How To Overcome A Bad Travel Experience

Let’s get real for a second.

As much as we — and our bank accounts — would like to believe, travel is not always roses and sunshine. Sometimes shit happens that is out of our control, and we are forced to learn very quickly how to best deal with it.

Late last year, my friend and I spent a month traveling Southeast Asia. One of the most anticipated components of the trip was an excursion to Ha Long Bay, a much acclaimed highlight of northern Vietnam. The plan was to get picked up from our hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the early morning, shuttle to Ha Long and then spend the next 24 hours enjoying the resplendent views the bay had to offer onboard a luxury junk boat.

Doesn’t sound like a lot of room for things to go sideways, right?

Wrong.

The first foreshadowing of the misery to follow began at the ungodly hour of 7.15am when we received a phone call from reception informing us that our shuttle bus was waiting for us. As our travel agent, previous tour guides and itinerary had notified, the earliest we would be picked up was around 8am. At 7.15am, we had neither packed nor eaten and were barely unconscious. Panicked, we sprang to action throwing clothes on and stuffing belongings into suitcases. Reception rang us multiple times during this rush to warn us that the shuttle would leave without us if we didn’t get our act together.

“Hurry up.” the lady snapped in an ill-mannered tone. Well, excuse you.

We checked out and made it to the shuttle in a record five minutes (how’s that for two teenage girls?). The driver flung our luggage into the back and then pushed us towards the back seat. We buckled ourselves down and issued sincere apologies to the six other passengers, all whom returned cold looks that suggested the feeling was not mutual.

It was only once the shuttle had left Hanoi that I realised I had left all of my toiletries in the hotel room. It was fair to say that we were not off to a good start.

Our luck only worsened when the lady sitting in front of me spilt her takeaway coffee. It trickled down through her seat and into the bag at my feet. I may be a fan of Vietnamese coffee, but that enthusiasm extends to when it’s in my stomach and not all over my possessions. Frustratingly, the woman seemed more concerned with the fact that her morning coffee had met a bitter end (pun intended) than the fact that she had effectively ruined the contents of my luggage.

The drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was an ordeal in and of itself. I suffer from debilitating motion sickness and had been reassured that the drive would take a couple of hours max, only to arrive at our destination four nauseating hours later. I had never experienced a more stomach-churning journey in my life. The driver didn’t seem to understand the concept of the brake, and last night’s dinner threatened to make a reappearance. As I had also contracted an aggressive throat infection, I took codeine which mercifully knocked me out for the majority of the ride. My poor friend however was subjected to rude and unnecessary comments from the fellow tourists that left her feeling victimised and hurt. No one — not even the driver — felt the need to stick up for her or put the other tourists in their place.

When we arrived in Ha Long Bay, the driver climbed into the back of the shuttle and yelled at me in Vietnamese to wake up. Disorientated from the drugs, I stumbled with my queasy friend out of the shuttle and towards the port. I promptly received a phone call from the junk boat company where I was informed that the boat we had booked wasn’t available and that we had been switched to another. Whilst we weren’t bothered over the change of boat, we were annoyed that our original itinerary was no longer to go ahead. Activities we had looked forward to for months were cancelled and replaced with ones we would not have opted for on our own accord.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to worry about the change in itinerary. In the throes of pain, I downed a couple more codeine and passed out in our cabin for fourteen hours straight. My friend — still traumatised from the journey and interacting with the driver and fellow tourists — was relieved to have an excuse to hide in the cabin for the remainder of the voyage. We managed to sneak onto the isolated top deck before the boat docked the next day to enjoy the view and take some gorgeous photos, but for the most part, our experience was not one I recall fondly.

Reflecting on the experience, it’s easy to let the fact that we were mistreated by the driver and fellow tourists, fell very ill, had our plans cancelled without compensation and didn’t actually get to participate fully in the cruise monopolise my memory of Ha Long Bay. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to realise that I have two options: either I can remain sour and complain that the reality didn’t live up to my expectations, or I can accept that it happened and learn from the experience (ugh, I sound like my mother).

So… what good came out of the trip?

  • I experienced the unforgettable grandeur of Ha Long Bay (even if it was for half an hour when I was doped up on drugs)
  • The confidence that I can take ownership of a sticky situation when I have no one else (*cough parents cough*) to rely on
  • The knowledge that you should always pack the night before (again, my mother would be proud)
  • The ability to put a dreadful experience behind me and see it, not as a waste of money, but as a learning curve

I’ve made the decision not to name and shame the company we traveled with, partly because I also feel the other tourists were also responsible for our anxiety and partly because I can’t remember what they were called (🙈). The point that I want you to take away from this blog post is that shit can hit the fan. Ha Long Bay was supposed to be the pinnacle of our Southeast Asia trip, when in reality it was something that I could quite easily afford to forget. But what can I do?

In saying all of this, don’t let my experience taint your impression of Ha Long Bay. The destination was the redeeming feature of all of this, and I would quite happily return someday in the future (albeit privately and not through a company).

Be sure to check out my blog post — Postcards from Ha Long Bay — on the beauty of the UNESCO world heritage site!

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You Can’t Buy Happiness… But You Can Buy Vietnamese Coffee

(verb.) to delay or postpone action; put off doing something until you’ve had coffee.

As a third-year university student, I think that it is fair to say that coffee is my best friend. In saying that though, my love affair with coffee did not fully begin until I travelled to Vietnam in late 2016. I had experimented with caffeine early in the year as part of am attempt to demonstrate my transition into official adulthood, but had conceded defeat after I realised that drinking coffee was like drinking burnt charcoal. Nevertheless, it was impossible to travel around Vietnam – one of the coffee hotspots of the world – without trying the stuff.

Whilst coffee was only introduced to Vietnam in 1857 by the French, it has become one of the country’s biggest exports. In fact, Vietnam is the second-largest producer of coffee in the world! Didn’t expect that from a wee nation tucked away in Southeast Asia, did you? If you’re interested in learning more about how Vietnam transformed into one of the globe’s leading coffee giants, you might be inclined to check out this BBC article.

Vietnamese coffee is prepared by coarsely grinding Robusta beans through a French drip filter known as a phin. While the beans are weighted down, hot water is added and slowly trickles down through the phin into the cup. Voila! It’s as simple as that.

Whilst I do not consider myself a caffeine expert by any means, I do enjoy a bit of good old fashioned research, and the consensus is clear: Vietnamese coffee is some of the best coffee in the world. What makes Vietnamese coffee — or ca phe, as it is called — so iconic is its incorporation of sweetened condensed milk. Think think and dreamy with “notes of nuttiness” to throw your tastebuds into a stimulated frenzy. I’m not going to lie; condensed milk certainly provides a helpful hand for developing an appreciation for coffee for those who are put off by the traditional bitter taste. This is especially convenient in this case, as the Vietnamese like their coffee strong.

One of the reasons I decided to visit Vietnam — or Southeast Asia in general — was the low cost of travel there. Consistent with this, you will not find yourself emptying your pockets to purchase a cup of joe. Depending on the quality of the Robusta beans and the overall price of the venue, you’ll probably find yourself forking out between 20,000 – 70,000 Vietnamese dong for a glass. This roughly approximates to NZD$1.25 – $4.40 (or USD$0.90 – $3.00).

How to Make Vietnamese-Style Iced Coffee

Ingredients

22g of finely ground medium-dark coffee

140ml of hot water

30ml of sweetened condensed milk

100g of ice (crushed or cubed)

Method

1. Pour the condensed milk into a glass to line the base of the cup

2. Load a stainless steel phin with the coffee grounds

3. Place the coffee-laden phin on top of the glass

4. Wet the coffee in the filter with 20 ml of hot water

5. Pour another 120ml of hot water over the coffee grounds

6. Wait approximately 8-10 minutes until all of the water has drained through

5. Mix the coffee with condensed milk and enjoy!

Which country do you think produces the best coffee? Share your thoughts, and I’ll be sure to put it up to the taste test when I travel there! Furthermore, if you are intrigued by the different foods and drinks cultures have to offer, you might want to check out my blog post on 5 Foods That Will Make You Go WTF (and 5 Foods That Won’t) 👌

All photos sourced from unplash.com

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Everything You Need To Know About Tailoring in Hoi An

Tailoring in Southeast Asia is vast and world-renowned, although perhaps nowhere as much as Hoi An. Hoi An – a small town in central Vietnam – is known for many beautiful things, among which include a thriving tailor industry. Over 700 tailors reside here, with the trade often existing generations upon generations back within a single family.

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts from Southeast Asia, you’ll know that I am unapologetically suspicious of anything that doesn’t quite stack up. So when I discovered how little it cost to get six items of clothing made at various tailors across town, I was skeptical about the quality of the garments I would be receiving. Yet after doing some research, I was quickly reassured that I would not be sacrificing quality for price. The low prices are attributed to the low cost of living (and consequently wages) in Southeast Asia.

In saying that, you should always be vigilant of tailors that are prepared to rip you off. Despite the cost of tailoring in Southeast Asia being low, there are still those that will try and sell you inferior fabric or overcharge for substandard service. Although I didn’t encounter any tailors that I was unsatisfied with, I have heard from a handful of travellers that there is an outrageous number of tailors who actually do not produce garments in their own shops.

If you are being accompanied by a tour guide, be wary that they may take you to certain tailors regardless of their quality of service simply because they receive a commission. This happened to me thanks to one shady tour guide, but luckily the tailor we ended up at was absolutely superb 👌

So how can you tell which tailor to invest in? Unfortunately, simply consulting TripAdvisor won’t always suffice. Tailors often pay companies to remove negative reviews and replace them with fake positive ones for the sake of improving business. Instead, I recommend engaging in some good old fashioned research. If you have the luxury of time, go exploring and investigate the different tailors on offer in Hoi An. If you have a particular design in mind, keep an eye out for tailors with fabrics to cater to your needs. Not all tailors have an abundance of materials on hand, so if you are looking for something special such as leather or chiffon, it pays to do your homework in advance. Furthermore, inquire about the experience of the tailors. Generally speaking, there is a reliable correlation between years in the industry and service satisfaction.

The Tailoring Process

  1. You walk into the tailor shop (without a reservation)
  2. You decide on the design(s) you would like madeA question I often receive is whether you need a preconceived idea in mind of what you would like made. There is no right or wrong answer to this; you can either bring a picture of a garment you would like made or you can collaborate with the tailor to create a design using their ideas. I myself have experimented with each option and have been ecstatic with the results of both (if not more so with the collaborated design).
  3. Your measurements are recorded with photographs taken if need be
  4. You will be required to make a deposit on your orderIn my experience, this is typically 50% of the total price. In return, you will receive an itemised receipt as proof of order.
  5. You will return for your first fitting where you will try on unfinished garments
  6. The tailor will make chalk marks and/or insert pins where changes need to be made to ensure the clothing is the right sizeThis step may be repeated a number of times depending on how long it takes to get the perfect fit. This generally depends on the difficulty of the design and the fabric used.
  7. Once the garment(s) are all finished, you will return for the final fittingReaching this final part of the process can take from between a few hours to a few days. When you are satisfied, you will pay what the deposit did not cover and the tailor will package your purchase in plastic sleeves.

Bonus Tips and Tricks

☞ Capitalise on the fact that they are tailors!

So you want an A-line skirt. Fantastic! But why are you traveling halfway across the world to buy one? The whole idea of tailoring is to order something original, so make the most of the opportunity.

☞ Be flexible!

As I mentioned above, not all tailors have the materials you may specifically request. To ensure you will be happy with the final product, endeavour to entertain all ideas and avoid a fixed mindset.

☞ “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”

Cheesy proverb aside, if you are utilising the service of a tailor, it is only fair that you reciprocate. A little positive feedback on Tripadvisor goes a long way for small businesses (if you are satisfied with the experience, of course). This is especially the case as tourists rely on such means to finalise their itinerary. Tailors will also give you their business cards so that you don’t forget their name, and won’t be subtle in their hints for you to leave a good word or two on their social networks.

I visited a variety of different tailors in Hoi An, but perhaps my favourite was Two Ladies. There, I had the most stunning forest-green coat with a satin lining made that makes me feel somewhat like a Tolkien elf. I brought a similar style back home in New Zealand about a year previously on sale, where the original retail price was NZD$900 (approximately USD$630). In Hoi An, I paid around NZD$50 for the new coat (approximately USD$35) and — although I’m no couture expert — I am convinced that the quality of the latter is far superior.

The ‘Deats

Name: Two Ladies

Location: 71 Tran Hung Dao, Hoi An, Vietnam

Contact: +84 510 3928 123

TripAdvisor: Two Ladies Tailor Shop

Facebook: Two Ladies Tailor

Have you ever visited Hoi An for some unique retail therapy? What tailor(s) would you recommend to future travellers?

All photos sourced from unsplash.com

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This Is Why I Travel

During a philosophy class last semester, I stumbled across a particular term: a posteriori. It means to know something through experience. And as it happens, a posteriori is how I would describe my knowledge of the number one reason I travel.

If you had asked me four months ago why I traveled, the answer to that question would have been simple; I travel to meet new people, to explore new places, to try new food and to learn new things. Whilst that answer isn’t necessarily wrong, there is another reason that now tops that list. I cannot think of one word to describe it; all I know is that I only discovered it through experience.
There we were – my friend and I – strolling through central Hanoi during a walking tour. We had just exited the Ho Chi Minh Museum when suddenly a couple of Vietnamese children who couldn’t have been more than five years old ran smack bang into us. One wrapped his arms around my legs and clung to me like a limpet. I had to shoot my arms out to capture my balance.

“I’m so sorry!” a woman apologised, descending upon us and peeling the child from my legs. My friend and I laughed and reassured her that it was no worries. We made to leave when the woman caught my arm and asked us a question. I didn’t quite catch her properly, but gathered that she was wondering if we would be interested in taking a quick English class with the children. My friend and I exchanged nervous glances; we were predisposed to be wary of scams or getting roped into something dodgy that would result in some form of payment – let’s be realistic, this was Southeast Asia – but in the end our manners got the better of us and we let her drag us across the bridge and to a square where the rest of the group were.

It turned out that she was the teacher of a class of about thirty students from an international language school. The children were all around the age of five and were wearing matching uniforms. I’ll never forget the way their faces lit up when my friend and I walked over. There was another teacher, and she and the first woman divided the children into two different groups and then allocated my friend and I to a class each.

I was given a set of A4 laminated cards, each with different pictures on them, and instructed to ask questions related to the content. The children would then answer in English to practice their language skills. For example, I might hold up a card with an illustration of kids playing outside in a playground, and ask how many ducks were swimming in the pond, or what colour the monkey bars were. The children would collectively shout out the correct answers in perfect English.

The feeling I got from being a part of this short yet valuable activity really made an impact on me. I got a rush of adrenaline every time the children got the answer right and cheered. The teacher asked if they could take a picture with me, and they all scrambled to stand next to me. I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as fifteen pairs of tiny hands reached out to hold mine as we posed for the camera.

In that moment, I knew. I knew that this was why I traveled. I don’t just travel for the people, the places or the food. I travel for those small, unexpected moments where you’re pinching yourself to make sure you’re awake. I travel for those rewarding experiences that inspire you to flip your life upside down. I travel for the exuberance and utter joy that was on those children’s faces as I took my English class that day in the middle of the bustling Hanoi square. I knew very well that for those children, the memory of the girl with the red hair who asked them about ducks and monkey bars would fade in time, but what mattered was the impression I made in those few short minutes.

I travel for the times where – after rendering myself broke to afford a trip – I feel like the richest person on the planet.

All photos of Vietnam sourced from unsplash.com

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Riding a Water Buffalo in Vietnam

There are many things you can do in Vietnam. You can swim in Ha Long Bay, you can crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels, and… you can ride a water buffalo.

When I saw ‘Ride a Water Buffalo’ on my trip itinerary, I didn’t quite know what to think. So far, we had stuck to the conventional tourist activities you might see topping lists on TripAdvisor. But hey – I was up for anything!

Our travel agent hooked us up with a company called Jack Tran Tours, an environmentally-friendly family-run business in Hoi An, central Vietnam. Their mission is to expose travellers to the traditional Vietnamese culture and encourage them to engage with the local people.

And so it was that one drizzly morning, we hopped on the Jack Tran bus and were driven to where we would embark on our tour. After donning some sexy disposable waterproof ponchos, we were each assigned a bicycle which we were to cycle through a patchwork quilt of rice fields to our final destination.

We had only a rudimentary idea of what we in for. After a meet and greet with the lovely Spanish couple also in our tour group, we were introduced to the real star of the show: the water buffalo.

Having ridden an elephant in Thailand only days early, I was extremely anxious to dive headfirst into the action. As soon as our tour guide – a bubbling ray of sunshine called Yen – asked who would volunteer to ride it first, my hand shot up faster than lightening.

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Water Buffalos

  1. They are typically found throughout Asia, although also in places such as Australia, Turkey, Italy and Egypt as well.
  2. They are used (among other things) for ploughing and other forms of labor; although they have been replaced by tractors in many parts of the world, they are still used in Southeast Asia for tilling rice fields.
  3. Although they are more expensive than cattle, they are favoured by rice farmers because they are stronger and ideal for working in deep mud due to large hoofs and flexible foot joints.
  4. They spend a majority of the day submerged in water to maintain a stable body temperature.
  5. They can grow to 2650 pounds and 10 feet tall.

If the water buffalo was even aware of me climbing clumsily onto his back, then it didn’t feel the urge to show it. The first thing that struck me was how it’s bones jutted out from it’s skin, and how it lazily rocked side to side as it ambled onto the rice paddies.

As one of the richest agricultural countries, Vietnam – after Thailand – is the largest exporter of rice in the world. It is also the seventh-largest consumer of rice.

Perhaps the highlighting of the experience aside from riding a water buffalo was sifting rice. This is one of the latter parts of the farming process that requires sieving harvested, dried and pounded rice kernels in a flat basket to separate the loose husks.

As you will observe below, my friend and I had varying levels of success.

This was definitely one of the experiences that has stuck with me long after I returned from Vietnam. There’s just something about sitting and looking like an echidna on the back of a water buffalo and stomping through muddy rice paddies barefoot.
If you are passing through Hoi An, I strongly recommend you take the time to pay the team at Jack Tran Tours a visit and book yourself in for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not only will you gain insight into the underrated process of rice farming in Vietnam, but you will receive the epic opportunity to ride a water buffalo. Make sure you ask for your tour guide to be Yen; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as vivacious and charismatic in my life.

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Postcards from Ha Long Bay

Perhaps one of the most recognisable sights in Southeast Asia is Ha Long Bay. Located on the northeast coast of Vietnam, the bay is a bumpy 3.5 hour drive from the capital city of Hanoi. The vastness of the UNESCO heritage site quite literally took my breath away. With a name that translates to ‘Bay of the Descending Dragon’, Ha Long Bay spans an impressive area of 334km² and is populated by 1,600 monolithic islands made of limestones and hollowed by beautiful grottos. Some of these islands are even believed to be over 20,000,000 years old. Upon the glassy water, junk boats spread their sails like amber wings and fisherman cast their neats over floating villages.

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If you liked these photos, you might also be interested in checking out my 2016 Vietnam Travel Vlog on my Youtube Channel. 0:43 is where the Ha Long Bay magic happens!

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Vlog: Vietnam Edition

It’s that time of the day again, when I’m scrambling to my laptop to write and publish the day’s blog post before midnight. I always swear I’m going to be prepared and proactive and draft my posts before it gets to crunch time, but something always gets in the way. That ‘something’ is usually ‘excuses’. Sigh.

Anyhow. Time for round two of the vlogs! This time, I have condensed two weeks of my Vietnamese adventures into two and a half minutes of highly-edited, explosive footage. Okay, so maybe it’s not as Spielberg-esque as I’m making it out to be, but the sentiment is there.

Out of all of the countries in Southeast Asia that I visited on my last trip, Vietnam was unquestionably my favourite. I guess there’s just something about crawling on your stomach through war-torn tunnels, and trying to cross a five-way intersection whilst motorbikes hurtle full-speed at your small, defenceless body that leaves a lasting impression on you. Obviously the Vietnam experience extends beyond that, but those were definitely some of the things I think every tourist should prioritise when they book their tickets.

The five places within Vietnam featured in this vlog are (in order of appearance): Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Note all the H’s. Hanoi was my absolute highlight of the trip; I can’t way to share my experience of staying in the Old Quarter in a future blog post. Hoi An takes out the award for the prettiest town, with streets decked with lanterns and fabrics that create a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. I doubt I have to convince you of the beauty of Ha Long Bay, and Ho Chi Minh City was quite possibly the best history lesson I have ever had in my life. More on all of these enchanting places later, but if I’ve peaked your interests, then I invite you to view my 2016 Travel Vlog for Vietnam on my YouTube channel.

What was your favourite part of Vietnam? I found myself drawn to the north, but maybe that’s because I thrive in colder weather (cheers, New Zealand). Would love to hear your thoughts!

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