28 Oct

Monday Moment: Temple Incense

Temple of Literature

Temples in Asia fascinate me. Unlike our North American churches with their air of solemnity, hushed tones, and calm divinity, Asian temples are often a whirlwind of swirling incense smoke, banging drums, and merchants hawking offerings to the gods for the faithful who didn’t come prepared.

I feel uncomfortable entering churches. I don’t know why. I feel intrusive; like I don’t belong but might be mistaken for someone who does. I feel like an interloper; watching the faithful pray is like taking a peep through the curtains into someones private life. I feel noisy; as though every rustle of my coat is disturbing the peace that cloaks the pews.

Yet I don’t feel this way in temples. Perhaps it’s because so much of Asian life is lived in public; witnessing someone at the temple is no different than witnessing them read their paper on the front stoop, have a meal at a roadside stand, or chat with their scooter-mate at the stop light. I so obviously don’t belong that I don’t have to worry about being mistaken for someone who does and, with all the commotion going on, it’s unlikely that I will disturb anyone.

It is the incense that I love the most. The sweet, cloying, scent that drifts upward welcoming all those who enter. I love the great vats of it smouldering away and being added to constantly. In fact, whenever I smell incense, no matter where I am, I am instantly taken back to a temple like this one in Hanoi.



04 Mar

Monday Moment: Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, Vietnam

Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi

This small shrine sits just beside the much more picturesque Ngoc Son temple on Hoan Kem Lake in Hanoi. While the temple justifiably receives much attention from visitors, tourists, and strangely, brides having their photos taken in elaborate get-ups, this shrine received a fair amount of attention from locals who burned money at the base presumably looking for good fortune and wealth.

26 Nov

Monday Moment: Perfume Pagoda Pilgrimage , Vietnam

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam

Hundreds of boats, loaded with thousands of pilgrims, make their way toward the Perfume Pagoda outside of Hanoi.

Families come to pray for luck and good fortune. Couples come to pray for fertility.

Men come to pray for prosperity and good luck.And test that faith by playing cards on the way back down. I wonder if they turn around and head back up if they don’t do so well in the game.

Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam


26 Aug

Monday Moment: Vietnam Moto Taxi

Vietnam Moto Taxi

In Vietnam the fastest, and most economical, way of getting around is the moto-taxi.

Just like regular taxis, moto-taxi drivers hang out on every street corner waiting for customers. We would simply walk up, point at the map as to where we wanted to go, negotiate a price, and hop on the back.

Even if we had all our bags with us; the driver would arrange them around his, and our, feet and off we would go.

My biggest tip for using moto-taxis is to strap the helmet on your head. I failed this step only once and lost my helmet in the middle of a huge, motorcycle-filled, intersection. Frantically, I started flapping my hands in front of the drivers face in the internationally recognized hand signal for ‘I’ve lost your helmet. You need to stop!’ He eventually understood that I wasn’t just waving to Jason on the other bike and pulled over allowing me to run back through the traffic to retrieve it. Good times.




04 Jun

Monday Moment: Mui Ne, Vietnam

Fishing Boats, Mui Ne, Vietnam

Mui Ne, on the coast of Vietnam, is a sleepy fishing village that produces a lot of fish sauce. The colorful fish boats leave on the morning tide and return late in the afternoon. The hills lining the shore are filled with baskets of drying fish…yep, you can imagine the stench!

Drying Fish, Mui Ne, Vietnam

12 Mar

Monday Moment: Bia Hoi Shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

Beer Shop Owner, Hanoi, VietnamOne of my favourite things to do in Hanoi is to find a Bia Hoi (or fresh beer) shop, sit, and watch the world go by. It’s a popular pastime; there are over 3000 Bia Hoi shops in Hanoi.

We visited this one regularly during our time there. This is the owner. He would come down the steep staircase, pull up a stool, and enjoy a beer at the end of his day.

He even smiled at us once.


Have you read our review of The Long Term Traveler’s Guide? It is the most comprehensive guide on the subject that I have seen anywhere and, at$25 it’s a great value for those of you looking to get a leg up on researching and planning. The digital package includes resources and planning tools that are worth the price alone. If you are planning a big trip you should definitely check it out.

We’re giving a copy away!! Jeremy has given us a copy of the book and the digital package for us to share with you. All you have to do is ‘Like’ our OneGiantStep Facebook Page. It’s also a great resource for travel articles and great conversation. So come on over, give us a ‘Like’ and be entered to win a copy of The Long Term Traveler’s Guide.

We’ll be drawing a random name from all the ‘Likes’ (whether new or old) on March 15th.


21 Feb

Remember That Time: We Realized We Would Never Make It As Drug Mules?

Now that we’ve returned home and have settled back into our routine lives again we find it funny how our travel stories keep coming up. Invariably one of us will look at the other and say ‘Remember That Time…’ I thought it would make a good series; a way to tell these small stories that take us back in the blink of an eye.

We got our Vietnamese visa from an agent in Bangkok, Thailand about 6 weeks before we planned on being in Vietnam. We didn’t know where else we might be able to get it and so pretty much guessed at how long we would take through northern Thailand and Laos to get there.

Vietnamese visas are strict. You must declare your entry date, may not arrive early, and must leave 30 days after entry. It cost 1350 Baht or about $44 each.

At the time that we received the visa we had not yet booked flights. Jason was pretty good at the whole booking flights over the internet thing by now so he had his eye on a number of possible flights and, when one came up that looked good, he booked it lickety split.

It was about a month later, while we were in Laos, that he checked the tickets and realized that we were booked to leave Vietnam 31 days after entry…a day later than allowed.

Yep, checked, double checked, counted out the days…one day late. Shit.

We briefly looked into changing the ticket; the non refundable, non changeable ticket and then thought ‘meh…how bad could it be?’.

We arrived at the airport super early, dressed in the best clothes we had; not wanting to leave anything to chance and wanting to appear like the ‘good travellers’ we were. Our plan was to play it cool; don’t point out the visa error; and maybe even act surprised if they noticed.

Right away, at the check in counter, the attentive agent noticed that our visa had expired the day before. We looked at her and immediately confessed that, yes, we had accidentally booked flights a day late…so much for our acting careers; over before it’s begun!

She pantomimed/explained that we couldn’t have a boarding pass and instructed us to leave our bags and go to speak with the immigration officer. In retrospect that’s exactly what you should do; leave your bags unattended in a foreign country with a strict drug policy while you go to discuss your invalid visa. Not. So. Smart.

We found the agent and presented ourselves. What a sorry heap of nerves, anxiety, and fear we were. So much for playing it cool. I was sweaty, shaky and red as a beetroot as we pantomimed/explained our situation and how sorry we were to have made such a stupid, rookie mistake.

He was gruff, if not slightly amused, as he called over another agent and began talking on the phone to someone I assumed was his supervisor. There was a lot of tsk-tsking and stern looks before he explained how lucky we were and how kind he was being as he waived all fines and signed the all-important document that would allow us to retrieve our bags and a boarding pass.

I tell the story light-heartedly but let me be clear; I don’t think it’s a good idea to screw around with visitation or immigration policy in any country. The rules are clear and it’s not hard to follow them. You can be sure that, from that day forward, we double and triple checked absolutely every entry/exit plan we had. It’s just not worth the risk.

31 Aug

Remember That Time…I Colored My Hair In Vietnam?

Now that we’ve returned home and have settled back into our routine lives again we find it funny how our travel stories keep coming up. Invariably one of us will look at the other and say ‘Remember That Time…’ I thought it would make a good series; a way to tell these small stories that take us back in the blink of an eye.

Call me cheap, but I color my own hair. I always have and luckily, knock on wood, it has never turned out disastrous. It maybe hasn’t always looked exactly how I wanted it to but, then again, I’m only investing $14.95 in the process rather than $70 – a classic case of ‘you get what you pay for’.

I had even done this previously on the trip…at least 5 times previously…and had had fairly decent results even though I often couldn’t read the instructions or didn’t have all the usual equipment.

It all came tumbling down in Vietnam.

There are no drugstores in Vietnam – it seems that anyone that has any space, and something to sell, just does. I found a place selling a few boxes of hair color, chose a box labeled ‘light brown’ and headed back to the hotel.

There were no gloves in the box and I can’t even remember if there were instructions but, having done this a million times before, I just set to mixing the various bottles and applying it to my head.

I thought it strange that my fingernails stained black almost immediately but put it down to applying color without gloves and thought no more of it.

The last time I had colored my hair (in Thailand) I had not left the color in long enough as I was afraid it would be too dark and it ended up fading out sooner than it should have, so this time I was determined to leave it in for the prescribed amount of time. I busied myself while I waited for the 45 minutes to pass (yes it takes that long….I have, ahem, some grey that needs extra attention).

I rinsed the color out of my hair, toweled it dry, and took the first look in the mirror to see how it turned out.


Uh oh...a little too dark!

It was black. Black, black, black! As black as any raven haired Vietnamese beauty I could see on the street. Really, really black. I cannot emphasize enough how black it was.

I was mortified but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t risk coloring over it, and besides, what color would I use? I have a sneaking suspicion that every box of hair color in Vietnam, whether labeled black or light brown or blond or red, all has the same formulation in it. Black.

At home they say you shouldn’t wash your hair right after coloring it because it will fade…so I washed it, and washed it, and washed it. It didn’t look any duller at all. Still black.

I slowly realized that I was going to have to live with it. I was going to have to go outside.

Keep in mind – this in no way, shape or form looked natural. Some black lipstick and dark clothing and I could have passed for ‘goth’.

Eventually we made our way outside – I held my head up and faked confidence I didn’t have. I felt like everyone was looking at me and laughing. Luckily the sun sets early in Vietnam and, soon enough, I was comforted by a drape of darkness. But it would have to get light again at some point.

That mistake took forever to grow out. Normally hair color fades over time and grows out eventually. Vietnamese hair color is tenacious and sticky and, even after returning home, and coloring my hair a few more times I could still see traces of the black in there.

My father-in-law referred to me as his ‘Vietnamese blond’ – funny.

20 Apr

Scooter Mania

There is a dull roar that hangs over Vietnam. From north to south, in the highlands and in the delta, in small towns and especially in big cities the inescapable sound of a million scooters fills the air.

Scooter Traffic, Saigon-1 Scooters are everywhere. People don’t walk anywhere, they just jump on their scooter and ride to where ever they want to go even if it’s just a few doors down. It’s like the scooter is an extension of their body, an extra set of legs that gets them where they want to go more efficiently. The roads are filled with them and rush hour is an indescribable chaos of buzzing and honking that I have been unable to capture in any photograph. People can drive scooters into places that I would have thought impossible…while walking through a narrow, winding lane, or through a packed morning market, there is every chance that the unmistakable sound of a scooter will come up from behind and a polite ‘beep-beep’ will request passage.

Scooter Parking, Hanoi Parked scooters take up every available space that isn’t used for driving…sidewalks are un-passable, lanes are choked and even the smallest of establishments has a young fellow acting as a parking valet to manage the ‘parking lot’. They are parked anywhere and everywhere and at night are tucked into their home parking spot in the main room of the house right next to the TV and the sleeping mat just like a member of the family.

Family Scooter Scooters are a multi purpose vehicle here. They are family vehicles ferrying mom, dad and kids around…the school near where we are staying is surrounded by parents on scooters picking up their kids after school…a little different than the family sedans and  SUV’s in the parking lots at home and yet it all looked the same once the kiddies came out, greeted their parents and siblings and jumped on for the ride home.

Moto Taxi, Saigon-2They are moto-taxis, which we used and loved…it was exhilarating being on the back of a bike driving through the crazy traffic. With an experienced driver at the wheel it wasn’t scary at all and we could really get a good sense of how close it all is. Sometimes we even use them with our big packs…the driver holds the pack in front of him and we hop on the back with our smaller packs…after what I’ve seen scooters capable of carrying I had no trouble feeling safe!

Scooter Delivery, Mui Ne They are delivery vehicles for all manner of things…construction materials, beer, ice, large mirrors, propane  tanks, ladders, you-Ice Delivery Scooter, Saigonname-it. They are farm tractors, school buses, and moving vans…I did not get a picture but the best I’ve seen was a full sized, heavy, carved wood sofa with a set of stools and table atop it on  the back of a scooter driven by an old man….amazing!!

Sleeping Scooter And when not being driven they are a perfect place to take a nap, or sit and chat with friends.

Riding is instinctive, set into a person at a very young age as they ride up front on the scooter in front of mom or dad on specially adapted seats…there is nothing cuter than seeing a toddler looking out over the handlebars holding onto the mirrors with a huge grin on his face. Unlike at home where a youngster slowly graduates from riding in the backseat to riding in the front seat of the car, here a youngster graduates to being able to stand in front of the driver to, eventually being big enough to ride behind the driver.

Driving here makes sense despite the initial look of mayhem. It’s a cooperative environment (rather than the competitive environment we have at home) and everyone takes responsibility for looking out for everyone else. People look ahead and deal with each obstacle as it comes…dodging and weaving expertly around other scooters, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and whatever else may come up. It appears to be like walking through a large crowd…sure everyone is close but we generally don’t run into other people…it all just flows.

Crossing The Road in Hanoi Crossing the road in that mayhem may sound like an exercise in stupidity as there are no crosswalks and few traffic lights but, actually, it is simpler to cross the road here than at home…just step out and keep moving. That’s right, don’t wait for a break in traffic, certainly don’t wait for anyone to stop (because no one will), and don’t do it half-heartedly…just slowly step out and join the flow…watch the first driver change course, focus on the next one and watch him change course, then the next one and the next one…slowly, slowly the other side of the street is safely reached even through the craziest traffic in the biggest traffic circles in the city. While I certainly wouldn’t want to say that playing in traffic like this is fun, I will say that it is highly amusing.

I love scooters, and I love how much they are a part of life here. I love how even driving here is a public event…people are out in the open instead of hidden behind metal and glass, people have conversations among bikes, and there is a personal nature to the traffic. I’ve talked to people who have been in Vietnam before and say that as recently as 5 or 6 years ago the streets were filled with bicycles instead of scooters. I can see now that cars are encroaching more and more and I wonder if in 5 or 6 more years that cars will be more prevalent than scooters. In my book that will be a shame.

13 Apr

The American War

In The Berlin Subway It’s been a while, but when I was younger I had a somewhat re-occurring dream. I grew up in the 80’s during the time of the so-called ‘cold war’ but must have been influenced by war accounts from the second world war. I had an impending sense of doom but it was, strangely, coupled with images of a bygone era. The dream was of a sky filled with bomber planes…wave upon wave…dropping bombs relentlessly…and I was on the ground dodging them…quite successfully actually. Interestingly a scene from a Berlin metro station reminded me of that dream and now, being in Vietnam, I wonder about the dreams of those involved in the war that took place here.

History here is so much more tangible than say Europe where events took place in some distant past and have been tempered by time. The American War (as it is rightly called here) happened during my lifetime and, although I don’t directly remember it, I know that as I look at the people here that they do remember it…vividly. And I know that the people who came here to fight in the war also have memories of their time here.

DMZ Tour, Vietnam-2 As we rode the bus from the north to the south I tried to imagine what it must have been like during that time. During a tour of the Demilitarized Zone our guide told stories of what his 14 year old life was like at the time. Stories of soldiers with guns, of helicopters flying lowly overhead, of trying to convince security patrols that he wasn’t Viet Cong. Not stories that a 14 year old should have. He showed us areas that once were covered in jungle but that now are flat wastelands contaminated by napalm and Agent Orange – what must it have been like to watch the jungle fade away and be taken over by battlefields? What is it like now trying to farm that same land and seeing the effect of all those chemicals on family and friends over time?

The heat and humidity here is unrelenting, the jungle is thick and impossible to see through, the rivers are murky and full of unknown creatures and either the sun is shining its full intensity or the skies are opened and rain falls in buckets making everything a muddy maelstrom. I think of the foreign soldiers and wonder how they managed in this steamy, sweaty, soupy climate scrambling around in their combat gear with fear thick in their throats, knowing that the enemy has the advantage on their home turf.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon-1 The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City (former Saigon) told the story through graphic pictures, sending home the horror of war with intense reality and, although the story was told from a Vietnamese perspective, the pictures were of Vietnamese and American soldiers and it was clear that what everyone went through was horrific beyond belief.

DMZ Tour, Vietnam-8 Visiting the tunnels where villagers would spend day and weeks fleeing the fighting makes shows how horrid it must have been to try and go about daily life. The sophistication of those tunnels makes me realize the tenacity they had to continue that daily life, farming up top by day and living below ground by night. Whole villages managed in tunnels like these with families spending their time in small nooks carved into the sides of the tunnels. It is unbelievably tight and cramped and the air must have been hot and stale but they managed.

Two things really surprise me about Vietnam. The first is that this country that so recently was ravaged by a war involving westerners would now open their arms to those same westerners. The same people that fought in the war, or saw it through their childhood eyes, are now welcoming us in, making us comfortable, learning our language, and smiling at us around every corner. There is a genuine sentiment of pride and happiness that the world now wants to see their country.

The second was that American war vets would want to return to a place that, for them, must be full of bad memories that would take them back to a time they may have spent a long time trying to forget. But they are here – they come to see old battlefields, to revisit old friends for whose side they fought while here, and maybe to leave the past behind. It must be a difficult journey for them and as I see them I wonder what is going through their minds.

The story told here about the American War is a little different from that that we learn at home, but it is not told with malice or ego but with with pragmatism and nationalistic pride. Every country has its own story, told its own way, with its own ending…the truth always lies somewhere in between.

28 Mar

Halong Bay

Halong Bay Tour-24 I’d been looking forward to seeing Halong Bay since we left home. Visions of limestone islands rising up out of the sea seemed, to me, to be one of the quintessential Asian scenes… vibrant green rice paddies, women wearing conical hats, and wrinkled old men being some of the others.

We had been warned that Halong Bay was losing its luster. That pollution and tourists  were taking over and that maybe it should be skipped. I couldn’t skip it though and, although it is polluted and touristy and the weather pretty much sucked, I’m glad that we saw it because it really is amazing.

There are nine million, five hundred and twenty two thousand, three hundred and forty seven travel agencies in Hanoi (seven hundred and thirty three of them are named ‘Sinh Cafe’) all trying to sell tours to Halong Bay. With the adage that ‘you get what you pay for’, we opted for a mid range three day/two night option that would have us stay on the boat one night and on Cat Ba Island for one night.

We bussed out to Halong City to join the throngs of tourists at the dock all trying to get to one of the hundreds of junks in the harbor. I knew there must be hundreds of boats that ply the waters of Halong Bay (based on the number of travel agencies offering tours), but I didn’t expect them to all be in the harbor at once!

Halong Bay Tour-9 We were soon herded onto a boat and it jostled  its way out of the dock. As it jostled, we wandered around the decks of the boat marveling at how different promotional pictures can be from the actual product. The boat was nothing like what we’d been sold and I had already started to Halong Bay Tour-16compose my complaint email in my head when we pulled up next to another junk and were led to our actual boat. This was much better…we had our own small cabin with a private bathroom, there was a small dining room and a deck up top for viewing the scenery.

The weather was not the best…cloudy, foggy and a little misty too…but the scenery was still stunning…I can’t imagine what it would be like if the skies were clear and the sun shining. The fog lent an ethereal quality to the scene, and the karsts seemed to touch both the sea and the sky at the same time.

After about an hour of sailing we arrived in the bay we were to spend the night…along with about 30 other boats. With more than 2000 islands in the area I would have thought there would be more than enough coves to settle into but, no, we all stayed in the same bay…so much for solitude! It was pleasant enough though and other junk boats added to the view.

Halong Bay Tour-4 That afternoon, after the requisite cave visit (it seems, in Asia, there is always a cave, a waterfall, and an ethnic village to visit), we all hopped in kayaks to get a closer look at the islands. It was pretty neat to kayak so close to the karst islands, under the overhanging cliffs and, in one case, through a tunnel into a serenely quiet grotto surrounded by steep, high hills. We returned to the boat to enjoy an afternoon on the deck enjoying a beer and looking out onto the water.

Halong Bay Tour-13 Later on in the evening, after dinner had been served and a few beers been quaffed, the karaoke came out. Karaoke is very popular in this part of the world. Everyone is a singer, and they like it LOUD…it’s as though every karaoke machine only has one volume setting and it’s well past the distortion level. We are not singers but joined in for the chorus where we could…even on the Vietnamese songs much to the delight of the crew on board. It was a lot of fun but I’m sure it didn’t add to the peaceful time that people on other boats were trying to enjoy.

The next day we were transferred to Cat Ba Island. The idea was to do a short hike through the national park, but it turned out  to be a climb up a steep hill to a tower that offered amazing views of the area. The climb was pretty tough in parts, especially considering we were wearing our flip flops, and would have been made extremely slippery if it was really raining. I was amazed at some of the older tourists that we encountered – turns out some of them had been sold a ‘quiet, flat, walk through the rainforest’ – they were not happy campers!

We spent the afternoon cleaning up and wandering around Cat Ba town before meeting our group for dinner. We went out with the group for a couple of beers….that inevitably turned into a couple more…but we headed home before the gang headed to the karaoke bar to finish off…enough is enough!

The journey back through Halong Bay was even mistier the next day and visibility was pretty poor. It was still a sight to see though and I’m glad we didn’t miss it – sometimes a place is popular because it really is just that fantastic – this is one of those places.

Halong Bay Tour-22