Just Two Bros|Asia 2018
Our most recent #JustTwoBrosTravel endeavor took us to Vietnam and Japan. As a friendly reminder, Eric, and I set two goals in recent years that we are tackling one pay check at a time. Goal one: Eric wants to visit the 59 National Parks* before he turns 40 (2026). Goal 2: Whitney wants to step foot on all 7 continents before she turns 30 (2021).
*Yes we know that the St. Louis Arch was recently made a National Park; no we will not be acknowledging it.
2018 was the year of Asia for us so I spent the end of 2017 figuring out where we should go. My searches turned me toward Vietnam. There were a couple of factors that lead me to this decision. One-I saw pictures of the Sapa Valley and fell in love. Two-Vietnam seemed like a lesser traveled to destination than say, Thailand, Indonesia, or Cambodia. Once I picked Vietnam is was a matter of figuring out where to go. Like many countries in Asia, Vietnam has a ton to offer in terms of places to visit, but their travel infrastructure is not great. After what seemed like an endless amount of research and 27 thousand different itinerary options I settled on northern Vietnam, and we started in Hanoi. For us it’s more about mountains and lakes than beaches and ocean. Starting off in Hanoi allowed us to see the Sapa region, Bai Tu Long Bay (very near Ha Long Bay but much less traveled), and Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park in a total of 16 days. Below is a breakdown of what we did, who we met, and how we got there.
Day 1/2: Traveling to Hanoi via Japan
Our flight departed Chicago O’hare a little after noon on a Thursday. Add in a 3 hour layover in Tokyo, and we landed in Hanoi on Friday at 10:45 PM. In total we spent 19 hours on a plane. Asia is far folks. Jet lagged and anxious we dropped our bags off at Paradise Boutique Hotel and hit the lively streets of Hanoi. Our first night took us to some weird night club/tattoo parlor that was full of students and expats. We soon learned that Nitrous balloons are a thing in Vietnam as club staff walked around handing them out to anyone that would take one. Our night ended around 3:00 AM.
Accommodation Review: Paradise Boutique hotel was a great one night stopover in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Town. They acted as our stop off point in between other destinations, they booked train tickets for us, and they secured us taxis. The staff were incredibly friendly and welcoming. That being said, if you will be in Hanoi for more than 12 hours I highly recommend finding a more mainstream hotel. The rooms at Paradise Boutique Hotel are tiny, warm, and offer no view of the city. When we arrived, the floor our room was on was so hot I could barely breathe. We had a AC unit that we turned on when we arrived that made the room barely tolerable for our one night stay.
Day 3: Hanoi to Sapa via Lào Cai
Steve, and I woke up fairly early around 8:30 AM. Jet lag and exhaustion hit Steve in a bad way leaving him with a nauseating sinus headache. Being the good girlfriend that I am I walked across the hall and asked Eric if he wanted to go walk around since Steve was being lame. Eric, and I set out to wander around and see whatever there was to see in Hanoi. Truthfully, there isn’t much (that interested us). We grabbed coffee, walked out on the famous bridge, and then found a hotel that let us pay to use their pool. It was 92 degrees out with a 100% humidity. Esteban eventually joined us as he started feeling better.
That evening we boarded our overnight sleeper train for Lào Cai. If you are looking to get to the Sapa region this is one of several options to get you there. Personally I think it’s the best option unless you are looking to book a private transfer which can get really pricey. Our train departed around 9:45 PM, and we had a four bunk private room equipped with free WiFi. There was an attendant on board that offered us beer and coffee service. She also filled out her own review and made us sign it stating she did a great job which was pretty amusing. The ride there was slow and bumpy, but we were able to sleep a good portion of the night arriving in Lào Cai around 6:30 AM.
Day 4: Sapa
I arranged a transfer in advance from Lào Cai to our hotel so they were waiting when we arrived at the station. The trip took around 45 minutes. We checked into Aira Boutique Hotel and started our first “real” day of vacation. Today we walked around the main Sapa town, had drinks, and did a bit of shopping. Our plan for the evening was to eat at the hotels restaurant and go out to sing karaoke. I made it until roughly about 7:30 PM and the jet lag overtook me. Eric and Steve headed out into town, failed to find an open karaoke bar, and settled at a patio bar on the main strip where they met Mohamed. I woke up around 12:00 AM completely disoriented and confused but managed to meet them out. Bars stay open based on business so the owner kept the little pub open for us until around 3:00 AM. We learned that Mohamed had recently left his family in Qatar (originally from Sudan) and planned to travel Asia for the indefinite future.
Day 5: Sapa
Steve, and I took advantage of the amazing spa on site and started our morning with a lovely couples massage. Later in the day we all ventured to Cat Cat Village in the rain. This was probably one of our favorite days of the trip. Cat Cat was a remote village in the jungle that you stumble on by walking through winding cobble stone steps through local farmland and shops. The village is out of this world. We spent some time at Cat Cat Riverside Cafe which we HIGHLY recommend. Duke the owner was incredibly welcoming, his English was excellent, and his family included several adorable dogs that stole the show. He made us local food and cocktails and spent some time telling us about how he had come to settle in Cat Cat. We truly enjoyed our time.
In the evening Eric decided to go for a massage so Steve, and I planned a date night in town. After about an hour Eric texted us that the manager of the hotel restaurant, Tuan, wanted to take us out for drinks with his friends. We headed over to a hole in the wall eatery with a group of guys that didn’t speak English. Tuan translated the entire conversation which lead to good old fashioned arm and thumb wrestling. We took down around 10 mini kegs before the owner of the restaurant got antsy. After, we headed back to Aira Boutique Hotel to play pool and have some beverages. Hands down one of the best nights of our trip.
Day 6: Sapa
After a whirlwind of fun the night before we slept in a bit before arranging a scooter tour through the mountains. Originally the plan was to summit Mt Fansipan, but due to the weather and pure laziness we opted for the scooter tour instead. Our guide took us through local villages where we learned about the various culture and tradition specific to each one. Taking a scooter up and down winding, mountain roads in the rain was a fun but scary adventure. We had trucks whizzing by within inches of our scooters, locals moving their bull from one grazing area to the other blocking the road, and chickens/dogs/pigs crossing on a regular basis. It made for quite the cultural experience.This evening resulted in another night out on the town for dinner and drinks before bed.
Day 7: Sapa to Bai Tu Long Bay via Hanoi
We had so much fun riding scooters that we decided to rent them again, this time without a guide. We drove for hours through villages and up to Silver Waterfall before returning to the hotel. Since it was our last day we spent some time with the hotel staff that we’d grown fond of before taking a private shuttle to catch our overnight train back in Lào Cai. At some point during conversation we mentioned to Tuan that we were interested in local rice wine so he arranged to have us stop off before the train to pick up some “good local rice wine-not the stuff from the tourist shops.” After some pretty difficult goodbyes we bid farewell to Sapa. As promised our driver, Vo, made a pit stop to get us local rice wine. He disappeared down an ally and returned around 15 minutes later with a petrol can of rice wine. Yes, a petrol can. That puppy is sitting in our liquor cabinet at home as we speak. Thanks US Customs for letting us bring it home! Now back to Hanoi to pick up our cruise transfer.
Accommodation Review: Aira Boutique Hotel is THE place to stay in Sapa. I’ll start with the facilities; Aira Boutique offers on-site dining, a gym, a kids play room, an outdoor pool, and, a high end spa. The spa is affordable enough that Steve, and I actually got a second massage during our stay. Make sure to request a front-facing room so you can sit out on your balcony with a bottle of wine and enjoy the gorgeous views. Now let’s talk staff. Based on the above paragraphs it’s easy to understand how much we loved the staff at Aira Boutique. We started as guests and left, teary eyed, feeling like family. If you are looking for a high end hotel at a reasonable price Aira Boutique is the place for you.
Day 8: Bai Tu Long Bay
The overnight train pulled up to Hanoi around 6:00 AM giving us some time to shower and eat breakfast at Paradise Boutique Hotel before our next shuttle. Around 9:00 AM we were off to Bai Tu Long Bay for our 3 day, 2 night cruise. We booked with Indochina Junk Boats, the only company allowed access on Bai Tu Long Bay. Along the ride we had two stops. One included a water puppet show in Yen Duc Village. Once we boarded the ship there was a short briefing by our guide, Long, and then the fun began. We kicked off our trip with fruity drinks and kayaking through a cave. Dinner this evening was roughly about fifteen courses and was some of the best food we had on the entire trip. Each meal was family style so we got to know the other people on the boat. Our night cap included drinking and squid fishing with some of the boat staff.
Day 9: Bai Tu Long Bay
Day two of the cruise included kayaking and a beach bonfire. Again, some of the best food of our trip. This is the day we really started to get to know everyone on the boat. In the afternoon we played cards with Charleigh, a spunky eight year old who strategically won every game by changing the rules in favor of her as we played. She was there with her mom Abby who sat back laughing clearly having seen this charade before. The evening entailed another amazing family-style dinner and more card games. This time with Mark and Lucy, a couple from Bathe, England. A few fun facts about Mark and Lucy: Mark loves Lucy’s cats, and Mark is a BIG fan of the Great British Bake Off- a show that he was watching when he first messaged Lucy to ask her out on a date.
Accommodation Review: Indochina Junk Boat is a great option for anyone looking for a more off-the-beaten path version of Ha Long Bay. The cruise offers the same picturesque views and gorgeous green water without the crowds and party boats. The smaller boats offer a more inclusive vibe allowing everyone to get to know each other. Our guide, Long, was hysterical and knowledgeable, and the rest of the crew were great too. The dinners were top notch, and the drinks flowed freely our entire trip. Plus there are plenty of cruise options to choose from; highly recommend.
Day 10: Bai Tu Long Bay to Hanoi and then on to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park
Wrapping up the cruise with brunch and beautiful views we jumped back on the shuttle and headed into Hanoi. Today was Steve’s last day so we grabbed a quick bite, and he headed to the airport to catch a red eye flight home.
After saying goodbye to Steve, Eric, and I headed to the train station to catch our overnight bus to Phong Nha National Park. For those considering an overnight bus, don’t. Just don’t do it. We drove around Hanoi for about three hours while the driver tried to figure out who should and shouldn’t be on the bus. The bus itself hosted three rows of “bunk bed” like seats with aisles so narrow you practically had to turn sideways to move down them. Once we secured two spots in the back I looked over and the person next to me had their feet protruding into the aisle black with filth from walking around on the streets. The ride was bumpy, long, and uncomfortable. I felt like it might not ever end. Needless to say, it did. We made it to Phong Nha around 5:30 in the morning and a gentleman at Gecko Hostel allowed us to use their facilities while we waited for our Oxalis Tour to start at 8:00 AM. I think it’s important to mention that Eric, and I booked our tours separately. We were both meant to tour Hang Va, however, we realized that Eric booked the Hang En tour by accident. Oxalis was unable to accommodate a change on short notice, because they set up the camps days in advance, so we were stuck on our own. This ended up being great, because we experienced totally different parts of the Son Doong Cave system, and I didn’t have to hang out with Eric.
Day 11: Phong Nha Ke Bang
During our separate briefings I learned about all of the animals that could potentially eat me during the tour which was a lot of fun. Post briefing we signed waivers, geared up, and headed out into the jungle. My group was six people total. Eric’s was quite a bit larger. We hiked 30 minutes into the jungle before stopping off at our first cave. This is where we had lunch and our first taste of caving with Von. It turns out he is the company photographer so he set up lighting for every picture he took of us which I greatly appreciated. The photos that resulted were a clear sign that Von has spent a lot of time photographing the Son Doong cave system. We had the chance to jump in a cave pool and swim around for awhile before heading farther into the jungle to our camp. Our camp was outside, because Hang Va’s entrance is too steep to allow for a campsite. Lucky for Eric, he slept inside Hang En which I was pretty jealous of. In the afternoon we spent time learning how to clip in and safely enter the cave followed by more swimming. Dinner was prepared by an our camp wardens, another shockingly good meal, before we indulged in rice wine, beer, and travel stories.
Day 12: Phong Nha Ke Bang
Today we entered Hang Va to explore it’s entirety. The caving took around 3 hours round-trip. We bouldered through small passage ways, swam through pools in the cave, climbed, and took a “shower” under a waterfall while bats flew all around us. Again, our wonderful guide took time to capture amazing photos of every person on the tour. By the time we managed to find out way back to daylight it was time for a quick lunch before hiking back to the main road. During our briefing it was brought to everyone’s attention that the hike out would be different than the hike in; it would entail walking down what was nicknamed “leech road.” Apparently this is so the tour doesn’t repeat the same route or something along those lines. Participants find some strange exhilaration being able to say they walked through brush full of leeches. NOPE. I opted to have one of the guides take me back the way we came while everyone else went down leech road. I am all about facing fears, but I can’t quite wrap my mind around purposely allowing a leech to bite me for no reason whatsoever. Meanwhile Eric’s group was miles out somewhere in the jungle hiking a much farther distance. They wouldn’t arrive back to the town until several hours later than our group.
This evening we checked into Chay Lap Farm Stay where we would stay the remainder of our time in Vietnam. First stop, post check-in, was the pool bar where we learned that the hotel staff have English classes in the evening and invite hotel guests to come practice conversation. Eric, and I opted in, and took class with Mo, the instructor and hotel manager, and 2 students. The students spent time introducing themselves, talking about the farm stay, and their personal interests. They had each prepared a little speech to give, and then we had relaxed conversation and laughed at the awkwardness when we couldn’t understand each other.
Day 13: Phong Nha Ke Bang
Waking up the weather was pretty gloomy so we grabbed breakfast at the hotel restaurant, and then asked the front desk to get us rental scooters. We headed into town and farther on to drive through different parts of the national park. Mid-day we stopped off at Dark Cave to see what Vietnam’s longest zip line was all about. The concept of the zip line is that you go in a swimsuit, zip line over a large lake, and then paddle your way back in a raft after swimming in the Dark Cave. We opted out of swimming in the cave and paddled back to find two amazing mini zip line courses. We spent the next two hours laughing our asses off dropping into the water on the mini lines. Later in the day we ended up back in town where we met up with Kyle and Amanda, a couple from San Francisco who had been on Eric’s tour. They lead us to a hidden gem of Phong Nha called Momma D’s Rooftop Lounge. Momma D is a Canadian expat that moved to Phong Nha for a lifestyle change a little over seven years ago. She is an absolute blast to hang out with. The lounge has a specialty cocktail list that is to die for and supports a local pizza shop by ordering their pizzas into the restaurant. A couple of specialty cocktails later we constructed a plan to go back to Chay Lap with Kyle and Amanda, convince Mo to come out with us, and meet back up with Momma D at the only late night bar in Phong Nha town. Andy’s Disco Bar is a hodge-podge, eclectic, night club, owned by a local who goes by “Andy.” Our night was filled with a Vietnamese DJ, pool, beer pong, Nitrous balloons, and stripper poles.
Day 14: Phong Nha Ke Bang to Hanoi
A little hungover but not wanting to miss our last day we got up, grabbed some scooters, and headed toward the Duck Stop and Pub with Cold Beer, otherwise know as the greatest day of my life. Momma D had told us about it the night prior along with the story of how it came to be. The Pub with Cold Beer is a pub owned by a local family a few miles down a gravel “road.” If you decide to brave the last couple of miles to get there, prepare for a workout. It’s like playing a game of land mines. It came to be years ago when a traveler braved the road to see the beautiful views at the end and stopped at a local families home that was advertising cold beer. For anyone that has been to Vietnam you will know that cold beer means luke warm at best. Intrigued and thirsty the man walked up and bought one. To his surprise it was ice cold. He immediately told the family that if they would promise him to always keep ice cold beer in stock that he would bring tourist groups to them on a regular basis. A few years into this deal things got busier and the pub grew into a full bar. The traveler encouraged the family to start taking tourists on a tour of their farm thus the Duck Stop was born. The Duck Stop, God’s greatest gift to this earth, is a family run operation with 5 year old children smarter than most adults. The second you pull up on your scooter the kids are handing you a beer, clearing a table, and telling you which tour you will be doing. The whole tour entails an amazing interaction in their duck enclosure where you get a duck massage and play “duck master” running around the enclosure with duck food and quacking. Afterward you are meant to go swim in the river with their rescued buffalo. Due to poor weather conditions we did the duck portion and had to jump onto our scooters and head back to Chay Lap in the pouring rain. Sadly we missed out on the Pub with Cold Beer.
We stopped by the bar to stay goodbye to our favorite bar tenders but were heartbroken to find out that Hung had already gone home for the day. As our shuttle driver was pulling onto the main strip in town we looked behind us, and Hung rode up on his motorcycle. The staff at Chay Lap let him know that we wanted to say goodbye so he came to meet us for a beer before we left (insert more tears). Back onto an overnight bus to Hanoi.
Day 15: Hanoi
We arrived in Hanoi around 7:00 AM the next day. For those of you wondering about the bus ride back, it sucked slightly less. After stopping off at Paradise Boutique to drop our bags we went to wonder the crazy streets of Hanoi for one last day. Throughout this wandering I got my chicken tattoo located directly across from Peesh. I call him Mantiev. We bid farewell to Vietnam and we were off to Japan.
Day 16: Traveling home via Tokyo
What do you do with a 10 hour layover in Tokyo? MariKAR. Thank you for stopping by JustTwoBrosTravel, and please enjoy this nice video before you leave.