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A breakdown of our favorites!
Best Experiences to Do for Free
Go to the beach - anywhere in Southern Thailand (day or night!)
Walk out to Long Beach on Koh Phi Phi
Chill in a hammock on Koh Lanta
Wander the Chatuchak Sunday Market, Bangkok
Walk around Chiang Mai's Old City
Sunday Night Market, Chiang Mai
Best Experiences to Splurge On
Live-aboard diving trip to the Similion Islands
Blanco Beach Party Booze Cruise
Hire a long tail boat to explore the Phi Phi Islands early in the morning
Renting kayaks in either Koh Phi Phi or Ao Nang Beach
Rent a scooter to explore Koh Lanta
Rock climbing in Krabi
Diving at Sail Rock, Koh Phangan
Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Best Instagram-Worthy Spots
Kata Beach, Phuket
Maya Beach, Koh Phi Phi
Long tail boats around Southern Thailand
Unicorn Cafe, Bangkok
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai Grand Canyon
Silver Temple, Chiang Mai
Pai Canyon at sunset
Best Restaurants & Bars
Order a fruit smoothie on Phuket Beach
Banana Bar for rooftop drinks on Koh Phi Phi
Living Room Cafe & Restaurant, Koh Lanta
The Jungle Club, Koh Samui
SOHO, Koh Phangan
Shirlea, Had Yao, Koh Phangan
Iron Fairies Bar, Bangkok
Skye 20, Bangkok
Simple Natural Kitchen, Bangkok
25 Degrees, Bangkok
Iwane 1975, Bangkok
CRAFT Beer Bar, Bangkok
Breakfast World, Chiang Mai
Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak, Chiang Mai
Rustic & Blue, Chiang Mai
Sunset Bar, Pai
Ganesha’s House, Pai
Earth Tone, Pai
Best Places to Stay on a Budget
Slumber Party Hostel, Phuket Beach
FIN Hostel, Kata Beach
Loro Loco 2, Koh Lanta
The Moment Hostel, Ao Nang Beach
Slumber Party Bangkok
Thunderbird Hostel, Chiang Mai
Jikko Harem, Pai
Things We Didn’t Get To, But Wish We Did
Parasailing off the beach
Viewpoint hike on Koh Phi Phi
Diving off Koh Phi Phi
Emerald Cave, Koh Lanta
Sa Phra Nang (Hidden Lagoon), Ao Nang Beach
Lady Boy Show, Bangkok
Floating Market, Bangkok
White Temple, Chiang Rai
Why Sri Lanka is Amazing
Sri Lanka might not seem like an obvious destination - but it should be! If you don’t have the time or opportunity to dig into the chaos of India (like we didn’t), Sri Lanka is a fantastic way to experience a very different kind of Asian culture than you would find in Southeast Asia. Hinduism is the dominant culture in Sri Lanka, so be sure to take advantage of all the opportunities you have to learn about it.
Here’s a short list of why Sri Lanka should be one of your top travel priorities:
Stunning landscapes - the lush jungle landscapes are easy to experience by train or car, and the beaches are notorious for stellar surfing. The terrain is unique in topography; driving through rolling terraced central Sri Lanka is unlike any landscape we’ve ever seen.
Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia to see wild elephants!
If you love your tea time, central Sri Lanka is a main supplier for Lipton! Take a tea tour or two, the factories are a great way to learn about a quirky industry and enjoy a steaming array local flavors.
AMAZING FOOD. Curry, different curry, more curry, every kind of curry, samosas, the best bananas you’ll ever have (it’s not just hype), and coconut sambal. And lemon cookies! Notably, Sri Lanka is an awesome food heaven for vegetarians and vegans. They rarely use meat or dairy, so naturally there are a lot of options for the diet restricted.
Extremely friendly Sri Lankans always make time to introduce you to their culture and customs.
Our Travel Plan
Our story starts with a disappointed arrival to our train platform as the train pulled out of the station. Slightly frazzled because this never happens to us, we sulked to the tourist office in search of help. Luckily, a very nice Sri Lankan tourism officer took us in, sat us down, pulled out a map, and taught us the real way to see the country. We had done some previous research and definitely recommend you do too before seeking help from a local, but their knowledge is always more in-depth than the internet. Our friendly officer originally tried to convince us to hire a driver for the entire week, but we already planned for the famous Kandy-Ella train ride (see below).
Although it’s not obvious, car hire is actually a great way to see Sri Lanka, especially central Sri Lanka. While the train is beautiful, you’ll miss out on what’s happening in the valleys you pass if you stick to the rails the entire way. A car hire is US$50 per day, which is much more manageable when you split between friends. We opted for a mix of both, which was ideal for us. Here’s what we booked:
Accommodation pickup from airport to our hotel in Negundi the night we arrived.
Hour-long tuk-tuk through city traffic to get to the Colombo train station, which caused us to miss our train. Take a car instead and account for traffic.
Train from Colombo to Kandy.
Train from Kandy to Ella.
Care hire for three days:
Ella to Sigiriya
Around Sigiriya and its attractions
Sigiriya to Dambulla by car, to catch a bus onwards to Negundi
We booked all our transport at the tourism office at the Colombo train station. If you have a tighter budget, there are plenty of bus options all over Sri Lanka. They’re significantly cheaper than all other options, but they’re not always very direct or efficient.
Colombo International (CMB) is the main airport for Sri Lanka. The name is fairly misleading, as the airport is actually in Negundi, an hour north of the chaotic city of Colombo. In our opinion, Colombo is an easy skip for Sri Lanka. It’s largely a metropolitan city, which is probably not why you come to Sri Lanka in the first place.
Negundi is much closer, and we found it much more enjoyable to stay in. The beach town is far more busy during peak season (December to March), as it’s known for wonderful weather and international surfing. During off-season, the weather is chilly, grey, and wet. That being said, if you’re interested in picking up Sri Lankan souvenirs, there is no better place or time of the year to get them. Shops cut their prices in half just to move products. The shop owners are really nice and willing to negotiate with you. We both picked up leather duffle bags - high quality and under 50 bucks! Magnets and keychains are abundant too.
The Famous Train from Kandy to Ella
Duh. This is Sri Lanka 101 here. The journey is consistently ranked as one of the best train rides in the world. Do. Not. Miss.
The famous part of the train ride is between Kandy and Ella, but the railway system extends beyond both of those cities. Assuming you fly into Colombo International, start your trip by taking the train from Colombo to Kandy the day before your journey. An afternoon and a night in Kandy is a good amount of time to see the best parts of the city. There’s not a ton to do, but there are some pretty temples and a fun marketplace. Make sure you grab some Sri Lankan bananas for train snacks - they are LITERALLY the BEST tasting bananas in the WORLD.
Our dear friend Emily found a cool AirBnB/hotel called Square Peg that we absolutely recommend. Here’s a link to check it out if you’re staying in Kandy!
Book your train ticket from Kandy to Ella while you’re in Colombo. If you’re having trouble, the tourism office can help you. Don’t underestimate how popular this train ride is, especially during peak season.
Alternatively, off-season is much less chaotic. Not to say the trains won’t fill up, but you may get lucky like we did and have plenty of space to move around the car and hang out of the windows and doors. As per the fiasco in Colombo, the tourism guide booked us into a second class car which is usually only tourists and much less crowded than the regular cars. Bring water, snacks, and toilet paper.
Get ready to take some incredible pictures. The railway follows the ridge-line separating valleys in central Sri Lanka. Some parts you’ll pass through mountain forests, some parts you’ll pass through farmland and tea terraces, and some parts you’ll have unobstructed views of the valleys and cities below.
The train departs multiple times per day. Some people like sunrise, but we opted for a mid-morning departure. Thankfully, the weather gods granted us a gift that day. Check the weather before booking your tickets, but just remember that the weatherman is not always correct.
Ella is a famous destination in Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There are a lot of opportunities in the area to appreciate the stunning natural landscape. The trails range from short walks to half day hikes, so you can find an exciting adventure no matter your skill level.
You can’t miss Ella’s Rock. And by that we mean: you literally can’t not see it. It towers over Ella, and attracts hikers from around the world.
If you’re not up for the half day commitment (it’s a long hike), Little Adam’s Peak is a fantastic alternative. We spent two hours leisurely hiking the peak for an incredible view of Ella’s Rock across the valley. On the way up, you pass tea terraces and locals selling coconuts. If it’s a sunny day, bring plenty of water and wear sunblock.
While we don’t have first-hand experience with this, we’ve been told that locals hang around Ella’s Rock to give misleading directions in order to encourage hikers to hire guides. You don’t need to, but you might be more comfortable finding the way with a local - especially if you do it for sunrise.
Our favorite activity, as Girls Who Cuisine, was a 3-hour cooking class we took in Ella. There are a handful of options if you’re looking to take a class. Book well in advance as they tend to fill up quickly. We took our class with Ella Spice Garden, the first established cooking class in Ella. We highly recommend it! The class is small and taught right in the home kitchen of the chef, Chandika. It’s super authentic, and we had a really great experience. You even get a workbook to fill out during the class so you can bring the recipe home!
After wandering through the back driveways of Ella, up a few hills and around a couple corners, you’ll find Chandika’s home. You’ll quickly make friends with your fellow classmates and tour the backyard garden where all the spices are grown - it doesn’t get more local than that! Then you’ll have a cup of tea in the sitting room with Chandika talking about the history and local use of the different spices before heading to the kitchen.
Sri Lankan meals traditionally include 4-5 different curries, almost all vegetable based: potato, garlic, and daal curry. Plus coconut sambal (your new favorite base), and rice. Also the explosive and addictive papadams. These are the things you learn how to make in this class.
Do you know how many cloves of garlic are used in a typical serving of garlic curry? Over 50 cloves. And you’ll learn how to efficiently peel and slice them too - yay teamwork! Have you ever fleshed a coconut? The tool to do so looks a bit too much like a torture device, but this may be your only chance to use it… shredded coconut works just as well. We won’t share the recipes, you’ll just have to learn them for yourself! They’re all delicious and the class itself was a blast!
Valley Hopping Drive from Ella to Sigiriya
We were convinced to have a driver take us through this portion of the trip, and we’re glad we were talked into it. It may not come up immediately in your searches, but the valleys between Ella and Sigiriya are full of picturesque landscapes that you won’t get to experience the same way from a ridge-line train. Bus routes in this area are long and require more transfers than it’s worth, so a driver will give you the most out of your journey. There are wonderful stops characteristic to Sri Lanka that you may miss without a knowledgable driver.
Tea factories are stationed all throughout the valleys, as tea is the main export of Sri Lanka - they are the main providers for Lipton! Any of the factories will give you the inside scoop of how tea is harvested, processed, and sold. It’s also a great excuse to stop for afternoon tea!
Sri Lanka also produces an entire market of natural beauty products. Anything from hair products, skin care, to topical ointments and massage oils - you name it, they’ve made it from some sort of plant. We got a tour of the garden at the place we stopped, and were given detailed descriptions of how and why each plant provided the natural benefits for specific products. Were we prepared to buy one of everything? Yes. Luckily, our backpacks prevented us from overspending. However it is a fun and unexpected way to learn about Sri Lankan natural remedies.
It’s a very long drive. You will pass a lot of magnificent viewpoints. Don’t be afraid to ask your driver to stop so you can stretch your legs and snap a few photos. A lot of the smaller villages you pass through are charming and picturesque, so take it all in.
The roads are narrow, windy, and mountainous. If you’re prone to carsickness (I’m sorry), take a Dramamine and claim shotgun. Maybe bring a doggie bag.
There’s plenty to do in centrally located Sigiriya. Not only is Sigirya part of the cultural triangle so there are lots of opportunities to explore Hinduisum, but it’s also an outdoor adventure hotspot.
We stayed in a hammock haven hostel called Jungle Vista. We definitely recommend it - their adorable dog is reason enough. Apart from the little precious, the hostel organizes trips every day and makes home cooked dinners for everyone at night. The atmosphere is really laidback and you’re sure to meet some awesome people! The owners are super friendly too!
Dambulla Cave Temple
There’s a beautiful temple carved into a mountainside 10 minutes from the middle of town. You have to climb a lot of stairs to get to it, but the peaceful sanctuary at the top is breathtaking.
Hindu paintings spread across the cavernous space, and huge diety sculptures reach the ceiling. Golden buddhas fill each cave and glisten even in the dark. It’s quickly obvious why Dambulla Cave Temple is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As with any temple, you must cover your shoulders and knees - you can rent a coverup at the entrance if you need one.
Sunrise at Lion’s Rock should be at the top of your Sigiriya bucket list. Get up early, as in 4am early, to give yourself extra time to make it before the sun comes up - you might get a little lost at the beginning… the trail is not very obvious. Wear comfortable hiking shoes, bring your camera, and bring a flashlight. The hike is short, but steep and scrambly at some parts. Look for the white arrows when you get near the top, it’ll guide you over some big boulders and onto the top of the rock.
Technically, the hike is a viewpoint to see Lion’s Rock at sunrise. You’re not actually climbing Lion’s Rock itself. Similar to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella, we think this hike is more worthwhile because you get a view of the “main attraction” instead of standing on top of it. The panorama of the surrounding area is awe-inspiring, and it’ll feel like you’re in the middle of the pink and orange swirls in the sky as the sun comes up.
Don’t be afraid to stay a while, people usually leave right after the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll probably have the place to yourself if you stay a little bit longer. Pack some samosas and hot drinks if you’re game for a picnic breakfast in the sky.
Sri Lanka has the largest wild elephant population in Asia, around 4,000 individuals living in protected parts that cover a vast portion of northern and central Sri Lanka. There are a lot of easy options to ethically enjoy their presence. We went with Kalum Jeep Safari and had a top-notch experience. There are other guided safaris that run everyday in the Sigirya area, just do some research on a company’s reputation before booking.
There are three main protected parks in Sri Lanka. Your guides will take you to the best place depending on the weather and “status” of local elephant herds - trust in their ability to find the giant animals in the jungle.The elephants in the park are happy, protected, and not afraid of visitors. You won’t be able to leave your vehicle, but the driver will get you really close to the elephants anyway.
Our tour was just our party of three, which was lucky for us. We got to stand through the roof of the jeep and take photos while driving through the park. The whole tour lasted about three hours, and we saw easily over 20 elephants - including babies! Our tour costed US$15 per person, which was a fantastic deal. Book online or through your accommodation, it’s one of the most popular activities in Sri Lanka.
Keep your eyes peeled for other wildlife! The parks are home to tons of other amazing animals. We saw a beautiful peacock, snakes, and a crested hawk-eagle. Don’t miss out on the tour, it was one of the best things we did!
The largest city in north Thailand, Chiang Mai is home to unique cultural sites, delicious food (khao soi noodles…), and offers access to numerous overnight/volunteer opportunities across northern Thailand.Read More
We’ve gone through many rounds of trial and error while traveling, especially during the time we spent in SE Asia. If you’re headed to this part of the world, check out our top 50 take aways from five months in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and the Philippines.Read More
There are definitely some universals you can expect from all hostels: dorm beds, community kitchens, the inevitable person who snores, the late nights and early mornings as people catch their budget travel in and out. But there are some places that just do it better than the rest. Here are our top 16 places from our five month experience of living the hostel life in southeast Asia.Read More
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Bagan is fairytale land where hot air balloons drift through the sky as the sun rises over hundreds of ancient temples… but not during off-season (May-September). We found out in the arrival hall of Mandalay airport.
The best part about Myanmar hot air balloons is the way they look floating above the temples. Riding in them won’t quite give you that picturesque perspective. If you’re interested in hopping in the basket, the price is over $350 per person. Out of your shoestring price range? Go to Vang Vieng, Laos for the cheapest ride in the world at around $80 per person.
If you can’t make it to Myanmar during peak season, do not despair. It’s always a beautiful place to visit, and you’ll appreciate the temples being less crowded than they would be otherwise.
Long story short, Myanmar public transport leaves something to be desired. Your best bet is to fly into Mandalay and take a bus or private hire to Bagan. DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN. There are multiple reports of the train crashing or flipping. Nightmarish. The buses are much easier, but they only run at certain times. If you don’t want to wait, splitting a private hire from the airport is a reasonable option and the journey will only take 3 hours opposed to 5 on the bus.
PRO TIP: Get your visa before you leave. You can do it online, and you’ll need at least 24 hours to get it. Cheaper if you do it further in advance.
FREE PASTA SNACKS! Need we say more?
If you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to go: cheap beer, chill vibes, great food, a/c in the dorms, friendly staff, organized day trips including free ones around Bagan!
There are two locations in Bagan. One has a pool, one has a more social atmosphere. We meant to stay at the pool one, but accidentally ended up at the chill one. We were happy about it anyway. Ostello Bello also has locations in Mandalay and Inle Lake if you’re continuing on to other spots in Myanmar.
Sunrise Temple Touring on an E-Bike
What’s an e-bike you ask? Basically just a tourist-friendly scooter. We wish every country in SE Asia gave these to tourists instead of regular motorbikes. They’re safer, cheaper, quiet, but only intended for short distance putting around. You just won’t need more than that in Bagan. You can rent them basically anywhere, but there’s a convenient place just outside Ostello Bello. It costs less than $2 per day.
So here’s how it goes:
Plan your route the night before. Consult someone who knows what they’re talking about (hostel employee, seasoned backpacker who’s been there, or a local). Pick your temples before you leave.
Wake up at 4am before the sunrises. Tear yourself from your pillow, you’ll get back in bed for a nap later.
Rent an e-bike. There will be someone there at 4am, they know what the deal is.
Caravan with fellow sunrisers to your temple of choice (make it a good one!)
Take your shoes off before entering any temple. Pick a spot along one of the top tiers to wait out the sunrise. Don’t climb on the temples, even if it’ll give you a better view. Be respectful, always.
Enjoy the sunrise and take cool pictures.
Go back to bed until it cools down:)
You will need respectful clothing. Cover your shoulders and cover your knees.
If you can’t decide on where to go (or if you get lost along the way), you’ll see locals out and about. Just ask someone for help and they’ll point you in the right direction.
There will be locals selling souvenirs at the temples, even at 4am. Bargain if you want to buy, but be respectful if you don’t. It’s their job and their home.
Don’t do stupid things and be on your best behavior. Don’t forget that you’re in an ancient temple, it’s not a playground.
Watch your step, watch your head, and bring a flashlight.
There will be other people there - you’ll have to get up earlier than 4am if you want the best spot at one of the more popular temples.
If you’re looking for something to do outside of the Bagan temples, Ostello Bello will organize it for you. We spent a day at Mount Popa, or more aptly called, Monkey Mountain. It’s a stunning view, if you’re willing to climb 777 steps while being harassed by monkeys. They are not friendly. They will steal your food. They will attack if provoked, or not provoked. Just breathing near them angers them. Look down. Don’t run. Be alert. Hide your belongings. Good luck.
The view of Mount Popa is better scene from the hill across from it. Tell your driver that you’d like to see a good view of the temple and he’ll know where to take you.
The lush green river valley of Vang Vieng is a less-frequented adventure hotspot for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Hello cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world!
Hot Air Ballooning
I said cheapest in the world. It’s somewhere between $80-90 each (as of 2018). You have the option to go in the early morning or later in the afternoon. We opted for the afternoon (golden hour baby)!
Make sure you book your flight for one of your first days in Vang Vieng, so you can reschedule in case of bad weather. They usually send two balloons up per session - get in the second balloon so you can take pictures of the first one going up!
Keep in mind, it’s not very easy to take pictures of each other while you're in the basket. Maybe bring a selfie stick? Otherwise you’ll have to awkwardly hang off the side… which is what we did.
Also it’s HOT in the basket. Like standing next to a flamethrower kind of hot. Wear short sleeves and don’t forget deodorant! The whole ride lasts about 45 minutes, plus a rough landing.
The Blue Lagoons outside of Vang Vieng are popular for lazy days in the heat. Blue Lagoon 1 is often pretty crowded, but Blue Lagoon 3 is slowly growing in popularity as well. All of them have entrance fees of about $1.20. We took a tuk-tuk 30 minutes out of town to #3 for a hungover float on the tubes. There’s also a zip-line and a rope swing for those with a bit more energy during their visit.
We missed out on this some classic Vang Vieng adventures, but our best friend Simona (@simonamusto, check her out on instagram!) filled in a few blanks for us:
At first glance, it seems quiet, kind of dirty and unexciting. On our first day, our hostel roomie recommended we rent a motorbike and discover the “real” Vang Vieng. So we did and ventured out to explore. It was definitely not the easiest journey, with construction sites and bumpy roads at times. But what we saw was beyond our expectations. There’s so much beauty and hidden wilderness; children playing in the river, animals eating the lush green grass, limestone cliffs, jungle paths leading to waterfalls (check out Kaeng Nyui Waterfall!) that make the journey worth it.
The next morning, we decided to go river tubbing. Groups of ‘tubbers’ stopped at the first of three bars, shyly ordered their first beer at 11am and it never really stopped till sunset… People got drunker by the hour, but it was fun to socialize, play some games and cruise down the river with a beer in hand, watching the sunset and hot air balloons pass above us. The friends we made that day were the same ones we went out with at night for drinks and dancing at the many bars/clubs in Vang Vieng- it gets as wild as you want.
x Mama Sim
The lazy river valley town may not seem like it, but Vang Vieng turns up. There’s a surprising number of bars and clubs, and I promise you can stay out until 4am if you want to. The dance floor at Sakura Bar gets sweaty. No matter what your reason for coming to Vang Vieng is, you can always find what you’re looking for.
One more thing from Sim…
*As a foodie, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few recommendations of places to eat. First, an Italian restaurant called ‘Il Tavolo’ that serves some pretty amazing authentic pizza. The other is the 1$ sandwiches from the wonderful vendors on the main road, that are packed with whatever you want and keep you full for hours, I think about how much I miss those often..
Luang Prabang is an ideal starting point when coming to Laos. The Old Town has so many places to eat good food and shop for iconic Laotian crafts. LPB provides many opportunities to immerse yourself in local culture, whether it be cooking classes or a trip to the community art centers. The weather can be suffocatingly hot, so plan your days around the midday heat. Or better yet, head to nearby waterfalls to cool yourself down.
LPB is a great place to begin your journey into the northern jungle, or a quick 3-stop hop onwards to Vang Vieng and Vientienne. Nong Khiaw is a bumpy, but worthwhile trip to see northern Laos for a couple nights. Keep in mind, LPB is really far away from Southern Laos (Four Thousand Islands), and internal transport isn’t quite so easy.
Laos is internationally known for beautiful handmade goods - especially textiles. Luang Prabang’s night market was one of our favorite spots in SE Asia to find funky, colorful pieces to bring home. Pillow shams, little pouches, metal jewelry, or even scorpions in moonshine bottles reminiscent of formaldehyde preservation (yes, you can drink it). The “Night Market Food District” is perpendicular to the crafts market, just down a small alley next to the Tourist Information Centre. The food is super cheap, and there’s a hell of a lot of it. So many noodles and veggies. It’s a great place to get a taste for Laotian food.
Another great place to get some goodies is from one of the Ock Pop Tok (https://ockpoptok.com/) stores. A little bit pricier than the night markets, but the profits help OPT to train and support 500 Laotian artists. Part of the OPT mission is to train and provide ways for women in Laos to earn a sustainable income from weaving and handicrafts. Plus, they’re committed to environmental responsibility. All of their cafes minimize plastic consumption by replacing straws with bamboo alternatives, and unlike anywhere else in Asia, they offer *treated* water bottle refill stations.
Their Flagship Shop is on the bank of the Mekong River, and has an onsite tour with opportunities to meet some of the weavers! Their attached Silk Road Cafe overlooks the Mekong River for a wonderful lunch spot or evening drink. Their second cafe is a garden in front of the Heritage Shop location downtown. The Heritage Shop has beautiful displays on how the crafts are made, and some really unique gifts too.
The Boutique Shop downtown also offers bigger home goods and more fine art type crafts. Their scarves are beautiful. It’s across from the Zurich Bread Artisan Bakery (great Western food, if you’re craving it).
Think you’ve got what it takes to be a weaver? Ock Pop Tok also offers classes (https://ockpoptok.com/classes/)! For half, one, two, or three days, learn how the masters work on looms and spinners. And if that’s not enough, they also do Moonlight Cinemas (https://ockpoptok.com/visit-us/silk-road-cafe/moonlight-cinema/#whatson) every Thursday night at the Silk Road Cafe.
If you can’t make it all the way out to Laos, but you love the idea of supporting Ock Pop Tok, they have an entire online store! Have a little peek… https://ockpoptok.com/shop-online/
Kuang Si Waterfalls
These picturesque swimming holes look like a filming location for scenes from the Little Mermaid. Any taxi service will take you there, but avoid tuk-tuks because the drive is long and very bumpy. Much easier in a van - even easier if you have some buddies to split the cost with.
The icy blue water is a refreshing way to beat the Laotian heat. There are multiple swimming holes, and a few places to jump in from the edge. If anything, there are some beautiful off-limit areas to take nice pictures for those who prefer to stay dry.
Luang Prabang is on the wide, winding Mekong river - perfect for sunset cruises. There are a lot of operators, so there are plenty of options depending on your budget.
Alternatively, you can sit at a riverside restaurant to watch the hazy pink sunset without going aboard. We opted for dinner at L.P.B. Restaurant instead of a cruise.
Fun fact: if you’re trying to get to Thailand from Laos, or vice versa, there’s a party-boat that makes the journey along the Mekong River. There are lots of suggestions to go from Laos to Thailand, as it’s slightly faster and less crowded. It leaves/arrives in Huay Xai in Thailand, a few hours from Chiang Rai. The whole journey takes 2 days, and you’ll have a stopover in Pakbeng (not included). We didn’t have time to take the boat, but a lot of travelers say it’s a relaxing way to get to Thailand, and there are great views of more rural areas along the Mekong River.
We happened to be in LPB during one of the biggest festivals of the year, Songkran! The traditional Sanskrit New Year is celebrated all over Asia when the sun moves into the Aries constellation of the astrological calendar. A lot of backpackers go to Thailand for the festival, but it’s also a lot of fun in Laos.
This 3-day celebration is basically one giant water fight… to the next level. People drive around in pickup trucks with inflatable pools full of water, armed with water balloons and super soakers. Some people even use gallon buckets to drench vulnerable passers-by. Shops keep their hoses running for refills, and children will chase you down if you look any bit dry. It’s an awesome time to be in Laos, but don’t expect to get away anything less than drenched.
Utopia bar - one of the few spots for nightlife in LP.
Timeless Cafe - modern menu with outdoor seating - try the mango avocado salad!
Atsalin Restaurant - a local eatery with typical Laotian meals.
Ahh, Pai. What is NOT to like about Pai? That's my question.
Just a few hours, and a couple hundred turns, north of Chiang Mai, this mountain paradise was recommended to us from everyone we met who’d traveled across Thailand. It was usually referred to as “the place where you get stuck” or “the stoner’s paradise.” Everyone who mentioned it told us it was their favorite place in Thailand.
Right they were.
Not only is Pai absolutely beautiful, but it’s become a haven for travelers and expats alike who’re looking for a more laidback place to set up shop for a while. With a stunning natural backdrop, plenty of daytime adventures to take, and seemingly endless restaurants and bars, Pai is an easy paradise.
I have to be fully honest, Anna and I spent 5D/4N in Pai doing nearly nothing. It was fantastic, we regret nothing. That was all we wanted to do after what felt like forever of constant go-go. We put our feet up and said NOPE to everything other than food, the night market, and a few solid nights out with some German friends we met at our hostel.
So, without further ado, here’s a solid list of things I can personally recommend and the things my less lazy friends recommended to me.
How to Get to Pai
Simple enough. You’re probably getting into Pai from Chiang Mai, which is the largest city in northern Thailand. You can hop a bus from Arcade Bus station, purchase tickets from just about any accommodation or tour center, and you’re set. They run about 5x per day and take roughly four hours.
WARNING: This road is turns on turns on turns. 762 of them to be exact. If you get motion or car sick, dramamine is a great idea.
You can also fly to Pai from Chiang Mai. Seems a bit like overkill to me since they’re so close but if you’re looking to go straight through the airport that is an option.
Your last option is to motorbike. This is probably the best way to see the drive if you’re comfortable on a bike. It is also the most dangerous due to weather, the roads, and other drivers. Please only do this is you’re comfortable on a bike and WEAR A HELMET! So many people get into accidents on this road and you don’t want to cut your trip to Pai short before you even get up there.
Where to Stay in Pai
These are all hostels, though I’m sure Pai has some beautiful, slightly pricier options if that’s what you’re looking for. I recommend checking Trip Advisor!
This was where we stayed. It’s located slightly off the Pai’s main area, but the wonderful staff who run the place will give you a lift into town whenever you want. It’s beautiful, clean, quiet, and the hostel chain owns two bars in town that you’ll get awesome discounts at. We were going to stay for two nights before switching to Common Grounds and just never did. Highly recommend.
P.S. I think now they have a more central location, though we never saw it.
Probably the most popular hostel in Pai, Common Grounds is the place to stay if you want to be right next to the action and get your party on every night. Definitely a bit pricier than some of your other options, but that comes with demand.
Green Hostel & Skatepark
The other hostel we looked at. Looks beautiful and has fantastic reviews as well as a skatepark attached.
Where to Eat in Pai
This is a toughie because where do I begin? You’ve got so, so many fantastic options in Pai, especially if you’re vegan/vegetarian. Without going into too much detail, here’s a solid list of where we went/where we were sent:
Earthtone Vegetarian Cafe**
Om Garden Cafe
Oasis Bar & Restaurant
Where to Party in Pai
Let’s level here: if you’re headed to Pai it’s fair to assume that you’re looking to party, to smoke, to get a little twisted.
If you’re looking to drink, there are endless options for you. Here are some we checked out and heard about:
If you’re looking for a little something more, there are two places you can go: Sunset Bar and Paradise Bar. We went to both to check them out, they’ve definitely got a lot of hype, and preferred the atmosphere at Paradise but the drinks at Sunset.
Warning: drugs are illegal in Thailand and you can 100 percent be prosecuted for purchasing/consuming them, regardless of how many people do it or whether or not a place is “chill” about it. In Pai, specifically, police raid the main drag and are stationed both near the bridge leading to Sunset/Paradise at night and at tourist hotspots like the Grand Canyon. They can and will search you if they suspect you!
Adventures in Pai
Heading to Pai to explore some of the natural beauties in the area? You’ve got plenty of options!
The trickiest element is getting from one or the other. The easiest way to zip around Pai is by motorbike. You can easy rent these in town or just ride yours around if you drove up on one. Your other option is a rental car, taxi, a tuk-tuk, or a tour, depending on what you’re trying to do.
Some of Pai’s natural highlights include:
Pai Canyon (go for sunset)
Pai Hot Springs
Pam Bok or Mor Paeng Waterfall
Pai Piranha Fishing Park
Boon Ko Ku So Bridge
Looking for something to do in the city? Explore Pai’s fantastic night market! You’ll find wonderful street food and tons of crafts, jewelry, and clothing lining the main walking street in Pai each night.
Explore the Old Town of Hoi An
Rent bikes or scooters and wander around (Tam Coc)
Wander around the Old Town of Hanoi
Explore the lakes around Hanoi
Try egg drop coffee (Hanoi)
Rent a swan boat on the lake (Hanoi)
Train Street (Hanoi)
Best Experiences to Splurge On
Cu Chi Tunnels (Saigon)
Canyoning and jungle trekking (Dalat)
Broma Not a Bar (Saigon)
The Gin House (Saigon)
Whiskey & Wares (Saigon)
The Maze Bar (Dalat)
The BBQ place in Dalat, ask someone at Wolfpack Hostel, they’ll know
Either of the Morning Glory restaurants, they also offer cooking classes! (Hoi An)
**DO NOT MISS** Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An)
Jim’s Snackbar (Hoi An)
Mr Bean Bar (Hoi An)
Bamboo Cafe (Phong Nha)
Paradise Pizza (Phong Nha)
Andy’s Bar and Restaurant (Phong Nha)
Oasis Bar (Cat Ba Island)
Pasteur Street Brewing Co. (Saigon & Hanoi)
Bit Tet Chim Quay (pop up restaurant, corner of Hang Buom and Hang Giay)
The Alchemist (Hanoi)
Mojito Bar (Hanoi)
Polite and Co. (Hanoi)
The Mad Botanist (Hanoi)
Best Places to Stay on a Budget
Bui Vien Hostel (Saigon)
Wolfpack Hosel (Dalat)
Hoa Binh (Hoi An)
Trang An River Homestay (Tam Coc)
Catba Central Hostel (Cat Ba Island)
Babylon Garden Inn Hostel (Hanoi)
Things We Didn’t Get To, but Wish We Did
Chu Chi Tunnels
Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and other southern islands
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and the largest city in the north, is the second largest city in the country and the northern equivalent of Saigon in the south. Almost anyone traveling throughout Vietnam will either begin or finish their tour in Hanoi, and it’s a fantastic place to do that.
Hanoi is ancient and no area better reflects its rich history than the Old Quarter. Chaotic and colorful, this area of the city somehow manages to make you feel like time has stopped - even though the thousands of motorbikes and people that clog its narrow streets never do.
It’s here, in this crazy little section of the city, that our bar crawl takes place.
Anna and I stayed in Hanoi for about a week, opting to stay behind when MJ took a motorbike tour north to do the Ha Giang Loop with the boys. To fill the time, we wandered all over the Old Quarter, explored the famous lakes, ate at pop up street restaurants, took a tour of an art gallery, and fashioned ourselves a self-guided bar crawl of some of Hanoi’s greatest bars.
If you’ve got a couple of free nights in Hanoi, or hell, even just one, check out some (or all?!) of these epic spots.
Mojito Bar & Lounge
Cocktail to try: The Pho Cocktail
This quirky venue is tucked off a small side street in the Old Quarter and is a great place to head for live music and the famous Pho Cocktail. I won’t spoil the surprise of how it’s made, but I will tell you that it tastes weirdly close to actual Pho and it’s delicious!
Bonus: Straight upstairs from Mojito Bar & Lounge is another cocktail bar called The Alchemist. It wasn’t open yet when we went up to check it out - but if you’re looking for an easy next location to try it doesn’t get much closer than one flight of stairs.
Cocktail to try: Anything with gin!
This gin bar has multiple floors, one of which is a swanky, jazz inspired cocktail lounge. Think white tuxedos and red velvet floors. The other is a rooftop space that looks out over St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Between the stunning view and the unique gin cocktails, this place is well worth a visit.
Pasteur Street Brewing Co.
Cocktail to try: just kidding! Get that beer flight, honey. Jasmine IPA all the way.
What bar crawl is incomplete without some fantastic craft beer? This craft beer company brews up some awesome beers that are sold throughout Vietnam. This location is particularly great due to an inviting outdoor space and the option of giving a bunch of their beers a try with a beer flight. Don’t miss out on this one!
Polite & Co.
Cocktail to try: Anything off their “Mixology Journey” menu.
This place is AMAZING. Polite & Co. has a super funky, modern design and the bartenders there mix up some truly unique creations. When we went, they were featuring drinks that were based off of Asian Street Foods. Anna tried the Tum Yum Sour and I tried the Indian Spices cocktail and both were admittedly odd but delicious. We loved the atmosphere here so much we stuck around for a second drink!
Cocktail to try: craft beer all the way!
While it’s not exactly in the Old Quarter, Standing Bar is a fun place near Truc Bach Lake that offers a great selection of craft beer and an even better view of the lake from the upstairs terrace!
Red River Tea Room
Cocktail to try: Whiskey slaps anyone? Fancy a game of Cards Against Humanity?
Talk about a tucked away gem. Not near the Old Quarter, but worth the commute, Red River Tea Room is a little bit of whatever you want it to be. Want a great craft beer with a view of the West Lake from the roof? Fancy a round of cards or Cards Against Humanity? Want to cuddle the dog, pull a book from the shelf, and curl up with a glass of wine for an hour or so? Now you know where to go.
Still Going…? On to Beer Street!
The quintessential going out street in the Old Quarter, Bia Hoi Junction, or Beer Street, as it’s so aptly nicknamed, is the place to go if you’re looking to party all night with locals and travelers alike. Line your stomach before you go and see how long you can keep up with the $0.25 beer offerings.
A few more suggestions…
We didn’t make it to these, but you might!
Le Pub Hanoi
King Pirate’s Pub
Binh Minh’s Jazz Club
Southeast Asian markets tested our shopping resolve in many, many ways. Whether it was snake liquor in Laos, pearls in Bangkok, or street food in Cambodia - these six unique markets stole our hearts and our money and we aren’t even a little mad about it.Read More
Ahh, the epic caves of Phong Nha National Park. The one adventure that got away from me.
MJ and I had planned since we left to do a multi-day tour of the legendary cave system (the largest in the world!) with Oxalis Tours. Unfortunately, my body was having none of it and due to some mysterious hip pain that I never really figured out, I had to miss out.
MJ and Anna set out on a 3D/2N tour of Hang Tien cave and had an epic time - check out her post!
SO. Because of this set back, I hung around the beautiful city of Phong Nha, right in the national park, for a few days to let my body get back to homeostasis.
I also took the opportunity to take a short day trip with two friends that took us kayaking deep into Phong Nha Cave. It was unbelievably cool.
Here’s a bit more about it.
Phong Nha Cave
Phong Nha Cave is one of the most accessible caves to tourists within Phong Nha National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In its entirety, this enormous cave, the namesake of the whole cave system, is 7729 m long. Tourists can only get about 1500 m, which was about how far we got on our kayak adventure.
The cave is famous for beautiful rock formations as well as its use as a hospital, storage place, and base throughout numerous military campaigns in Vietnam. There are relics and evidence that date as far back as the Cham civilization, but most recently, the cave was used by the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War against South Vietnam and the United States.
The cave served as an important link on the Ho Chi Minh trail, allowing soldiers to camp out and hide both themselves and supplies at a strategic location in central Vietnam.
There are a number of caves you can visit that are considered a part of the Phong Nha Cave. Some of the most famous of these are called Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave. Tours to all of these caves, as well as the kayak tour I took, can be booked locally at Phong Nha Caves Tour Center or through your hostel/hotel.
Kayaking in Phong Nha Cave
Why kayak over boat? Kayaking into this cave allows you to go about 1.5km into the cave, about 1km further than the boat tour. You’ll also get a chance to explore smaller caves off to the side of the main river, which is an amazing experience.
The tour is straightforward, informative, and a fantastic adventure. You’ll get picked up early in the morning (take a dry bag or ditch the valuables!) and hop into a kayak on the Son River to paddle into the cave.
The entrance to the cave is stunning, perhaps even more so going out than going in. Huge rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites, tower above and around you from all sides, gaining this cave the nickname “The Fairy Cave.” As you venture further into the cave, lit only by flashlights, you’ll reach your first stopping point.
This first side cave offers you a glimpse at some of the cave’s history. Scrawled across the walls of this cave, further back than you dare go, are charcoal messages from soldiers who hid in the caves back during the Vietnam War and even earlier campaigns. This was where they cooked, slept, and trafficked supplies across the country. It’s surreal to see the evidence of that so far into the cave.
After this brief stop, you’ll jump back into your kayak and continue as far as you can into the cave before getting out again. Then it gets rocky.
The hike to reach the underground lake is tricky, but definitely doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Pay attention to your guides and watch where you put your feet (and hands, those cave spiders…).
After breaking about half-way for an amazing picnic lunch on a particularly large rock, we finally reached our destination - the underground lake.
We spent a little over an hour swimming, cliff jumping, and lazing about in the icy black water. It’s unbelievably quiet and peaceful this far back into the caves, something I’d imagine anyone who wasn’t scared of the dark would enjoy.
We finally paddled out of the cave, wet, tired, and happy, and slept about as well as you’d expect after our full day. The cost of the tour was roughly $70-$80 pp and if you’re interested in seeing the caves within this national park, but don’t feel quite up to a multi-day excursion, this is a wonderful alternative.
Interested in something a little more intense? Check out Oxalis’ legendary tours, including their famous 4D/3N expedition into Son Doong Cave, the largest cave in the world.
1. You can get from Hanoi to Ha Giang on an $8 overnight bus.
The bus leaves from My Dinh bus station in the morning and in the evening. The ride takes 8 hours, so opting for the sleeper bus is a good way to pass the time. However, they drop you off at 3 in the morning so you'll either have to stay awake until you can catch a local bus, or grab a cheap motel room if you can find one.
2. You can do the loop in 3 days and be back to Hanoi in no time.
The loop can be extended/shortened depending on how much time you have to complete it. The minimum time it should take is at least 3 days - 3 full days of riding. Our route was:
Day 1 - Ha Giang to Hung Ngai (near Dong Van) - this was our longest day.
Day 2 - Hung Ngai up to Lung Cu in the morning, then back-tracked down to Du Gia.
Day 3 - Du Gia to Ha Giang to finish the loop - some roads aren't safe depending on their seasonal conditions, so a longer route could potentially be better.
3. Renting a bike only costs $10 per day from QT Motors!
QT is absolutely amazing. They have great prices and lots of options for motorbikes. The owner briefs all customers individually, explaining the hazards and challenges of doing a motorbike road trip. QT also provides a clear map of the area with updated route conditions, plus a list of recommended food and accommodation stops!
QT also has an efficient roadside assistance team. My bike fell victim to a nail in the road only 20k into our trip, and they sent someone out immediately to change the tire. All included in the insurance!
4. The landscapes are breathtaking...
5. You’ll drive through authentic Vietnamese villages.
The Ha Giang Loop continually rises and falls between mountain passes and river valleys. Sometimes you get to ride along a ridge-line or through a pine grove, but you can always rely on descending into a valley with gorgeous terraced fields and homely villages.
Kids will scream and wave at you, hoping for a honk of your horn in return. Even along the mountain passes you'll see locals carrying crops in baskets, or a cheery cowherd herding his cows.
6. Staying in home stays is really, really fun!
Home stays are a much more intimate way to experience local life! They're owned by families who convert some of the rooms to house guests, with one big common room for everyone to hang out. Most home stays make family meals so everyone can eat together, so it's also a great way to try local food!
Ma Le Homestay is 10 minutes north off the main loop towards Lung Cu, and it was the BEST experience ever! We didn't arrive until after dark, but our hosts rushed us in and filled us with home-cooked food and rice wine - granny drank me under the table. Plus, the guest room we stayed in had our own fire pit! Careful not to smoke out the whole house though...
Du Gia Guest House (Du Gia Homestay) is another great place to stop for a night. Du Gia Guest House started as a local family hosting bikers on their way around the loop, but they became so popular that QT Motors helped fund a second location! Still run by the same family, but now there are two Du Gia Homestays. They're right on a beautiful river, and they have awesome backpacker vibes! A lot of people like to stay more than one night in Du Gia to explore the nearby areas if you're not rushing to get through the loop.
7. You can go to the northernmost town in Vietnam and look across China!
If you venture off the loop and head up to Lung Cu, there's a giant tower with the iconic red Vietnamese flag waving at China. There are a lot of stairs, but it's totally epic to stand in Vietnam looking into southern China.
8. You can sneak into China… or just look at it extremely legally from Vietnam.
I'm not the one who told you, but there's a spot on the border that you can grab a China selfie. ..
9. It's a great way to get the "Vietnam Motorcycle Experience."
A lot of travelers opt to travel the entire length of Vietnam on a motorcycle. For obvious reasons, this isn't everyone's choice. But if you're still itching for a taste of the biker life, spending a few days on the Ha Giang Loop will give it to you without having to commit to a cross-country road trip.
10. You look like a total badass.
If you have a slightly better idea of all the places you’re going than we typically do, you already know on your way to Hoi An that this is THE place in Vietnam to shop till you drop. It was by chance that we were traveling with someone who knew that Hoi An is world famous for tailored clothing, so we had some time to prepare before we arrived.
It is absolutely overwhelming how many tailored clothing stores there are in this colorful city. There are hundreds of tailors, thousands of fabrics, and millions of styles for you to choose from, and it’s quite intimidating to navigate without a bit of prep. You typically will need at least 2-3 days to get any one thing done, because clothes need to be measured and adjusted multiple times, and longer than that if you’re getting a substantial number of things (guilty).
Here’s what worked and didn’t work for us throughout our tailoring experience in Hoi An.
Getting Clothes Tailored in Hoi An
Step 1: Know what you want (kind of) and know your budget
PINTEREST my friends. Anyone who knows me, or at least my social media habits, knows that I’m a self-professed queen of Pinterest. I’m addicted. It’s the virgo in me, can’t get enough of lists and folders and folders within folders.
Other than helping me navigate the arduous task of learning how to cook for myself in college, Pinterest served all of us so well in Hoi An. The best way to get what you want out of your tailoring experience in Hoi An is to know what you want before you go. Every tailor will try and sell you on more ideas, more options, this coat, that blouse, but if you know what you want you’re way more likely to get exactly that.
Sounds redundant, right? You’d be surprised at how many people buy things in this city and then wonder why they made the choices they did after they leave. Trust me, explore Pinterest and the wider internet and think to yourself, “what do I want tailored?” AND, “what would I buy designer if I had all the money in world?”
To get you started, here are some ideas we, or someone we knew, started with:
Tailored, two piece suits
Linen dresses and pants
Burberry or Coach winter coat (they will come out EXACTLY the same minus the fancy logo)
Leather jackets & biker vests
Formal dresses & jumpsuits
After figuring out an idea of what you want, figure out how much you want to pay, total, for everything you get. As you go around the shops, you’ll get an idea of what each item you want will cost and you can deduct it from your total budget. This is the best way to not go over what you want to spend, which is easy to do here!
Step 2: Exploring your options
Since we arrived a day early, Sim and I spent a whole just wandering the area around our hostel and checking in on all the shops around our block. I really, really recommend taking this step before you begin getting things made. Prices, fabrics, and tailor skill will all vary A LOT, so it’s worth going around with your budget and your pictures to figure out the best place(s) to get things made.
We took pictures of stores and fabrics that we liked so that we knew which to go back to and what we wanted to get made in each. If they couldn’t give us a price we wanted, we kept going. The tailors will try and convince you to buy something immediately because most of their business happens on the spot. Don’t get roped in! They will be right where you left them tomorrow.
*TIP* The tailor shops on the main streets and in Old Town are bigger, more popular, and comparatively more expensive. We walked around a square block and found everything we wanted for decidedly cheaper than we would’ve found it on the Main Street.
The hostel we stayed at was called Hoa Binh Hostel in Cam Pho Ward and it was great. Amazing breakfast, cheap and clean rooms, nice showers, etc. THAT AREA is great for tailors that will be a little less busy and less pricey than those on Duong Tran Hung Dao (nearby main street).
Step 3: Choosing your tailors
Like I said, there are endless options for you here. We chose our tailors (we used about 5-6 different ones between all of us) based on a couple of criteria:
Fabric (quality, color, texture, etc.)
Price (you can always negotiate but you’ll quickly see it varies quite a bit, especially from material to material)
Time (the whole process can take a while, so always check you have enough time before paying for anything!)
Take pictures and get quotes from a number of places before narrowing it down. It’s the easiest way to get exactly what you want!
Here are a couple of the tailor shops we used that we would recommend. They’re all located on the block around Hoa Binh Hostel.
Babi Tailors (these ladies were AMAZING - we all got numerous things at a great price and the quality was perfect)
Step 4: Negotiating
Now for the fun part…
The entire tailoring process can be negotiated. This is the main reason I recommend shopping around before choosing a tailor. You’ll get a good sense of what something should cost and you’ll be better prepared to negotiate with the tailor you end up going with.
The more you buy, the less each individual thing will cost, like anything else you’d buy in SE Asia. If you can work with a friend, even better!
Here are a couple of things that will affect the price of your tailored clothes:
Size of the piece (a jumpsuit does not equal a romper does not equal a pair of shorts, etc.)
Material (leather and linen will always cost you more than cotton and silk)
Complexity of the piece (fabric covered buttons, complicated stitching, etc.)
Quantity you’re buying
Your own power of negotiation
Always remember that, in SE Asia, negotiating is a way of life. They won’t sell you something if they don’t make a profit. HOWEVER, this does not give you the right to be rude or irritable with the people you’re negotiating with. Be patient, but firm, and you’ll usually end up getting a price you’re happy with. Remember - that Burberry coat could be a couple hundred or a couple thousand!
Step 5: The Tailoring Process
Depending on what you’re getting made, this whole process can take one day or four. It’s a good idea to ask how long something will take (roughly) so you know you have enough time!
The tailoring process, at least our experience with it, goes a little like this:
Choose a tailor
Pick what you want made and the fabric you want (again, pictures help a lot!)
Negotiate the price (it will all be in USD) and work out payment. Some places will ask you to pay upfront, some will ask you to pay half upfront and the rest on delivery, some will let you pay everything at the end. Remember, once you’ve ordered something you will have to pay for it whether you like it or not!
Day 2 or Day 3 (depending on how fast they’re working)
Day 3 or 4
Wrap up and pay OR additional adjustments
We had some things ready on the first go, some things took up to three or four fittings. Some things take longer than others to get right, so be ready to be patient - it’ll be worth it in the end.
*TIP* It helped me a lot to make a schedule in my phone to keep track of all the fittings I had to do and where they were. I had 10+ things made at 5+ tailors, so I had more to work with than most of our friends, but either way this helped out a lot.
*PRO-TIP* In between all those fittings, go grab sandwiches at Anthony Bordain’s (RIP) favorite banh mi shop - Banh Mi Queen! Honestly the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten and they’re only $1. I think we ate over 50 of them between five of us before we left Hoi An. If you stay at Hoa Binh maybe you’ll see the tally we wrote out on the locker in our room 😜
Step 6: Shipping Home
Ahh yes, everyone’s favorite thing to deal with while on a backpacking trip (or any trip, let’s be honest). Once you’ve bought all your goodies, and a few lanterns from the night market, you’re probably going to have to get them home by some means other than your own carry on!
Each time we’ve shipped things home before Hoi An, we used the local post office (to varying degrees of success). However, in Hoi An, because shopping and tailored clothes are such a big business in this city, there’s a private service you can use that’ll come right to you with everything you need. The price is roughly the same as the local post and they send you updates throughout the shipping process to help you keep track of your box. They even help out with customs!
The service is called Dai Nam Postal Service and they have great reviews. We contacted them through our hostel and they were at our door within 30 minutes.
Shopping in Old Town and the Night Market
Just when you were about to say, “I can’t possibly be expected to buy all this and ship it back home,” I’m going to jump in here with a, “but wait, there’s more!”
Hoi An is a truly beautiful city, and nowhere is this more true than the city’s Old Town. Nestled next to the river running through Hoi An, there’s never a bad time to explore this area of the city. After a few hours strolling through the cobblestone streets under the light of innumerable paper lanterns, you’ll certainly agree that, night or day, this city feels like a fairytale.
Across the river from Old Town, you’ll find the heart of Hoi An’s nightlife in the shape of rooftop bars, clubs, and pubs lining the street, and the city’s night market. Here you can sample the best, and cheapest, of Hoi An’s street food as well as dazzling array of local wares. Stalls overflowing with lit paper lanterns (yes, they collapse!), old school gongs, unique and artistic miniatures that you have just enough room for in your box - this place is dangerous! And you absolutely can’t miss it.
After all, you’ve got to do something in Hoi An while the tailors are crafting your custom clothes.
If you're headed to the city of Ninh Bin, don't. Ditch the city and book a homestay on the Trang An River in Tam Coc.
We stayed at Trang An River Homestay, and we unanimously agreed that it was the most beautiful location we’ve stayed in through all of Southeast Asia. This region of Vietnam is known for its luscious green valleys and calm, winding rivers. Stay on Trang An and you can enjoy your morning coffee in front of true postcard material.
If you make it to Tam Coc, you’re probably there to lazily float down the river in one of the famous paddle boats. You can fit up to 3 people in one boat and the ride will last about an hour. Go in the morning around 8am for beautiful lighting - you’ll probably be the first ones there, too.
Don’t forget to tip your captain - although he might try to swindle you into it anyway. There are a few merchants along the river with snacks and drinks, and they’ll definitely be chasing you down. If you buy yourself anything, they’ll insist on you buying your captain a drink or a snack. Just be mindful of how many snacks they throw into your boat...
Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the ride. During the mornings, there are lots of birds tiptoeing around the shores while locals tend to the nearby fields. Enjoy the peaceful serenity of early morning Vietnamese river valleys - just watch your head, there are 3 caves to pass through!
Don’t be intimidated by the 486 stairs. You can do it. It’s definitely worth it. Get that selfie with the Laying Dragon and enjoy unbeatable panoramas of the Tam Coc River and the entire surrounding area.
The climb splits into two paths when you’re most of the way up. The left side will take you up to the Laying Dragon and give you the best views of the Tam Coc River. The right side will take you to a separate peak that has an awesome view of the Dragon.
Once you make it back to the bottom, right when your legs feel like noodles, sit back and relax on the swings by the Fairy Stream. If you’ve got the energy, have a wander in the caves along the base of the mountain - they tend to be a bit cooler inside if you’re needing a break from the heat!
Biking around the area
Most home-stays keep pedal bikes and motorbikes for guests to rent out for a few dollars a day. Take the main road and bike through some of the tunnels that cut through the mountains, or zig zag around the potholes in the backroads. There are lots of beautiful landscapes around if you’re willing to go exploring.
The Hot Lu ancient capital is a cool place to wander around and explore some 10th century temples and fortresses. If you’re not satisfied by the Hang Mua climb, there’s another short hike in the capital that takes you to a mountaintop shrine. Bring some choco-pies as a gift to the gods if you’re feeling generous.
With no competition, Dalat was my favorite city in Vietnam. The colonial style city is found north of Saigon up in the mountains and has a uniquely beautiful culture and climate that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
The weather is cooler, the hostels incredible and dirt cheap (we stayed at Wolfpack and would highly recommend it), it’s not too crowded, and there’s no shortage of adventures you can go on to explore the surrounding wilderness.
I went up there with one of our friends while MJ caught a plane to Taipei with her friend Anna. Sim and I filled our days with jungle treks, canyoning, and family dinners at Wolfpack Hostel and had an absolute blast for four days. Here’s a taste of what it’s like exploring the more adventurous side of Dalat.
Canyoning has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve never had the opportunity to do it, either because of time or money, so I jumped at the chance to try it in Dalat. Our hostel recommended Dalat Adventure Tours, which had great reviews, and for only $50 per person for a whole day of canyoning, I wasn’t going to look elsewhere.
So what exactly is “canyoning”? The tour company explains it as “white water rafting without the raft,” which is actually a perfect way to describe it. We spent the whole day navigating an enormous river as it twisted and poured itself through the mountains in Dalat. Sometimes you swim, sometimes you hike, sometimes you rappel down a waterfall.
Sounds cool? You’re damn right it does.
The tour guides at Dalat Adventure Tours speak amazing English and were incredibly friendly throughout the whole day. They first teach everyone the basics, which, in this case, includes rappelling down the side of a small, slanted wall. It took some people (me..) a few tries to get it right, but they’re very patient and make sure everyone is comfortable before heading out.
We hit the trail and had the most epic day. In total, we rappelled three times (actually much easier to do down a cliff than down the wall), hiked a solid few miles, cliff jumped over a waterfall (the highest point is 11m - SO much fun), and even threw ourselves down a natural waterslide.
The guides are amazing. They work hard to make it an enjoyable, safe day for everyone and even take professional pictures for you all day, free of charge. Our day was wrapped up with a delicious picnic lunch of banh mi sandwiches on the side of the river.
It’s definitely a strenuous day, so be ready for that, but you can’t ask for a more adventurous experience in Dalat and I highly, highly recommend it.
Oh boy, my legs were hurting after this one.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a hiker. I occasionally will be seen making the odd attempt at hiking a reasonably sized mountain/hill, but that’s rare. For the most part I’m dragged/coerced up a mountain and halfway to the top, when it’s just a little too late to turn back, I curse myself, the nature, and whoever’s idea it was because it probably wasn’t mine.
Turns out jungle trekking is just hiking through a jungle. Go figure. So this was a long day for me, but absolutely worth it. Sim and I were the only ones booked to go on this tour on the day we went, so we got the chance to go at our own pace and grill the guides with all the questions we could think of.
This was my second tour with Dalat Adventure Tours and it was every bit as wonderful as the first. One of the guides who took me canyoning came again with us on this trek through the jungle. Both he and the other guide were patient, friendly, and funny.
The day started in a small village in Dalat called Lat Village, or Chicken Village. You’ll understand why they call it that when you get there. As you take a deceptively easy stroll through the picturesque coffee plantation, the guides will explain the local tribes and customs of the locals in Dalat, as well as how they make their famous weasel coffee. I’ll leave it to them to describe that delicious process…
After a while you start heading up into the jungle and the mountains. You’ll pass through an enormous pine forest that looks and smells exactly like Cape Cod, MA. You’ll make your way across rivers and up steep climbs into the thick of the forest. When you arrive, sweaty and out of breath, at the top of the climb, you’re treated to an amazing picnic lunch that’ll have you thinking, “they hiked this whole way with that in their packs?”
The climb down is always easier, I find, than the way I up. Maybe because the end is in sight? I told you, I’m not a hiker.
Here you start to see some really incredible views of Dalat and the surrounding landscape. We wound our way down through the jungle and even saw elephant prints deep in the mud as we crossed yet another river. The trail concludes near a private resort/camp that’s right on the water and, oh, what a beautiful place it is. The property has a number of horses stomping around and, if you’re lucky like we were, you’ll catch them as they go down to the water for a drink.
The trek costs around $30 per person, which, for what you get out of it, is nothing. We arrived back to Wolfpack, sweaty, exhausted, and grinning ear to ear.
While we only had enough time for a day of canyoning and another of trekking, but after those two days we were absolutely beat.
Dalat Adventure Tours offers a number of other itineraries, from white water rafting to bike tours to multi-day excursions. There’s no shortage of ways to explore this amazing city and countryside.
If you’re looking to hop around Dalat on your own, it’s easy to rent a scooter or bike and go from there! If you’re interested in hiking the jungle, however, you’re probably best off with a guide. Some of the trails are very narrow and tricky to follow and that would be an awful place to get lost.