Taking it Easy in Christchurch

Arriving back in Christchurch after doing a loop of the South Island, it was time to commit to a plan for the rest of my time in New Zealand. The original plan was to ski the club ski fields at Broken River or a similar field near Christchurch, however due to the poor snow conditions in New Zealand this year the fields weren’t even open yet. The mountains outside Queenstown had plenty of snow, and spending more time in Queenstown sounded like good fun, so I decided to ski down south.

In the meantime, Jucy had a relocation deal from Christchurch to Auckland that was too good for me to resist. They needed their RVs relocated back to Auckland and were willing to pay the (expensive) ferry ride for vehicle, and toss in a tank of gas. They allow four days to travel to Auckland, so plenty of time to check out a few cities and mountains along the way, and free accommodations camping in the vehicle at night. I reserved a car to pickup on Monday morning, as that was the first day I could get a ferry reservation.


I had four days to enjoy in Christchurch with Emma and Brendan before heading up north. Thursday was supposed to be a beautiful day, so Emma and I went up to Mount Hutt to enjoy some skiing in the sunshine. Unfortunately Hutt has almost no snow this year, but they have been able to make enough snow to keep the groomers open and they softened up nicely in the sunshine.

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After an enjoyable day in the mountains we headed back to town, and I decided to cook up a winter classic for the Kiwis: chili and cornbread. Emma and I went off to the store and had some difficultly finding corn meal or corn bread mix, until Emma thought to check the gluten free section. Sure enough, thanks to the rise of gluten free products, you can now purchase corn bread mix in New Zealand! The rest of the chili supplies gathered we headed back home and I set to cooking. The chili dinner turned out great, with the cornbread being particularly popular.

The next day was another sunny one so Emma and I went to the local golf course to play a few holes. Unfortunately at this point it was clear that I was sick, so we didn’t stay out too long and I rested for the remainder of the day. Emma was flying up to Hamilton for the weekend so it was just Brendan and I holding down the house. I still wasn’t feeling 100% so I mostly relaxed, and spent time sorting out various logistical details I had been ignoring. We had a lovely dinner on Saturday evening at Brendan’s sister’s house in Christchurch, and then Sunday I packed my gear and prepared to head north.


The Kiwis love their savory pies, and I have been eating them at every opportunity. We had plenty of chili leftovers, so Brendan decided to apply the standard New Zealand technique of putting your leftovers in a pie. It turns out that pie makers are a thing here: think of a panini press but with two little pie cups inside, so you just put the crust in the shapes, fill, and roast. Ten minutes later you have perfect pies! The chili cheese pies were fantastic, I might need a pie maker back home.



Milford Sound and Mount Cook

Fred and I got an early start and drove out towards Milford Sound. The sound isn’t far from Queenstown as the crow flies, but the road has to loop all the way around a set of mountains so it is 300 kilometers from Queenstown to the sound. There are many photo stops and short hikes along the road so we wanted plenty of time. We had a great view of the mountains as the sun rose.

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Milford Sound is a giant glacial valley carved out during the last ice age, and it only gets more impressive as you drive through. There are massive mountains with waterfalls cascading down from their glaciers to the green valley below.

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We picked up a hitchhiker along the way, a Canadian who was spending the night in Milford Sound. The three of us continued onwards, stopping at Mirror Lakes which were every bit as reflective as the name suggests.

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The Kea is this crazy alpine parrot they have in New Zealand, and the birds love to play with different materials. When you park your car they will start picking at the rubber gaskets, or any shiny portions they can reach. They certainly aren’t afraid of humans at this point and you have to chase them away. These Keas were hanging out on our car as we waited our turn through the one-way tunnel.

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We finally made it to the end of the road and discussed taking one of the boat trips, but they were all expensive. Also, Fred had done the boat trip in the past, so I decided to skip. Instead we did a nice hike around the Sound to where you could see the giant waterfall across the water.

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After enjoying the views we started the drive back, and stopped at a few more points we had skipped on the way out. Milford Sound was incredibly beautiful, it reminded me of the fjords in Norway with the huge mountains reaching all the way to the sea, covered in waterfalls.

My original plan was to leave Queenstown on this day instead of heading to Milford Sound, so I had to search all around to find an available hostel for the night. Luckily Reavers had a bed available so I was able to move there for the evening.

I got up the next morning and hitchhiked out to the airport to pick up the rent car I was relocating back to Christchurch. It was snowing more so I decided to head back up to the Remarkables to ski for the afternoon. I didn’t want to buy a ticket so I hiked up the old fashioned way, and got a great run down the chutes above Shadow chair. It was a complete white-out up top so I just followed the boot prints hiking and was able to find a good run, and then somehow found my way back to the resort.

After the skiing was finished I got cleaned up in town and grabbed dinner from The Bakery. They make amazing meat pies, and everything goes buy-one-get-one at 5 PM, so I got two pies for under 5 NZD! Fueled up and ready to hit the road I headed to Wanaka, another ski town not too far north of Queenstown.

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I stayed at the Flying Kiwi Backpackers in Wanaka which had a fun group of folks, most of who were spending the ski season in town. It was a good night hitting the town with them, the bar had a great band playing and was surprisingly lively for a Tuesday night.

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The next morning I headed out of Wanaka to drive towards Mount Cook and eventually Christchurch. It was a nice drive through the center of the south island, with some great views along the way. I did a hike along Lake Tekapo and really enjoyed the crazy blue color of the lake.

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I made it to Christchurch around dinner time and met up with Emma and Brendan, the Kiwis I had met in Queenstown. They have a spare bedroom at their place so they let me crash for the weekend until I head up towards Auckland.

I Love Queenstown

I arrived in Queenstown late at night so I didn’t see the city until I woke up the next morning. When I exited my hostel and looked around, I immediately fell in love. Queenstown is set directly on Lake Wakatipu, and is absolutely surrounded by mountains. There are multiple ski hills within a short drive, mountain biking trails directly down to town, and every high-adrenaline sport you could ever want. Also the best night life in New Zealand: every night in Queenstown is a party (if you can keep up).

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I was lucky to even find a bed in Queenstown as it turns out. I generally hate booking ahead as I like to keep my plans flexible, so I didn’t look for beds in Queenstown until the day before I arrived. However, I was in shock when HostelWorld returned zero beds available in the city! I started desperately searching different booking websites and looking at individual hostel websites until I finally found availability at the Haka Lodge, the hostel had great reviews so I booked it right away. When I checked in at the hostel I learned the full story: apparently I set the new record for someone to book a cancelled reservation, someone had cancelled that bed two minutes before I pulled up their website and found it! Currently it is the mid-winter holidays in New Zealand and Australia so it is absolutely peak season here, but apparently Queenstown is always this busy.

The trail towards my final goal: Ben Lomond Peak in the back center.

After returning my rent car I headed to the tourism office to ask about good (free) activities for the day. The woman mentioned a beautiful hike up to the saddle of Ben Lomond, or the peak if you were willing to work for it. I gathered my gear and headed up the mountain. The first section you could take the gondola, but I figured 45 minutes of work to save myself $35 of beer money was worth it! The views from the gondola were already lovely, but from there the trail turned to snow and ice so it was time for the microspikes and trekking poles.

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I shared the trail up with some short and chubby mountain goats

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Looking back at Queenstown from the top of Ben Lomond

I was pretty exhausted by the peak, but it was a perfect day and a fabulous view. I was only able to snap a few photos because my iPhone kept shutting off due to the cold temperatures up top.

I finished the hike down before dark, got cleaned up, and then treated myself to a Furgburger, the famous hamburger joint in Queenstown. The burger and onion rings were excellent after the hard day, and refueled it was time to check the bars. There is a great place that was recommended to me called Cowboys. It has a mechanical bull, 10 NZD liters, and a life-sized bust of Donald Trump in the urinal trough. I met an American woman at the bar who made them shut the bathroom down so she could take a turn at Donald.

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Who hasn’t wanted to piss on Donald Trump?


I had the good luck to meet Emma and Brendan at Cowboys, two Kiwis from Christchurch visiting some friends in Queenstown for the weekend. I had a great evening out with them and made plans to meet up when I got back to Christchurch.

After the late night out there was no sleep in the morning, because there was 20 cm of fresh snow at the Remarkables, and more falling throughout the day. After hauling a pile of ski equipment around the south island, it was time to finally put it to use. The bus to the mountain costs 20 NZD, but it only took a few minutes on the side of the road to hitch a ride up to the resort.

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When I reached the hill the conditions were near-whiteout, and the avalanche danger considerable, so my plans to ski the backcountry were quickly abandoned and I bought a lift pass. It was great to see snow again and the conditions were quite good. In the afternoon the chutes a 15 minute hike above the Shadow chair opened up and I had two great laps up there. On my second lap I ran into a group of instructors getting some laps after their lessons, and they were nice enough to show me a few good runs at the end of the day. After doing another hike with them I was thoroughly exhausted, and as it was closing time I hitched a ride back to town with a nice Australian family; my payment for the ride was showing them how to put chains on the car.

That night I was making dinner at the hostel and met Fred in the kitchen, an Australian here on a holiday. He was planning to head to Milford Sound the next day in his rent car. After a quick discussion about plans and confirming the forecast, we made plans to meet up early the next morning.

Driving the East Coast

Since the snow season in New Zealand was off to a terrible start, I decided to tour around the South Island while I waited for the snow to fall. The car rental companies in NZ have these amazing car relocation deals where you get a free rent car and a free tank of gas to move cars around the country, so I was able to find a free car from Christchurch to Queenstown. I had three days to move my Jucy El Cheapo relocation, so I decided to tour the east coast through Akaroa, Timaru, Oamaru, and Dunedin on the way to Queenstown.

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My first stop was Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, a quaint French village on the New Zealand coast. On a midweek day during the winter this town is mostly asleep, but I enjoyed a short walk along the shore and a bit of hiking through some fields before moving along. I also grabbed a car USB charger from the store in town as I quickly realized my phone wasn’t going to last the day running Google maps as I drove around New Zealand.

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Sunrise from my camping spot in Timaru.

I made it to Timaru after dark and decided to freedom camp at one of the coastal sites available there. I had my sleeping bag to stay warm, and the seat in the rent car reclined enough to make for a comfy seat. I had picked up food on the way out of Christchurch so I had plenty of sandwich supplies for dinner, and sacked out for the night. As you can see, the El Cheapo rent car is exact that: an old Nissan Sunny with over 270,000 kilometers on the clock. It drove like crap and burned way more fuel than it should, but for the price I shouldn’t complain too much.

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The next morning I headed down the coast to Oamaru where my first stop was the excellent Steam Punk Headquarters. This is a museum/art installation focused entirely on steam punk creations and was full of fun surprises. Particularly fun was the “time machine” which locked you in a small room and put on a boundless light show for two minutes. They also had plenty of great creatures made out of all types of machines and parts.

I dropped in on the NZ Malt Whisky Company and tried a sip, but concluded the bottles were way to costly for what you were getting. After that I had a nice walk of the historic downtown area and the large gardens in town: I’m learning that every town and city in New Zealand has a large garden, I didn’t realize how British everything is here.

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The next stop down the coast is a unique rock formation called Moeraki Boulders. These are old volcanic rocks that have been exposed by coastal erosion and rounded by the sea. They have a neat crystalline pattern on the surface from how they formed, and some have split open like a cracked egg. It was great fun watching folks posing for pictures with the rocks and getting caught by an incoming wave they didn’t see 😉

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Everyone Kiwi that I talked to about driving the east coast said I had to stop for a meal at Fleur’s Place, so after the boulders I headed that direction. I had a lovely walk around the coast line, complete with sea lions basking in the sunshine, and then had a fabulous fresh blue cod lunch at Fleur’s. Apparently Fleur has her own fishing quota, so she has the fisherman catch on her behalf and deliver directly to the restaurant daily. The ocean surrounding you on three sides and the fishing boats bobbing out in the bay really sent the fresh message home.

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I might have eaten half the plate before I remembered to take a picture.

I took the scenic route down the coast the rest of the way to Dunedin, and made my home at Geeky Gecko Backpackers for the night. Dunedin is apparently known as Little Edinburgh and the Scottish influence shows heavily on the buildings downtown. It is also the home of Otago University, so there is a large student population in town. I found a great little bar in the evening with live guitar music and some nice Kiwis, and as I was headed home I got to enjoy the spectacle of all the university students as they headed to the clubs to dance the night away.

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I spent the morning in Dunedin handling boring logistical details while I had quality internet available, and then exploring the Otago museum in town I headed out to the Otago Peninsula. It was a beautiful drive out along the top of the peninsula, and I made a nice stop at Sandfly Bay. Here you can hike down to the beach and enjoy a nice walk along the coast, as long as you don’t mind sharing the beach with plenty of Sea Lions.

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At nightfall I went to the Albatross Center at the end of the Otago peninsula to watch the Blue Penguins come ashore. The Blue Penguin is the smallest penguin, only 20-30 cm tall, and sleep on the beach every night. We had to wait on the platform while being buffeted with massive cold winds for the penguins to eventually decide it was time to return, but then we got to watch 15 or so of them work their way out of the surf, carefully through the rocks on the beach, and finally scamper into their dens for the night. The penguins were every bit as cute as you would expect a tiny penguin to be, and they were only a few feet away so you had a great view of the entire show.

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This was the best picture I could manage of the penguins running up the path to their dens in the low light.

After that concluded it was time for the late night drive to Queenstown as I had to return the rent car early the next morning.

Christchurch, New Zealand

My first morning in Christchurch wasn’t as restful as I had hoped as the standard checkout time in New Zealand is apparently 10 AM. After quickly packing out of my hotel room I got a cheap Uber to move myself and my pile of luggage across town to the Kiwi Basecamp Backpackers. The hostel was perfectly nice, and included fresh baked bread and jam for breakfast every morning. In a trend that repeated itself at many of the hostels I’ve stayed at, many of the residents at the Basecamp were long-term guests on work visas. I’m not sure if this is always the case in New Zealand, or if there are just less visiting backpackers in New Zealand during the winter.

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After finishing my move I spend the afternoon walking around Christchurch, and it was immediately clear how much of the city is still devastated from the 2011 earthquake. The only old buildings you see are boarded up and abandoned, with new buildings and construction everywhere. The huge cathedral in the center of town is missing an entire wall, and they still don’t know if they will ever be able to repair it. There is a temporarily cathedral that was built a few blocks away and uses a mixture of shipping containers, simple steel structure, and cardboard tubes instead of wood for decorative siding.

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The Re:Start mall is one of the more popular post-quake sites: a shopping mall built out of shipping containers. It was a very nice place for lunch with plenty of outdoor seating, food trucks, and an excellent guitar player in the courtyard. One of the few things in Christchurch to survive the earthquake was the botanical gardens, so I spent a lovely afternoon walking around the gardens. The Canterbury museum also made a pleasant stop after my walk through the park.

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In the evening I met up with two other folks from the hostel for a nice dinner. The plan was to go to Pedro’s House of Lamb, a to-go place that just serves lamb and potatoes. However, when we arrived they were already sold out for the day, so we had a tasty Thai meal nearby. After a fun evening hanging out with them I wished them the best on their trip, and packed up to leave Christchurch the next morning.

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I woke up to the most amazing sunrise from the hostel kitchen in Christchurch. One benefit of winter here: sunrise isn’t until 8 AM so you don’t have to wake up early to enjoy it!


Spending the Summer in New Zealand

After a great 6 weeks in the states visiting friends and family it was time to head out again. The summer weather in Seattle was just too nice and warm, so I grabbed a ticket to New Zealand to be a ski bum for the winter. Since Amanda started a job back in Seattle I’m traveling Kiwi-land by myself for the next 7 weeks; I guess the blog needs to be renamed In Solo I Travel.

Getting to New Zealand is quite the journey, flying from Seattle to LA, then to Sydney, and finally to Christchurch, NZ. I had an 8 hour layover in LA, but a college roommate who lives in LA was throwing a party at his place that day, so it actually worked out great. I grabbed a bus from the airport to Hollywood and spend the afternoon hanging with Kevin and his friends in LA.


I grabbed the last bus back to LAX and caught my 11 PM flight from LA to Sydney. 15 hours later I finally made it down under, and it was time for a 12 hour layover. Since I had never been to Sydney before I caught the train into town and spent the entire day walking around the harbor, downtown, the gardens, and anything else of interest I could find. It was a cloudy and somewhat rainy day, but it was still nice to explore the city. The bridge and opera house are every bit as beautiful as you would expect, and the gardens surrounding the harbor are also quite nice.


I finally found some reasonably priced food courts downtown, although as far as I can tell the Australian diet consists entirely of Asian food. This entire food court had nothing but Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, and Malay restaurants. I ended up getting a delicious soup from this hopping Malay place, although I had to visit an ATM first as they only took cash. I also grabbed a meat pie at one point in the afternoon for a snack which I was greatly enjoying until one of the million seagulls surrounding the harbor grabbed the pie out of my hand and ran off with it. I’ve always hated seagulls, but I’ve never seen one so brave as to steal food you are holding in your hand.


While exploring Sydney the realities of July being winter really hit me when I came across multiple winter festivals in town. It is currently mid-winter break for Australian schools, so there were ice rinks and snowball fights setup all around town. It wasn’t really that cold, but in Sydney they make the most of the winter they get.

After exploring all the way from the Botanical Garden to Darling Harbor, it was time to head back to the airport. I was carrying my avalanche airbag backpack on the plane and someone at security finally started asking questions about the odd canister showing up on the Xray machine. After a while of talking and explaining to security they let me through, but notified the airline personnel at the gate so I got to go through the entire process again with them. Eventually everyone was convinced that a depressurized canister is allowed on an airplane and I was able to head to New Zealand. Thankfully this plane was mostly empty and I had an entire row to lay on the sleep.

I landed in New Zealand after midnight and my plan had been to sleep in the airport, however it turns out the Christchurch airport doesn’t allow people to sleep overnight. Due to the late hour I had to find a hotel with a 24 hour reception, and thankfully was able to find a place that wasn’t too expensive for the night. With that I finally got a solid sleep after 40+ hours of traveling and sleeping only on airplanes.

Vietnam by Moto Days 35-39: Adventures in NE Vietnam, or the road so bad I cried

In the morning, we rolled out of Cat Ba with the Seattle guys (Alex, AJ and Taylor) and caught the 9 am ferry over to the mainland. The uneventful journey hit a snag just after a refueling stop on the outskirts of Halong City. Pulling out of the gas station, Taylor’s back wheel fell off. Apparently, the threads on the rear axle bolt were stripped, and the nut finally fell off. Luckily he managed to keep the bike upright and come out of it physically unscathed. As with any town in Vietnam, you’re never far from a mechanic so a few minutes walk down a hill and we had ourselves a repair team. Taylor watched them do the repair while the rest of us enjoyed the coffee shop next door. The mechanics had to put on a new back wheel since the hub was broken when the wheel fell off. Reassembling the bike, the mechanic tried to put on the bad bolt but we insisted he go procure a new one for the extra repair cost of <$1. About a couple hours later, the bike was ready to go and everyone except Taylor was well caffeinated.  The final damage was remarkably less than expected: around $15. The Seattle guys had all purchased their bikes together so to prevent any unfairness over inequality in bike condition, they agreed to split repair costs for the bikes equally. They paid $200 each for their bikes and definitely had many more issues than we did.


Taylor’s bike lost its back wheel leaving a gas station. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt and there was a mechanic nearby.

Back on the road, the rest of the day was a pretty chill ride to Lang Son, a town in NE Vietnam close to the Chinese border. This proximity meant a good deal of truck traffic when we joined the main highway from Hanoi near the end of the day. The pavement had buckled under the weight of all the cargo so side to side movement on the road meant avoiding huge wheel ruts.

Arriving in Lang Son, we split up to scope a few hotels and ended up at the third one.  When the guys joined us, they also had picked up two Australians on bikes that had passed us earlier in the day, so we had a good group at Sao Mai Hotel, which had a room with a ping pong table that was nice for a quiet evening.  We had read about a night market, but failed to find it despite wandering around for awhile. It took us really long time to find restaurants with people eating dinner. Finally sitting down at a popular one, we struggled to order, but eventually managed a few plates of great fried rice, a chicken and some beef with greens. Drinking like the locals, we also got a bottle of the Mens vodka (~$3-4). The tables come set with a collection of shot glasses. On the way back to the hotel, we passed bakery row and picked up a selection of cake slices and cream puffs for $0.50 to $1.

The next day’s drive wasn’t too long, so we left town around 10 am after some leisurely banh cuon, a Vietnamese breakfast food that’s like a crepe made with rice noodle dough. They can just come with minced pork or can be filled with an egg. The banh cuon is then dipped in a broth with herbs and more minced pork that you doctor up with garlic, chili paste, soy and fish sauce. So good! We’d have this for breakfast a few more mornings in the north as it’s quite popular. This version in Lang Son was my favorite.  The road on this day started out on the same highway for a bit, but thankfully the truck traffic died down after most of them took the road to the Chinese border. The scenery became more impressive as the day wore on, the mountains growing with every mile.

Usually, we don’t expect much from lunch on the road besides some cheap sustenance, however, our food karma was in full force today. Yesterday, we landed at a market with tasty sandwiches and a super friendly fruit seller who chopped us delicious mangoes and pineapples. Today, we pulled off at a duck noodle soup restaurant way past local lunch time. The proprietor asked how many then spend off on her motorbike to get supplies at the market. She soon returned and cooked us up huge steaming bowls of amazing noodle soup with duck. Even a couple local guys came in for a bowl around the same time. Then, the market next door sold us ice cream for only 3,000 vnd ($0.13).  Definitely one of the better lunch stops of the trip.

In Cao Bang, we found rooms in a hotel alongside the river. The market was only a few blocks away and restaurants abounded everywhere. There were a few other tourist floating around, but those were mainly on guided trips. This was one of my favorite small town stops – just enough tourists that we weren’t attractions ourselves and that there was some English in some places. We ate extremely well here with the markets, bakeries and plethora of restaurants nearby. Coffee at the riverside cafe next to our hotel became a morning institution. Two nights we ate a pizza place in town which served pretty good pies at reasonable prices as well as sizzling steak and egg plates. The bakeries provided desserts and sandwiches for lunches on the go. The markets offered freshly cut pineapple and other fruits.

We were prepared to spend two nights in Cao Bang with a day trip in the middle to visit the Ben Gioc Waterfall. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Rob and I ended up there for four nights instead.

I didn’t feel great when we arrived so I called it a night very early while Rob grabbed dinner with everyone (Seattle and Aussie guys). Turns out that they went to a com (pick a dish served with rice and soup) restaurant and the Aussies tried to talk the owner into free beer. The owner gave them a pile of shallots to peel and made them earn their drinks.

Our first morning, we set out to visit the waterfall with the guys deciding to tackle the ride as a lollipop loop that the Vietnam Coracle described on his webpage. The highway portion of the lollipop stem was beautiful. We passed a village of blacksmiths where each house had a display of knives out front and a person hammering on an anvil.

Turning off the main road though, the road became crap. We should have stopped after reaching the piles of rock that had been so thoughtfully piled across the road in preparation of future road improvements. They made for a slow jarring ride as you tried to find the best/smoothest path through them. Some parts were better than others. wp-1461988864450.jpg

After making it through a long segment of rocks, we finally got a brief respite of packed dirt road. Then, Taylor’s electric starter broke and soon after, Alex’s chain snapped. At this point, we split off from the guys since there was nothing more that we could help with except scout the road ahead.


Partway through the terrible loop road to the Ben Gioc Waterfall. A brief respite from the rock piles before the mud pits.

After we split off, the road climbed a mountain pass and continues to be terrible with the addition of mud pits every so often. We finally hit one we bad that we had to walk the bike through.

"Motorbike road"

“Motorbike road”


Mud pit, one of many, in the road. These were the worst. I made Rob let me walk some of them.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks and avoid falling in the river.’

Eventually we made it to more consistent pavement as we approached the Chinese border. The road followed the border for awhile and we passed trucks with covered loads and beds full of people.

Approaching the waterfall as we drove along the road paralleling the border river, Rob and I passed a number of  boat docks extending most of the way across the river. As we stopped for a couple photos, these guys got on the docks, detached the end segment, then rowed it to China to drop off his buddy. We also passed a number of trucks parked along the border road; some of them were packed with people.

Paddling to China.

Paddling to China.

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

It was so late by the time we reached the waterfall that we found nearby lodging (200k vnd for a nice clean room) for the night. We ate dinner at a local rice restaurant and watched a Vietnamese movie there. It just happened to have English subtitles so we could follow along. I would put it in the rom-com category but it had a few tables of Vietnamese men enthralled.

We discussed returning to the waterfall in the morning but the weather/visibility wasn’t great so we headed to the nearby Nguon Ngao cave. They were pretty much deserted with the exception of several merchants and one group that was leaving as we entered. Nothing like having a huge cave all to yourself. It had some nice formations that we enjoyed even after all the other caves we’d visited.

Shadow poses in the cave.

Shadow poses in the cave.

After the cave, we drove almost all the way back to Cao Bang via the nice highway. The drive took around 2.5 hours before we split on the road to Pac Bo cave in the town’s outskirts.

Pac Bo Cave, where Ho Chi Minh or Bac (Uncle) Ho lived after crossing back into Vietnam from China, is a pilgrimage site for many Vietnamese. Notwithstanding the historical context, the site follows a gorgeous stream with beautiful bright blue pools. No swimming allowed unfortunately.

The entrance to the site is also the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so we took some photos with the Km 0 marker.  They’re currently building a Ho Chi Minh museum nearby in addition to the shrine. Finally returning to Cao Bang, we ate some very tasty pizzas at Pizza Chi before crashing.

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

The next day, we decided to “relax” in town to catch up on important matters. Rob got our oil changed and I filed our tax extension. Ever year it seems like our taxes become more complex. Rob keeps threatening to buy me Turbo Tax instead of letting me just fill in the forms directly. It was a relief to finally have that taken care of with only a few days to go. When we were at Pizza Chi the previous night, we’d seen everyone else order the sizzling meat platters and decided we needed to go back and order some with the white drink that was also popular. Trying the order what we thought was a white yogurt drink ended up being a wonderful accident. We were brought little yogurt tubs with a straw, but when the owner saw us staring at them in confusion because we were expecting a glass of white liquid, he came over to investigate. Rob and I tried to explain that we wanted the white thing that we’d seen everyone else enjoying the other night. The owner tried to tell us it was from the shop next door and ended up getting us two bowls of what turned out to be frozen yogurt covered with durian (the stinky fruit) and a variety of jellies. Sua chua mit turned out to be one of best foods we discovered in Vietnam. I hope we can find/make it back home.

In the morning, Rob and I continued northeast to Meo Vac parting ways with the Seattle guys, who hung out longer to recover from a bout of food poisoning.





Vietnam by Moto Days 33-35: Karst on the water and Cat Ba Island

Rob and I led our procession out of Hanoi since we had the phone mount for the bike. Since the old quarter is on the east side of Hanoi and we were continuing east, we didn’t have very much trouble getting out of the main city. The first problem arose when we missed a turn on to Highway 1 because the entrance was unclear on google. Then before we could turn around, our road turned into a traffic disaster where Rob was walking our bike through merging traffic that was barely moving. To make matters worse, Alex’s throttle cable broke. The guys went to get it fixed and we made a u-turn and got back on Highway 1.

Unlike Highway 1 in the south, this incarnation of Highway 1 was like a nice freeway in the States – two lanes each direction plus a full shoulder for motorbikes, with a median and guardrails. It was the easiest driving of the trip except for the expressway into Da lat that we’d mistakenly taken. From Highway 1, we got on Highway 18 east toward Halong City. This route was the typical 2 lane highway with a decent number of trucks. The traffic flowed well and the road was in decent condition. The google maps directions took us right to the dock and when we arrived around 3:15pm, a number of other backpackers were already there.

This ferry is clearly the cheapest way to tour Halong Bay. It only cost 70,000 vnd (<$3.5) for a person and 90,000 vnd for a person with motorbike. In the low season there are only 2 ferries, one in the morning that departs at 8 am for Cat Ba then returns at 9am and one in the afternoon that leaves Tuan Chau at 3 pm for Cat Ba and returns at 4 pm. The ferry ride goes through Halong bay passing the spot where many of the overnight cruises anchor for the night. Our captain had to honk repeatedly at all the kayakers hanging out in the ship channel.


This lady drove a motorbike with a basket full of chickens on to the boat, but it tipped over while loading letting chickens out. She spent part of the journey repacking them.

Arriving on Cat Ba Island, we had a ~25 km scenic drive across the Island to Cat Ba town where the majority of the lodging is located. The island is gorgeous in its own right and has a national park and a number of caves. It’s also a launching point for the less visited Lan Ha Bay.  In town, we stayed with the Mr. Zoom Backpacker Hostel, which not only had dorm beds for $3, but also has two associated hotels with fan-cooled double rooms for $6 – an amazing deal. This turned out to be our cheapest lodging in Vietnam.

The next day, Rob and I went on a kayaking day trip with Asia Outdoors. For a few dollars more than the standard $16 bundle tour, we spent a full day on the bay with about 5 hours of kayaking. We chose this over just renting a kayak because the company shuttles you out of the more scenic parts of the bay to explore. Our group visited a few floating villages and got a closer look at the aquaculture they practice. Some of the floating platforms are pearl farms with strings of oysters hanging down into the water. Other platforms are nets where shellfish harvested from around the bay is grown to a larger size before selling. We saw smaller boats out in the bay with scuba dive set ups for the shellfish harvesters.



Hanging out in a hidden lagoon. We had to navigate a shallow, rock-lined channel to get in.

That night, we had an amazing veggie meal at the surprisingly reasonable Buddha Belly. The small rice plate of the day was only $1.50 and was massive. The mushroom noodle soup I had for the same price was also great. Afterwards, we joined the Seattle guys at a local Bia Hoi place with some other folks. When we went to pay, the bill was under $10 for 37 beers.


Rob with his small veggie meal at Buddha Belly in Cat Ba. He’s giving me his “hurry up a take a photo so I can start eating” face.

The next morning, we decided to do a climbing trip. I’ve never been outdoor climbing and neither Rob nor I is very good at gym climbing, but Cat Ba has deep water free solo climbing for a reasonable price ($30/each), so we gave it a try. Rob did very well, but I got on the rock and freaked out about jumping into the water. Regardless of whether I thought I could climb higher, I definitely did not want to jump from any higher. In the end, Rob got some climbing in and I worked on my fear of jumping from heights.

Rob's second route.

Rob’s second route.

My second attempt.

My second attempt.


Jumping off!

With only the two of us, we were done climbing pretty quickly, so our guide took us on a long cruise around the bay with a spot at Monkey  Island for a short hike and some beach time.  Even on a cloudy day, the bay was still gorgeous. The island had a nice beach and the added entertainment of the monkeys harassing some of the other tourists.

Our last evening on the island was spent on a forgettable fish dinner (Rob didn’t want to go back for more veg) and another few rounds of Bia Hoi. The next day we planned to catch the 8 am ferry back to the mainland and head northeast toward Lang Son.

Vietnam by Moto Days 32-33: Overnight crazy in Hanoi

Rob and I hit traffic on the far outskirts of the city. Since we entered on the opposite of Hanoi from the Old Quarter where we were staying, we had to brave the crazy traffic through the majority of the city. I filmed driving through the weaving mass of motorbikes and cars but with the wide angle lens, it doesn’t capture the close proximity of the other bikes and the speed at which they pass you. The stoplights were the scariest part as you’re part of a mass of motorbikes that’s stopped and trying to start moving forward all at once. Low speed handling is one of the most difficult parts of the motorbike driving since you’re not as stable so trying to get going again among the throng trying to pass you is unnerving. Rob kept his cool, but afterwards he adopted the strategy of hanging back at lights and keeping us out of the mass if possible.

Here’s a hyperlapse of the different parts of our drive from Pu Long to Hanoi. The sped up version of Hanoi views more like what it feels like to be in the traffic.

If you want to experience the constant honking, here’s some video as we head through Hanoi with original sound.

That night we had booked the Funky Jungle Hostel. We were going to get a private room, but the dorms were so much cheaper $5 per person per night that we gave them a try. This hostel has free beer from 6-7pm, then again from 8:30 – until the keg’s gone, which turned out to be a lie. Rob and I were both given top bunks; these were very high and didn’t have great handholds at the top. This was okay for the daytime, but would suck getting up and down in the middle of the night while partially asleep. Since it was already pretty close to 6 pm when we arrived, dinner was a doner kebab (from one of the 3 stands within a block of the hostel) and an amazing bag of donuts with a sweet yellow center that we saw a number of locals buying. Treats in had we returned to our hostel for free beer and promptly met three guys from the Seattle area. AJ, Taylor and Alex had all graduated from Gonzaga and worked for one year to save money before quitting to do some extended worldwide travel (Their fancy blog).  They were also traveling by motorbike and were planning to head to Halong Bay/Cat Ba the next day. We were planning on heading that direction one day later, however, a look at the forecast had us altering our plans to leave the next day. We decided to ride with them the next day, leaving around 10 am when our laundry would be ready.

As per the usual, I went to work on the blog in the dorm after beer hour while Rob stayed out to meet folks. The guy with the bunk under mine was back in the dorm and it was clear that he had been there awhile. Apparently his current gig was getting other travelers to come to a casino with him and to get “$20 of free play.”  We didn’t see/hear him again until 4 am when he returned drunk and disorderly, yelling about how a cabbie ripped him of everything and stumbling around. Thankfully, he passed out soon enough and stayed that we until we left despite Rob dropping our USB charger on his bare chest from the top bunk and the cleaning crew servicing the room. Rob and I agreed that we would not be returning to the Funky Jungle on our next visit to Hanoi.

We met up with the AJ, Alex and Taylor and managed to get on the road around 10:15 am aiming for the 3 pm Tuan Chau public car ferry to Cat Ba Island. This was the last ferry of the day, so missing it would mean a night in Halong City.


Rob and the bike ready to leave Hanoi for Cat Ba.

Vietnam by Moto Days 31-32: Stilt Houses in Pu Luong

We left Cuc Phuong in the morning and started the beautiful drive towards Pu Luong Nature Reserve. The Pu Luong area is well-known for minority village homestays, primarily in the village of Mai Chau. However, Mai Chau is now far too popular and on the bus tour route, and apparently has turned from a quaint village in the mountains to a place where tourists are treated like a walking ATM. The Vietnam Coracle talks about another village inside the nature reserve, so we decided to try and stay in Bản Hiêu. 

Sunset over the rice terraces.

The Coracle’s website mentions two Homestay options, but one has since turned into a fancy eco-lodge that is out of our price range, so our plan was to try and find Mr. Ba’s Homestay, or somewhere else to spend the night. As we reached the nature reserve we turned off the highway onto a dirt road leading up into the mountains. All we had to follow was a google maps point from the Coracle, but it pointed us in the right direction. We reached the general village and were riding through the stilt houses when Hoai chased us down on his motorbike. He asked if we needed a place to stay, and proceeded to take us to his family’s house.

Hoai’s stilt house, the wooden stilts are over 100 years old as high quality trees are hard to find now days.

Hoai lives in a traditional stilt house: These houses are built up high to allow storage space underneath and to protect against flooding. The house is one large room inside with bamboo flooring and and a palm leaf roof, there is an outhouse and a separate kitchen outside. Hoai’s house only got electricity a few years ago as is costs $100 to buy the wire to connect your house to the grid, but now they have a small refrigerator, TV, and a single light bulb. Apparently the electric bill is only $5/month. They have no running water in the village, but Hoai was lucky to have a good well they dug in 2007 so they had clean water available. They kept a can of water filled from the well next to the squat toilet and you pour a bucket of water in the toilet when you’re done to flush.

Bamboo pipes bring water to the rice fields.

Bản Hiêu is a beautiful village in a river valley between mountains. We spent the afternoon hiking around the village with Hoai as our guide and seeing their traditional way of life. There are rice patties everywhere, and the patties without a stream to feed them water use an ingenious bamboo waterwheel to lift water from the river into bamboo irrigation pipes.

When rice fields don’t have a natural stream to supply them with water, the villagers build bamboo water wheels to lift water out of the river and irrigate the fields.

The locals haul bamboo down the mountainside by dragging it behind their motorbikes.

As we hiked up the mountainside, we saw villagers dragging bamboo behind their scooters, it turns out growing and selling bamboo is one of the major industries in the village as bamboo is greatly valued for construction. We saw one woman carrying huge pieces of bamboo out of the forest and Amanda tried to pick one up, I think the villager found us weak westerners quite amusing!

Amanda tried to lift the huge bamboo pieces that the villager had been carrying out of the forest.

This snake we saw crossing the path is apparently pretty toxic. Our host wouldn’t let us anywhere near it.

Hoai’s family was excited as their cow was pregnant, and if they can raise the calf to a healthy adult they can sell it for a significant amount of money. A grown bull is worth around $700, enough to buy a new motorbike! Bản Hiêu is a Thai minority village, so the locals are ethnically Thai despite living in Vietnam. They speak Thai among themselves, but they also learn Vietnamese in school.

It was time to get cleaned up for dinner after joking around the village, and since they don’t have a shower that means a nice swim in the river. Some of the local children were practicing their English with us while we bathed in the river: most children know a few basic phrases like “What is your name?” And “How old are you?”.

Dinner was a feast of spring rolls, pork, vegetables, and sticky rice.

The dinner was a feast of pork, vegetables, spring rolls, and sticky rice. It was going to be hard to finish all the food, and then they brought us another plate! Hoai’s father joined us to share his homemade rice wine, which packs quite a punch.

It was hot inside.

After dinner Hoai played some guitar, and we watched a Chinese drama that the family enjoyson the TV. Finally it was time for bed, so the rock-hard mattress was laid on the floor and the mosquito net hung up. We got to have the house to ourselves while Hoai and his parents slept in the kitchen and underneath the house, respectively.

Saying goodbye to Hoai after spending a night with his family.

The next morning we had another delicious but way too large breakfast, along with several more shots of rice wine (apparently they drink with breakfast and we had to finish the bottle). After saying our goodbyes, we set off on the road to Hanoi.

As we climbed higher into the nature reserve jagged rocks started to poke through the rice fields.

Hoai had told us the best route to take, and it was a lovely drive through mountains with village after village. However, it was also the steepest mountain pass we climbed during our entire trip. Amanda had to walk good portions of the climb while I drove the bike as the motorbike could barely climb the hill with both of us and our luggage. At the end of the day, we braved the insane Hanoi traffic and made it to Vietnam’s capital after a month on the road.

One of the joys of driving across Vietnam is witnessing what a motorbike can really carry. The bonsai tree delivery moto is one of our favorites, we’ve seen tons of the these traveling the highways.