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Chiclayo is another city known for pickpockets and thieves, an inauspicious warning for a city surrounded by ancient ruins.  They only discovered the ruins because an archaeologist noticed a lot of things showing up on the black market and moved quickly with the police to protect the pyramids.  It is no Machu Picchu, it’s also a good millennium earlier, from the Moche culture, which is even more impressive. I was talking to my friendly hostel owner (Muchik Hostel is a nice option in Chiclayo) and he mentioned that he wished more tourists would see their great treasure here.  I agree, why all flood Machu Picchu when there is this even more ancient trove?  There were all of twenty people at the pyramids as school is out and there were no groups of children.  They might want to do something about all the rip off taxis and pickpockets though.

End of the article has transport advice for how to do all of this on your own as I found guidebooks to be a bit scarce in details.  I’ve also skipped the cuisine of Chiclayo as I got no good pictures.  Arroz con pato (duck with cilantro/beer rice), chirimpico (offal and blood breakfast), and tortilla de raya (manta ray omelette) are all delicious but I found no stand out restaurants in town.  I also briefly stopped at the shaman market in Mercado Modelo but was off put by the overly aggressive clerks with their cheap looking bottles of colored oils and left to enjoy an anticucho (grilled skewer) of beef heart in front of the market instead.  Seemed like a safer way to get courage.

First stop is the beautifully laid out and designed Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan in Lambayeque.  Unfortunately National Geographic owns the rights of the amazing finds inside, often called the Tutankhamun of the Americas, so we only get a building shot.

First stop is the beautifully laid out and designed Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan in Lambayeque. Unfortunately National Geographic owns the rights of the amazing finds inside, often called the Tutankhamun of the Americas, so we only get a building shot.

Afterwards I went to the older Brunning museum, which lacked ventilation in a hot day so I made a quick jaunt of it.  I rather enjoyed this whimsical looking statue of death and what looks like a wheel of cheese or whetstone.

Afterwards I went to the older Brunning museum, which lacked ventilation in a hot day so I made a quick jaunt of it. I rather enjoyed this whimsical looking statue of death and what looks like a wheel of cheese or whetstone.

Right next to death was this much more terrifying monkey.  My nightmares are filed with barrels of these.

Right next to death was this much more terrifying monkey. My nightmares are filed with barrels of these.

The kings were thought of as gods so the royal family and religiously important wore mouth masks to hide the fact they were mortals.  You wish you were important enough for a snazzy bling mustache.

The kings were thought of as gods so the royal family and religiously important wore mouth masks to hide the fact they were mortals. You wish you were important enough for a snazzy bling mustache.

The intricate metalwork is beautiful but the little stuff was impossible to get a good picture of.

The intricate metalwork is beautiful but the little stuff was impossible to get a good picture of.

The next day I headed to the actual site in Sipan which had another well designed and even newer museum.

These impish things seemed more European to me than Latin American.

These impish things seemed more European to me than Latin American.

They really like their death statues.

They really like their death statues.

They also really like their terrifying animals, this is a feline-humanoid mask.

They also really like their terrifying animals, this is a feline-humanoid mask.

The king got a seriously large mouth mask.

The king got a seriously large mouth mask.  I’m not sure how he ever spoke or moved his body with all this gold and silver on him.

I'm not sure how this guard was supposed to protect anyone, perhaps by blinding them with his golden chest?

I’m not sure how this guard was supposed to protect anyone, perhaps by blinding them with his golden chest?

I am constantly impressed by the quality of the poured metalwork that long ago.

I am constantly impressed by the quality of the poured metalwork that long ago.

You can tell what ancient Peruvians thought was important.  A-maize-ing. Har had har. There's a statue of peanuts, potatoes, and pumpkins right behind this one.

You can tell what ancient Peruvians thought was important. A-maize-ing. Har had har. There’s a statue of peanuts, potatoes, and pumpkins right behind this one.

Walking 200 meters from the parking lot and museum brings you to the actual pyramid site.

It's no terra cotta warriors of Xi'an but that is still a heck of a lot of jars.

It’s no terra cotta warriors of Xi’an but that is still a heck of a lot of jars.

The recreated grave of the lord of Sipan.  When being buried in a pyramid don't forget your important wife, your military chief, your other wives, a random child, your llama, and jars to hold snacks.

The recreated grave of the lord of Sipan. When being buried in a pyramid don’t forget your important wife, your military chief, your other wives, a random child, your llama, and clay jars to hold snacks.

Two millenniums is not very kind to adobe pyramids.  I'm not sure what the metal sheeting is covering as they told me excavation has stopped.

Two millenniums is not very kind to adobe pyramids. I’m not sure what the metal sheeting is covering as they told me excavation has stopped.

Well ok, this pyramid was slightly less eroded.  I'm not really sure why.

Well ok, this pyramid was slightly less eroded. I’m not really sure why.

The view from the top of the pyramids was wonderful against the runny pyramids.

The view from the top of the pyramids was wonderful against the runny pyramids.

There are tours available through Mochi Tours in town, however I found them a little steep (70 soles/28 USD) given we were skipping the Lambayeque museums as the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan is closed on Mondays.  It’s completely possible to do alone but public transportation is always slower and there isn’t a huge amount of English descriptions.  Museums are all 10 soles or less and an English guide is available at the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Sipan for 30 soles.  The Spanish guide is free and friendly as he follows you around telling you stuff even after I told him I didn’t speak much Spanish.  The museum stores, a random favorite of mine, were lacking as they were mostly replaced with stalls of tchotchky vendor instead.

How to get to Lambayeque: There are collectivo taxis that leave from either Avenida Angamos or San Martin (I forget which) just north of San Jose street.  There are vans just on the street or an actual office midway down the block with cars.  They leave when full.  Get off near the main market in Lambayeque or just tell them you want to go to the museo.  Should be 1.5 soles.

How to get back to Chiclayo; The collective taxis gather either kitty corner from the Brunning Museum (you can see the sign in front of the park) or on the main street between the two museums.  You’ll return to the same park in Chiclayo you left near.  1.5-2 soles.

How to get to Sipan: Go to the Tepsel minibus station where Castaneda Iparraguirre and Avenida Agricultura meet.  The Sipan bus is buried in the complex, just keep asking where the Sipan bus is.  It leaves every half hour (Latin American style, so whenever it feels like, maybe on time).  After passing the first town of Sipan, mention you want to go to “los piramedes” and they’ll let you off in the parking lot for the museum on the right.  You’ll see the pyramids before this.  To get back, catch the same bus going back.  3 soles each way.

Next up I head to the coast to enjoy yet more delicious food and relax.  I’m nearing the end of my adventuring towns in foreign countries.

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Really I just like reasons for holidays and celebrations, as evident by my three new years this year.  However I do think it is momentous to celebrate the fact that I have made it around the globe.  Granted 380 days is a lot longer than 80, I’m also taking my sweet time a lot more than that adventure and its lack of stopping anywhere.   Let’s ignore the fact that I already celebrated my 365 days traveling.  So what does an avid eater do to celebrate?

The only way I know how to celebrate: by accidentally taking porn-like photos of tender meat in low lighting.

My last meal in Madrid and in Europe was at Botin, the “world’s oldest restaurant” based on Guinness records and contested by a bunch of other ancient places.  The more important part is they have crackly skinned moist pork and it is in an ancient wooden cellar that managed to escape the bombings of so many wars.  The restaurant is pretty touristy and I got told to return three hours later when I showed up fifteen minutes after they opened, but that’s what you get for not being able to make a reservation online for less than three people.  I had to get some chocolate and churros to bide my time, the horrors of my day.  When I showed up later I got crammed in a corner where the walls crumbled on me occasionally and I was mildly squished next to a giant humidifier disguised as a ye olde wood door.  Yet the tender pork in crisp skin swimming in a pool of its own juices with a couple of potatoes was enough to make it awesome still.  I just wish I had the money and a stomach not full of churros and chocolate to have ordered the roasted baby lamb as well.  Lamb is already tender as a young sheep, is baby lamb extra tender?

This is also a good time to reflect on all the things I have learned over the past year.  I’m oft asked why I went on this trip and one of the answers I give is, “This is cheaper than graduate school and the learning is a lot more fun and practical.”

The big one: Was a Round The World Trip ticket worth it?

Yes and no.  It was a good deal and I had a lot of flexibility in my flights, free changes to date/time and only $125 for changes for location changes.  I even managed to change my flight for free when I missed my flight due to misunderstanding military time was being used.  Who flies at 1 AM?!  That’s the end of the good news.  The other half is that it took an average of 40 minutes of hold time and a week worth of calling daily to make changes.  For LAN I found that LAN America is handicapped and tells you to call back daily just to tell you they screwed up, and it’ll take probably another three days. Call back then, we have no power to change anything without our supervisor!  Calling LAN Chile was much more effective as their call center people could make changes immediately if it was for date/time.  I did get blacked out of the entire summer for going to Europe which was fortunate for my wallet but annoying for flexibility’s sake.  From other travelers’ reports I have compiled that the Latin American airlines (LAN and TAM) seem to be the worst, I’ve never had a good run in with AA even prior to current bankruptcy service issues, and the developed European nations (FinnAir and Lufthansa) had the most friendly and helpful service.  Would I do it again?  I probably wouldn’t have made it around the world in one year without it, but I’m not sure if being in India right now inhaling curries would’ve been a bad thing.

What do you need to carry?

I’m not really sure still, but I can tell you to plan for your weather.  I can also tell you what I really haven’t used.  I still haven’t been in good camping climate so the sleeping bag has only been optionally used.  My clothes have been wrecked after being worn for a year and I’ve had to buy a lot of new stuff.  Don’t buy it in Asia unless you are of their tiny proportions.

My laptop has been a blessing and a curse.  I’ve typed out lengthy e-mails on a phone this trip and it’s a pain in the ass.  You could use the free computers at hostels but I will warn you that I get blocked a lot from website that report the entire router’s IP has been blocked to spambots at multiple hostels.  So it’s been convenient to have a computer of my own and to view travel info on a full size screen.  The curse is that it’s broken three times, changing my travel plans three times, so that I had to hustle to a developed city with an authorized Apple repair center and then sit there waiting in a more expensive city.  And these fine authorized folk in Singapore of all places only managed to break my laptop the first fix so that it caused the second problem.  Oy.  It’s also heavy and the biggest item I constantly worry about getting stolen or losing.  I do carry a PacSafe slash proof bag which has been awesome when I can’t find a locker.

The ISYT (youth travel) card I bought hasn’t been used once.  Being under 26 would’ve been more useful for youth discounts and my almost decade old university ID worked just fine most places.

Is Couch Surfing a good idea? / How do I find a good place to stay (Couches and hostels/guesthouses)

Yes, this is a definite yes for Couch Surfing.  Even if you are feeling timid about staying in a stranger’s house it’s one of the best and most reliable ways I’ve had to find locals in the big cities I’m going to even if just for a coffee, drink or meal.  And big cities are the hardest places for me to connect with locals so it’s a boon.  As for finding good places to sleep/eat/drink, it’s really pretty similar on any website.  You start getting used to filtering by places with lots of reviews and what is really important in reviews.  At some point you realize all the reviews about “the best hostel breakfast ever!” and “the best meal I’ve had in my 3 weeks in Spain!” on every location you look at cannot be real.   As with anything new you find, your experience may rock the socks off a place with no reviews or even a great reviewed place will be terrible.  Smart filtering will still up your chances.  So far the only bad hostels I’ve had were because they were party hostels, not because of any terrible dirtiness or anything.  I personally filter for clean, just out of tourist area but walkable, not a party place, and family run.  As for couch surfing, I’ve met a few people I didn’t click with, amazing people that keep in touch more often than friends from back home, and one cult who made intelligent conversation and great Thai food.

This does lead me into how do I find good eating places.  Sadly backpacker joints are generally overpriced for the area and mediocre to terrible.  Apparently backpacking means you have bad taste.  My general go to websites have been Chowhound and Simon Seeks however both are more skewed towards people with money and less towards your budget traveler.  Lonely Planet and other guides tend to value cleanliness and comfortable (read: tastes altered to your pansy tourist taste buds) over actual good taste.  Also there is some strange curse of success where once in a guidebook many places know they can stop caring because a constant stream of one time visitors will come in.  Otherwise I find local food blogs the best spots to find pertinent budget information for eating tasty local foods.

So there’s my thoughts on traveling and eating my way around the world for one year.  I’m not stopping just yet as I’ve landed on my feet in Ecuador so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more on the way.  Every continent operates a little differently and South America should be a fun challenge.

I often travel slower than I intended but this may be a new record.  I’ve spent two weeks in the bustling town of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon depending on how you’re feeling). I took care of some pressing passport business as I was running out of visa pages.  Although July 4th was weeks ago and I passed it rather unnoticeably and quietly, here I had a continued run in with Americanism.

My experiences with American representation in the city was going well.  The museums on this side of the country still ignored any Vietnamese wrongdoing but at least had stopped calling the French and Americans incompetent in every way they could muster.  The American consulate, on the land of the former embassy, was more efficient and friendly than any federal passport visit I’ve ever had in America.  Every member of the staff smiled, looked un-annoyed, and were rather helpful.  The cashier even cheerfully handed me a $2 bill for my change, considered particularly lucky in this country.  I guess that’s why I haven’t seen any in America, they’ve all been hoarded by Vietnamese people here!  Granted I’m still rather ticked off to pay $84 just to add some extra visa pages to my passport.  Fun pro tip: you can request extra pages for free when you get a passport.

I met a cantankerous major who fought in the Vietnamese war.  I’d always been curious to meet someone who’d been here for that and would return.  Now I know, and I am not much enriched by the experience.  I do not doubt his courageous dedication as a lifetime soldier, however I draw the line when he became a caricature of bad American expat/traveler stereotypes.  He interjected himself into a conversation I was having with a friend by telling me “Vietnamese women are not too thin”.  This would be less ridiculous if he were not an obese retiree shoving expensive cake and iced coffee down with a Northern Vietnamese wife waiting for him at home.  The man spouted on about how everyone should own and use guns.  He then proceeded to berate my Vietnamese friend telling him gems like “you didn’t win the war, we decided to leave.  Do you understand that?”  He ended by loudly talking about how awful the government was, the one he chose to live in, and how talking badly about it would get Vietnamese people in trouble, like the one he kept yelling at.  It made me feel like his Vietnamese wife must not have it easy.

That is not the towering sundae with a flood of sauce, a mountain of sprinkles and fresh whipped cream on top I saw in the menu!

Undeterred by my overweight fellow countryman, I was antsing for some American style desserts.  Alas this sugary homesickness was mostly met with disappointment.  Although everything here is so overly sweet for me, I could not find a dense chocolate cake or a buttercream that didn’t feel like it belonged in a supermarket anywhere.  Even sundaes, a generally hard to screw up dessert, were sad.  The ice cream parlors were American, yet instead of being in the classic 50’s parlor style they all looked like clones of modern Coldstones.

This is a city where I met the most locals that could hold the deepest conversations i’ve had with locals in a while.  I’ve also met a few expats living here who were the friendliest people.  It is nice to not have to explain every little bit of your culture all the time and to have an easy conversation.  I’ll write again tomorrow about all the great experiences I’ve had with those who are from here.

After two months I’ve gathered some thoughts and tips for anyone who is thinking about riding in Vietnam.  The long and the short is that this was one of the highlights of my year round trip but very hard to do legally, pleasantly and thoroughly if you want to do it on a short vacation.

A cow’s (and bus’s or other motorbike’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way right as I’m coming by.

Legality:

This is the one you see the most disagreement about.  Although your International Driving Permit will list Vietnam as a covered country, the government has decided otherwise.  Travel insurance generally won’t cover you for accidents if you are riding illegally, so to be covered you do need a local license.  I covered how to get a local license here, in this post.  It did take me a month and my friend from Texas failed to get one when my California license went through.  If you do want to have your bases covered, I’d recommend having an International Driving Permit ready, a translator, and some wiggle room in time.  I’m aware most people think I’m nuts, but you don’t need your insurance to cover you until you really need them in any situation, so I’d rather be safe.

Stranded (repairs and other concerns):

I actually didn’t have to worry about much on the road.  I carried some snacks at first, but there is everything you need on the road.  Only once the entire two months did I worry about finding a place to sleep in the middle of a national park, and even then I found one shortly.  A guesthouse, a restaurant, and a repair shop are always nearby.

It does feel like everyone in this country knows how to fix a bike and strap large amounts of objects onto the back of them.  I never had any serious problems with my bike and it was pretty easy to find someone to fix problems or give an oil change.  The hardest part is convincing the mechanic that what you think are problems are in this country.  I could never really get anyone to fix my slightly leaning kickstand (only one even tried, one other told me to put a rock shim under it) or fix my taillight for night driving (they tried, but they also didn’t care, no one really uses them).  Then you get to watch in a mix of amazement and cringing as you see them make do with what they have and fix your bike with spit and tape.  But hey, it always worked, so who am I to complain?

Language:

It took me months to learn how to count to ten.  There are a few useful words for riding:

– “Sua Chua/Son Sua”: repair, with accents I am not including.  The former is confusing because with different accents, it is the word for yogurt.  Which they do sell at repair shops along with ice cream (kem). “xe may” means motorcycles in case you accidentally spot a bicycle or car repair.

– “Khach San/Nha Nghi”: Hotel/guesthouse.

– “Quan”: restaurant.  On the road it is more common to see “com dia/pho/bun/chao”: rice plates, rice noodles, rice noodles and rice porridge.
[DSCF124] a cow’s (and bus’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way

Dangers:

The people here drive crazy, but there are some general rules.  They just don’t make sense to most Western people ever.  The biggest rule is this: if you can go, go, and try not to stop.  The other big rule is that size wins.  So this is why you see people jetting everywhere in between giant buses and trucks who will do as they please.  Also, please use your horn always.  Here it means “I am here, where you can’t see me”.  So use it loudly and often like the locals.

Roads and route info:

The 1A highway was the bane of my riding existence.  Some of it was beautiful but this is where most of the buses and trucks that tried to run me off the road were.  The road is also often in bad condition with so many heavy vehicles, so there are rather deep grooves running over the road.  It’s like driving parallel to foot deep speed bumps constantly.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is very beautiful in the north, lush with greenery and mostly empty.  I highly recommend riding on it.  I hear in the south there is construction at the moment so I had avoided it.

The northwest loop is a good one week excursion if you just want to ride and see scenery but do nothing else.  The views were gorgeous and changed so much daily I thought I had changed countries.  That said, there are chunks of road west of Sapa that are so covered in landslides that it was the most dangerous rock and dirt roads I drove the entire time I was in the country.

The Mekong Delta is rather flat so it is good for anyone who is riding a bicycle as well as motorcycle.  The roads are in pretty good condition and the cities not so far apart, so it’s a good place to start and get some practice in if you need it.  Also, enjoy a ferry ride or five with your motorcycle!

Useful things to have:

There was wifi in most of the places I stopped.  The guides I used were a few years old and many were rather loud in proclamations of no wi-fi or ATMs nearby.  This country has exploded in wealth and development, so wi-fi is pretty common now.  ATMs I had a little more trouble with but it was still pretty easy to find one in most towns.

Getting a local SIM card is really pretty useful.  Instead of a paper map I used Google Maps, which worked great.  Vinaphone and Viettel have great coverage all over the country.  The only place I didn’t have coverage was on the ocean.  For about 2 dollars a month you can get unlimited internet for maps and looking up other useful info.  Google translate is useful for communicating the more complicated things you can’t pantomime.

We got extra butt cushions because these tiny bikes were not made for long rides or for big foreigners.  Many people ride 300 km a day, which on tiny 100-150 cc bikes means almost all day riding.  Do your butt a favor and either ride less or get something cushy.

Wear protective gear.  I ran into four separate people with oozing pus wounds and one with her entire legs covered in open wounds.  No one else does, but accidents are common in this country, particularly for travelers.  Be ready.  I opted for my full face American helmet over the only top of the head flimsy fashionable ordeals here.  You bet I was glad I had it when I took my slow tumble to the rocks and the side of my helmet, that would not have been covered in a Vietnamese helmet, was missing paint.

Random last tips:

I’m a slow traveler.  Most backpackers zoom from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or the reverse in a mere three weeks.  I did it in almost three months and relished every moment.  This is a large beautiful country, and if you have limited time I recommend only trying to see part of it.  You can get from one end to the other but they seemed to miss a lot of stuff in between.  Those were my favorite parts of the country.

So there you go, the basics of riding in Vietnam.  I do recommend this trip for any experienced riders with lots of free time.  I never did manage to find a couple where the woman was riding out of sheer want.  I met one couple where the woman rode because they had to carry three kids.  I think I saw another woman get in front of her man for two seconds before deciding it was a bad idea and letting him ride.  Shame, the men don’t seem to ride any safer or better.  In any case, Vietnam is a beautiful country that I greatly enjoyed seeing on two wheels.

It’s quite hard to get yourself that lost if there isn’t anywhere in particular you are trying to go.  After a week of dealing with getting stuff done in Hanoi it was time to relax on a beach near Halong Bay in Bai Tu Long Bay.  There isn’t a whole lot of info online but I took that as a good sign that it wouldn’t be as touristy as Halong Bay.  I’ve posted a bunch of information at the bottom of this post.  We made our way over a whole day of travel of buses and boats to get to Quan Lan island.  I finally figured out the panorama settings in Photoshop this week so there’s a few shots showing how empty all the beautiful beaches here are.

We missed the ferry when we got in mid afternoon.  Luckily we managed to catch other people who missed the ferry to split a chartered slow wooden boat.  Don’t mind me as I shove some electronics into a dry bag as we pull away from Cai Rong.

The wooden boat slowly puttered around letting us catch all the beautiful karst formations that Halong Bay to the south is known for.

My Lonely Planet book has an awful section for Vietnam that kept recommending “taking 2 day tours” for everything. I think I’ll take the slow route, thanks. This is too beautiful to do quickly.

The next day we walked to the beach closest to the village we stayed in. Why yes, I will take a completely empty beach!

The beach of Lost? Washington? Why are there pine trees here?!

This would be perfect except this is the beach all the villagers come to, so like everywhere else in Asia, it was covered in trash.

While waiting for my license for motorized two wheels, I took the time to get some exercise and bicycle around the island. I saw these tombstone like markers in Laos telling you how far you needed to go as well.

The bicycle ride was beautiful. We passed beaches, mangrove looking swamps, and forests. We even got invited to join Vietnamese and Chinese fisherman for a delicious lunch and beer drinking contest.

It’s hard to keep your eye on the road when this is on the side of the road.  The not well maintained bikes and sand covered roads made sure I kept a close eye on both.

Biking the next day brought me to what looked like the worst floating restaurant in the world. Does it count as floating if you put it in a pool?

This beach was beautiful but it was creepily empty besides a bunch of vendors who were lounging around. So I kept riding.

This beach was beautiful as well and had some beachside cabanas full of vendors who’d rent you an inner tube, volleyball, lounge chair or hammock.

Why no, there is no one else on the beach anywhere near me. Look how happy I look about it. Surprise, I do have more pictures of me when I’m not traveling alone.

I rode out all the way to the northern tip of the island where I came in the first day. The port wasn’t this busy when I got here!

As I rode, I saw many water buffalo. They looked a lot bigger when I was looking at them than they do in this picture. The next few pictures will be a minigame called find the water buffalo!

The water buffalo is in there somewhere.  I wish I got a picture of the ones hiding in makeshift tent huts.

Water buffaloes like to stand in front of beautiful views in ones or twos. Or sometimes in the middle of the road right in front of your bike.

Later in the day I rode past the floating restaurant again. Oh, sorry restaurant. I didn’t realize you were just surrounded by low tide earlier.

In fact, the view is quite nice inside. Except they just served drinks, so either I came at the wrong time or it isn’t’ a restaurant. There’s also some sort of seafood farm outside, but I’m not sure what kind if it’s dry in low tide.

I saw a bunch of these all over the island. Some were alone. I couldn’t figure out if they were tomb shrines, they’re so colorful.

What would a locale with me be without food? I first had the syrupy bitter coffee of southeast asia in Laos, but it is just as delicious here. I like it cut with a layer of thick condensed milk and set over ice to cool my overheating body. They use single serving gravity dripping metal cups to make theirs here. You can’t see how full that thing is of grounds.

The highlight of being on an island is all the delicious seafood. The downside is during the weekdays so much is closed that most restaurants aren’t open and shooed us away. Many of the rest tried to serve us multiple renditions of things made with instant noodles.

We ate at our hotel restaurant a lot and they got used to us being around. They started letting us know what came in on the boats each day and even shared fruits with us. I’ve never had a rambutan cut this pretty for me!

This whole bay is beautiful. I’ll take an empty, beautiful bay over the bustling air and sound pollution of Hanoi any day.

Wikitravel is surprisingly sparse for northern Vietnam. I’ve updated the article on Quan Lan here.

These are all the websites I found with useful information about Quan Lan island:

Kvetching about Hostel World in my last post got me thinking.  I am five months into my year long (or longer) trip.  So what am I really using and what isn’t working out?  Some stuff has definitely been country or region specific.  The spice kit I desperately wanted in South America has been replaced by the chopsticks and metal soup spoon I carry around in Southeast Asia.

So here’s the list of awesome stuff:

– Wikitravel: My go to for travel information.  I cannot recommend it enough.  Like wikipedia but for travel information.  Like Wikipedia, you occasionally get some self serving bad information but overall the guides are more comprehensive and the lodging and food recommendations way better and updated.  How can travel books keep up with the internet?  I just wish it had more maps and less pictures for when I look it up on mobile.

– Unlocked smartphone with local sim cards with Skype and Google Voice: The cheapest way to stay connected.  In Thailand you can get a sim card for $1.5, minutes for less than a cent, and unlimited data for the month up to 1 gb for $13.  Skype forwarding to my local number is about 2 cents a minute.  Compare that to AT&T who charges me $25 for 50 mb of data that doesn’t even work in every country.  Easy choice.  Skype call forwarding to my international numbers costs me somewhere around $10 a year.  I also use Skype when I have wifi to call for free.  Google Voice I use so I can receive text messages for free.  The one downside is it cannot SMS to international numbers.  I’m hoping Skype or Google Voice adds this soon, I’d happily pay for that service.

– ATM card: I mentioned this in my first post of what I’m packing.  Internet banks are awesome, I haven’t been charged an atm fee anywhere.  I’ve also had less issues using most banks than people I’ve run into.  I had one fiasco where they made an expensive call to me when I withdrew a higher amount, but that has been resolved with call forwarding (see above entry).

– Friends (of friends) and strangers: Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.  As awesome as random strangers have been to me, I’m equally awed by the friends of friends who are nice to me.  People who have barely met me or never met me are incredibly generous.  Many of them have let me stay with them for days. Thanks friends, for being awesome and having welcoming friends.

– Computer, phone or tablet:  Something to connect to the abundant wifi in cheap guesthouses and hostels.  I personally prefer something I can type, but any device that can connect to wifi will allow you to keep in touch and look up useful info.  The internet is the best travel guide ever.  I have worked on the road, so the computer came in handy for that too.  The phone is the obvious multitasking choice for those packing light or who don’t e-mail much.  My phone has been more reliable for Skype for shoddy wifi connections than my computer.

– Kindle:  I love carrying a kindle instead of a heavy book.  I generally love flipping the pages of real paper but for travel purposes this has been awesome.  My previous city local libraries and free classics make getting a new book for free easy.  I appreciate being able to buy a book anywhere I can get a connection and there are many cheap options. A kindle can be used to connect to internet and e-mail but it is slow, unreliable to load, and ridiculously hard to type on.  The free 3g in many countries is nice.

– Local blogs: Although these vary in quality greatly and are often poorly organized, they are the best source of information.  Sometimes I curse as I see great websites full of information only in the native language.

– A small booklet and pen: For writing down contact information and drawing things when you can’t hand gestures what you need to a non-English speaker.  It’s super useful for communication of all kinds.

The mixed bag:

– Couch Surfing:  It was awesome in Brazil and America.  I haven’t had any luck yet in Asia.  So far I’ve had one flake, what may be a cult, and a boring guy.  It’s a bad sign when a boring guy is the best of the bunch.  I’m still optimistic.

– Lonely Planet: I’m carrying this heavy book but find I rarely use it.  It is useful for the maps of each place and for situations where I end up somewhere unexpected.  Otherwise they’ve long since outgrown their budget roots (no, I don’t want your recommended $200 hotel) and are less than useful in their recommendations.  Recommended alternative: Wikitravel.org.

The awful stuff (with recommended alternatives):

– AT&T: First and foremost, just like in America, AT&T is awful.  According to this article, I got off “easy” with a few hundred dollars worth of data charges.  I hope they enjoyed the phone calls I make every two weeks trying to get the charges reduced.  Their employees range from useless (trying to sell me the same international plan that doesn’t cover Laos or Vietnam) to friendly.  This was after their snide in store service when my phone broke on my Christmas in America. Salt in the wound was the text messages sent to ask how my service was.  Clever, AT&T, send individual texts for the questions so that you can charge someone 20 texts for a survey about your awful service.  Honestly, get a local sim and use Skype (see Skype entry).  My family feels better knowing I have an American phone number for emergencies, but it’s mostly just an expensive headache.  Their website remodel means I haven’t been able to check my international data usage in weeks.

– Hostel World: While I use this website a lot because it usually has the most cheap guesthouses and hostels, it’s rarely the cheapest option.  Also their awful web design means I can never filter my search for how much it costs for one person.  You tell the site you are looking for a room for one, and it spits out how much it costs for a private room, for a triple.  I end up having to click through to every page to really see the final cost price for one.  Awful.  Recommended alternative: booking.com or agoda.com in Asia (still awful but better prices, they often have 50% off flash sales).

– Workaway: I haven’t tried to use this again after I got zero responses in South America.  A successful workaway-er in Brazil told me that I need to approach it more like a job and e-mail at least twice with more references.  Seems like this is more for your long term 6 month or more volunteer, not the fly by the seat of your pants with a weeks notice traveler like me.  Recommended alternative: I haven’t found one yet.  Lonely Planet led to some awesome friends but no volunteering.  Wikitravel led me to good ones in Luang Prabang.

– My continued bad packing resulting in a huge, heavy pack.  I ran into my parents in Beijing and didn’t offload enough (maybe only 6 pounds or so).  I’m carrying rather heavy jeans because I like being warm and looking like a non-backpacker every once in a while despite their slow drying.  I’ve only rarely used the sleeping bag and camping towel, in instances where I didn’t necessarily need to either.  And I have yet, luckily, to need my silk sleep sheet. Or I have bad standards.  My overabundance of hygiene products (I dislike buying expensive travel portions so often) and packing for multiple climates also makes me unwieldy. Recommended alternative: don’t be me and get used to less hygiene products and needing to change clothing daily like many backpackers seem to.  I can’t get over this.

I had to sneak in one last Seoul joke.  I had a choice between a quick flight to Beijing or two train rides and a ferry.  Guess which one I chose!  I’ve taken a sleeper bus and a sleeper train.  It’s time for the sleeper ferry.  In America, ferries are small boats that take about 50 people from a short distance to another.  Nope, this was closer to a cruise ship with multiple restaurants, karaoke room, theater showing Closer (really?), and convenience store.

Like the Carnival cruise I went on once, this ferry had gaudy statues. Unlike that cruise, this was in the middle of the ship and not in the "Beauties" club and was surrounded by Asians taking pictures.

I love sailing but I don’t do so often because I suffer from awful seasickness.  Luckily this was a huge boat and I felt great the entire time.  I got into a room with 50+ bunks with curtains to give you privacy and electronic outlets.  This is way superior to the 15 or so Tatami mat rooms where everyone sleeps like sardines.  Compared to the buses and trains, this was the best sleeper option yet with the most room, but also the most expensive.  I settled in for some sea gazing in the strong cloudy wind and for lots of book reading and instant ramen.  I recommend bringing instant ramen, fruit, tea and a thermos to hold hot water for travel in sleeper trains and ferries in China.  Boiling hot water seems to be available at most bus and train stations and on most trains and ferries.

I was told as a kid to never take candy from a stranger.  We’re taught a lot of things as kids to protect us.  While on the ferry, I was across the bunk from an old Korean guy in a big old tour group.  He approached me while I was reading in my bunk and said something in Korean.  Of note, only two people the entire trip tried to talk to me in Korean, unlike everyone who thought I was Korean in Laos.  My bunk mate returned a short while later and said “I buy you ice cream!”  I politely told him no multiple times.  He sat down on his bunk, and a while later offered me what I assume was candy.  I declined this as well.  An hour or so later he came to my bunk waving two popsicles.  When I declined again, he just threw one on my stomach and walked away.  It was a wrapped Lotte brand popsicle.  I stared at it for a bit wondering what the heck to do.  Finally, my refusal to waste perfectly good ice cream won and I happily ate it.  I never saw my bunk mate face to face again as we landed the next morning, but I am thankful.  Awful things do happen but I am constantly wonderfully surprised by the random acts of kindness I receive from strangers all over the world.

Good bye Seoul, you were lovely. On the flip side, I'm on a boat!

From one cold foggy big city I landed in another, Qingdao.  My first sight was the cranes arching over rising high rise buildings, the beacon of modern China.  Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the train station at a huge magnificent European style train station.  Qingdao was occupied by Germans for a lot of the 1900s (even pre world wars) and therefore has colonial architecture and is the home of the famous Tsingtao beer.  Sadly, I did not realize Tsingtao is the best or at least representative of the quality of Chinese beer.  Sorry China, Laos has you way beat.  I don’t think I could’ve captured the charm of the city with its beaches, colonial architecture and Sea World rip off.

I only stayed a few hours before catching a high speed train to Beijing.  Although there are multiple trains a day, all the soon to leave ones were sold out of economy seats.  Given the choice between five hours in business class or seatless, I would have to say a seat sounds way  better.  The train was surprisingly non-smoking, courteous and quick.  I would recommend it.  I had originally chosen the ferry route to get some downtime to myself and it was supposed to be half as expensive.  Due to rising costs (138,000 KRW) and the unexpected train ticket addition, it ended up being the same price as the flight.  Still totally worth it and I would do it the same way all over again.