It’s also got the largest cave in the world, discovered in 2009, but more on that later.

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Phong Nha/Dong Tien Cave – Phong Nha cave was used in Vietnam War to house ammo and supplies. The Vietnamese outsmarted the Americans by using a dinghy bridge at night to transport supplies across the river and to the south. The Americans could not see any such bridge by day, since it was stored in the cave. Dong Tien Cave is about 400 steps up from Phong Nha cave and worth the trip up, with views over the valley. To get here, charter a boat from the Son Trach tourist office on the river. It costs about 360,000 Dong per boat and 230,000 Dong entrance fee (150,000 Dong for Phong Nha Caves and 80,000 Dong for Dong Tien, about 400 steps up from Phong Nha Caves). I went with 12 other travelers, making it a bit more affordable.

Paradise Cave – Discovered in 2005, Paradise Cave is a magnificently huge cave, stretching over 31 km. Included in the 250,000 Dong entry is the first kilometer of the cave. If you book a day trek with a guide, around $100 USD,  you can explore the first 3.5 km.

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Dark Cave – By far, the Dark Cave is my favorite of any of the caves. First, you hipline over the river, then swim a bit, before entering the cave with a helmet and headlight. This is one of the few caves that isn’t lit up along the way, only to be explored with your own lights. You wade through water for a bit until you enter a branch of the cave that you squeeze through. It becomes more and more muddy as you venture on, until you find yourself stomach deep in a pit of mud. From there, depending on your group, a mud-fight may ensue. Be prepared.

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Outside of the cave, you kayak back to the main area of the river, where there are zip lines into the water and an obstacle rope course. The Dark Cave costs 250,000 Dong for everything: guide, zipline, headlight, kayak, and obstacle course. It felt like the most adventurous of any of the caves, as you explore with your own headlight and trek through narrow passageways through mud.

Hong Son Doong – Discovered in 2009, Hong Son Doong is the largest cave in the world. However, because of it’s recent discovery, 5 day/4 night treks are only run with Oxalis Tours, and cost $3,000 USD. It is currently booked until 2017.

Pub with a Cold Beer – Just outside of town, you can relax and take in the views of mountains and rice paddies with a nice cold beer. This place was once a side of the road market, now turned popular hangout spot for travelers. If you order a chicken dish, be sure to give it time. They literally catch one of their chickens, kill it in front of you, pluck it, and cook it. True farm to table.

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Where to Stay

Without a doubt, stay at Easy Tiger Hostel in Son Trach. It’s where every backpacker stays, has a good bar area to meet others, and a great staff. Every morning at 9 am, they hold a talk for all the new arrivals, discussing caves, the surrounding countryside, war history, and safety (there are still a lot of unexploded ordnances in the area). It’s $7/night for a 4-bed dorm room, but if you stay multiple nights, you may be able to negotiate a better price.


 

It’s only just the beginning and I’m having the time of my life. Riding a motorbike through Vietnam is both terrifying and exhilarating, especially on my own. I am proving just how brave and capable I am to myself. And when things go feel like they suck, I just remind myself that I’m riding a motorbike through Vietnam. No matter what, it’s not that bad.

Tips:

  • Invest in good rain gear: pants, jacket, and a good cover for your backpack.
  • Xe May = Bike mechanic, Ngha Nhi = Hostel

 

Hanoi, Vietnam

“This is your stop. Get off!” said the bus attendant. And before I could stand up and pick up my backpack, the doors had already shut and the bus took off. Romina, my travel mate, had successfully gotten off. But I was too slow to join her. “Next stop, next stop, next stop” the man said.

Well, the next stop was 10 minutes later, and it was safe to say I was now on my own.

Here I was, standing in the middle of Hanoi, Vietnam, like a lost puppy in a world of speeding motorbikes, incessant honking, and maybe a few people who spoke broken English. Let’s just say I hailed a motorbike “taxi,” aka a nice person who agreed to drive me somewhere, and pointed to the Old Quarter in my Lonely Planet guidebook. After an hour and a half, and a tour of Hanoi that Thanh insisted on giving me, I made it.

From the moment I entered the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I fell in love. Small streets and alleys coming from every angle, kids-sized plastic chairs and tables in front of closet-sized kitchens restaurants, and motorbikes whizzing past beeping their horns every two seconds. Women walk their bikes, which actually serve as overflowing fruit carts, while other women carry two baskets of fresh fish, balanced on their shoulders by a long piece of wood much like a set of scales. Men walk around with polishing kits, asking anyone and everyone if they need their shoes cleaned and never taking no for an answer.

I could go on and on about the charm and chaos that is Hanoi. It’s a unique city with it’s very own personality.

St. Joseph’s Cathedral

This has been one of the few churches I’ve seen in Southeast Asia! After so many temples, it was strange to see a giant church. But Christianity has some roots in Vietnam and has a following. I walked by on Sunday, while mass was going on, and got the chance to pop my head in!

Hoan Kiem Lake

It’s a beautiful lake that people hang out around. There’s the Temple of the Jade Mountain on an island in the middle and an iconic red bridge connecting it to the mainland. It’s a focal point of Hanoi and a great place for a run or a yummy egg coffee…

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Egg Coffee

Yes, I said egg coffee. This is a Vietnamese speciality that took a while to understand, too. But trust me, it’s amazing. It’s basically a Vietnamese coffee (which are amazing on their own – super strong), but with an egg yolk and condensed milk whipped up and layered on top, and then sprinkled with cacao shavings. YUM!

Water puppet show

Near to the Hoan Kiem Lake, they have water-puppet shows. It’s a fun time and a cool spectacle of Vietnamese culture.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh is one of, if not the most, revered historical figures in Vietnam: He is a war hero and leader, playing a key part in securing Vietnamese independence from France.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, while having maximum security, is free of charge. There are guards all over the grounds, with maybe 15-20 inside the mausoleum. You are walked inside, enter the room with Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, walk around the 3 sides of it for about 30 seconds, and are filtered out. It was stunning and creepy at the same time, but pretty neat to witness as an outsider of Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese people absolutely love him.

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The Temple of Literature

This point of interest would have had a small impact on me if it weren’t for the school kids there offering free tours. I met Vi and another student as I walked in and all they wanted was to practice their English and pass on their knowledge of Vietnamese culture. I took them up on their offer and loved learning about the Temple. Their excitement and energy was contagious. Don’t be afraid of these kids; it isn’t a scam.

-Nearby is also Lenin Park, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and the Vietnam War Museum.

Motorbike-Watch

Find an intersection, preferably at night (prime-time chaos), order yourself a beer or a Vietnamese coffee, and just watch. Between the tourists, the vendors, and the traffic, Hanoi is a crazy puzzle that always seems to work-out. Just when you think someone is going to crash or get hit, a miracle happens. I could watch the weaving art of the traffic for hours and hours. It really is a crazy art.

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Street food, obviously

I’ve had some amazing meals in Hanoi. From hot pots (make-your-own meat soup), to barbecued meats, bahn mi sandwiches, pho, crispy pancakes, and fried, doughy sweets, Hanoi is #foodporn.

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Always Cafe

And as if I hadn’t fallen in love with Hanoi already, I randomly stumbled upon Always Cafe, a Harry Potter themed coffee shop with delicious and fun drinks (think Butterbeer and Felix Felicis), amazing decorations, and a great staff. The walls are old-world stone archways, they have broomsticks hovering above you, and a photograph wall displaying Hogwarts’ finest students and teachers. Let’s just say I was a kid in a candy store (Honeyduke’s to be specific. 10 points, to Gryffindor, if you get the reference).

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Where to Stay

Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown

Okay, so this is an obvious one. Without a doubt, one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at. It’s a Vietnamese/Australian run company with multiple other hostels throughout Vietnam. The staff is friendly and insanely knowledgeable, they offer different drink specials all day long, and there is always a party every night. This is one hostel group that has just done everything right. It’ll run you $7.50/night and includes breakfast. Just be warned: It is a huge party hostel, so if you just want a good night’s sleep, do not stay here. There are a ton of other hostels and nice hotels in the Old Quarter area.

Honorable Mention:

Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – The Original

Hanoi Rocks Hostel

See you at Lily’s

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ah! I’m in love. I’ve stepped off the bus to a dozen local tribe women shouting questions at me before I could respond to any. “Shopping?” “Where you from?” “Where you go?” “Stay with me?”

We call them mamas and they are everywhere.

Sapa is a mountain-side town surrounded by terraced rice paddies, tiny local villages, and tribes. There are 6 ethnic minority tribes, all of which fill Sa Pa town by day. They try to sell their handicrafts, with vibrant colors and beautiful embroidery, and will follow you for a mile or so until they give up and say, “Later you shop. You buy from me.” The restaurants in town offer delicious mulled wine and most have cozy fireplaces for when it gets cold at night. It’s a beautiful place that reminds me of a ski-resort town, warming your soul and spirit.

 

Cat Cat Village

On your free day, take a wall down to Cat Cat Village and see how locals live. The village is set up for tourists with a modest entrance fee (most villages have entrance fees, about $50,000 Dong or $2.22), and you follow one path in a big circle through the village. On the way, you’ll pass women knitting and embroidering, local homes, a waterfall, and lots of pigs, dogs, and chickens running across your path.

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Local children playing in Cat Cat Village

 

Hamrong Mountain Park

Just behind the church, you can find a set of cobblestone steps, leading you to the top of Hamrong Mountain. With an entrance fee of only 70,000 Dong ($3.12), the park offers beautiful gardens, a nice hike, and stunning views overlooking Sa Pa and the surrounding mountains.

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Silver Waterfall

Just a bit north of town is the beautiful Silver Waterfall. It’s definitely worth a trip, either by motorbike or taxi.

Fansipan

The largest peak in IndoChina is Fansipan at 3,143 meters. From Sapa, you can arrange a one-day shortened hike to the top or 2-day or 3-day trek to the top with camping along the way.

 

Trekking/Homestay Experience

And then the trekking. Everyone goes to Sa Pa for the incredible trekking and home stay experiences. Local tribeswomen take you 10-30 km to their villages, descending terraced rice paddies and farms. I can’t put into words how stunning Sa Pa is: the mountains and rice-paddies are incredible.

Depending on how you book, your home stay experience will differ. I’d recommend either Sapa O’Chau, a cafe and office in town that offer responsible tours, or doing research online. Many travel bloggers have inside contact information on local tribe women that offer private tours, meaning no large groups, no “tourist” version, and no middle-man: everything you pay goes straight to your guide and not an agency.

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Local H’Mong women leading us to Ta Van Village

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A H’Mong woman eating sugarcane.

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My new friend, the water buffalo!

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Our trekking group!

 

 


 

Where to Stay

Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel, Mountain View

This hostel group knows how to do it right. They’ve got a mix of local Vietnamese and Westerners as staff, all very knowledgeable and friendly. They have a bar and restaurant with a large common area where you can snuggle up next to a fireplace. They run great tours but can be quite expensive. $6.50/night for a dorm. Breakfast included.

Green Valley Hotel

It’s a bit out of town, but a great value for accommodation. A friendly staff welcomes you right away for $5/night dorms. Rooms are clean with great queen-sized, heated beds! And there is a nice bar area with a fireplace and pool table to hang out at in the evening.

* Sapa is a MUST if you’re in Vietnam. However, plan your trip around the weather. If it’s raining, trekking will be nearly impossible as the mountains will be muddy and slippery. Get a good pair of rain boots; they’ve got the best traction and the local women all wear them. Also, because it’s in the mountains, clouds are common and can block any view of the surrounding views.

Peace!
Michael

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Sa Pa town

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Vietnamese drip coffee and this view… just amazing.

 

 

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, located in Northern Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for good reason: its stunning limestone karsts jet out of the water and tower above the beautiful crystal blue bay.

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I was in Halong Bay for New Years Eve, so I opted for an expensive 3-day/2-night party package with Vietnam Backpackers Hostel called “Castaways.” Myself and about 40 other backpackers traveled to an island in Halong Bay where we met maybe 75 other young party animals. We would be staying in dorm bungalows on the island, really a beach surrounded almost completely with towering limestone rocks.

 

On the first day, we went tubing, rock climbing, and wake boarding (in which I failed miserably and instead face planted the water every time). On New Years Day, we took a boat tour around the bay, jumped off the boat, and kayaked through stunning caves. And the people I met made it so much fun. The tour guides were pretty much like the rest of us, just with a bit more responsibility. It was three days of drinking, dancing, and a TON of fun.

Castaways was a great time if you’re looking for a party while enjoying Halong Bay. There are other boat tours and packages you can book, all a bit pricey for Southeast Asian standards, but well worth the visit. Whatever way you choose to go, you must see Halong Bay.

Michael

My World Adventure, Month 2 Budget

2 months down! Both my wallet and I are still alive!

December was split with 19 days in Thailand, 10 days in Laos, and 2 days in Vietnam.

I spent a little more time than intended in Northern Thailand, waiting for my computer to be shipped from New York. It was a stressful couple of weeks, but allowed me to pause, live a little less like a tourist, and enjoy the little things that Thailand has to offer: cafes with delicious local coffee, a meditation retreat, and exploring beyond my guidebook.

However, Laos has proven to be a bit more expensive than Thailand, partially because I sped through it. Food averages at about $2 a meal, hostels vary from town to town ($3 – $10), and transportation isn’t Thailand cheap. But relatively speaking, it’s still affordable and offers opportunity to explore a lesser traveled country in Southeast Asia.

Highlights:

Meditation Retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bike for Dad in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Meeting up with friends from San Diego, Kayleigh and Meleah in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Gibbon Experience in Huay Xi, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

NYE in Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

 

And here’s my budget breakdown!

Accommodation: $110.70

Food: $174.20

Drink: $101.64

Transportation: $251.53

– Including my flight onward to Vietnam: $143

Tourism: $378.43

– Including my Laos Visa: $36

Miscellaneous: $13.29

Total: $1,029.79

Divide that number by 31 days, and my daily spending comes in at…

$33.02 / day

Breakdown by Country

19 Days in Thailand – $267.72

10 Days in Laos -483.40 (This includes the Gibbon Experience and proves that “speed travel” costs more).

2 Days in Vietnam – $278.67 (This includes my flight and NYE splurge in Halong Bay)

 

So yes, I’ve gone over budget a bit, but it’s also the holidays. Being so far from home, family, and friends justifies some of these splurges. But $1,029.79 is still great for a whole month of travel!

I’m a bit nervous for month 3, as Vietnam promises some exciting adventures (and big purchases)! Stay tuned…

 

– Michael

As always, if you need any help with travel budgeting or saving, comment below or email me at yomichaelgrant@gmail.com. It’s fun for me and I’d LOVE to help.

Vientiane, Laos

The capital city gets has a bad reputation among traveler’s for having nothing to do. And while it is true, it still is a nice city to visit. And Vientiane has an airport, so it’s convenient for onward travel.

The Mekong River

The Mekong River is a great place to hang out; there is a large night market with local goods and food. And take a walk just a bit further down the river at sunset and enjoy one of the many beer gardens. Thailand is just on the other side.

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Buddha Park

Just 25 km southeast of the city is Buddha Park, featuring stone sculptures of Buddha and various bizarre images. It’s a neat day trip that I’d recommend.

*If you go by motorbike, be careful. There are a few traffic stops where police may arbitrarily fine you whether or not you’ve done something wrong. It happened to me. See if you can negotiate the fine down, but otherwise just pay.

 

Arc of Triumph/Victory Gate

The Arc of Triumph, honoring fallen Laotian soldiers during WWII and celebrating independence from France, was built by funds from the United States (intended to finance a new airport). There’s a beautiful fountain that sits in front of it, but inside, it’s a bit run down, full of tourist souvenir stands, and offers an okay view of a relatively flat city. Still, it’s Vientiane from above.

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And as every other city, there are night markets, cafes, and bars everywhere. Maybe you don’t need to stay for too long (maybe just a day or two), but it’s not the worst city in the world.

Let me know if you found anything fun to do in Vientiane!

Michael

Vang Vieng, Laos

While the “6 hour” bus ride from Luang Prabang took 9 hours through winding mountains and we arrived at 11 pm to cold weather and rain, Vang Vieng is certainly a highlight in Laos. It’s a town known for it’s past party scene, but is so much more than that. To be honest, the party culture is nothing like it used to be: no crazy insane parties, no drugged-out backpackers floating rampant down the river, and certainly no more deaths. Yes, deaths. The parties were so crazy, people would die from crazy tubing accidents along the river.

Today, the town offers stunning scenery, numerous caves to explore, and FRIENDS bars (I’ll explain those later). Make sure to hit up…

Tham Chang Caves

This has been the first cave that I’ve been impressed by, as most caves I’ve seen so far have not gone too deep. These caves were full of stalagmites and stalagtites. Just be careful not to venture by yourself. A friend and I went as far as we could, followed by a strange man. At one point, he grabbed my arm, then laughed and played it off as a joke. But I jumped and immediately backed away. On a lighter note, at the entrance to the cave, there is a lagoon with crystal blue water that flows out of the cave.

And there are dozens of other caves to visit in the area as well!

The Blue Lagoon

After a stunning ride through the Laos countryside, the Blue Lagoon is the perfect place to relax and hang out. You can jump from a large tree, splash into the water from a rope swing, zip line (don’t get too excited, it looked pretty lame), or climb deep into a cave. I actually spent 30 minutes descending into the cave and had to turn back. It seemed to go pretty far in and would be great adventure if you have a few hours.

*If you’re traveling to the Blue Lagoon, check out the weather. The road can be extremely muddy. I rented a mountain bike that could not make it back and many motorbikes could not even make it there. A local tuk tuk, the recommended way to go, got stuck and took an hour to pull from the side of the road.

Tubing/Kayaking

So while the river once was a huge party, with tons of bars, rope swings, and zip lines, government has cracked down on the town because of so many deaths. While there are a few bars still open that make for a fun time (they throw ropes and pull you in), you can float on by and enjoy the stunning limestone karst scenery.

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Okay, so there’s a bit of partying… 😉

 

Climbing the mountain

Just across the river and through some local farms is a small karst you can climb. It’s pretty steep and has slippery rocks, but the view at the top is incredible, overlooking the Vang Vieng town, farms, and other towering karsts.

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Motorbiking

Just rent a motorbike and venture around for a day. Go explore the countryside and mountains on your own! Just don’t venture too far off the beaten path, as there are still unexploded ordnance from past wars…

FRIENDS bars

And how could I forget, if it’s a rainy day, you’re nursing a hangover, or just don’t want to do a thing, just about every bar in town has couches and plays FRIENDS re-runs all day, every day. Knock yourself out.

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Vang Vieng is pretty amazing and I’d HIGHLY recommend it. It’s directly in between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, so odds are you’ll pass through it anyway. Why not stay a day? Or five?

Michael

Luang Prabang, Laos

Before I can begin on Luang Prabang, I must talk about getting there. I came from Huay Xi, just over the Thai border, 12 hours away (most people come from Chaing Mai). There are three options: slow boat, fast boat, or bus.

The slow boat takes two days of travel with a stopover in Pak Beng, Laos. From what I’ve heard, the cramped boat is great the first day with beautiful views, but by the second day, it’s boring and drawn out. The fast boat takes only 6 hours, but is said to be pretty dangerous as the drivers speed down river. There have actually been crashes and deaths. And then there are the wonderful sleeper buses. I took mine from Huay Xi 12 hours (longer from Chiang Mai), leaving at 6 pm and getting in at 6 am. What I didn’t know was that I’d be sharing a tiny twin bunk bed with another person (I got lucky and knew the guy I was sharing with). We were cramped and felt like the bus was about to tip over on every turn. So whichever way you travel, it’s probably not going to be the most comfortable.

Moving on.

Luang Prabang is a lovely city in Laos, noted for it’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For me, it was talked up a bit too much, as there is not a ton to do.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

The waterfalls are stunning, with different pools to swim in and hiking trails to climb. There are even caves past the top if you have time. We rented motorbikes and drove maybe an hour south of town, winding past the beautiful countryside and local villages.

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Pak Ou Caves

About an hour drive north of town, or two hours by boat, the Pak Ou caves feature thousands of Buddha images. It’s a neat place to visit, as the entrance is right on the shore, but for a long journey there, it’s a bit underwhelming. Riding a boat along the river is a highlight, though.

– There is an elephant camp and “whiskey village” along the way. “Whiskey village” is also underwhelming and just seems placed to cater to tourist traffic.

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The fun boat ride over to the Pak Ou Caves!

Monk Alms

One thing not to miss in Luang Prabang is pre-dawn, when monks walk the streets collecting their daily alms from the public in exchange for blessings. It’s a beautiful act to watch but can be spoiled by camera-ready tourists with a disregard for the sacred.

Phousi Mountain

While you’re in town, you must climb the center mountain over 300 steps to a temple atop. It’s got a great 360 degree view of town that makes the climb worth it.

Utopia

How could I leave out the best bar the town has? It’s a bit out of the way, through a few side streets and alleys, but it’s a hidden gem that holds yoga and volleyball by day, and a chill, hippy hangout by night.

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Enjoying a cold beer on Christmas Day! Not too bad…

I must say, while I had a great time in Luang Prabang with new friends, it was hyped up too much for me. Perhaps Vang Vieng will be better!

What did you do in Luang Prabang?

Michael

2015: A Year in Review!

Another year has come and gone. 2015 was very much an inspiring year for me, opening my eyes to the world.

My love of travel has ignited into a healthy fire. My awareness of mind and body has been awakened and I feel fully in control of my life. My dreams are limitless: I can and will do anything and everything I want.

Highlights of 2015.

In February and March, I backpacked Central America by myself. I spent five weeks exploring Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. It was then I fell in love with solo travel, the nomadic lifestyle, and foreign places. The people I met along the way were fascinating and inspiring. Their stories of years of continuous travel opened my eyes. Anything was possible.
Not to mention I swam with sharks, sea turtles, and sting rays, climbed and camped on a volcano, and went bungee jumping.

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When I returned, I moved to Pacific Beach and finally began to feel at home in San Diego. I started a new job at a rooftop, beachfront restaurant, and made solid friends. Summertime in San Diego was a blast: while I worked long nights, 6 days a week, I also spent much time exploring the city: paddleboarding Mission Bay, cycling 130 miles up to Los Angeles, and adventuring the many beaches and hiking trails of Southern California. I worked hard and played hard. And all while saving.

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I was able to party in Las Vegas for my 24th Birthday! And then reunited with my 4K for Cancer team in Baltimore before returning to my Philadelphia roots for a week.

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After living in San Diego only a year, I was ready for more adventure. In the fall, I set my sights on SouthEast Asia, researching and talking to friends about it. I was inspired by long-term travel, reading blog after blog about round-the-world trips and traveling for a living. With nothing holding me back, and huge dreams, I booked a one way ticket to Thailand.
I’ve spent the end of 2015 backpacking Thailand, with sights set on Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. So far, I’ve played with elephants, played in waterfalls, and experienced the beautiful culture of Thailand.

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What I’ve learned…

Anything is possible. Never did I think I could quit my job, sell my possessions, and travel freely. Never did I think I was strong enough to let go of everything I knew and create a life of travel. But reading books and blogs and listening to other travelers’ stories opened my eyes. I took a leap of faith, believed in myself, and am now flying high.
We are in control of our own happiness. As I’ve been introduced to Buddhism and meditation, I’ve reached a sort of awakening. Life is all about perspective. We can’t control other people or events, but we can control how we respond to them. We can choose to wallow in self-pity, or we can use every negative experience as a chance to grow, as a learning experience. There’s always a positive in every negative, we just need to choose to see it. So no matter what life throws my way, it’s always a positive, a chance to appreciate and learn.
Life is about love. This past year has seen even more hatred: mass shootings across the United States, Donald Trump, the surge of ISIS, and more. There’s no doubt we live in a scary world. But what if we chose to counter each act of violence and hatred with just as much love, or more. Why not try to understand others instead of judging them and deeming their beliefs or lifestyle wrong?  Love must win, love always wins.

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And here I am, looking back at 2015. I’m 2 months into my travels with the whole world in front of me. My head spinning with possibilities for 2016; I’m already planning 6 months from now, where I’ll be next. India? Australia? Europe? All I know is that I’m ready to experience the world.

Cheers to 2015: the good, the bad, and the chance to live it.

Here’s to 2016: peace, love, and an adventurous spirit.

Love,

Michael

 

5 Days with my Mind, Body, and Breath: A Meditation Retreat

Wow. I don’t really know what to say or where to even start. I just got back from a meditation retreat and feel completely renewed. While I gather my thoughts, I’ll start with the daily schedule and expectations.

5 am – Wake-up

5:30 am – Dhamma Teachings

7 am – Breakfast

8 – 11 am – Meditation

11 am – Lunch

12 – 2 pm – Meditation

2 pm – Individual Meetings with our teacher

2:30 – 6 pm – Meditation

6 pm – Chanting

7 – 9 pm – Meditation

9 pm – Bedtime

A few rules: No speaking. No smoking. No drinking. No phones, computer, access to the outside world. No reading. No writing. No music. And no eating after 12 noon.
Sounds easy…

Let me state the obvious… These 5 days were extremely challenging. Not only to abide by these rules but also to be alone, with nothing to do but meditate. Simply walking or sitting and focusing on your breathing. Allowing thoughts to come, acknowledging them, but then shifting your focus back to your breathing and body. Many people do 7-21 day retreats, but with a bit of a schedule, I opted for a 5 day course to introduce me to the practice.

Doi Suthep Meditation Center (part of the famous temple, Doi Suthep) is located on the mountainside overlooking Chiang Mai, the perfect setting for a retreat. Our course was led by Ajaan Buddhasak, an animated, kind, and inspiring monk. At our morning Dhamma talks and after our nightly chanting, he shared his wisdom with us: meditation techniques, Buddhist teachings, and simple stories of struggle and success…
There isn’t much to say about my daily life there, as almost all of the time was spent meditating. Nothing exciting happened (yet it was also far from boring). But I can say this: I left feeling completely different. Still the same Michael, but with a deeper understanding of life and myself. I left feeling calmer, less anxious, more open-minded, and better equipped to deal with negativity and setbacks. I feel both softer and stronger.
As I left on my fifth day, my walk from the meditation center back up the hill to the main temple, to society, and to hoards of tourists was both exciting and scary. It was as if I had been released from jail, rehab, and reentering society. What do I do first? How do I speak with others? How can I assertively negotiate a taxi fare without losing everything I had just worked for? I was genuinely terrified. 5 days of silence, solitude, and significant change was about to be tested. Would everything be destroyed within my first interactions?
But the power of the retreat and my teacher left permanent marks…
There are many things we can’t control. But we can control ourselves and our reactions. We must breathe, connect our mind and our bodies, and appreciate the present. Not the past, the future, what could be or could have been. Simply breathe in the moment, positive or negative, and move on. It’s an ongoing cycle, an ongoing practice. But certainly the path to happiness.
Some people see happiness as a good job, money, material goods, much of it deemed by society. And don’t get me wrong, I’m far from hating luxuries (especially good guacamole… I craved nothing else more the past five days/two months). But I also see happiness, if nothing else, as peace within the mind. External factors are temporary aspects of our lives with little permanent meaning. They come and go. But the mind is with us forever. When we are truly in control of our minds, we can overcome all evils and achieve lasting happiness.
And when my mind is not in connection with my body, which happens very often, I just breathe. I close my eyes, and focus on my breath. As my teacher has said a hundred times with a thick Thai accent and pure smile, “Rising. Falling. Sitting. And repeat.”

  
Michael