Travel

Adventure Adam: Koh Rong’s Best Boat Tour

Koh Rong, a backpacker’s island paradise off the coast of southern Cambodia, is known for its beaches, nightlife, and basic bungalow accommodation. It’s only a short ferry ride from Sihanoukville and even closer to the neighboring and less populated island of Koh Rong Samloem, which is also worth a visit if you’re looking to relax with close to no people around. I loved my three day visit on Koh Rong and I hope to go back one day! The highlight of my stay was without a doubt, the boat trip I went on with Adventure Adam, so I wanted to write about it for anyone who plans to visit so they make sure not to miss it :).

Adventure Adam began just as a nickname, which he then turned into a reputable tour company on the island. Adam is infamous on Koh Rong and has built relationships with expats, travelers, and locals alike. I happened to find out about the tour through the tour guide, Ben, who I met the night before, but you can also stop by Rising Sun restaurant/bar to learn more about it. There are several other boat tours from Koh Rong, but none are as long as Adventure Adam’s, and don’t include nearly as much. This all-day boat tour is $25 with a shirt or $20 without a shirt and leaves from Rising Sun at 9:00 a.m., returning around 8:00 p.m.

 

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What’s Included:

  • Snorkeling with gear
  • Fishing pole and bait
  • Fruit and cookies to snack on in the morning
  • BBQ lunch
  • Free water on the boat
  • Two free beers and whisky with mixers to share (most people BYOB as well)
  • T-shirt or singlet/tank top
  • Several swim stops and information about each place
  • Knowledgeable and friendly tour guide

 

The Tour:

After departing from Rising Sun, you’ll head to a modest boat, which can fit up to about 20 people. It’s actually better that way because you really get to know the group on the tour and can get around quickly on a smaller boat.

Ben, our awesome Australian tour guide, was well-versed on the island and went above and beyond to tell us all about Koh Rong’s history and future (lots of development is to come), as well as information about famous resorts and local villages.

 

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The first big stop is the Preksway village, which means Mango River in Khmer, and was one of the highlights of the day. Not knowing much about the tour beforehand, I was pleasantly surprised with our visit here. Adventure Adam is the only tour group permitted to visit this village because of the relationships Adam has built and maintained with the local people. In the village, we played with friendliest kids ever, and purchased snacks, drinks, and coconut oil from the locals. The village is home to about 800 Cambodian people, and there is a temple in the midst of being built, which should be completed in about three years.

In addition to seeing the homes of the local people and walking around the village, we also learned about the conservation efforts, education, and support being provided to Preksway village. Adventure Adam, along with other donors, are raising money to hire/train a midwife, build a library and school, and support the village in a sustainable way. Adventure Adam also plans to train local teenagers to become tour guides and eventually run their own tours out of the village, which I think is an excellent way to provide opportunities for their future. I also liked knowing that they will only agree to support the Preksway village if they agree to educate the residents on the dangers of littering and keep the trash under control.

 

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The rest of the day consists of plenty of swimming, snorkeling, fishing, lots of flips and even a few bellyflops off the boat. Drinking a beer while playing Frisbee in the shallow water with new friends at sunset can hardly be beat. The Khmer boys, who help run the tour, are amazing fishermen and caught more fish than the rest of us combined. They even cooked up the few fish we caught for us to try with some local snacks from the village.

After watching the incredible sunset from the water, we stopped the boat in complete darkness to swim with bioluminescent plankton, a once in a lifetime experience. We got extremely lucky with the weather- sunny during the day, but the clouds rolled in after sunset, which blocked the moonlight, giving us perfect conditions to see the plankton light up fluorescent green. I couldn’t believe how bright the plankton were, with and without a snorkel mask. It felt like time had stopped and we were all just truly enjoying the moment. After swimming with the plankton, it’s back to the shore to end the unforgettable day.

 

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I can’t thank Adventure Adam and Ben enough for making my trip on Koh Rong! If you’d like to get in touch or check out their Facebook page, here is their contact information:

 

Adventure Adam Activities & Tours

adventureadamtours@gmail.com

Adventure Adam Tours on Facebook

www.adventureadam.org

 

Thanks for reading and safe travels!

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Vietnam in 30 Days

31 days. 12 cities. Hundreds of new friends. Thousands of memories. No regrets.

After a month that came and went way too quickly, I have officially fallen in love with Vietnam. There are no words to explain how much I learned traveling through this incredible country, so I wanted to share a bit of insight, lots of tips, and an ideal itinerary for a month-long trip. Feel free to share this post with anyone you think might find it useful for a future trip! I also made a GoPro video of my Vietnam trip if you want to check it out here  :).

 

Traveling in Vietnam: Because Vietnam is such a long, narrow country, almost everyone travels from north to south or south to north, starting in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. I personally did north to south, so that is what this itinerary follows, but it can very easily be done the other way around. One of the best parts about this is constantly seeing other travelers you know! I loved knowing I would always know people at every hostel I stayed at, and I ran into familiar people in the randomest places. You will notice that it is a VERY small world in Vietnam.

The easiest two ways to get around are by motorbike and by bus. Those who are confident enough to ride over 2,000 km via motorbike will buy one in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and sell it at the end of their trip, but many choose to rent in certain cities (particularly the famous Hai Van pass from Hue to Hoi An) or just take buses. I rode on the back of many motorbikes, but never actually rented one myself in Vietnam (probably will in Cambodia) and opted for buses instead. Buses are very easy and cheap to book, and night buses save you money on accommodation as well :).

 

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Cost: The U.S. dollar is strong and worth approximately 22,000 Vietnamese Dong, so it is ideal for foreign travelers who are on a budget. Everyone has a different style of traveling and often prefer to spend their money in different ways, so it can be difficult to say how much to expect to spend for a month in Vietnam. I chose to save money on food and accommodation (~$5 US/night for hostels) so I could splurge more on activities and can’t-miss experiences, meaning I spent a bit more than someone who prefers to just chill out or not spend money on doing crazy stuff like rappelling down waterfalls. Note that alcohol can play a big factor in your daily budget, depending on how much you drink, but many hostels in Vietnam give out free beer and cheap drinks ($.50 to $1 is common for a beer and ~$2 for a cocktail, but pub crawls are the best way to get your money’s worth). In my month in Vietnam, I spent an average of $35/day, which includes everything from buses, food, snorkeling, canyoning, custom clothing, etc. I didn’t find it too bad for going all out :).

 

Itinerary:

Hanoi– 3 or 4 nights

This big, bustling city is a great starting point for Vietnam. Soak up the culture and get excited for awesome food and more motorbikes than people!

Where to stay:

  • Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original or Downtown (both are great, downtown location is more of a party hostel)
  • Hanoi Rocks Hostel (very much a party hostel, I stayed here one night and that was plenty 🙂 but tons of fun!)
  • Central Backpackers (I didn’t stay here but I’ve heard great things)
  • Chien Hostel (newer hostel and my friends who stayed here loved it)

Do not miss:

Explore the Old Quarter, do a pub crawl through a hostel, walk around the lake in the Old Quarter, see the water puppet show, check out the bookstore street perpendicular to the post office (has the word Dinh in the street name), and if you want a splurge meal, Pizza 4Ps is amazing!

 

Sapa– 2 nights

Doing a homestay in a village outside of Sapa in northern Vietnam (close to China border) is almost a rite of passage for backpackers. You can book a tour or homestay in advance in Hanoi or when you get to Sapa, but I actually just showed up on the bus without a plan. I got very lucky and had an incredible experience with locals I met right outside of the bus station (they will come up to you and show you their guest book with reviews in English). Typical homestays arranged in Hanoi are about $100 USD, but I only paid $40 for two nights (not including bus fare), which was a much cheaper price and was a more authentic experience than what most of my friends did. However, there is no guarantee you will get lucky like I did, so make sure to do your research first and ask other backpackers for recommendations (I heard of many “mamas” to stay with through word of mouth). I stayed with Mama Mai in the Hmong Village, which was a 4 hour trek from Sapa. It doesn’t get any more rural than that! My favorite part about doing the homestay was being in the Hmong Village, which I found actually has the most documentation/artifacts/photos online and in museums out of all of the ethnic groups in Vietnam. I even saw a photo of the grandma I stayed with at the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi- how cool is that?!

 

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When you do a homestay, no matter how you choose to book it, the local guides will take you trekking to see other villages and explore the rice paddies, cook local cuisine for you, and help you experience the incredible beauty of the mountains of northern Vietnam (you literally will hike through the clouds!). Overall, I highly recommend taking a trip to Sapa, even if you only have one night and have to take a night bus. It was one of my favorite things I’ve done on my entire trip! Even if the family you stay with doesn’t speak much English, my advice would be to interact with them and learn from them as much as you can. You can always talk with other travelers, but when else can you ask a local person questions about their culture and learn about their experiences first hand?

 

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Halong Bay– 2 nights

Seeing Halong Bay is an absolute must in Vietnam. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is world famous for its thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rainforests and you’ll never see anything else like it. Because it is so popular, you have many different options to see it. If you are not looking for a party scene and want to save money, I know many people who took a bus or motorbike to Cat Ba Island, then booked a boat tour to Halong Bay from there. The more popular option is to book a tour in Hanoi, and even still, there are tons of options either from tourist offices or hostels/hotels.

 

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If you’ve done any research on Halong Bay, you’ve probably heard of Castaways Island, which is the most well-known party tour run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel. Beware- there are MANY copycat tours and even more scams from companies who claim to do “Castaway Tours”. I can’t even tell you how many people I heard of getting scammed an overpaying for a tour which was not what was advertised. Make sure to ask lots of questions, and if you are want to guarantee you have a fantastic time, go straight to Vietnam Backpackers Hostel- Original and book it in person from there. Though I felt physical pain when I paid for this very expensive tour ($200 US for 3 days), it was WELL worth it. At Castaways, you stay on a private island with a beach, go tubing and kayaking, go on an all-day boat cruise, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and meet truly incredible people. Anyone wearing the yellow wristband in Vietnam shares a special bond of what they experienced at Castaways :). I have also heard people who went on the tours run by Central Backpackers Hostel and Hanoi Rocks to Halong Bay and loved it, so Castaways Island is definitely not the only party tour out there, but it is definitely (in my biased opinion) the best.

 

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Phong Nha– 3 nights

Taking a night bus to Phong Nha from Hanoi is cheap and easy, so don’t worry if it’s your first one. Do not under any circumstances skip Phong Nha! I am baffled when I hear of people going straight to Hue from Hanoi and missing out on one of my favorite spots in Vietnam. The actual town of Phong Nha doesn’t have much to see, but it is a truly incredible area surrounded by farmland and national parks, known mostly for the famous caves.

 

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Where to stay:

  • Easy Tiger Hostel- This hostel is fantastic and has a pool, which is a huge selling point for the hot weather in Phong Nha. They also have a ton of hammocks on the property, which is perfect if you take a night bus and arrive early in the morning before reception opens. The staff is extremely helpful and they do a talk every morning at 9:00 a.m. to explain all of the activities to do in the area. The hostel is huge and extremely social in the day and at night, so I highly recommend it!

Do not miss:

Dark Cave (ziplining into a mud-filled cave…need I say more?), Phong Nha Cave (you go in a boat and it looks like Pirates of the Caribbean!), farmstay happy hour for sunset (info at Easy Tiger), and if you’re feeling really adventurous, go to “The Pub with the Cold Beer” in the countryside where you can kill your own chicken before you eat it. I won’t post the gruesome photos or videos here….but I did participate in this traumatizing/unique experience. Sorry vegetarians! Feel free to ask me about it if you want more info :).

 

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Hue– 1 night

The bus from Phong Nha to Hue is only about two hours, so it’s super easy to head down there just for a night as you travel south. Hue is fun to see and Vietnam’s beautiful imperial city on the river, but if you are pressed for time, I would accept it if you skipped it.

Where to stay:

  • Hue Imperial Backpackers Hostel, which is run by Vietnam Backpackers Hostel (other locations in Hanoi and Hoi An)

Do not miss:

The famous imperial Citadel, tombs, pagoda, abandoned waterpark (super cool!), Hai Van pass to Hoi An on a motorbike if you’re up for it!

 

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Da Nang– 1 or 2 nights

The bus from Hue to Da Nang is only about 2 hours and run throughout the day. Da Nang is a beach town mostly known for Vietnamese vacationers and not too many westerners (even my hostel roommates were Vietnamese!), but definitely has a lot to offer. My favorite part about Da Nang is how modern the city looks, especially when it is all lit up at night.

Where to stay:

  • Funtastic Beach Hostel- Funstastic has two locations, and I chose the one at the beach, which was great. One of the owners is a world-famous food blogger, so they have awesome food tours and restaurant recommendations here. They even offer free van rides to Hoi An every day!
  • Danang Backpackers Hostel- I didn’t stay here but it gets great reviews and has a more central location!

Do not miss:

The Dragon Bridge Show is held on Saturday and Sunday nights and is absolutely fantastic! The giant bridge across the river is in the shape of a dragon and lights up at night, but on the weekends, the dragon spits out fire and water at 9:00 p.m. and soaks everyone around the bridge! This show is actually more like a festival with food, carnival rides, live concerts, etc. and is ALL Vietnamese tourists. No joke, I did not see another westerner the entire night and I was in a sea of thousands of people! Everyone was taking photos of me and my Norwegian friend and asked us to practice English with their kids. It was hilarious! Also, I didn’t have time to do it, but walking food tours are very popular. Check out multiple beaches in the area, as well as the famous Marble Mountains :).

 

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Hoi An– 5 nights minimum

Hoi An is easily one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite places in Vietnam, so I am not joking when I say to stay for 5 nights. Known for its tailor shops on every corner, well-preserved Ancient Town, coffee shops, and French colonial influence, Hoi An is somewhere you will definitely want to spend more time. If you can, try to time your visit around the Full Moon Lantern Festival, because this was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Releasing lanterns into the river and seeing thousands of them around the entire city was awe-inspiring. Rent a bicycle or motorbike to explore the countryside, go to An Bang beach (just watch out for the jellyfish!), walk around the old city at night, and enjoy the unique atmosphere of Hoi An.

 

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Where to stay:

  • Sunflower Hotel (actually a hostel with a great pool and fantastic free breakfast)- Book in advance because it can fill up. I showed up without a reservation and got lucky, but I heard of many who were turned away. This is the #1 spot for backpackers to stay!
  • DK Hostel (part of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel group)- More expensive at $12 US/night, but I’ve heard good things about it.
  • Under the Coconut Tree- This hostel is on the beach (a 10 minute drive outside of town) and is perfect to chill out for a few days. I didn’t book in advance and wasn’t able to stay here because it was booked, but plenty of my friends have stayed here and said it was great. If you don’t stay at the beach, you can easily rent a bicycle or motorbike or take a taxi to spend a day there. One thing I wish I did was get up early to watch the sunrise from the beach! The pictures I’ve seen look incredible.

Do not miss:

Full Moon Lantern Festival (look up dates online and see if you can make it!), get a tailored suit/shoes/clothes/bathing suit, rooftop drinks at the Chef, An Bang Beach (tip: walk farther down the beach for cheaper lawn chairs and food), and Bale Well restaurant to make your own spring rolls with a set menu.

 

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Nha Trang– 1 or 2 nights

I would highly recommend stopping in Nha Trang, not necessarily because it’s a particularly amazing place, but it breaks up your journey from Hoi An to Dalat and puts you on a bus for 12 hours instead of 17, which makes a huge difference. Nha Trang is mostly known for being a beach town EXTREMELY frequented by Russian tourists (literally, all of the signs are in Russian). For some reason, it can get a bad rap with travelers, but it is definitely worth seeing for at least a night.

Where to stay:

  • iHome- This is the popular backpacker hostel in Nha Trang, and though I didn’t stay here, I’ve heard amazing things about it!
  • Mojzo Inn or Mojzo Dorm- They have two locations and I stayed at the inn, which is closer to the beach, and had a great time. They have free beer every day, are very helpful at the reception, and it’s only a 5 minute walk to the beach.

Do not miss:

Snorkeling or diving (Nha Trang is known for this), nightlife, Bai Dai Beach (aka Long Beach) is a 30 minute motorbike ride out of the city, but you will NOT regret it. Why? See exhibit A:

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Dalat– 3 or 4 nights

I would recommend taking the 4 hour bus ride to Dalat from Nha Trang during the day, because it is absolutely gorgeous! My bus was at 4:00 p.m. (I squeezed in snorkeling in the morning), but I didn’t get to see much scenery on the way up in the dark. If you do take a later bus, take a daytime bus when you leave Dalat! Dalat is a cooler (literally, the temperature is actually cold and you will not sweat- it’s amazing) mountain town that is a favorite for many backpackers. It’s great for outdoorsy activities, waterfalls, and enjoying cooler weather!

 

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Where to stay:

  • Dalat Family Hostel- The actual rooms are mediocre and cramped, but the atmosphere, staff, and travelers make up for it times 10! If you’re looking to meet amazing people and have a good time, just trust me on this one and stay here :).
  • Cozy Nook Hostel- Lots of my friends have stayed here and loved it!

Do not miss:

Canyoning (rappelling down waterfalls, cliff jumping, etc.), night market, Crazy House (on top 20 list of weirdest hotels in the world), waterfalls, 100 Rooms Maze Bar (yes, this bar is a super tall building made into a giant maze that looks like Alice in Wonderland!)

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Mui Ne– 1 night

The bus from Dalat to Mui Ne is about 4 hours, and is a great stop to make on your way to Ho Chi Minh City. Mui Ne is known for its watersports and sand dunes, but there is not much to see in the city itself, so in my opinion, one night is enough, though I could’ve spent an extra day just hanging out at the pool.

Where to stay:

  • Mui Ne Backpacker Village- This is basically the only place you’ll want to stay in Mui Ne, mostly because of the awesome pool. This is a pretty large hostel and it’s very social, so even if you are just there to see the sand dunes, you will still meet lots of people. P.S. the chicken burger special at the hostel restaurant is amazing!

Do not miss:

The sunrise tour to the sand dunes! For only $7, you can spend the morning riding around in a Jeep to all of the best spots in Mui Ne, including the white dunes, red dunes, and the Fairy Stream. Definitely worth your money! If you are willing to splurge, for about $40 US, you can take surf or windsurfing lessons. Lam Tong Family seafood restaurant is a short walk from the backpackers village and has AMAZING cheap seafood!

 

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Ho Chi Minh City– 4 or 5 nights

The bus from Mui Ne to HCMC takes about 5 hours, not because of the extreme distance, but the sheer amount of traffic there is getting into this crazy city! HCMC is an incredible place with lots to see and is a wonderful way to end your time in Vietnam.

Where to stay:

  • Vietnam Inn Saigon- This hostel was fantastic and includes free breakfast, two free beers every day, and an awesome rooftop bar on the 9th floor. The pub crawl is on Mondays and Thursdays and it was probably the best one I have done on my trip so far! The hostel is very social and pretty large, so it’s ideal for solo travelers wanting to meet people.
  • Hideout or Hangout- I didn’t stay at either, but I’ve heard great things about these partner hostels. The original location (Hideout) is more expensive, but the Hangout and Vietnam Inn Saigon are both the same price and only a 2 minute walk from each other across the park. The pub crawls go to the same places as well, so I saw lots of friends who were staying there while I was out.

Do not miss:

War Remnants Museum (hopefully this is a given), Cu Chi Tunnels, a pub crawl (through hostel), Street Food Market (best food I’ve had in Vietnam…still dreaming about that bacon wrapped pulled pork hot dog), ABC Bakery, The Lunch Lady (best pho and spring rolls ever!), Sky Bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower for drinks at sunset (you can pay $10 US to go to the Sky Deck viewing area, or just go to the bar for an overpriced drink, which is what I did)

 

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Mekong Delta– 1 night

Almost every tourist office and hostel in HCMC advertises tours to the Mekong Delta. Many people choose to go on a day trip, but I would actually recommend staying overnight there because it would be an extremely long travel day and completely exhausting just to take a day trip. I booked a two day trip with a homestay through my hostel, and had an amazing time! This was partially due to the people I met and did the trip with :). The tour can be cheesy and fast-paced at times, but you can’t miss seeing the morning floating markets, riding on a boat through the canals surrounded by tropical trees, or seeing the copious amounts of random animals at some of the stops (i.e. crocodiles, snakes, porcupines, horses, frogs, weasels, etc.).

 

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I will never forget my homestay experience either! After eating a home cooked meal with fresh fish the father caught that day and talking with the family we stayed with, we played cards and did magic tricks with the father, who did not speak a lick of English. Sitting around the table with two Dutch people, a guy from Spain, two Czech people, another American, and a Vietnamese man playing cards was an awesome way to connect without needing to speak the same language. Waking up to Vietnamese coffee with a view of the river wasn’t too bad either :).

 

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Extra tips for Vietnam:

Street food– always look for crowded places where locals are. The best food is typically at places where you sit on a plastic stool/tiny chair outside! I never eat anywhere that’s empty or if it looks super westernized. Don’t be afraid to try places without English translations! Don’t even ask what it is, just be open to trying new things.

 

Safety– Though Vietnam is generally very safe, there are dangers in any country. My first day in Vietnam, my phone got stolen by a guy on a motorbike when I was walking at night. I cannot even tell you how many of my friends were robbed in Vietnam, so make sure to be aware of your surroundings, especially at night. Do not take ANY valuables out with you at night especially, never walk alone, keep belongings close and away from the street where someone could snatch it from you, and even try walking against traffic so no one can sneak up behind you on the road. This is not to scare you, but it is a sad reality in Vietnam and it is important to be aware. If you are robbed, don’t let it affect your view of that city, of Vietnam, or the people, because generally, people are VERY nice! I certainly learned my lesson and I am SO thankful for travel insurance. If you do happen to get robbed or need to file a claim with your travel insurance, make sure to file a police report and get an official stamped copy, as you will need to submit it with your claim.

 

Open Bus Ticket– If you plan to take buses the majority of the time, you may want to purchase an open bus ticket. This will save you money and you can buy a ticket for 4, 6 or 10 rides, but it can be a bit complicated to book them because you need to find that same company in each city. If you do buy an open bus ticket (I didn’t, but I would’ve saved a bit of money if I did), I would book it through Sinh Travel or Hanh Café, which are big companies and easy to find throughout Vietnam.

 

Easy Riders: This motorbike company is a great option for people who want to ride on a motorbike and enjoy the views of Vietnam, but not necessarily drive it. Easy Riders are common in every city or town and you can hire them to drive you to a destination (my friends and I rode with Easy Riders to one of the caves in Phong Nha), do a one-way rental to drive a shorter distance like the ____ pass between Hue and Hoi An, or hire a driver to take you on a multi-city tour for as long as you’d like (I met someone who was with a driver for 5 days visiting the towns through central Vietnam). It is a bit more expensive than renting a motorbike yourself, but it is a safe way to enjoy the sites and not worry about directions/roads/other drivers.

 

Visas– It is important to know that you need to prepare for your visit in Vietnam in advance. It is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia that you cannot just show up to and get a visa on arrival. As far as visas are concerned, you have two options:

  1. Get a government letter of approval for tourism online (~$18 US) and fly into the country to get a visa on arrival for $25 US. A quick Google search will populate a ton of websites to get you this letter, so just make sure you look at a few for prices and make sure it’s legit. I used http://www.vietnamvisa.govt.vn, but there are plenty of others out there. Again, you can only get a VOA with this letter of approval if you FLY into Vietnam.
  2. Send in your passport to the embassy in advance to get a visa before you arrive. I did not choose this option simply because I was already traveling when I was planning this trip and could not send in my passport, but it is a popular option and eliminates any stress about getting a VOA. This is also the only way to can get into the country over land, so keep that in mind if you want to take a bus or another form of transport besides a plane.

You can choose either a 30-day or 90-day visa and either single entry or multiple entry visa, depending on your travel plans. If I could go back and do anything differently, I would’ve gotten a 3 month visa to give me more flexibility and not feel rushed toward the end. Save yourself the trouble of trying to extend your visa (an annoying and pricey process) and just get the 90-day visa because you WILL want to stay longer in Vietnam, I guarantee it!

 

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Phew! That was a ton of information. I hope that helps if you are planning a trip to Vietnam, currently traveling there, or just wanted to see what I’ve been up to this past month. Thanks for reading, and as always, feel free to add anything I missed or feedback in the comments section!

Secrets to Booking Cheap Flights in Southeast Asia

Before I came to Southeast Asia, I had heard that flights are “dirt cheap and you can get anywhere”, but I will admit, I was a bit skeptical. After some recent experiences booking last minute flights, I thought I would share some tips if you’re looking to save money traveling in SE Asia:

  1. Utilize Travel Apps: My two favorite apps to use when booking flights are Hopper and Skyscanner. They both have websites, but you can often get better prices on their apps, so I use them more often. When I want to book a flight, I look up flights on Skyscanner to get an estimate for the cost, then check Hopper to see if it predicts whether the price will go up or down in the coming days or weeks. You can also set an alert on Hopper to notify you when prices go down, so even if you forget about that flight you need to book, the app will still remind you. Skyscanner is basically a cheaper and more thorough version of websites like Expedia, and I have found much lower prices on it, so I highly recommend it! I have also heard good things about Momondo, so I may check that out soon :).
  2. Look at all of your airport options: I was in Koh Samui and wanted to book a flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. Booking directly from Koh Samui to LP would’ve costed me over $300 US, so I needed to look into other options. If you are on an island or somewhere not easily accessible, definitely check out other nearby airports. I found out that only specific airlines can fly into the Koh Samui airport and some budget airlines aren’t allowed to fly there at all. After a recommendation from a fellow traveler, I looked into the Surat Thani airport, which is the closest airport on the mainland of Thailand. A flight to Bangkok that would’ve costed me over $100 US from Koh Samui only costed $20 US from Surat Thani! I easily took a ferry to the mainland, then took a bus to Surat Thani to catch my flight the next morning. My experience in Surat Thani ended up being very interesting, considering I did not see a single other western person or meet anyone who spoke English. The plus side of staying overnight somewhere that is the opposite of touristy is that you can stay in a safe hotel with a great location for only $8 US. Long story short, I booked a flight from Surat Thani to Bangkok on Thai Lion Air for $20 US and a flight from Bangkok to Luang Prabang on Air Asia for $50 US, totaling to $70 US instead of over $300! It was definitely worth taking an extra ferry and exploring a new city for a day.
  3. Carry-on Luggage: This one is simple, but can really save you a ton of money in Southeast Asia. If I purchased luggage on my flight to Laos, it would’ve costed me almost as much as the flight itself! Luckily, my backpack is small enough I can sneak it on planes even though it is over the 7 kg limit :). If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia, definitely consider downsizing your backpack- you will not regret it!
  4. Read the Fine Print: Before booking a flight, always read the fine print and see if checked luggage is included, if you need to print your boarding pass before arriving at the airport, if there are any additional taxes or surcharges, and if there is any flexibility with your ticket. It may be worth paying a bit extra to have the flexibility to change your dates if you need to!
  5. Compare Your Options: Though flying is usually fastest and cheapest in Southeast Asia (depending on where you are going), there are plenty of ways to get around. Before booking a flight, always look into your other options like an overnight train or bus, a ferry/boat, or a combination. There are tourist offices everywhere in most cities and they can easily book a combination ticket for you. Looking online is smart, but there are some modes of transportation that are not listed online. Whatever you choose to do, don’t stress! You can always figure things out on the fly, so I definitely recommend just going with the flow and booking as you go :).

 

Expert hint: Some budget airlines in Asia do not accept foreign credit cards when booking online. Do not fear! In Thailand, you can actually select 7/11 as a payment method when you check out and you can pay cash at any 7/11 location with a print out of your voucher. After a few days of frustration and calling the airline, I was amazed that this actually worked! I have also heard you can pay cash at travel agencies as well, but I’m not sure what they charge for commission.

 

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For reference, some popular budget airlines in Southeast Asia are:

  • Air Asia
  • Nok Air
  • Thai Lion
  • Jetstar
  • Tiger Air
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Hopefully this helps if you plan to travel in Southeast Asia in the future or are traveling right now! If you have any other tips to add, feel free to post in the comments section :).

Kuang Si Waterfalls & Other Tips for Luang Prabang

 

Laos: the land of roosters, butterflies, incredible landscapes, and limestone caves, with a rich history and French influence. If you haven’t heard of Kuang Si Waterfalls, a quick Google image search will show you why so many people travel to Laos just to see this oasis outside of Luang Prabang. I have been to some incredible waterfalls in my life, and this one is by far the best (even better than Krka National Park in Croatia!). Here are some tips and pictures if you are looking to go in the future or just want to learn more about it:

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The Kuang Si Waterfalls are about a 45 minute drive outside of Luang Prabang and an absolute must-see if you are in Laos. Between the Black Bear exhibit and series of 7 cascading waterfalls, there is a ton to explore at the park.

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How to get there: Find a tuk tuk on the street near the night market and negotiate. Don’t book through hostel or guest house; you will get ripped off! I would recommend a tuk tuk over a minibus/van because you can see the beautiful views better and you are less likely to get carsick on the windy roads with an open air truck (I did both and much preferred the tuk tuk).

Go with a Group: The bigger the group (4+ is good), the lower your price. Tuk tuk drivers may start out with something outrageous like 80,000 kip per person, but believe me, if you try hard enough and talk to enough drivers, you can get it down to 20,000 kip ($2.50 US) per person roundtrip. The driver will wait for you for three hours at the park entrance, but see if you can negotiate 3 ½ or 4 hours- you will want to stay longer!

Once you get to the bridge with the incredible views and photo ops (see below), you may think you’ve reached the top of Kuang Si Falls…don’t worry, there’s more. Continue on the trail (I highly recommend wearing sturdy hiking sandals like Chacos as opposed to flip flops) and you will see a fence with barbed wire and a sign that says “do not pass”. Go against what your gut may tell you and crawl through the fence to reach the best part of your day. You can swim at the very top of the waterfalls, go underneath the 300 ft. waterfall into a small cave, and take some incredible photos. There are typically just other backpackers up there who’ve heard about this “secret spot” through word of mouth, so it’s a great chance to make new friends!

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I didn’t do this the first time I went, but I am so glad I went back to Kuang Si Falls to hike up and around the top waterfalls. If you continue on the trail to the left when you climb back through the “do not pass” fence, you will not regret it. There is a trail at the very top above all of the waterfalls with incredible views of the mountains and there was not a soul up there when I went. You can even follow the signs to get to another cave farther back, but unfortunately, I ran out of time, and followed the trail down the other side of the waterfalls (see photos below).

Butterfly Park: There is a butterfly park about 300 meters away from Kuang Si falls, which is a great addition to a day trip. I wanted to go until I found out it was 40,000 kip for entrance, which is pretty expensive for Laos standards. I’ve heard it’s beautiful, but didn’t get a chance to go for myself, so let me know what you think if you do!

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Though I could visit Luang Prabang just to see Kuang Si Falls, there is also a ton of other activities to do. Here are a few I recommend in order of how much I enjoyed them:

Night Market: Make sure to eat at the buffet at least once (15,000 kip for all-you-can-eat vegetarian food), eat at the noodle place on the corner by the tourist center, try the local coffee at the countless cafes, and support local people by buying their unique handicrafts. If you head to this area in the day, there is an awesome spot with several vendors selling fruit shakes and sandwiches. I highly recommend the chicken, cheese, and avocado sandwich!

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Utopia: This bar and restaurant is the best spot in town with totally different vibes in the day and at night. With views of the river, tons of places to chill out, yoga classes, delicious food, and a sand volleyball court, Utopia is a great place to hang out in the day or around sunset. At night, this is where all of the backpackers come to hang out and drink at the bar. Though there is music and plenty of flowing drinks, this place usually doesn’t get too rowdy and is a great place to meet new people.

UXO Visitor Center: I learned SO much about the history of Laos and how the Laotian people are still affected by the Vietnam/Second Indochina War here. Do not miss this visitor center while you are in Luang Prabang- it was absolutely fascinating, heartbreaking, and eye-opening to learn about the unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War scattered throughout the country and how they even have to teach the children how to identify and avoid them. UXO is an organization that goes to villages throughout Laos to detonate or defuse these deadly unexploded bombs that kill hundreds of Laotian people every year. How did I not learn about this in school?!

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Traditional Arts & Ethnology Center: Another educational spot that should not be missed when in LP. I learned about the different ethnic and cultural groups of Laos and all about their daily lives, crafts such as weaving and embroidering, and how tourists can support the local people. Amazing!

Bowling: As strange as it sounds, bowling in Luang Prabang is basically a daily ritual for visiting backpackers. After Utopia closes at 11 p.m., everyone heads to the bowling alley, as it is the only place open late and is surprisingly a lot of fun when there are that many people there.

Mount Phousi: Hike to the top of this mountain with a temple for beautiful views of the river and the city for sunset. I would not recommend doing what I did and going at 1 p.m. in the peak heat hours of the day (even though the views were still worth it!).

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Royal Palace Museum: If you’re a museum buff, check out this museum to learn about Laos’ history, get to know the royal family, and see beautiful traditional art.

Free Movie Night at L’Etranger Café & Bookstore: Just make sure to buy food or a drink here, and take a night to relax watching a movie in the upstairs lounge. The night I went, we watched The Intern!

Sunset Cruise: I attempted to do a cruise with Sa Sa Sunset Cruise, but unfortunately, not enough people signed up that day (#lowseasonproblems). I hear it’s fun though! If you end up going, let me know how it is :).

Other than that, walking around the Old Quarter is a great experience in itself. There are plenty of shops and cafes to take refuge in from the heat, but my favorite part was just enjoying the French Colonial architecture and walking along the river. There are a few other activities I missed, so make sure to look online or ask around for other things to do, such as seeing the early morning Alms Giving Ceremony.

 

How much to expect to spend: Depending on what you’re doing, you can expect to spend between $10-$15 USD per day including accommodation (this could be more if you buy alcohol).

Hostels:

LPQ Backpackers hostel (40,000 kip/$5 USD per night): Simple, but does the job. I had no complaints about this hostel, other than the rock hard beds and not-so-helpful reception.

Khounsavan Guesthouse (50,000 kip/~$6 USD per night): This hostel had better reviews, more people, and a pool, so I switched here for my last two nights. To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed based on the food, reception/service, and (bath)rooms. The pool was nice and the people I met were great, but I think the signs that say “rated best hostel in Laos” may be a bit of an exaggeration. Regardless, it is still a fun place to stay, especially if you’re looking to meet people and go out.

If you don’t want to book anything in advance, you can very easily just show up near the night market and find tons of guesthouses nearby. However, some of these guesthouses may not be as social as the two I recommended above :).

Booking Busses: Almost everyone is either going to or coming from Vang Vieng via bus, and there are a ton of places to buy bus tickets. I highly recommend going directly to the bus terminal and buying your ticket there, rather than buying at your hostel/guesthouse or at a tourist office. These places will charge you extra and there are a lot of scams for “VIP buses”, which are quite the contrary. I paid 85,000 kip for my “VIP” bus, but others on the same bus paid 115,000 kip because they did not buy directly at the bus terminal. Just an extra tip!

I hope this was informative and showcased all that Luang Prabang has to offer, which is a lot more than Kuang Si Waterfalls! I kept extending my time here because I enjoyed it so much, so I hope you get the chance to go as well :). I will upload my GoPro video of Laos highlight soon- thanks for reading!

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How to Get an Adrenaline Rush in Koh Phangan

Alright, I just have to rave about two of the most fun things I have done in Thailand on the island of Koh Phangan! The Challenge Phangan and Slip n’ Fly are both popular attractions on the island for those looking for a huge adrenaline rush or just to work off a hangover from the Full Moon Party (see photo below). Here is a bit of information about each if you’re looking to go or just want to see more pictures!

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The Challenge Phangan is essentially a giant wipeout course on a lake which will leave you more exhausted than you ever thought possible from an inflatable course. With everything from a swing starting from a 30 ft. high platform to giant red balls to attempt to jump across, the course has a huge variety of challenges for every skill/fitness level. The giant blob is definitely the biggest hit and if you have the guts to do it, the staff will launch you with three people (see photo of my friend Mark mid-air below).

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Where is it?: On the northwest side of the island

Cost: 500 baht per person (~$14 US) for the day (pricey but WORTH it)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How long to stay: Depending on the crowds and the size of your group, I’d go for a minimum of three hours. There is also a small restaurant there with (overpriced) food, but I highly recommend the nachos if you get hungry :).

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on The Challenge Phangan’s Facebook page!

Slip n’ Fly Party is equally as awesome as the Challenge Phangan, but in a totally different way. The park has a DJ attempting to play “western” party music, games like pool volleyball, lots of drinks, and of course, huge water slides. If you want to see someone soar, send them face first down the biggest water slide you will probably ever see and hope they nail the landing. Watching other people go down the slides is just as hilarious and entertaining as doing it yourself! If you dare to take a ball down with you and make it in the basket mid-air, they’ll even give you a free drink. I had so much fun at this park and met amazing people there too! The best part is that it was free for me and my friend Harry because I met a local guy who gave me a ride on his scooter the day before (sorry for hitchhiking, mom) and he put us on the list! That saved us a ton of money and made the day even better :).

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Where is it?: Toward the center of the island but easily accessible from the pier area via taxi/songthaew

Cost: 600 baht per person (~$16 US) for the day (still worth the price)

Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. with happy hour (100 baht drinks) from 5-7

How long to stay: I could’ve stayed here all day! We were there for three and a half hours and I definitely could’ve used an extra hour or two. Then again, I spent a significant amount of time waiting at the top of the slides trying not to chicken out…

Facebook page: Check out some of their pictures on the Slip n’ Fly Party Facebook page!

If the photos aren’t enough, you can check out my GoPro video of my month in Thailand below with even more footage! As always, thanks for reading and have fun in Koh Phangan if you go in the future (you should!).

How I Used Travel Hacks to Save Over $1,000

“How do you afford to travel so much?!”: a question I am asked more often than I’m asked what I’m doing with my life (that’s for another conversation :)). Instead of a potentially sassy sarcastic comment, I thought I’d respond with some tips for how to save money when planning to travel, whether you’re planning a weekend vacation or a big international trip. There are tons of travel hacks out there, but here are just a few I’ve used recently:

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1. Take advantage of travel credit cards:
Credit cards can offer amazing benefits, especially when it comes to traveling. Many credit card companies offer promotions if you open up a new account, which have unbeatable perks. After plenty of research on the best travel credit cards, I recently opened a Chase Sapphire Preferred card to get 50,000 bonus points to use for my upcoming trip to Southeast Asia. These bonus points were worth $600 and paid for my flight to Thailand in full, with still plenty to spare! (Finding cheap flights is an entirely different topic :)) Disclaimer: there are spending minimums to get these bonus points, and if you’re worried about not spending enough within the allotted time, there are also ways of hacking that (I’m happy to share if you ask me). If you’re interested in applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card or want to know more about it, let me know and I can send you a referral email! There are plenty of other travel credit cards out there, so just make sure to do your research before deciding and be smart about paying off your balance to avoid accruing interest.

2. Book through Chase Ultimate Rewards:
If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you have access to Chase Ultimate Rewards, which is a convenient way to book flights, hotels, cars, and activities at a 20% discount. You can also redeem your Chase points directly through Ultimate Rewards, making your points go even further! For example, if a hotel is $100/night on another website, you can book that same room through Ultimate Rewards for $80 or 8,000 points/night either with your card or with points. This is how I booked my flight to Thailand and how I will book hotels and hostels while I’m in SE Asia- super easy and saves you even more money! Many people who already have Chase accounts don’t know about this feature or how it works, so I wanted to be sure to include it.

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3. Don’t pay foreign transaction fees or ATM fees:
Many travel credit cards do not charge you foreign transaction fees, but paying countless ATM fees while traveling abroad is inevitable… or is it? I wish I knew this hack before traveling through Europe the past two summers! This one is a little more complicated, but stick with me. Charles Schwab Bank not only allows you to use any ATM in the world for free, but they also reimburse you for fees charged at any ATM. The way you can take advantage of this awesome program is by applying for a high-yield investor account through Schwab, which comes automatically with a checking account. There are no service fees, minimums, or restrictions on the checking account (you do not have to actually use the investor account if you don’t want to). Once you set up the account, you can order a debit card, and voila! You can use that card at any ATM in the WORLD and get reimbursed for every ATM fee. I’ve already tested it and can’t wait to use it in Asia! Bonus: the checking account also serves as a great virtual “piggy bank” to put away money for future travels.

Here is a link with some FAQs about this type of account.

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4. Subscribe to email newsletters:
This may sound like an email clog, but it is totally worth it! You can even set up an email specifically for these types of newsletters to make sure your important messages don’t get lost. There are a ton out there, but I recommend subscribing to newsletters for major airlines, websites like TravelPirates, Expedia, SkyScanner, SecretFlying, and The Points Guy. I recently got a GREAT deal on my flight to Austin on a JetBlue flash sale (saved me over $150 from original fare), which I found out about through their email newsletter. I also recently saw an error fare for roundtrip flights from LAX/SFO to New Zealand on Qantas for $220! No joke! These flash sales/error fares don’t last long, so it’s important to be the first to know about them.

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5. Be loyal to a few major airlines:
If you travel often, always try to fly on the same few airlines. Through traveling for work for the past two years, I was able to land lots of free flights through Southwest Airlines because of the points I earned. In my opinion, Southwest has the best rewards program without needing a credit card, so I try to stick with them. If you’re really loyal to one airline, think about getting their credit card to earn even more bonus miles/points. I personally do not have one because I can transfer points on my Chase Sapphire Preferred card directly to Southwest points at a 1:1 ratio, but I have heard positive reviews for several airline credit cards. I also fly frequently with American Airlines, and am planning on using those points to book my flight home from Asia. Step one: set up a frequent flyer account with all major airlines and write down your FF number to use when booking flights!

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6. Use your spare time to earn free frequent flyer miles:
This one is newer for me, but I have recently started using E-rewards.com to fill out marketing/research surveys to earn extra Southwest points. Here’s how it works:

  • Set up an account
  • Receive emails when new surveys are available
  • Fill out surveys to earn money in your E-rewards account
  • Redeem E-rewards money for Southwest points

Surveys vary widely by topic, but can include questions about your eating/drinking habits, opinions about restaurants or cars, etc. Some are short, some are longer, some pay a dollar, some pay more- it all depends. What I like about it is it gives me something to do if I ever have a free couple of minutes, and I can choose when and how often I fill out surveys. If you want to set up an account to earn Southwest points, you can use this
link.

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7. Apply for TSA Pre-Check:
This one doesn’t save you money while traveling, but it certainly saves you time! I highly recommend applying for TSA Pre-Check for domestic travel and Global Entry for frequent international travel. Pre-Check allows you to cut the security line and walk right through without removing your shoes, laptop, or liquids. I cannot tell you how many times this has saved me from missing a flight!

Click on this link for more information about TSA Pre-Check.

Click on this link for more information about Global Entry.

Though it requires an in-person interview and a fee of $80, TSA Pre-Check is well worth the investment (shout out to my previous job for paying for mine!) and membership lasts five years.

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Now you just have to pick a spot- the globe is yours! I know there are plenty of other travel hacks out there, and these were just a few. If you think of any I missed, feel free to comment or message me and let me know :). Happy travels!