The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Travel Tips

Hoi An: Love at First Sight

I was warned that it might happen , and sure enough, it happened. I fell in love while traveling, hard. And fast. Love-at-first-sight fast.

At first it was a superficial love, an attractive exterior that mesmerized and enchanted. But it quickly went deeper, and I found that everything that lay beneath the surface was just as beautiful as what lay without.

What was the name of my new paramour? Hoi An.

In a country of either gritty and wild cities or sleepy and simple villages, Hoi An stands apart from the rest. Secret laneways, terraces draped in bougainvillea, cobbled streets, and ornate bridges make up the exterior of this charming town. Savvy saleswomen, friendly locals, and sinfully delicious food make up it’s personality. It’s not a sprawling metropolis like Saigon or Hanoi, nor is it the tiny village of Son Trach, with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “main town.” It’s Asia with a French flair, where food and fashion are religion.

So what should you do in this beautiful town? The options are limitless, but after I spent a week here, I can point you in the right direction.

  1. Dine Like a Royal
    Food is serious business in Hoi An, and Central Vietnam has several famous dishes that don’t always feature prominently in the West. But holy hell, are they delicious. Some of my favorite culinary discoveries in Hoi An?
    Cao Lao, a beef and wheat noodle dish that curled around your tastebuds like a warm blanket
    White Rose, a delicate shrimp dumpling that felt like eating a savory cloud
    Banh Xeo, my favorite, a crunchy, savory, heavenly pork pancake that will have you coming back for more
    I also tried the famous Bahn Mi shop that Anthony Bourdain made famous, but I still didn’t think it beat out my favorite, Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi.

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    Yummy White Rose dumplings

  2. Get Bespoke Clothing
    Made-to-measure suits, dresses, and jeans? For a fifth of the price of mid-range duds in the States? COUNT ME IN! We met the sisters who run Tu Nhi Clothing on Hoang Dieu in the middle of town on a recommendation from my traveling companion, Irene. The ladies made us feel right at home, and in no time we were measuring every inch of my body for all sorts of new garments! It’s a process that takes a few days, but you won’t want to leave Hoi An anyway, so go for it!

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    Discussing the finer points of tailoring

  3.  Explore Ancient Town
    The road shuts down to motorbike and vehicle traffic, and pedestrians cram the cobbled streets of Ancient Town, a relic from the 15th century and a fusion of culture. From the wooden Japanese bridge to distinctly French architectural flourishes,  Ancient Town is unlike any other. At night, you can spend a buck or two and light a paper lantern to float down the river with a wish. The twinkling lights floating away create a magical atmosphere in the warm night air, and for a moment you might think you’ve entered a Disney movie.

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    Ancient Town Japanese Bridge

  4. Take a Road Trip to Ancient Temples
    Vietnam’s Hindu history comes to life at the ancient temple complex of My Son, about a 90-minute motorbike drive away from Hoi An. Hopping on a scooter and zipping through small towns and rice fields is half the adventure. The staggeringly old temples, built from the 4th to 14th century (!!) is the other half. Getting a first-hand look at the destruction wreaked by American bombing in Central Vietnam is a sobering dose of reality, the crumbled brick laid by ancient hands lying in piles next to the once-grand edifice.

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    One of the temples at My Son

  5. Learn to Cook Vietnamese Food
    The much-disputed culinary capital of Vietnam (though many will argue a case for Hanoi or Saigon), there are cooking classes aplenty in Hoi An. Highly recommended is Grandma’s Home Cooking Class, which includes a trip to the market and instruction on Vietnamese-style haggling techniques. We were invited into the home of our new friends, the ladies who run Tu Nhi, and we cooked a feast! Homemade spring rolls, banh xeo, cao lao, steamed fish with prawns, and more, all in the comfort of our new friend’s home. Hoianese hospitality knows no limits.

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    Our Feast! Made by an American, a Dutch, and a Vietnamese

  6. Go to the Beach!
    Hoi An is one of the few cities in Vietnam that has a beach within it’s limits. The shoreline is crammed with cafes and restaurants, and there are few salesman slinging their wares, but the water is nice, the sand is clean, and you mix with locals as well as tourists as you laze in the sunshine.
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The Beach at Hoi An

Hoi An will captivate you from the moment you arrive. Whether you stumble upon temples tucked down back roads, stroll the night markets ablaze with colored lanterns, or linger over Tigers with friends at the restaurants that line the waterfront, you will be sad when it is time to say goodbye.

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The Beaches and Islands of Koh Lanta

Armed with my new motorbike driving skills, my sister and I set off the explore more beaches around Koh Lanta.

Here are the beaches we visited: 

Long Beach: This is where we stayed at the lovely Lanta L.D. Beach Bungalows. Many other resorts and budget accommodation facilities line this beach, and it’s worth it to pay a couple extra baht to be close to the shore. You can find beachfront accommodation for 500 – 700 Baht/night. Restaurants line the sand for the length of the beach, and behind this are usually bungalows or a hotel. The beach is decidedly more crowded, but it’s also very long (obvs), so it’s not too hard to carve out a place on the sand. Mr. Wee’s also has some pretty kickass pizza, believe it or not.

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Klong Nin Beach: Not far from Long Beach is Klong Nin. This beach also has it’s share of on-the-sand restaurants and bars, but it’s not as developed as Long Beach. All sunsets in Koh Lanta are stunning, but we got a beauty from Klong Nin after an afternoon of tanning here.

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Kantian Bay Beach: This is the farthest south of the western-facing beaches on Koh Lanta, and it’s purely sand, sun, and sea. There isn’t much by way of on-sand refreshment, but you get heaps more privacy and space than Long or Klong Nin beaches. It’s a great place to spend a couple of hours with a book.

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Nui Beach: Stop off at a little roadside restaurant/bar, and make your way down several steep wooden staircases to Nui Beach. It’s a small strip of sand nestled in a cove, and the swimming is spectacular. I spent at least an hour floating on my back, watching the clouds drift above me while I started pondering my future when I get back to the States. There’s no better place to do it.

We also took an organized trip called The 4 Islands Tour, which we booked through a travel agency on Long Beach. It cost about 1000 Baht/person and included lunch and snorkel gear.

Here’s are some of the smaller islands we saw off the coast of Koh Lanta:

Koh Cheuk: We went snorkeling here in a protected little cove that had plenty of fish, but also plenty of dead coral. Being a bit of a snorkeling snob after the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji, I was less than impressed by the level of destruction around the seafloor. But we only spent 30 minutes here, which was just enough time to not get bored.

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Koh Mook & The Emerald Cave: This was something truly impressive; a huge underwater cave/tunnel that led to an open-air secret hideaway beach at the center of the island. True to it’s name, the water within the tunnel was a vivid green… what we could see between the massive lines of Chinese tourists floating in a line, being pulled by a sole Thai boatman. This is a place to get a longtail out to early early in the morning before the crowds come.

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Koh Ngai: We stopped here for a curry lunch and some time to relax on the sand for about an hour. And what sand it was! Bright white next to the turquoise sea, it was the postcard image of Thailand that you see in all the brochures. It was nice to take a break and enjoy the sunshine.

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Koh Maa: There was one last snorkel spot that was even less impressive than the first, and we only spent about 15 of our allotted 30 minutes in the water. By this point, we were pretty sun-worn and swim-worn, to the point where my sister didn’t even make it back to Old Town Lanta without falling asleep to the hum of the longtail engine.

Other places worth knowing about in Koh Lanta: 

Old Town: This is the original settlement of Koh Lanta and where many of the locals still live. There are countless restaurants on stilts over the water, and it’s worthwhile to stop for lunch at one of them.

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Saladan: It’s impossible to miss Saladan, since it’s where the ferry drops you off. Don’t fall into the trap of booking accommodation here either in advance online or from one of the many people who will accost you as you disembark. It’s a decent place to shop if you want, but it’s busy and noisy and not nearly as lovely as the beaches.

New Zealand in Three Weeks

New Zealand is magnetic. From the moment the wheels of your plane touch down, you feel grounded to the earth in a metaphysical, spiritual way. When it’s time to go, you feel an aching sadness to have to part with a place that has captured your soul so completely. And everything in between charms, challenges, and inspires.

We spent three weeks in New Zealand. While many backpackers see it as an adventure destination, we explored a little more deeply. Here’s an outline of what we did, with links to detailed posts about each step in our journey.

Feeding our bodies:

Feeding our souls:

Facing our fears:

  • Braving a 7 meter waterfall in Rotorua
  • And no, there wasn’t a bungee jump in sight!

Here are some more practical tips I have for anyone who wishes to visit this amazing country.

Money:

  • The exchange rate may be in your favor, but New Zealand is an expensive place to travel compared to cheaper destinations like Asia or South America. Be prepared to have costs average around $100/day, even if you’re staying in budget digs and eating fast food.
  • Be wary of Queenstown. It is such a beautiful, wonderful, fun place that you may find yourself postponing leaving over and over again. Meanwhile, the bars in town are slowly sucking money out of your wallet. I’ve heard many a traveler cry over how much of their budget ended up in Queenstown.

Where to Go:

  • Most people will tell you that the south island is where it’s at. This is absolutely true. I recommend spending the majority of your time exploring the south island.
  • In the north island, the things I would say shouldn’t be missed are: The Bay of Islands, Rafting in Rotorua, and Waiheke Island. Add Hobbiton if that’s your thing. You can do most of these things in a couple of days using Auckland as your base.
  • In the south Island, the things I would say go onto your must-do list are: Milford Sound (or Doubtful if you have the time), Queenstown, either Mount Cook or the Franz Josef/Fox Glacier, and the Abel Tasman. I’ve heard amazing things about Kaikoura, but haven’t been myself.

Transport:

  • This is also not as cheap as other destinations. There are two primary ways travelers get around: Bus, Plane, or Car.
  • BUS: Budget travelers focus on Naked Bus or InterCity. Be wary of the Kiwi Experience buses if you’re only visiting for a couple of weeks; these are better suited to longer-term travelers and you will not get your money’s worth for shorter trips. If you will be around for a while, it can be a good way to meet other travelers. Just be conscious that the average age of Kiwi Experience travelers is early/mid-twenties.
  • PLANE: The primary airlines are Jetstar or Air New Zealand. They both compete pretty heavily for the Auckland to Queenstown route, so there are deals to be had if you are lucky with timing.
  • CAR: There are several campervan rental companies, and all seem to be roughly the same price. Camping in New Zealand is serious business, with thousands of beautiful sites to be found everywhere you go. However, there is also TransferCar, which is a car rental relocation service that asks drivers to move cars from one city to another free of charge. Depending on the deal you find, you can get gas, ferry costs and more covered. We did this from Wellington to Auckland and only had to spend about $80 on gas.

Hope this helps, and happy travels!

Travel Tips for Thailand

I thought I’d collate and collect my top travel tips based on my visit to Thailand and share them for anyone considering a visit! Here they are below:

Overall:

Maintain an attitude of friendly suspicion, always. Most times the locals are looking to make a buck, so question everything but be polite unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

For example:

Insist on using the meter in the taxi wherever possible. If you are in a heavily tourist area of Bangkok (i.e. Khao San Road when the bars close down) you may have to walk several blocks to find a taxi that will do this. If you prefer not to bother, know that you can negotiate, but will still have to pay more than a metered fare. Know how much the fare is normally and don’t pay more than 2x.

– Near the temples in Bangkok you will be accosted by men who will tell you that they are closed for the day, closed to tourists, etc. They will mention that they know of some other great thing to see instead. This is never true, it’s a scam that is used to get you into a custom suit shop or something similar because the drivers have a deal with the business owners to get paid for every person they bring into the store. Unless you are at an official ticket window for the attraction and it has a sign that says “closed,” assume the attraction is open.

Transportation in Thailand:

– Most domestic flights Bangkok (i.e. Bangkok to Phuket, Bangkok to Chiang Mai) are from Don Mueang Airport. Your international flight will almost always arrive in Suvarnabhumi, so you will need to ensure you have time to transfer between the two airports to catch your flight. I recommend at least 2 hours to be safe.

– There is a free bus transfer between the two Bangkok Airports (Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang). It departs hourly and sometimes half-hourly. It takes about an hour and is usually marked with signs and a desk in the arrivals hall – worth saving the money a taxi would charge you if you are transferring directly to a flight from Bangkok elsewhere in Thailand.

– When you arrive at any airport, proceed to the counter marked “Metered Taxis.” These taxis will be required to use their meters (ask them multiple times anyway to be sure), and they will provide you with a special slip of paper that is written nearly entirely in Thai. Keep this slip of paper in your possession at all times, even if the cab driver asks for it. This paper has all of the taxi driver’s information and can be used to mail a complaint in to the department of transportation (i.e. didn’t use the meter, overcharged, etc.). As long as you have this paper, you have the power to not get scammed. Keep it! They will and do frequently ask, so just say no.

– In the more tourist-heavy coastal and island areas, there will be fixed transport pricing that you will not be able to negotiate. For example, the taxi boats from the pier in Ko Phi Phi have fixed pricing, and nothing you do will get a boat captain to lower his fare. You can definitely try, but we had zero success.

– In Bangkok, I recommend traveling by boat. There is a ferry bus on the main river through the city that will take you everywhere. Find your way to a pier, buy a ticket, and jump on! It’s a fun experience.

Accommodation in Thailand:

– I recommend that you do not pre-book your hotels if possible. There is plenty of accommodation in every area, and you will have the flexibility to negotiate on-site that you won’t have online.

– There are travel agents in every port area of every town. I recommend consulting with a travel agent when you arrive somewhere you didn’t pre-book. They usually can get you placed in a great spot for pretty inexpensive, if you tell them how much you’re willing to spend per night. They will have maps, photos, etc. and don’t be afraid to ask as many questions as you want. Do your research and know what a normal price is for the area you’re staying in – Koh Lanta cost us 1/3 what Ko Phi Phi did, but we paid about market rate in both locations.

– If you don’t want to go the travel agent route, many business owners and homeowners will directly lease a private room in the back of their business/house. These are usually even less expensive than typical hotel/hostel accommodation and are posted with signs on the streets outside of the business or home, so keep your eyes open when you’re walking around. And always see the room before allowing money to change hands.

– There are two key types of rooms in Thailand: Fan and Air Con. Pretty straightforward, one has air conditioning and one does not. It’s up to you which you prefer, but you will pay a premium (about 30 – 50% more) for air conditioning. We had air con everywhere except in Koh Lanta, where the ocean breeze and fan was plenty for me. I recommend trying fan first unless you are on a very high floor or the temps are 90+, which can be dangerous.

Decorum:

– The temples and places of worship in Thailand require that your legs and shoulders are covered. This means no tank tops, shorts, short skirts, transparent clothing, etc. Some temples will provide free robes to cover yourself up, some places (like the Grand Palace) require a refundable cash deposit to use their wraps/shirts before you can enter. If you know you’re going to temples, I recommend a maxi skirt or linen pants and carrying a sweater or wrap of some sort so you don’t have to hassle with the lines to get robes.

– Revelry is expected in most tourist-heavy spots like Khao San Rd., Ko Phi Phi main beach, etc. Don’t be an overly offensive nit wit and you’ll be fine. Even if you are one, the Thai people will be gracious, but you’ll be an asshole.

Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate! Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, is a fabulous place to work on your negotiation skills and assertiveness. Be polite, but be aggressive. I like to counter less than half the original asking price and not move to more than about 60%. The best tactic when they won’t budge is to start walking away, saying no. They will usually backpedal – and you’ll get your deal. Even if you don’t have exact change, the Thais recognize that a deal is a deal and will provide you with the appropriate change based on the agreed price – just make sure you double-check it.

– On that note, always double-check your change. Honest and dishonest mistakes can happen quite often. I had a waitress forget to put 500 baht into my change for a meal, which would have cost me $15 if I hadn’t noticed.

– Also be careful with your bills. The 100 Baht and 500 Baht notes look very similar. Always read the number on the bill before you hand it over and you won’t end up overpaying on accident.

So that’s most of it. Anything you think I missed? Comment below!

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