Camino de Santiago Day 19

Monday, April 25

Sahagún to El Burgo Rañero

Jk Mansillas de Los Mulas

18 km / 12 miles 37 km / 23 miles

My body woke me up today, needing to pee thinking it was still the middle of the night. And then a minute later, at 6:30, my alarm went off. My body has officially adjusted to Camino time and early mornings. We had a lovely communal breakfast with fellow pilgrims: bread, jam, cheese, meat, fruit, and lots of coffee.

I decided last night on a shorter day today, 18 km / 12 miles to El Burgo Rañero. And just to be safe, I sent my bag there too. Yesterday was insanely long, almost 40 km, and I thought a shorter day would do me good.

Well. Maybe not.

Leaving town at 8, I passed a cool sculpture, marking Shagún as the center of the Camino, the halfway mark!

Today was a flat, long road. Easy terrain. So easy that I made it to El Burgo Rañero at 11:30, just 3 and a half hours of walking. You know what comes next right?

I picked up my bag from the albergue I was planning to stay at, had a quick bite to eat (pulpo/octopus and potatoes!) and of course, kept walking. My body felt good, with the normal foot pains of course, so I hiked on!

I spent a good bit of time waking with Cornelia from Germany, who was out here for 3 weeks. She has two kids, one of which is her daughter who will meet her in Santiago upon her arrival, and 4 grandchildren! We had great conversation until I needed a break to rest, and she powered on!

The meseta is the high plains of Spain, often notorious in the Camino. It’s been a few days of a never-ending, straight on path. Every ten feet is perfectly planted tree and nothing but fields all around. For us this spring, it is nice; but in the popular summer months on the Camino, the heat is brutal and there is zero shade. So as boring as the meseta can be for us, I can imagine how much worse it is in the summer.

I made it 13 km more (8 miles) to Reliegos, where I thought I would definitely stop for the day. But of course, we all know what happens now. My body still felt alright, it was only 3 pm, and I had some friends in the next town just 6 km (4 miles) away. So, true to my stubborn self, I kept on. My legs felt okay, as long as I kept a slower pace. But my feet hurt and I began chaffing pretty badly. But as long as my legs were okay, I was happy. And after another hour and a half, totaling 8 and a half hours for the day, I made it 37 km (23 miles) to Mansilla de Las Mulas, a town I swore multiple times I would not even attempt to get to today. That’s 76 km (47 miles) in two days. Coming off an injury. I’m dumb. But again, I feel good, I feel strong. And also dumb.

But the best part, I caught up with friends from the beginning of the Camino that I thought I’d never see again! After literally and figuratively catching up and having dinner, it’s time to relax, ice, and rest. And wine. Leon tomorrow! Good night!

Spent:

€5 Backpack

€1 Breakfast

€3 Pulpo and Potato

€10 albergue

€10 Groceries/Dinner

Total € 29

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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

Camino de Santiago Day 17

Saturday, April 23

Boadilla del Camino to Carrión de Los Condes

29 km / 18 miles

Ooof.

Okay. Today was a really rough one. Like the hardest day yet.

I woke up at 6:30, legs feeling good. I’m always apprehensive about that though, because I never know if 10 minutes in, they start to hurt again. And it only gets worse after that. But I set off at 7:30, fully decked in my “rain gear” as there was 100% chance of rain today. I ambitiously sent my backpack to Carrión de Los Condes, 29 km/18 miles away, knowing that I could always take a bus/taxi if I absolutely had to. But in the back of my mind, that wasn’t really an option. I would get there.

Well. An hour into the day, it began raining. Light, gentle sprinkles. Nice ambience as I walked along a cute canal. Then as I passed through Fromista, a bit more rain. Not as cute. There were also significantly more pilgrims on the road today than I’ve been used to seeing. Maybe a late start. Maybe because I stopped a town early yesterday.

The camino followed a main highway most of the way there, also on a steady incline. And it seemed the further along I went, the windier and rainier and colder it got. Until it literally could not get worse. I’m talking low 40 degree weather, then factor in 28+ mph winds (nearly knocking me over), and then factor in ice cold rain. I mean, it literally was painful every time the rain hit my face. Turns out none of my “rain gear” is waterproof. Simply, water “resistant.” There’s a difference. My pants clung to me, sunctioned to my ice cold legs with each rain drop. My hands froze, exposed to the rain and icy air. And the wind just made it all comical. Alone, I was serious, convincing myself everything would be fine and I’d be there soon. But everytime I passed someone or someone passed me, I laughed “Buen Camino.” What else could we do? Rain or shine, we were there to walk. As tough and miserable as it was, it was also hysterical: here I am, Michael, walking 19 miles across Spain for an adventure, freezing in the pouring rain and wind. Gratitude.

After what seemed like forever along the stretch of highway, and some mild pain in my feet, I desperately made it into Carrión de Los Condes around 1 pm. I forwent the usual albergue hunt and went straight for the nearest hotel/hostel sign I could find. Hostel La Corte’s at the towns entrance. I went inside, and desperately asked for a single room. €40 later, way more than I’d want to spend on a single night of the camino, I had my own private room, full bed with sheets and pillows, and most importantly, a steaming hot shower to myself. Today, this was much deserved and much needed. And on that note, I’m signing off and enjoying my luxurious evening.

I feel like I have frostbite.

€5 Backpack

€5.4 Breakfast

€40 Room

€11 Dinner

Total €61.4

Camino de Santiago Day 16

Friday, April 22

Castrojeriz to… Boadilla del Camino

20 km / 13 miles

I woke up at 6 am today. Our albergue provided coffee and bread for a light breakfast before I set off at 7 am. Today, I carried my backpack for the first time in two days. And there was also rain in the forecast. Yay.

It was another beautiful sunrise as I left the town. And of course, right out of town, I began my ascent up the meseta, to beautiful views of Castrojeriz below. Fernando caught up with me and we began to walk towards Fromista. Rain began around 9 am and I slowed down a bit; my leg began to hurt again. I carefully and slowly trudged on, as Fernando went ahead. Between my leg pain coming back and the cold rain, my spirits began to sink. I always try to remind myself to be grateful when I get down, but today was hard.

The more I hurt, the more I knew I would not make it to Fromista. I limped into the nearest town, Boadilla del Camino, maybe 5 km before Fromista. Today, I totaled 20 km (13 miles). I think my backpack really made things worse. I still need to rest and take it as easy as I can so that I can recover. I spent the rest of the day icing and elevating my leg. And hoping I wake up tomorrow better. I have all the time in the world to finish my Camino but it’s hard to stay put, watching my friends hike on. It’s possible I will not see them again.

Camino de Santiago Day 15

Thursday, April 21

Hornillos to Castrojeriz

20.5 km / 13 miles

Okay. Good morning. I went to sleep with every intent to bus back to Burgos to see a physiotherapist and get some medication. BUT. I got out of bed, walked around, and didn’t really feel any irritation. After a few more laps around the room, I felt a bit more comfortable and confident. I decided to attempt today’s 20 km / 12 miles, but send my pack forward. So I didn’t have any added weight, but I was forced to make it the 20 km to Castrojeriz, where my bag would await me. And a special thank you to Fernando for staying with me yesterday to make sure I was okay!

I walked the meseta slowly and carefully. Any slip, rock, or hole could be enough to cause pain in my already fragile left leg. But after 4 hours, I made it to Castrojeriz at 12:15 without much pain at all besides the expected foot pain.

Remains of an old pilgrim albergue.
Castrojeriz in the distance.
Lunch.

Fernando and I hung out at the municipal albergue before roaming town a tiny bit. We visited the “Casa Del Silencio,” a dark house lit with various candles, each room with abstract art, nature, and chill ambience. It was a great place to relax and reflect for a while.

I had a pizza for dinner and went to bed around 9 for a 25 km day tomorrow, where I’ll be trying to carry my backpack again.

Fernando, an angel for staying with me. 🙏🏼

€14 Groceries

€5 Backpack Service

€11.5 Dinner

€7 Albergue

Total €37.50

Camino de Santiago Day 12

Monday, April 18

Atapuerca to Burgos

20 km / 12.5 miles

I really don’t want to jinx myself, but I have been getting very good nights sleeps on the Camino, despite 16 person rooms, bunk beds, and snorers. Last night was another great sleep. I woke up at 6, and began walking at 7 am. Right outside town was a bit of a mountain, awful large rocks all the way up that was not nice to my feet. At the very top, a giant cross stood with the moon in the distance. I turned around to look back into town, only to find the sun still rising above distant clouds, rays beaming from behind. It was quite an emotional moment, I don’t quite know. I think the magnitude of the cross, the beauty of the dawn just hit me. I continued the day descending into Burgos talking aloud to myself, reliving old memories and talking old stories. I really enjoy walking alone; I am able to be with myself and dive into traumas and emotions that I usually try to ignore and distract myself from in my normal life.

The walk into Burgos was never-ending, along an industrial highway. It was not the nicest part of the Camino I’ve walked. But I got into Burgos around 12:30, enjoyed a nice coffee and walk around the city before checking into an Air Bnb I shared with some new friends from Grañon, Chris (Australia) and Kiva (Arizona, USA).

Burgos is beautiful, with lots of shopping (some higher end) and the amazing Cathedral. It was massive and surreal to see in person.

After a little exploring and siesta time, I went out to dinner with my Irish Kathy and Katie, followed by many drinks with the group we’ve been traveling with the past week. I went to bed chugging electrolytes and crossing my fingers I wouldn’t be hungover.

€15 Air Bnb

€35+ Lunch/Dinner/Drinks

Total €50

Camino de Santiago Day 10

Saturday,April 16

Grañon to Espinosa del Camino

20 km 14 miles

Good morning! After a surprisingly decent sleep on the floor, I awoke to the sounds of plates and silverware and the wonderfully glorious smell of coffee. After a light breakfast of bread, butter, jam, and a lot of coffee, I packed up and set off a bit later than normal at 7:20 am.

The sun was just beginning to rise in the distance, just beginning to light up Grañon and the surrounding fields. I think Grañon will be a special place that I’ll always remember. I met so many wonderful peregrinos from all over and just had a wonderful night.

Todays walk was a bit tougher. The adrenaline and excitement of the first few days has fallen away and I am now entering a more monotonous and challenging section of the Camino. I walked alone the entire day, in my thoughts and emotions. They say there are different phases of the Camino: first physical, then emotional, then spiritual. And today, I am definitely feeling some emotions.

554.6 km to go…

After a tough day, both physically and emotionally, and a struggle last night to find an available albergue, I stopped in a tiny town called Espinosa del Camino. Easter weekend has proven to be difficult to find a bed, as a lot of places have been booked way in advance, even in the small towns. But I arrived after 5 hours, 33,000 steps and 24 km (15 miles). The last few days have been pretty long, so to stop at 12:20 made for a nice, “short” day. I was the first and only one at La Cantina Espinosa del Camino for a while, so I took a nice hot shower with the windows wide open, looking out at the Spanish countryside. I also took advantage of the midday sun and did all my laundry and left it out on the terrace to dry. And after settling in, I enjoyed an ice cold beer out front and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

As the day went on, fellow familiar peregrinos trickled in. We ended up all hanging out and playing games into the evening. It was a very nice relaxing “rest” day.

Spent:

Albergue €11

Lunch/dinner €13.30

Total €24.30

Camino de Santiago Day 9

Friday, April 15

Nájera to Grañon

It was a beautiful morning leaving Nájera, climbing a hill out and turning around to see the city twinkle down below.

Like always, I walked through fields and farms and towns as the sun lit up the sky.

Santo Domingo in the distance.

I got to the city of Santo Domingo around 11, and decided to forge on as it was too early to stop.

I made it to the next town, Grañon, around noon, and checked into a donativo albergue in the main church. I entered a narrow stone staircase that led to a room and loft. It was a charming kitchen, dining, and living room with stone walls and cottage-like windows. Lofted above the living space was an area with 10 floor mats for sleeping.

My bed.

We enjoyed a wonderful communal dinner, where we all helped to prepare: peeling carrots and potatoes, chopping garlic and onions, and setting the tables. I met many new friends here, one of which being Chris from Australia, who provided beautiful fiddle music while we prepared, enjoyed, and cleaned up dinner. It was one of the best meals and experiences so far, 30 peregrinos enjoying a nice hot, home cooked meal, and great conversation.

After cleaning up dinner (as a team), we entered the chapel of the connected church. It was very dark, only lit by small candles throughout. Chris’ fiddle skills created a magical atmosphere, where our host left us with blessings and well wishes for our camino. We each passed around a candle, also sharing our own wishes for our personal Caminos. It really was a beautiful evening.

€14 Groceries

€6.5 Lunch

€* Donativo

Total €20.5*

Camino de Santiago Day 0

Hello!

I am underway on my next adventure: hiking 810+ km (500+ miles) across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. While there are many routes across Spain to take, all leading to Santiago de Compostela, I will be walking the most popular route, the route Frances (French route) beginning tomorrow, April 7th. I’m estimating the hike to take about 33 days from Saint Jean Pied de Port, the official start of the French route, to Santiago. Of course I will most likely be hiking an extra 3 days from Santiago to the Spanish coastal town of Fisterra, also known as the “end of the world” back in Christopher Columbus’ time.

The blue dots represent the starting point, Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, and the end point(s), Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra on the coast.

My travel day began on Tuesday evening, flying Air France from JFK, New York to Biarritz, France by way of Paris.

A little luxury before nonstop hiking and hostels.

From Biarritz, I shared a shuttle with a transportation service called “Express Bourricot,” who arranged to drive all interested pilgrims (aka peregrinos) from Biarritz an hour south to Saint Jean Pied de Port. You can opt to take a few buses and trains, but for the day before I set off on a 33+ day journey, I thought I’d save the adventure for tomorrow. And by sharing the transport, the one hour drive came to only €19 each!

We arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port around 3 pm. I immediately went to the Express Bourricot’s offices where I shipped my large backpack to Santiago, where I will pick it up at the end of my journey. This backpack has all my Europe essentials for my post-Camino Europe travel. As for the Camino, I’m taking a small 30L backpack with only the essentials. Basically two shirts, two pants, three pairs of socks, three pairs of underwear, toiletries, microfiber towel, sleeping bag liner, GoPro, chargers, and jackets. And a rock. I’ll explain the rock much later on the Camino.

I then made my way to the Pilgrims office. Here, I received my Pilgrims Passport and officially registered as a pilgrim. The passport is to be stamped all along the way, at cafes, bars, churches, albergues (hostels), anywhere and everywhere along the Camino. In order to receive your certificate of completion of the Camino, you must have walked at least 100 km to Santiago. The passport is proof of walking that distance, or for most pilgrims, 800+ km. In addition, the pilgrims office gives any advice and information about the first few days. In my case, which route to take tomorrow…

Leaving SJPDP, you can take the Napoleon Route straight over the Pyrenees Mountains, or the Valcarlos Route, alongside the Pyrenees. Due to heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures the past few days, the Napoleon Route has been closed off by local officials. A bit of a bummer, as I wanted the challenge of crossing over the Pyrenees on day one, but people have literally died attempting the climb, so I was just as happy to do the Valcarlos route (which actually proved to be very difficult anyway).

I also grabbed a scallop shell while there. It’s a universal symbol of the Camino de Santiago and pilgrims wear their shell proudly on their backpack. The shell is everywhere on the Camino, pointing pilgrims in the direction of Santiago. Literally no GPS or maps are needed.

And before I left the Pilgrims office, I weighed my bag. It came to 10 kg (22 lbs) before food and water. They say your bag should be 15% of your body weight at most. Which means my bag should have weighed 21 lbs MAX. Oh no.

And the last order of business, accommodation for my first evening. I chose the municipal albergue. It was €10 and featured two rooms with 8 bunk beds each, a little closer than I would’ve liked. There were two showers and two toilets. This is literally going to be my life the next month or so (probably 9 months actually). Yay!

Now for an early night. My alarm is set for 5:30 am so I can get a good start for my first day on the Camino de Santiago! Wish me luck!

Buen Camino,

(Something I’m probably going to hear 200 times a day)

Michael

The Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, is a network of paths throughout Spain and many European countries, all leading to Santiago de Compostella, where Saint James’ remains are buried. The actual pilgrimage dates back to the 10th Century, a holy route for Christians (along with Rome and Jerusalem) for spiritual connection and renewal. Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims hike the many routes leading to Santiago, for adventure, physical challenge, spiritual growth, or whatever reason they please.

The French (Frances) route is most popular, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and stretching over 790 kilometers (500 miles) across northern Spain to Santiago.

Most notably, the Camino de Santiago became well known from the movie, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez.

I will be walking the Camino in April and May of 2022. I have just embarked on an adventure through Europe and what better way to begin than walking the Camino. And what makes it even more special is that my father walked the Camino 8 years ago in the spring of 2014. I will quite literally be following in my father’s footsteps.

Join me as I share each days events on the Camino, however exciting, boring, or painful. And wish me luck as I hike over 500 miles to Santiago (and maybe beyond)!

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.

halongbay6

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.

hoiantailor7

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.

IMG_8216

 

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.

 


 

phongnhabike

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.

muineleaving

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.

hcm

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.

hcmwar1

hcmwar

 

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).

hcmcuchi1

hcmcuchi

hcmcuchi2

 

Notre-Dame Cathedral and Post Office

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

hcmcathedral

hcmpost

 

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