Last Days in Thailand

Nov 30, 2022

I’m way behind and it’s been a crazy couple of weeks. So here’s the beginning of my attempt to catch up.

Having made it back to Chiang Mai and returned the bike, we boarded a mini-bus for Elephant Nature Park on our last full day in Thailand. This large preserve operates mainly as a rescue organization for elephants who were mis-treated or used as rides. They have several dozen elephants including babies. In addition they operate Cat Kingdom, a rescue area for cats, and a dog rescue site as well.

The first part of our tour was on the “Skywalk”, an elevated walkway around the area where some of the more recent and/or less “sociable” elephants live. Our guide, Chilli, explained that many of these elephants retain bad memories of being abused and this of course makes them less tolerant and suspicious of people. Handlers are assigned to specific elephants and work together with them for years.

Even so, these elephants don’t mind taking an occasional snack from a stranger. I wasn’t aware that tamarind grew in pods on a tree, or that elephants like to snack on them.

Tamarind pods on a tree above the elephants.

This is a birthday cake for an elephant. The park makes these cakes and presents the cake and bunches of bananas to an elephant on its birthday, then videos the carnage of cake eating and presents the video to the sponsor of that particular elephant. We got to watch this process in action.

They lined four or five elephants up about 50 meters away and they obediently waited until the cake was placed on the ground and surrounded by bananas. Then they told them Happy Birthday and they took off for the cake. This photo is after much of the cake is gone but still quite a few bananas remain.

We had a chance to get up close with some of the elephants. This one swatted Diana in the head with her ear about a second after this photo was taken. (Fortunately these are Asian elephants rather than African elephants, so their ears are smaller, but it was still a good whack. The one just behind her (you can see her head next to my left shoulder) is the oldest in the park at 104 years old.

It was fun to watch the little ones playing in the water and rolling in the mud. And then there’s that moment when Diana got a little too “up close” with the elephant…

Then we were off to the Cat Kingdom. Elephant Nature Park has two thousand cats in its’ enclosure. Four hundred of those have been spayed, neutered and fully vaccinated, and are allowed to interact with visitors.

This guy was one of my favorites. But with two thousand to choose from…

Elephant Nature Park has a volunteer program where you can volunteer to work with the animals. They give you room and board in exchange for a week (or more) of time spent helping out at the park. Something to consider if you’re an animal lover and want to travel slow and cheap in Thailand.

After a full day at the Nature Park we returned to Rider’s Corner for one last dinner.

Enjoying a couple of the local favorites over dinner.

This guy was hilarious. He lives in one of several tanks at Riders Corner, right next to the table where we ate breakfast and dinner. He would interact with me if I waved to him, puffing out his fins and racing backward and forward, then just sit there and smile at me. We did this several times and he just kept coming back to me. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun with a fish.

And the next morning before heading to the airport we stopped by Dollar Coffee (which, okay, isn’t a dollar but is worth every baht).

The owner at Dollar Coffee is a great example of how incredibly friendly and welcoming all Thai people were to us during our travels. I stopped here for coffee or a chai latte several times while in Chiang Mai. She was so warm and genuine.

This is the wall behind the counter at Dollar Coffee. It’s a small shop and just her and one employee (who is probably her daughter) but mostly just her. So she has a post-it note for all of her different opening times and when she needs to run to the market. Cheaper than a “Back at…” clock sign I guess.

Once we’re home I’ll do a follow-up post detailing our expenses for the entire trip. But for now…next country, please.


Dec 1, 2022

After my comments about Thailand being the “Land of a million scooters”, and my quips about the traffic in Bangkok, our friend Graeme from Australia said “You haven’t been to Vietnam yet, much less India”.

And he was right.

A short flight from Chiang Mai took us to Hanoi, where we checked into a hotel in the Old Quarter. We walked several blocks to dinner at a restaurant overlooking a large, busy intersection. The restaurant was on the other side of the intersection from us, and there are no traffic controls: no stop lights, crosswalks, or other aids to help a pedestrian cross. We stood and watched for a few minutes as a torrent of scooters, cyclos (three wheeled bicycle taxis), cars, and mini-buses approached from five different directions, converged on the intersection simultaneously, and all emerged unscathed on the other side. It reminded me a bit of watching the Texas A&M marching band, 350 strong, perform a similar maneuver mid-field with great precision. This wasn’t nearly as precise, but it was successful. I still can’t fully understand how so many vehicles and pedestrians can occupy a space that size at speed and nobody collides.

We watched several pedestrians enter the swarm. They almost never turned their heads; they simply stepped off the curb, looked straight ahead, and walked with deliberate movements. The vehicles managed to adjust without hesitation to keep the flow. It was frightening yet amazing to watch.

We finally decided that if we couldn’t get across the street, we couldn’t eat dinner. So we found the narrowest neck of the intersection and planned our crossing there. Compared to the seasoned locals, I looked like a chicken crossing the road, starting and stopping, my head flinging wildly right and left checking to see if I needed to jump or dive to avoid getting hit. Diana held onto my shirt tail. I’m pretty sure her eyes were closed. It wasn’t pretty but we made it across and up to the third floor balcony where we found a table to watch the craziness from above. I felt like a spectator at a NASCAR race: rooting for everyone but secretly watching for the carnage to happen. Keep in mind that nearly EVERY intersection in Vietnam looks like this; we just happened upon this viewpoint as an example.

After dinner, with much more “expertise” gained from watching, we made it back across the intersection and back to the hotel. I wasn’t ready to admit to Diana that I had doubts about riding the bike through Hanoi traffic (this from a guy who spent two decades splitting lanes on L.A. freeways every day). I figured I’d just tuck in and draft a scooter or two. Besides, we had a couple of days yet before I had to make that leap.

Here’s another video of a smaller side street in Hanoi, outside our hotel. Similar to the above video, you may have to watch it a couple of times to catch everything that’s happening. In the first half, watch the guy on the parked scooter on the far right that is loading his family. Typical of families here, they don’t own cars; the scooter is the family car. If you look closely when they ride away, their five year old (or so) is standing on the floorboard in front of Dad. If he were younger than three years old, he would have been squeezed between Mom and Dad on the seat. In the second half of the video, you can see another typical uncontrolled intersection in play.

The next morning a van picked us up at the hotel and took us to Ha Long Bay, a mystical place, where we boarded a tender that took us to our small, 14-cabin cruise “ship” for a two day overnight cruise around Ha Long Bay.

Our Orchid cruise for the next 2 days.

It is a pretty spectacular place.

After lunch they took us to Cat Ba Island where we toured the Trung Trang Cave.

Back from our “cruise”, the time had come. We picked up our Honda CB500X from Tigit Motorbikes, packed up, and rolled into Hanoi traffic. Looking at Google Maps the night before, it looked like we only had to go about five miles on one road before we would cross the Red River and be out of the worst of it. Of course that’s not how it actually went. My gps app had a different idea, and instead of taking the shortest route out of Hanoi, it took us directly into the thick of things. I felt like the adrenaline rush/butterflies of the first lap of a race, before things get sorted and everything calms down a bit. Only I was the only one on the first lap. Everyone else had been in the race for years.

About 45 minutes later we finally approaced the bridge. It would be another hour or more before the traffic thinned enough for me to relax a bit, but I was happy to be out of the city and heading north.

My first day of riding in Vietnam makes Bangkok look like child’s play.

Graeme was right. But I’m still not ready for India.

Ha Giang Loop

December 4-8, 2022

Our first day out of Hanoi was a long one at around 145 miles. For the first couple of hours north, the road is fairly flat and straight, and only towns and traffic limit the average speed to between thirty and thirty five miles per hour. After that, you begin to enter the karst mountains of the Ha Giang area. The twisty mountain roads, combined with the conditions and the obstacles mean that for the next five or six days our average speed will be between twenty and twenty five miles per hour, and we will very rarely see above forty mikes per hour.

Our first night in the North is spent on the shore of Ba Be Lake in a homestay. This is the most common type of accommodation here. It’s basically a Bed & Breakfast. Many homes here are built large, with three or four floors and two or more bedrooms per level. The local village or community comes together to help a family build a home, and that home often will house an extended family. This may likely be the only home the family ever lives in, possibly for several generations.

Accomodations (homestays) are plentiful and easy to find, identified by a sign out front that may say “Homestay” or “Nhà Nghi” (“Guest house”), or simply “Có phòng” (“room available”). Most of the homestays we’ve stayed at are between VND250,000 ($10) and VND300,000 ($12) per night, including breakfast and often dinner. Some charge extra for dinner.

The view of Ba Be Lake from our terrace.

Homestay means eating meals with the host family. There are a lot of cultural traditions and rules that go along with dinner in Vietnam, and we’re learning (and making mistakes) as we go.

Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk on the terrace in the morning.

A member of the local H.O.G. Chapter headed to market.

We tend to keep our helmet intercoms on while we ride, not only to allow us to discuss what we are seeing, but more importantly to warn each other about what we are seeing. Live obstacles are a constant on the roads here. In a matter of two or three miles, we will see all of the following, in descending order of quantity:

  • Dogs: they sleep on the shoulder of the road, often stretching into the road. They are unfazed by vehicles passing within inches of them at speed. They also wander the roads but rarely step out in front of you (but don’t count on that). We’ve never had one chase us.
  • Chickens: they hang out mostly in the ditches on the sides of the road, but occasionally try to cross the road. Two have paid the price for their ill-timed attempts, taking bank-shots off the side of the bike, but living to try again.
  • Toddlers: this place (okay Graeme, probably India as well) established the saying “go play in the road”. It’s common to see toddlers (and older children) walking or playing on the shoulders, unattended. On school days, there may be dozens of children walking along the shoulders. Often a small group of what looks like ages 4 to 5, walking together but without anyone older, miles from anywhere. For all of the potential for chaos, things seem to go smoothly, and the cars and trucks barely slow down.
  • Pigs: In some areas more than others, we’ve passed black pigs and piglets. They’re cute, but they’re not going to bounce off the bike like a chicken.
  • Water buffalo: these are usually in herds of three but sometimes more, being herded by a farmer along the road. They often take up the entire road.

And cows:

Headed out of Ba Be to Meo Vac:

We made it into Meo Vac, which was our destination, from Ba Be. I had found a guest house a couple of hours earlier on and made a reservation. When we pulled up to the address, the name wasn’t the same and a woman standing outsode kept smiling and pointing at the place as if to say, “Yes, you’re here. Come on in.” Something just didn’t seem right, so we rode a little ways down the street and stopped and I googled the place I had booked. It turns out that our guest house was actually in Dong Van, another fourteen miles up the road (almost another hour). I don’t know if legitimately screwed up the address, or if this lady somehow highjacked their listing, but we left Meo Vac and continued towards Dong Van.

Stopping for gas on the way to Meo Vac. After about a gallon she had to stop and switch to a different 55 gallon drum.

Not far out of Meo Vac we came around a corner and were smacked straight in the face by an incredible panorama. This was the Ma Pi Leng Pass.

We eventually found our guest house in Dong Van and checked in. We knew before we arrived that we were supposed to have a special permit to travel in this area (Called an “Entry Permit to the Restricted Border Area” — more on this in the next post), but we hadn’t obtained it yet. Our host told us that we were required to have it in order to stay in the area, and that he would show me where to go in the morning to get it. This past week has been the first time in all of my travels that I have relied on Google Translate in order to communicate, and I’m surprised at how well it works. I’ve had full conversations with locals just using our phones and it hasn’t failed me yet. Once in a while I’ll stumble into someone who doesn’t read, but playing the audio overcomes the issue.

Since this guest house didn’t serve food, we walked down the street to a restaurant for dinner. This place became our go-to for meals over the next couple of days.

In the morning the wife of our host took me on the back of her scooter to the local police station, where it took all of ten minutes to obtain our permits. Then we were off to the North Pole, or the Lüng Cú Flagpoint, the northernmost point in Vietnam, on the border with China.

I can probably count the number of times I’ve ridden as a passenger over the last 50 years on one hand, so I had to document the fact that I was riding as a passenger on a scooter, being operated by a woman I met ten minutes earlier, in a foreign country. Kinda cool, actually.

The tower is 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and sits at 4600 feet above sea level. The flag is 54 square meters. It’s over 800 steps from the bottom of the hill to the flag, but we were able to ride to the visitor center and park there. From thete, it’s 289 steps to the base of the monument and tower, and another 135 steps up a spiral staircase inside the tower to the viewing area.

The large area of formal buildings across from the monument is a Buddhist Monastery. Just beyond that is China. Note how abruptly the road stops on the right.

We headed back down from Lûng Cú back to Dong Van for another night, eating dinner at the same restaurant. I had a great tasting bowl of braised pork stew, and several hours later it retaliated. I ended up sick enough that we spent an extra day in Dong Van so I could (somewhat) recover.

I had planned to ride over the “Sky Path”, a narrow trail really intended for hiking that runs above the highway and offers an even grander view of Ma Pi Leng, but my stomach troubles canceled that.

Feeling weak but at least able to leave the bathroom for more than a few minutes, we headed off in a shroud of clouds and mist to begin moving south towards Yen Minh and Ha Giang. We quickly realized two things:

1. We were swimming upstream against the Gringo Current. Apparently most tourists start their travel in this area in Ha Giang or Yen Minh, and rent scooters there to travel to Ma Pi Leng Pass. We continued to pass hoardes of American and German backpackers on scooters in trains of 12 to 15, being led by a guide on a scooter with a 10-foot flagpole on the back and a large Vietnam flag. Others were on their own, in groups of four to six scooters. We helped one of these groups find their way after they came up on a “road closed” block and didn’t know where to go. Overall I was very glad to have avoided all of that and to be going in the opposite direction.


2. All of these tourists,riding scooters in the mist and drizzle for hours wearing thin plastic ponchos and old, tattered open-face helmets with no face protection, were not going to see anything when they got to Ma Pi Leng because the clouds were so low and visibility was down to maybe 100 feet at most. We had been lucky and arrived before the weather changed.

We continued south in limited visibilty past Ha Giang. The roads flattened out more often and we were able to increase our speed when the clouds broke. It was strange to hit 35 mph and even 40 on occasion. Forty miles an hour suddenly felt like we were on an open freeway doing sixty five. The random dog sleeping on the road, chickens or kids would reign us back in. Unfortunately south of Ha Giang the road also becomes clogged with large trucks, and for the first time I was able to find a use for this large 500cc engine, though the roads still made passing difficult.

We ended up at another home this night — Toong Homestay — and had a very enjoyable meal. I wasn’t fully recovered from my food issue of a couple of days ago, so I was very cautious and didn’t eat much.

At dinner we met Jimmy and Soh Kwan from Singapore. They attended University of Houston in the 1980s and returned to Singapore after living in the States for 15 years. They were touring Vietnam with a local guide, Mr Tanh. We really enjoyed their company, and learning more about both Vietnam people and culture from Mr Tanh and Singapore from Jimmy and Soh Kwan. My favorite take-away was Jimmy’s description of housing in Singapore. We were talking about the limited space and expense of housing — especially ground level real estate — and he said something to the effect of “we are all trapped thirty five floors in the air.”

Jimmy and Soh Kwan on the right; Mr Tanh in the center.

Our dinner at Toong Homestay. The family served the guests at one table, then set a separate table next to us and they all sat there. Understandable as it was a large group. I wish I had been feeling better and thought to take photos.

Vietnam Driving Test

Vietnam Driving Test

1. Locate and identify the following vehicle controls:
A. Horn
B. Horn
C. Horn

Congratulations. You passed.

For extra credit, answer the following questions:

2. You are approaching a 4-way intersection. On your right there is a large group of scooters approaching, including a man on a scooter with a full size chest freezer strapped to the rear rack and a family of four and their dog on a scooter, with the driver talking on his phone. From the left is a farmer herding three large water buffalo. Heading directly towards you is a large truck half in your lane. You will all reach the uncontrolled intersection at the same time. Two dogs lie sleeping in the right lane and chickens are crossing diagonally from southeast to northwest. Your correct action is:
A. Honk
B. See A
C. Both A & B
D. All of the above

3. You are leaving the driveway of a gas station and intend to turn right onto the street. Your correct action is:
A. Honk
B. Do not slow down. Accelerate into the street without looking left, right, or even up from your cell phone.
C. Both A & B

4. You are driving a large bus or truck on a mountain road. When going uphill you are forced to slow to 10mph. When going downhill you can accelerate to speeds beyond any safe limit. Your correct action is:
A. Honk
B. Always straddle the center line to prevent the safety of any other vehicle on the road.
C. Both A & B

Note: The above descriptions of vehicles, livestock, driver actions etc are all taken from not just real, but very frequent daily occurrences. Yes, even the guy carrying the full size chest freezer on the back of his scooter. He passed me three days ago, right after the guy carrying the full size wardrobe on the back of his scooter. I think they might have been part of a moving company (“Two Men and a Scooter”?)

How to Get The Ha Giang Travel Permit in Dong Van

December 8, 2022

Every article we found online only gives the address and information about how to get the necessary Ha Giang Restricted Border Area Travel Permit in Ha Giang. But we didn’t start in Ha Giang. We went in the opposite (counter-clockwise) direction around the Ha Giang Loop, from Hanoi to Meo Vac to Dong Van and then to Ha Giang. Nowhere online could we find information about where to get the Permit in Dong Van.

Well, here it is:

The office is located behind rhe main police building, on the side street called Sùng Dúng Lù. Here are the gps coordinates for the permit office:

23.2776970, 105.3622103

This is the main police building on the main street through Dong Van. You want to go down the street on the side of this building to the building behind this one.

This is the building you want. It should be the 3rd door down from the right end of the building.

Standing in the street facing the building, I think it’s the third door from the right end on the street level. Inside the door is a desk to your right and a counter straight ahead. The officer will take your passport(s), transfer some information to the permit, and charge you US$10 or about VND245,000 per permit. The entire process takes about ten minutes.

Here’s what the top of the permit looks like. If you look like a foreigner, they’ll know why you’re there when you walk in, but if you can’t find the correct door, just show them this and they’ll take you there.

One permit is required for each person. The permit is good for ten days. Many hotels and homestays in the Ha Giang area will require you to have the permit to stay there, and if you are stopped by the police they will ask to see it. You might get away without it, but the $10 is way less than the fine or having your rented scooter confiscated.

Pu Luong: An Oasis of Relaxation

December 9-13, 2022

Often it’s not just a place that leaves lasting memories, but the people associated with the place as well.

I had stumbled on Pu Luong Treehouse online back in late October and contacted the owner via their website as there didn’t seem to be a way to make a reservation directly on their site. Dzung (aka Zoom), the owner, responded immediately and said she would schedule me in for two nights.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, and honestly didn’t expect much, as the place is simply several bamboo houses built on stilts by locals. Zoom calls it “authentic” and that it is. It’s not the Ritz. It’s far from primitive. It’s authentic and extremely charming. And due to the incredible staff and the beauty of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, this place has become my favorite place out of everywhere we’ve been in northern Vietnam. In fact, after 53 countries and counting, it has made it high up on my list of favorite places period.

The route we took to get here from Tuyen Quang took us over a mountain on a well worn and broken up road with grades as steep as 18%. I was having doubts that we were headed in the right direction but the gps kept saying we were getting closer.

Eventually we dropped off the side of the road down a small muddy concrete footpath and emerged onto a small road around a valley of rice paddies. There in the middle sat a small hill with its’ own forest filled with bamboo tree houses.

As we pulled up to the gate we were welcomed by staff and shown where to park the bike. Duy, the manager, greeted us and showed us around, giving us a map of the area and explaining that we were the only guests this night. He literally said, “The place is all yours. Please enjoy.”

And that was just the beginning.

Entrance to Pu Luong Tree House

Our room for the first night was one of these treehouses.

This wasn’t my favorite place because of all the things to do. It became my favorite because of the lack of things to do.

Our private seating area under our treehouse.

We spent the first night in a treehouse or house on stilts. The view out across the paddies to the hills is beautiful. I walked back down to the common area to ask Duy if we could get two extra pillows. The answer wasn’t simply “Yes”. It was “Two? Four? Or six?”

The view from our balcony the afternoon we arrived.

And the same view the next morning. Socked in and dead silent. Total relaxation.

A set menu dinner is served in a nice dining area, and it is by far the finest food we have experienced in Vietnam and maybe beyond. Each night is a different menu, using local ingredients and authentic local dishes. Breakfast consistes of your choice of an omelet, fried eggs, or pancakes, with fresh fruit and coffee or tea.

Meals were served in this beautiful dining area, again with peaceful beautiful views.

Not sure why but my breakfast omelette reminded me of Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob.

Another super cool member of the staff at the Treehouse. I think Duy said his name was Tso, but he definitely referred to him as the Public Relations Manager and Head of Quality Assurance.

The next morning Duy greeted us and asked how we enjoyed the treehouse. Then he asked if we’d like to change rooms. “Look them over and stay anywhere you like. A different room each night if you like!”

This place is incredible.

We took Duy up on his offer, and moved to The Roundhouse for the rest of our stay.

We had originally only planned to stay for two nights, then continue south toward Khe Sanh and on to Da Nang and Hue. But a check of the weather forecast showed a 70 to 75 percent chance of rain for the next ten days further south. While we normally don’t mind riding in the rain, several factors were telling us to reconsider. First and foremost was this place: comfortable, beautiful, incredible food. It would be hard to beat. Then there were the roads. They’re good but not great, and the combination of the slick red mud from the constant rain along with the trucks and other obstacles (dogs, chickens, bad drivers, etc) again made us want to just stay here and chill.

So we talked it over and reached a new game plan: We would spend five nights here, then move to another location near Ninh Binh for several nights before returning to Hanoi. We wouldn’t be going any further south this time but we’re okay with that.

When I asked Duy if we could stay another several nights, his response was as I had come to expect: “Stay as long as you’d like. We had one guest come for a week and stay for a month.”

I think I could do that here.

We’ve now been here four days. A few other guests have come and gone but it’s mostly just been us. Yesterday I asked Duy if there was a place to get my hair cut in the nearby village. As usual, he not only showed me where but told me to take his scooter to go into town. As we also had to make a run to the ATM (much further away), we took our bike instead.

By the way, we each had our hair washed and blow dried, and I had a haicut and shave. The total price for all of this: $2.50.

All of this luxury lifestyle comes at a price of course. While other places we’ve stayed have mostly been $10 to $18 a night, and as much as $26 in Hanoi, here we are paying $46 a night for room and breakfast (about the same price as it cost to rent a patch of grass to pitch the tent in Europe), and another $8 each for a fabulous dinner.

You don’t have to be rich to travel like we do. But you can live like a king for relatively little here in Vietnam. All it takes is the willingness to get off the Gringo Trail and slow down for a while.

And Pu Luong Treehouse is my new favorite place to do that.

Tso, Duy, and Diana. I wasn’t ready to leave, but it was time to move on.

Ninh Binh

December 14-18, 2022

Having decided to avoid the rainy weather further south, we left Pu Luong and headed to Ninh Binh, south of Hanoi.

Ninh Binh is a tourist destination for people in or from the Hanoi area, as it can be reached in just a few hours (it’s only about 60 miles south of Hanoi, but as is typical the traffic through the cities in between tends to slow the average speed to around 20 to 25mph. Unless you’ve experienced traffic here (or similar places), it can be hard to understand why a flat, straight, well-paved road can only produce a 25 mph average speed. Here’s the easiest explanation I can offer: imagine trying to drive 50mph, and every couple of hundred yards is an uncontrolled intersection with dozens of scooters, car, buses and trucks entering from both sides continuously. No one stops. Ever. They just roll into the intersection in a blind game of 90-degree “chicken” and see who slows or swerves the most in order for everyone to clear the intersection without anyone stopping.

We finally witnessed a t-bone between two scooters at one of these intersections today. Fortunately nobody was going fast but it looked like a rugby scrum in the middle of the intersection, and with the only real rule being “nobody stops, ever”, it was simply a matter of time before two vehicles would occupy the same space. In this case the two school girls on one scooter hit the deck but appeared to be uninjured. With probably thirty other scooters in the scrum around them, the only other scooter that ceased forward motion was the one that t-boned them. Everyone else seemed to casually glance and continue their fight to get through.

Okay, back to Ninh Binh. It’s a tourist destination for good reason. The area is sort of known as the inland version of a Ha Long Bay, with boat tours on the river through beautiful green-covered limeatone karsts and several notable temples in the area.

Hidden Tiger, Lying Dragon

Our first stop in Ninh Binh was the Mua Cave viewpoint. The cave itself is pretty disappointing, but the climb up the 500 steps to the viewpoint is pretty impressive.

There’s a bunch of photo opportunities here for tourists. This swing isn’t quite the same as the one in Banos, Ecuador, but if you squat down and take the photo just right, it kind of looks like it…


The view from half way up, looking across to the Temple of the Lying Dragon.

The view from the top.

Panoramic view from the top.

At the top is this large dragon sculpture. To get to it requires some climbing on slick, jagged rocks with a sheer drop on the sides (there is a chain to grab onto in places, but it’s still pretty sketchy). A guy behind me on the climb up said “This reminds me of Angel’s Landing in Zion…and I was scared to death there.” Yep, kinda sums it up. But also worth it for the view.

As I grabbed onto the dragon’s back for stability while taking this photo, I realized that the “fin” sticking up that I was holding onto was broken and loose. Not real condifence-inspiring. You can see someone behind me trying to climb back down.

Trang An

The next day we took a three hour tour in a small rowboat powered by a local Vietnamese woman. It’s pretty amazing to me how these middle-aged women can row a boat with three or four large tourists for three hours round trip, then pick up another group and do it again.

We went to Trang An, one of several destinations for boat tours. At Trang An, there are three different tours to choose from — all of them three hours long — and we chose the tour that passes through nine caves. These caves are more like tunnels, as they enter and exit in different locations, and range from 100 to 400 meters each in length. The tour also stops at three temples along the way where you can disembark and have a look around.

Just as we pulled in to park the bike, a group of local kids ages 10 to 12 came running up. They were obviously wanting to practice their English skills, and we obviously looked like the proper targets. We had a great time answering their questions (and asking a few of our own). Their English teacher, Jay from Nepal, has been teaching English in Vietnam for four years.

Quick side note: we got so wrapped up in talking with the kids as we got off the bike, that I totally forgot to take the iPhone that I use for GPS routing off of my handlebar mount. We walked away from it and did a three hour boat tour. I realized about half way through the tour that I had left the phone sitting on the bike in a crowded parking lot, but we were on a boat on a river and there wasn’t much I could do about it. When we returned to the bike, about three and a half hours after leaving the phone there in plain sight, the phone was still sitting there. Try that in the US and see how long it lasts! I don’t recommend this stupidity, but it just affirms the nature of the people.

Approaching one of the caves we went through. It’s slightly taller inside than this looks, but you still have to duck to clear most of them.

There were several temples along the way that are only accessible via boat. We were able to stop and tour each.

Many of the white walls near our hotel had very detailed murals of local scenery painted on them. And no graffiti.

The dining area at our hotel was bordered on two sides by this “moat” full of koi.

Ninh Binh is definitely a tourist destination, but it has some great scenery and a very relaxed feel. We enjoyed our time here before heading back to Hanoi and the frenzy of that city.


December 19, 2022

Riding back into Hanoi from Ninh Binh felt very different than when we left here a little less than three weeks ago. That day I was quite nervous about entering the traffic chaos and navigating my way out of the city. Today, having experienced a large variety of traffic, obstacles, etc and become more comfortable with the “rules of the road” (or lack thereof), it was much less intimidating to join the scooter crowds and work our way towards the center of Hanoi.

On the ride back into Hanoi, we passed this guy carrying an acetylene tank (with no valve cap) on the back of his scooter. I couldn’t get away from him fast enough.

We spent our last full day in Hanoi touring some of the monuments and relics from the Vietnam War. Despite the overwhelming feel in Hanoi that this is a capitalist society — lots of tourist shops and high-end stores selling name-brand sneakers, jewelry, and watches, bars, restaurants, hotels, etc — Vietnam is still a communist country, and it is interesting to see, feel, and generally experience this culture clash.

We passed these gentlemen playing Xiangqi, also known as Chinese chess or Elephant chess. I could’ve watched for an hour, but I didn’t want to disturb them. With my bad knees from too many years of racing (and injuries), I am always amazed (and a bit jealous, I must admit) at the Asian way that people — even at their age — just squat for long periods of time as a way of sitting. Note that the gentleman facing the camera has taken one shoe off; it looks like he may be using that to sit on.

Just a random side street in Hanoi. I like the way it looked due to all of the colors, the scooters, and the national flag.

We were walking towards Truc Bach Lake, when we ran across this on a wall. I wasn’t able to translate it, but it depicts soldiers with an anti-aircraft gun, and a US Air Force plane being shot down, with one of Hanoi’s famous bridges in the background. Also in the background is Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hotel. The date at the bottom is the day that John McCain was shot down over Hanoi.

On the shore of Truc Bach Lake is this monument, depicting John McCain parachuting into the lake after being shot down. The text translates roughly to: “On 26 October 1967 near Truc Bach Lake in the capital, Hanoi, the citizens and military caught Pilot John Sidney McCain. The US Navy Air Force Aviator was flying aircraft A4, which crashed near Yen Phu power station. This was one of ten aircraft shot down that same day.”

We weren’t aware until we ran across these posters that the day before marked the 50th anniversary of Operation Linebacker II, or the “Christmas Bombing” of Hanoi and North Vietnam. Frustrated by a breakdown of peace talks less than a week earlier, Nixon ordered the massive bombing attack that spanned twelve days. Over 20,000 tons of bombs were dropped over Hanoi and Haiphong, and the US lost 15 B52s in the attack.

There are small lakes all over Hanoi. This one contains the remains of the landing gear of a B52 that was shot down during Operation Linebacker II. The monument next to the lake says that “On December 27, 1972 the Battalion No. 72 Air Defence Missile Regiment No. 285 shot down on the spot a B52G of the US Imperialist violating Ha Noi air space.A part of the wreckage fell in Huu Tiep Lake. The outstanding feat of arm contributed to achieving the victory “Dien Bien Phu in the air”, defeating the US Imperialist’s strategic air raid with B52 bomber against Ha Noi at the end of December 1972 and creating an important change that led the Vietnamese People’s Anti-US Resistance for National Salvation to the complete victory.”
While we were there we watched a class of school children listen to a guide explaining the importance of what they were seeing, as well as several Vietnamese tourists posing for photos in front of the wreckage.

A short walk took us to the B52 Victory Museum. Despite the name, this place is actually a small museum depicting the first and second Indochina Wars, as well as the Vietnam American War. In front of the museum is the carcass of several B52s, in addition to anti-aircraft guns.

You have to remember (or you will be reminded) that the story here is told from the other side of the Vietnam war, and it isn’t pretty. Unlike our visit to Hiroshima several years ago, where the museum is dedicated to showing the horrors of a nuclear bomb and telling the story without really pointing blame, here the blame is on full display.

Outside there was a large group of women (mostly middle-age or older) in traditional Vietnamese formal dress, posing for photos in front of the museum. I don’t know who they were or the significance of their visit, though in hindsight I wish I did. I have to admit it felt a bit odd or awkward as an American to be asked by several women to use their phones to take photos of them in front of the museum.

At the Imperial Citadel there are a number of US aircraft on display.

The Maison Centrale, aka Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton.

Poster on the wall at the entrance to Hoa Lo Prison.

A sign on the wall at the entrance to Hoa Lo Prison. It’s a bit of a shock to read how the prison was a “Hell on Earth” when built by the French colonialists to imprison Vietnamese, but after imprisoning Americans it became “An attractive destination for friends who love peace.”

Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.

At the end of our history tour of Hanoi, we walked back to our hotel. Not wanting to risk crossing the street (I was over the fear of riding in Hanoi, but not the fear of walking in Hanoi), we decided to splurge on one last meal.

If I could’ve found a traffic light like in the video below, I would have crossed the street in search of more restaurants and coffee shops, but we had crossed in front of our hotel the night before, and by the time we got back we decided it wasn’t worth the risk of doing it again.

This video shows one cycle of a traffic light on a regular street at non-rush hour in Hanoi. Orderly, smooth, just a bunch of scooters. This is fairly rare, as there aren’t that many traffic lights, and when there are, many people just ignore them. Imagine stepping off the curb right here and walking across the street, without the benefit of a traffic light to slow or stop traffic.

A few doors down from our hotel was Sajang BBQ, a Korean-style BBQ restaurant. We opted for the “Diamond Buffet” from the menu, which included all-you-can-eat beef, vegetables, noodles, rice, soup, salad, sushi, sashimi, chicken wings, and dessert, and included two beers. All for about $50 for both of us.

This may be the last time for a long time that we get to eat this well.

I have to admit that the prices in Vietnam for food and lodging were every bit as inexpensive as I had always heard, and the food is very good, though I did get tired of fried rice and noodles after a while. But there are options available. Gasoline was about the same price as in the US (which of course is still way less than Europe). Would I come back? As soon as somebody invents a way to get me here without sitting on a plane for 20 hours, I will strongly consider it.

On to the next adventure…

Expense Recap: SE Asia

December 26, 2022

While we tend to travel “cheap” compared to many tourists, we could have traveled cheaper in Thailand and Vietnam. First of all, we rented a 500cc motorcycle in both countries, which is a HUGE motorcycle for these places. We even had locals approach us several times and comment on what a big motorcycle we were riding. As I’ve mentioned before, there is no need for such a big (relative term) bike in SE Asia; you don’t need the power, you don’t need the speed, and based on our observations of people carrying everything from an entire family to multiple refrigerators on one scooter, you really don’t need more than a scooter. You can rent a 150cc scooter in these countries for anywhere from about $6 to $10 a day, versus our $32 to $40 a day for the Honda 500. The only advantage of the 500 for us was comfort, as we aren’t small people and riding two-up with all our gear on one scooter wouldn’t have been as comfortable.

Also, while hotels and homestays in Thailand and Vietnam are relatively inexpensive compared to Europe or the US, we got a bit lazy in places and chose to “upgrade” our accommodations at times. Many homestays in Vietnam are in the $10 to $18 a day. On the other end, we spent as much as $60 a night to stay in a luxury resort in northern Thailand.

Obviously we didn’t ride every single day, so the daily average fuel costs drop considerably when the bike is parked.

So with that said, here’s a basic breakdown of what we spent in each country. Keep in mind that these daily average prices are for two people (yes, you really can eat well for around $9 a day). The “Entertainment” category includes everything from bus, boat and walking tours to cruises, and includes the taxi fares we paid to get to these places.

Thailand (22 days)

    Lodging: $34.11 Daily Average
    Food: $21.59 Daily Average
    Gas: $5.87 Daily Average
    Entertainment: $22.55 Daily Average

Vietnam (21 days)

    Lodging: $26.10 Daily Average
    Food: $16.53 Daily Average
    Gas: $2.82 Daily Average
    Entertainment: $32.87 Daily Average

All together, including the rental cost of both bikes and the round-trip airfare, it works out to a daily average expense of $169.70, or $84.85 per person per day.