Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob

Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Oslob is one of the most popular things to do in the Philippines. Tourists from near and far flock to this once quiet little fishing town in Cebu to get a once-in-a-lifetime experience, swimming and taking pictures with the biggest fish in the ocean. Trust me, they’re definitely a sight to see.

For those of you who don’t know a lot about Whale Sharks, they are actually the largest species of fish, and believe it or not they aren’t part of the shark family, contrary to their name. They vary in size greatly, with some growing up to 12 meters long (40 feet) and weighing as much as 20 tonnes. Regardless of their massive size, they shouldn’t scare you at all, because they are best known as the gentle underwater giants. They feed mostly on plankton and are not known to pose any kind of threat to humans. Swimming with these amazing giants was such a special experience as it was top of my bucket list for the Philippines so I was eager and excited to tick it off the list.

How to get to Oslob, Cebu for Whale Shark watching

  • From Cebu City to Oslob

Multiple airlines service Cebu City including, Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Airasia along with some international airlines like Emirates. Once you’ve arrived in Cebu City make your way to the South Bus Terminal and ride a Ceres bus going to Bato via Liloan. There should be plenty of signs for Whale Shark watching/Oslob, so it should be easy to find. When paying the conductor ask to be dropped off at Tan-awan in Oslob. This small town is about 10 mins past Oslob and it’s where you’ll see the whalesharks. The bus journey takes roughly 3 hours but can vary depending on traffic, especially around Cebu City. The bus with air-con costs about 155 PhP and the ones we got mostly had tv’s on them playing movies.

  • From Alona Beach to Oslob

An unconventional route but one that we took. We organised a boat to take us one way from Alona Beach to Oslob which cost 650 PhP per person. We booked this through Seashine Travel, but I’d imagine lots of tour operators offer this service. We were due to leave at 6am but like everything in Southeast Asia things rarely operate on time. By the time we set sail for Oslob it was 7am and around two hours later we arrived at our destination. It was an early start to the day but, considering we cut out travelling back to Tagbilaran Port, a ferry to Cebu City and a bus to Oslob it was definitely worth it.

  • From Dumaguete to Oslob

This isn’t a route we personally took but it was one that I had looked into, so I’ve some information on it. At the Dumaguete City Public Market, look for the multi-cabs going to Sibulan Port. From there you’ll need to pay for the ferry to Liloan. At Liloan Port, jump on a Ceres bus with signs for Cebu City and like above ask the bus conductor to drop you off at Tan-awan for the Whale Sharks.

Once you arrive in Tan-awan make sure you walk back up to the briefing centre and don’t go into one of the resorts as many of the bus staff and people on the street will direct you to. These resorts will charge you extra money to store your belongings and to bring you to the briefing centre when you can just go there yourself.

Cebu 2

Fees & Times

The Whale Shark Briefing Centre opens from 6am till 12pm (noon), and my advice if you decide to go there, is to arrive as early as possible as by 9 o’clock the crowds get very large.

**Tip, once 12pm hits you are allowed to swim out to the area where the Whale Sharks usually are yourself and you can swim with them for free as they tend to hang around. This was a tip we only found out afterwards though.**

Once at the centre there are 4 stations you need to go to:

(1) the registration (2) the briefing area (3) payment (4) handing in your payment docket

Once this is done you will be given a number and will be called to see the Whale Sharks.

In this time you can, change into your swimwear if needs be or store your belongings in nearby lockers, which a nearby shop provides for 20 PhP.

There are a few different options when it comes to seeing the Whale Sharks and the prices are quite different depending on whether you’re a local or a foreigner, with the latter being charged more.

  • Watching (duration 30 mins)
    • Local Guest – 300 PhP
    • Foreign Guest – 500 PhP
  • Snorkeling (duration 30 mins – includes snorkeling equipment)
    • Local Guest – 500 PhP
    • Foreign Guest – 1000 PhP
  • Scuba Diving (duration 60 mins – doesn’t include diving equipment)
    • Local Guest – 600 PhP
    • Foreign Guest – 1500 PhP

Cebu 3

Our Whale Shark Experience

We were staying about 20 km from Tan-awan, where the Whale Sharks are, so we caught a local bus and arrived at the briefing centre at around 7am. To our surprise the beach was already packed with tourists and we could see about 15-20 small boats in the water with more.

After having our orientation about the rules and what not to do when swimming with the Whale Sharks; like not touching them, keeping a safe distance, not wearing creams or oils etc., we jumped in our small boat and were rowed out to the area where the Whale Sharks are. To our surprise, we only went about 20 meters away from the beach.

While on the boat, you can already see a couple of Whale Sharks swimming, while others pop up their massive heads to be fed by the fishermen. To our amazement the Whale Sharks were bigger than our boat. When we reached the other boats we jumped in and had our first close up encounter with these gentle giants.  

A few minutes had passed and we braved swimming away from our boat to get a closer glimpse, but as soon as this happened a HUGE Whale Shark started swimming our way. Our initial reaction was panic and “oh my god it’s going to eat us”, to just pure awe and excitement to be in the presence of these magnificent animals as they swam so slowly and peacefully past us as if we didn’t exist.

We spent about 30 minutes in the water and swam with at least 10 or more separate Whale Sharks of all different sizes. Some of them got really close, but not intentionally. We constantly found ourselves swimming away from them to ensure we didn’t touch them by mistake. At one point however, we found ourselves trapped between two Whale Sharks, in what was such a surreal experience.

Reaction

However amazing the experience was getting close to these magnificent creatures, the sheer amount of tourists and the fact that the migration pattern of these animals are disrupted because of the fishermen feeding them for tourism purposes, is quite disturbing. Although there are plenty of warnings and even mentions of fines for not following the rules, there seems to be no control or regulation over how many tourists are allowed in the water and the actions they take.

Throughout our time in the water, many other tourists swam into both us and the Whale Sharks looking for that perfect selfie. As a result, the Whale Sharks get kicked accidentally by tourists who are unaware of them being around them.

As much as I enjoyed swimming with these beautiful creatures, I still had mixed emotions after. Part of me says I shouldn’t have done it in Oslob, but at the same time, the experience was so unbelievable to get to swim with them. If you get a chance to swim with these beautiful animals in their natural environment, then 100% do. If you can, I’d advise you do whale watching in Donsol where the Whale Sharks are not fed to stay and can go on their natural life cycle.

The Whale Shark tourism in Donsol, is a more responsible practice in comparison to Oslob and a much better alternative. In fact, it’s even supported by the World Wildlife Fund. In Donsol, Whale Sharks are not fed by the locals. Whale Shark watching in Donsol is a natural seasonal activity based on the animals’ natural migration pattern. Tourists are accompanied by spotters and guides to see the Whale Sharks in the wild. The best time to go in Donsol is from February to April.

 

Exploring Paradise at Nacpan Beach

Exploring Paradise at Nacpan Beach

There is one piece of paradise you don’t want to miss in your life and that’s, El Nido, Palawan and its surroundings. The island of Palawan has been named multiple times as the most beautiful island in the world and trust me, they aren’t lying!

El Nido is most known for it’s epic island hopping tours, however, it’s definitely more than this. The surrounding beaches, towns and waterfalls are equally as impressive and shouldn’t be missed. If you make it to El Nido, one thing that should definitely make your list is a trip to the magnificent Nacpan Beach. Said to be the most beautiful beach around El Nido town. With Calitang Beach beside it, they are known as El Nido’s Twin Beaches.

Nacpan Beach3

How to get there

To get to Nacpan Beach you’ll need to either rent a scooter/motorbike, hire a tricycle or take an inland tour, otherwise known as El Nido Tour E. Located about 25 km north of El Nido it will take you from 45 minutes to 1 hour to get there. For the first 20 kms, the road is concrete and easy to travel, but the last 5 kms is a dirt road. This last stretch can be more troublesome especially if it’s been raining, so be careful if you are not an experienced driver.

  • By scooter/motorbike: There’s an abundance of scooters/motorbikes available around El Nido and you can rent them from pretty much any shop in El Nido. Pricing is very similar so you can’t go too wrong with your choice. We picked ours up from a place beside the Art Cafe and it only cost us 350 PhP for the day. Better still it only cost 85 PhP to refill the tank after a full day of driving which was about 50 km.
  • By tricycle: The price for 2 people is around 1,000 PhP. Your driver will wait for you for a few hours to explore, chill and enjoy Nacpan Beach.  Worth noting, this will not be a comfortable journey since the last part of the road is a dirt road and can be quite bumpy.
  • By inland tour (aka El Nido Tour E): If you take Tour E you will get to visit beaches and waterfalls including Nacpan Beach. Prices are around 750 PhP.

Nacpan Beach4

What to do there

Once you arrive at Nacpan beach you are charged 50 PhP each as an environmental fee to help preserve the beach. It’s worth it though, because the beach itself is amazing. It has the purest white sand and the clearest water. The best thing about this beach though is the fact that it’s empty.  

The first thing you’ll probably want to do when you arrive is to chill out, relax and enjoy this slice of paradise. Pick a spot on this 4 km long beach and take it all in.

On the beach you can rent sun beds with umbrellas, cabana like huts or just take some shade under the many palm trees. Also on the beach is two small restaurants serving food and drinks.

If you are in any way adventurous or love a good view there is a hill at the end of the beach that you can climb.  It offers great views of the twin beaches Calitang Beach & Nacpan Beach and into the distance. It’s tough walking/hiking/climbing up in the heat, but trust me it’s worth it.

Once you’ve descended back down you’ll definitely feel like cooling off with a dip in the crystal clear water, so make sure not to forget your swimsuit too.  

To finish off the day, chill at the restaurants, have a cold drink, some food and take in the last of your paradise.

Nacpan Beach

 

Island Hopping in El Nido, Palawan

Island Hopping in El Nido, Palawan

El Nido on Palawan deservedly belongs on the list alongside the most stunning places in the world. The Philippines is a country made up of over 7,000 islands, of which over 1,700 of these belong to and surround the province of Palawan. Therefore, a must-do while you’re there is, to take an El Nido Island Hopping Tour. An Island hopping tour in El Nido, will definitely be one of the biggest highlights on your trip, as it was with us.

Island Hopping El Nido

There are 4 tours, very simply called tour A, B, C & D. Every Island hopping tour starts in El Nido and brings you to several little paradises. The tours include an incredible BBQ lunch, drinking water and most companies will provide you with a snorkel and mask. The tours usually leave El Nido at around 9 am and return around 4 pm, times can vary though.

*Tip, Tour A and Tour C are by far the most popular tours. We’ll explain a little about each and give a recommendation too to help.

El Nido2.jpg

El Nido Tour A – Lagoons and Beaches

On tour A you will be taken to Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island and 7-Commando Beach. There’s also time to go snorkelling and kayaking too. The price for Tour A is 1200 PhP/Pax.

El Nido Tour B – Caves and Coves

On tour B you will be taken to Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, the Cudugnon Cave and to a Snorkeling Site. The price for Tour B is 1300 PhP/Pax.

El Nido Tour C – Hidden Beaches and Shrines

On tour C you will be taken to Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach and Hidden Beach. This tour is predominantly based around snorkelling. The price for Tour C is 1400 PhP/Pax.

El Nido Tour D – Island Beaches

On tour D you will be taken to Ipil Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Paradise Beach, Pasandigan Beach, Natnat Beach and Bukal Beach. Again there is time for snorkelling and apparently has some of the best spots. The price for Tour D is 1200 PhP/Pax.

*Recommendation Tip, if you only have time to do one island hopping tour I would suggest the following:

 

  • If you want to see amazing picturesque scenery I would suggest Tour A. This tour focuses more on lagoons and beaches. However you also have an opportunity to snorkel, swim and kayak on this tour.
  • If you prefer snorkelling I would highly suggest doing Tour C. This tour focuses more on snorkeling and beaches.
  • If you are short on time or aren’t sure what tour to pick, you can actually combine aspects of all the tours into one trip instead.  

El Nido Map

 

Where to book a tour in El Nido, Palawan

You can book a tour literally anywhere in El Nido town. Every second shop or stall will be selling the tours. Alternatively, ask your hotel/hostel to do it for you or book online. One thing to note, every tour company charges the same prices for the tours so don’t waste time shopping around.

El Nido IHT.jpg

What to bring while Island Hopping in El Nido?

You should bring swim attire, a towel, booties or sandals (at some locations you have to pass a lot of sharp corals, which are not pleasant if you stand on them), suncream, and of course, don’t forget your camera (or cameras if your like us) to capture your unbelievable island hopping tour. 

El Nido IHT2.jpg

El Nido weather

A really important thing to note is, the El Nido tours are really dependent on the weather. If the conditions are too rough the tours can be cancelled, so make sure you check the weather before booking a tour. You can usually book your trip the night before or even on the day depending on the season.

Still unsure which tour you want to do? Check out the videos of Tours A & C below.

We hope you enjoy Island Hopping in El Nido as much as we did.

Zip-line Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan

Zip-line Island hopping in El Nido, Palawan

Ever been zip-lining? Ever gone on a zip-line over water and to another island? Well in El Nido you can do this. At Las Cabanas Beach there’s a 750-meter long zip line that allows you to island hop between El Nido an island called Depeldet.

Prices for the zip-line vary from 500 to 1,100 PhP. It all depends on the amount of trips you want to do and the way you want to be seated. These are the options:

  • Sitting position – One way – 500 PhP
  • Sitting position – Return – 900 PhP
  • Superman position – One way – 700 PhP
  • Superman position – Return – 1100 PhP
  • Combination of both positions – Return – 1000 PhP

The views from the zipline are amazing and it’s definitely a great experience not to miss. We recommend to do a one-way trip and walk back since the water between the islands is shallow and you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Want to know more about El Nido? Read our El Nido guide

El Nido ZipLine

How to get to the El Nido Zip line?

There are a few ways to get there. If you’ve rented a scooter simply drive out of the town and look for the signs for Las Cabanas beach. It’s about 15 mins/5km from the town proper. Alternatively, you can take a jeepney or a tricycle there too, it won’t be that expensive or take too long. From the beach, there’s a small hike up to the top of the hill.

In our opinion, we think it’s best to go just before sunset or when the tide is in. It offers the best views. Afterwards grab a seat and a drink and enjoy the sunset on Las Cabanas beach. There’s also a great viewpoint on the way back to El Nido town that’s worth a stop.

 

Everything you need to know about El Nido, The Philippines

Everything you need to know about El Nido, The Philippines

El Nido, Palawan is just one of the many islands in the Philippines, there’s actually over 7,000 to be more precise. It’s quite literally one of the most breathtaking places I’ve ever seen. El Nido town itself isn’t very impressive, but the thing that’s breathtaking, is its surroundings and the stunning views around it. Palawan has been voted the No.1 most beautiful island in the world, several times and it’s easy to see why. Below are some of our favourite things to do in El Nido.

Things to know before going to El Nido.

  • The town is known for having several power outages during the day. If you’re out and about during the day it won’t really impact you. That being said take precautions and charge your electronics at night to avoid disappointment.
  • Contrary to some posts you see online, there are actually two ATM’s in the town. However, they can run out, so bring enough money just incase. One is located beside the church and post office and the other is beside the accommodation, Ipsil suites, Abads and the hostel Austria.
  • Quick or even great working WiFi isn’t a typical thing in El Nido. So if you rely on the internet for work or other purposes then prepare yourself for the worst. The Art Cafe was probably the best spot we came across.

Things to do in El Nido

Although it’s a small town there’s still a lot to do. These are our El Nido must do’s based on what we did and also some other things which were recommended but never got time to do.

  • If you only have time to do one thing, then make sure you take one of the famous A, B, C or D, El Nido Island Hopping tours and explore the many beautiful islands that surround El Nido. These tours were definitely one of the biggest highlights on our trip to the Philippines, so make sure you don’t miss out.
  • Read more about: El Nido Island Hopping Tours
  • Visit the white sand and clear water of Nacpan Beach. Rent a scooter or get a tricycle for the day and drive the 25 km north to reach this untapped gem.
  • Ever been zip-lining? Ever gone on a zip-line over water and to another island? Well in El Nido you can do this. At Las Cabanas Beach there’s a 750-meter long zip line that connects two islands. Read more: Zipline in El Nido
  • Watch the sunset from Las Cabanas Beach.
  • Rent a Kayak and explore some of the nearby islands yourself.

El Nido Kayak

  • Climb up Taraw Cliff for spectacular views of El Nido and the surrounding islands. *As far as I know you can no longer climb to the very top. This was due to safety issues. Instead they’ve created a lookout point about halfway up and provide you with safety harness and helmets.

Best time to visit El Nido

According to many online sources, the best time to visit El Nido is around December to March. This is the dry season, so the weather tends to be drier and warmer and it avoids the peak of the tourist high season, which is usually in April and May. Although you’ll have better weather you’ll also have an increase in accommodation prices. That being said, we were there in July and the weather was still great, of course you just need some luck on your side.

Where to eat/drink in El Nido

We were only in El Nido for three proper nights so didn’t get to try too many places to eat, but below were the places we went to. There are lots of options in the town and I can only assume that more places have opened since we were there in 2016. Check out TripAdvisor to see what’s best or just have a wander around.

  • Art Cafe. Great mix of everything and great fruit shakes too. Also had lots of gluten free dishes.
  • Check out the fresh BBQ’s on the beach. There’s so many different types of fish, prawns, crab, oysters and different meats on offer.
  • For the night time make sure you check out the beach Bars, Pukka bar, Coco bar, Rasta Bar and SAVA beach bar. Most run cheap happy hours so check them out after a long day island hopping. 

How to get to El Nido? 

There are several ways of getting to El Nido. The cheapest and most popular way is a flight from Manila or Cebu to Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan. Once you land you can take either a bus or minivan up north. The journey can take anywhere from 5-7 hours to get there and prices start from 350 PhP to 500 PhP depending on what option you take. Alternatively, you can fly directly to El Nido from Manila or Cebu with Air Swift. The flight is more costly, but if money isn’t a problem or time and comfort are important concerns then I’d strongly recommend forking out the extra money for it.

Where to stay in El Nido?

El Nido is a small town, you can bike through the whole village within 10 minutes. You can either stay inside or outside the town. There are three areas as such, the town proper, Corong-Corong and Caalan. All of which are close to the beach and island activities.  

There are many different types of accommodation ranging from High-end to low budget.

Top Things to do in Tromsø, Norway

Top Things to do in Tromsø, Norway

Located within the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is the most densely populated area in northern Norway. The popularity of this destination has been increasing over the past number of years, as many people are attracted by the breathtaking scenery, the natural landscapes and of course being known as one of the best places in the world for catching a glimpse of the northern lights. Here is a list of the top things that you must do or see when you are in Tromsø.

Northern Lights Tour

For me, seeing the northern lights was priority number one when I was in Tromsø and the main reason which brought me there. Being located under the Aurora Belt you have the best chances of seeing the lights. However, it’s important to keep in mind that seeing the Aurora Borealis is never guaranteed. It all depends on the weather and a bit of luck. The best time of year to see the aurora is from September to April, so make sure you plan accordingly to avoid disappointment.

There are several companies in the city that organize northern light tours, so my recommendation would be to wait until you arrive and then reserve a tour based on the weather forecast. The weather changes so quickly up there, so what looks good a few days out might be completely different when you get there. Pre-booking your tour can be good and bad. It can be a good idea if you are only visiting for a short time, want to make sure you see the northern lights and want to guarantee a place with a particular company. We did this but there was a bad side to it as well. Our first tour was amazing as we were extremely lucky to have a clear night with lots of activity. However, because we didn’t know how the first night would be we pre-booked a second night and to our dismay it wasn’t as good as the first night. Don’t get me wrong, it was still amazing to see the lights again for a second time but looking back now we would have been very content after our first tour.

 

Choosing a tour company can be a tough task, but after reviewing a few different companies online the best one seemed to be Chasing Lights. With over 800 reviews on TripAdvisor it was hard to argue that they weren’t the best.

Chasing Lights offer an “unforgettable and adventurous outdoor experience”. Their maximum group size is 13 people so it feels a lot more personal than jumping on a large bus. Their service is amazing, they provide hotel pick up, thermal suits and boots to keep you warm, hot meals and beverages, a campfire and they even share photography tips and take photos throughout the tour as well. On top of this they have great tour guides who are very knowledgeable and don’t give up till they find a glimpse of the northern lights. I think this is what separates them from other companies. To sum this up perfectly, on our second tour we drove close to the Finnish border before doing a u-turn in the hope of catching a glimpse of the lights somewhere further south.

 

Whale Watching

During the winter months large numbers of humpback and orca (killer) whales gather near the coastline of Tromsø to feed. These tours will generally operate from mid-October to mid-February, but will be weather dependant so my advice would again be to wait until you get to Tromsø before booking anything.

Like the Northern Light tours there are several companies in the city that organize whale watching trips. The main difference between the companies is the type of boat they use. There are large fishing boats, small sailboats and catamarans and also speed boats too. For our tour we decided to book with Arctic Adventure Tours as they used a RIB with a small group size. This would give us a great opportunity to see these amazing mammals up close and personal.

The tour lasts roughly 4-5 hours and starts with Arctic Adventure Tours doing a pick up from the centre of Tromsø at 9am. From there you drive a short journey to the harbour where they provide you with Arctic suits and lifejackets. Once everyone is suited and booted it’s onto the water to start the search. During the trip you are served hot chocolate and given some snacks to heat you up. Once the tour is finished and you arrive back at the harbour you are driven back to Tromsø. For me this tour was an amazing experience. To be able to witness these giants of the sea so close was truly special. It is one that I highly recommend to anyone who is in Tromsø during these months.

 

Fjord Excursion

The breathtaking fjord landscapes in the Tromsø region are some of the finest Norway can offer so it’s a tour not pass up on. Touring the fjords is a great day trip as it allows you to kick back relax and soak up the stunning surroundings. Especially if you’ve been out the night before chasing the lights. Like the other tours, there are several companies in the city that organize fjord excursions, but we decided to go with Chasing Lights.

We had such a good experience with them and enjoyed their small personal tours that we chose them again.

They operate in small groups and go by mini-bus, so it’s very comfortable. They stop and let you experience the surroundings, walk on foot, take photos and enjoy the scenery. They also provide lunch and hot chocolate during the trip too.

 

Explore the City

Although Tromsø is a relatively small city, there are lots of things to see and do. Whether it be walking around browsing the shops or exploring one of the many museums you will not be short of things to see and do.

You should try visit the following places, however, if you are stuck for time I would recommend the latter two:

  • The Polar Museum, here you can learn about polar expeditions. You will meet men, women, ships and equipment that were essential for life on the sea and in the Arctic and you can also learn about the history of seal hunting in the Arctic.
  • Polaria. Located just five minutes walk from the centre of Tromsø. The Polaria has an Arctic aquarium, interesting exhibits, a panoramic cinema, and a gift and souvenir shop.
  • Walk over the Tromsø bridge and visit the Arctic Cathedral. The Arctic Cathedral is characterized by its bright white and triangular architecture and is now a landmark of Tromsø.

  • If you are tired of experiencing Tromsø on the ground, you should take a cable car ride and view the city from the mountain top. Fjellheisen is the name of the cable car, and it takes you up to Mount Storsteinen, which overlooks Tromsø. The short ride up takes you to a viewing point where you can have phenomenal panoramic views. You can see the whole of Tromsø from the viewing point and you can also see snowy mountain ranges in the distance. At the top of the mountain there is a cafe, which serves food and drinks and has a fire on so you can heat back up before making your way back to the city centre.

Eat & Drink

Another option when exploring the city is to sample the local pubs, cafes and restaurants. The Nordics are known for being crazy expensive and Tromsø is no different. Although it’s a small place there are so many places and options to choose from, even if you are on a budget. Over the course of our trip we were able to sample a few places. Here are the places I would recommend:

  • For breakfast and especially coffee make sure you check out Riso mat & kaffebar and Art Cafe. Prices weren’t too bad and the quality was great.
  • For bars make sure you check out the famous Mack’s Beer Hall. There are over 100 beers on tap so it is a place not to be missed. Warning the beer can be expensive here. Also make sure you visit Huken Pub. This small pub is filled with retro furniture, has a great atmosphere, serves locally produced Mack beer and makes the most epic burgers. No seriously, these burgers were incredibly good, make sure you try them.
  • For restaurants, check out Mathallen (located just off the main street) and the Kitchen & Table (located in the Clarion Hotel). Both serve a mix of international and great local dishes such as fish and reindeer.
  • For travellers on a budget there is a large Eurospar supermarket where you can pick up supplies to either cook yourself or buy things for breakfast or lunch. There is also a Burger King, multiple sushi restaurants and other convenient stores. Also being a student town there are bars and restaurants that offer deals.

Other

Depending on the time of year you visit there are more activities and things to do. During the winter months you can go dog-sledding, reindeer sledding, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and witness the polar night. During the summer months you can do more water sports like kayaking, hike and witness the midnight sun.

Exploring Iceland in 4 days

Exploring Iceland in 4 days

In April 2015 my dad and myself set out to find the infamous Northern Lights and discover all that Iceland had to offer. Unfortunately we came up short on both fronts. The weather was too wet and cloudy to see the lights and we discovered that Iceland has a lot more to offer and 4 days just isn’t enough time to see and do everything in this magnificent country.

Here is what we got up to on our trip.

At the time we took this trip there was no direct flight from Dublin to Iceland, that is unless you took a chartered plane and went with a tour operator, which is what we did.

Now WOW Air fly directly to Reykjavik a couple of times a week. Check out their flight schedule here.

Day 1:

Thursday – The Blue Lagoon

We arrived into Reykjavik airport and made our way into the city to the hotel (Radisson Blu) straight away. The bus journey takes about 45-60mins. 

Because we only had 4 days in Iceland we had a pretty good plan of the things we wanted to see and do. As a result we had a quick turnaround before heading to one of Iceland’s most visited sites, the Blue Lagoon.

We took a 4.15pm bus with Reykjavik Excursions from our hotel and returned on the last bus @ 9.15pm back to Reykjavik city. The Bus takes roughly 45mins+ to get there but a little longer on the way home as it stop at the numerous hotels.

Being one of the main visitor attractions in Iceland it does get very busy so buying admission online before you arrive is advised. However you can always chance it and buy admission on the day like we did. 

There are several different packages to purchase. We went for the Premium package, which included a free drink, flip flops, a robe, a towel and a locker.

Once in the lagoon, make sure you grab a drink from the in-pool bar, check out the natural steam bath and go to the observation deck for great panoramic views of the lagoon and surrounding area. Also try putting the silica mud on your face. It can be found in buckets around the lagoon and it’s great for your skin. 

That night we had a northern lights boat tour booked, but due to bad weather it was cancelled. The company policy allows you to reschedule for another day or even other activities. 

**Tip** To maximise your time, head straight from the airport to the Blue Lagoon. There are multiple bus services that go there and it’s only a 15 minute journey versus 45+ minutes from Reykjavik city centre. There is large luggage storage at the Blue Lagoon so bringing your suitcase isn’t an issue. 

Day 2:

Friday – Golden Circle Tour

For our second day we had planned to do the Golden Circle Tour, so we rented a car from Red Car Rental (located at the bus depot). We had booked a medium sized car but got upgraded to a large 4×4, which was great for driving in the snowy conditions. Renting the car worked out way cheaper than paying for a company tour. Also, renting your own car means you can stay at the sites for as long as you want instead of being rushed off and missing these great attractions. Trust me when your at the sites you won’t want to leave.

We visited all of the usual Golden circle sites such as Gulfoss, the Geysers and Pingvellir National Park along with a few small stops like a natural hot springs and another national park.

This tour is a must as it allows you to witness some of the most amazing natural wonders of the world. They look even more spectacular when surrounded in the snow, so try go in the Winter or Spring months.

Day 3:

Saturday – City tour on foot. 

After two days on the go with activities we decided to stay in the city and explore all that Reykjavik had to offer. We started the day with another epic buffet breakfast in the hotel and followed it up with some massages in the hotel spa. After a nice relaxing morning we walked into the city and tried some of Iceland’s famous cuisines, hotdogs and lobster soup. We checked out Hallgrímskirkja (the famous church), the boat sculpture at the viewpoint and the opera house by the harbour.

Reykjavik is a pretty small city and everything is within walking distance. There are lots of really nice boutique shops, restaurants and bars around so there is plenty to see and do.

That evening we went to Kopar restaurant in the old harbour for dinner. We had the 9 course tasting menu which was exceptional, I highly recommend it. 

The tasting menu consists of 3 starters, 3 mains and 3 desserts. It includes an amazing Daim Cheesecake, which has my mouth watering as I think of it now.

Day 4:

Sunday – South Coast tour

The only tour we had pre-booked prior to arriving in Iceland was the Glacier and South Coast tour with Extreme Iceland. The highlights are seeing some amazing waterfalls, visiting the black-sand beach, climbing the fourth biggest glacier in Iceland and taking in some great Icelandic scenery. This is a minibus tour that operates from Reykjavik and it gives you the opportunity to take in some great sites and scenery with experienced guides and a small group.

The first stop on the tour was Seljalandsfoss waterfall. It’s unique because you can walk behind the falling water. 

After climbing behind Seljalandsfoss we jumped back on the bus and geared up for hiking the glacier. We were given crampons, harnesses, ice axes and helmets and were on our way.

Sólheimajökull glacier is part of Myrdalsjökull, Iceland‘s fourth largest glacier that covers the infamous volcano Katla. The hike is fairly easy and is suitable for all ages and fitness levels. Climbing the glacier was definitely the main highlight on this tour for me. But I could be biased, as climbing a glacier was a bucketlist item for me so it was great to be able to tick it off.

Reynisfjara, the black sand beach is where we go after the hiking. In Reynisfjara you encounter stunning basalt columns, vast black sands with the majestic sea stacks of Reynisdrangar dominating the horizon.

The last stop of the tour is at Skógafoss Waterfall. This impressive waterfall is one of the most visited sites in Iceland and for a good reason. There are two great photo opportunities at the waterfall, one at the base of the fall and the other at the top. The view from the top involves a steep climb but the view is pretty amazing so it makes it all worth while.  

After a long journey back to Reykjavik and a quick freshen up we made our way into the city for dinner. We ended up in a restaurant called Fiskfelagid or Fish company in English. It’s a more upmarket restaurant so it was a little bit pricey but worth every bite. We got a mix of sushi, cod, catch of the day and pork belly. All dishes were amazing.

Day 5:

Monday – Massages & chill/optional trip to Blue lagoon and home.

On our last day in Iceland we had a couple of hours free before being collected to head to the airport. Because we had done everything we planned to do, we chose to use the hotel spa and relax after a hectic few days. However other things to do on your last day include, visiting the Blue Lagoon, exploring the city or choosing one of the many half day tours on offer. 

To sum this post up, Iceland has so much to offer, from its breathtaking scenery to adrenaline rushing activities to its amazing food. It was definitely one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. I was completely blown away by this stunning country and can’t wait to go back and explore it again.

How to Spend a Long weekend in Berlin

How to Spend a Long weekend in Berlin

One of my travel goals for 2015 was to go to Germany, as it was a country I had never been to before. The city has so much history and is well known for its Christmas markets, so in December of 2015 we booked a long weekend in Berlin.

Berlin is such a big city and there is so much to see and do. In order to make the most of your time there, I would recommend preparing a list of the things you want to see and do in advance and familiarise yourself with the layout of the city.

Here is how we spent a long weekend in Berlin.

Day 1:

When we arrived into Berlin Tegal airport we jumped on the local bus (X9 or 109) to the U-Bahn (UB) station which took us into Berlin city centre. The bus and UB ticket cost about €2.50 and only took 20-30 mins. Taxis into the city can be expensive so using public transport is something I would advise, especially if you are travelling on a budget.

We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the area Neukölln, which is just south of the city centre and takes only a few minutes to get out to on the UB. It is an up and coming neighbourhood with plenty of bars and restaurants on offer.  

It was late enough when we arrived at our Airbnb apartment so we decided to grab some food nearby and wait until the next day to really explore the city.

We used the Yelp app and luckily found a place called BBI which was nearby. It was ranked #1 for burgers in Berlin so we had to check it out. They certainly lived up to their reputation as the burgers were awesome. I got the special El Gordonita burger and Siof got a gluten free chicken burger. 

After stuffing our faces we grabbed some drinks in the local shop and made our way back to the apartment. 

Day 2:

The next morning we got up early and took the UB to Mitte (City centre). We went for breakfast in a place called Spreegold, which is only a 5 minute walk from Alexander Platz station. It had a great menu with lots of healthy options and was reasonably priced.

After breakfast we walked to the Brandenburg Gate in search of the free walking tours, which we had heard about from friends. We luckily arrived just in time for the 11am free walking tour with New Europe- Sandemans. Check out their website for other tour times as they run them several times a day. They leave from the Starbucks beside the Brandenburg Gate and hold red umbrellas so you won’t miss them.

The tour lasts approx. 3hrs, is very informative and takes you to all the top tourist spots with great commentary and information throughout. The tours are tip based, so it allows you to pay what you think it is worth. 

On the tour you visit sites such as, the Brandenburg gate, the Holocaust memorial, Hitler’s bunker, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt (Christmas market in December) and ends at Humboldt University (where Einstein attended). All in all it was a great way to see and learn more about Berlin and Germany’s history. I would definitely recommend the free walking tours to anyone who is visiting Berlin for the first time or for those who just want to learn more about the history. 

After the tour we went back to the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market, ranked one of the top markets in Berlin, to have a look around and to take a break and have some food and a drink.

Our rest didn’t last too long as next on the list was the Typography of Terror museum. The museum contains photographs and information about the SS and SA during Hitler’s reign. The images and information on show are very powerful from start to finish. Depending on your reading speed and attention span the museum can take about an hour or more to get through.

After the museum we wandered up to Postdamer Platz for some food before visiting another Christmas Market at Alexander Platz. After a very long day of walking we decided to get a drink and put the feet up.

Day 3:

We read about a breakfast place on Yelp, located halfway between our apartment and Mitte, but when we got there we found out it was closed due to the Christmas holidays. Luckily we found a good spot close by called Schuchmanns.

After breakfast we made our way back towards the Brandenburg Gate to see the Reichstag and to take the Alternative Berlin Tour. Although we never actually made it into the Reichstag, due to time constraints and availability, we learned that you should pre-book your entry to the glass dome at the top of the building as it offers great views of Berlin. We opted for the Alternative Berlin walking tour instead.

There are a few Alternative Berlin tours that operate in the city, some go from Alexanderplatz and others from the Brandenburg Gate. We took the Sandemans one which cost €10 and left from the Brandenburg Gate at approx. 1pm. 

This tour shows you a glimpse of Berlin the post war and post Berlin Wall days. You get brought to different neighbourhoods where graffiti is the main attraction. It was definitely an interesting tour as it brought you to places you’d never go yourself and gives you a better appreciation for Berlin.

The tour ends in the neighbourhood Friedrichshain which is a top spot for restaurants, bars and clubs. Make sure you check it out.

We grabbed some dinner and cheap drinks in Tempo-Box on Simon-Dach-Str. before we made our way back to the Gendarmenmarkt Christmas market for a final browse and a few drinks to end the night.

Day 4:

On our last full day we found another nice place for breakfast, not too far from our apartment in Neukölln. It was called Cabslam and has some delicious dishes on offer and well worth trying. This was by far one of the best food places we went to on our trip.

After breakfast we made the short walk across Neukölln to rent some bikes. We got them from Rent a Bike 44 and it cost €4 for the day. FYI, the place looks closed from the outside but all you need to do is press the bell on the door and someone will come then.

We cycled through Templehof Park which was once an airport during the Cold War and still has two long runways going through them. The park is meant to be a great place to visit during the summer months so if you are visiting then make sure to pack a bag of food and drinks and hang out. 

From Templehof Park, we cycled back across the city to the East Side Gallery in Kreuzberg.  We wanted to get a better look at the famous graffiti which occupies both sides of the Berlin Wall. This is one of the busiest tourist spots in Berlin so getting a picture perfect shot can be tough. 

As it was NYE and we were heading to the free NYE event at the Brandenburg gate we made our way back to drop the bikes off and get ready for the evening’s festivities.

After a quick turnaround, we jumped on the UB and made our way to Mitte where we got dinner in Beef Bull Club. If the name hasn’t given it away already it’s a steakhouse. It’s a popular restaurant so we were lucky to get a table. If you plan going here you should try book in advance. It’s a little pricey but the food was worth it.

At 7pm we walked towards the Brandenburg Gate and entered the NYE event where millions of people from all over the world were attending. Once in we wandered the street exploring all the market stalls, which included all types of food, drink and souvenirs. There was live music and acts performing right up till midnight before the fireworks show started. 

As the night was coming to an end we made our way back to the apartment and closed out our Berlin trip.

It was a great couple of days spent walking, exploring new places and eating and drinking. There is still so much more to see and do in Berlin which means another trip back will be on the cards in the future.

Here’s a list of all the things we saw and did:

  • Brandenburg Gate
  • Holocaust Memorial
  • Hitlers bunker
  • Luftwaffe air base
  • Berlin Wall
  • Typography of Terror museum
  • Checkpoint Charlie
  • Gendarmenmarkt (Christmas market)
  • Postdamer platz
  • Alexander platz
  • The Reichstag
  • The Alternative walking tour
  • East wall gallery
  • Kreuzberg (neighbourhood)
  • Friedrechsen (neighbourhood)
  • Templehof park (old airport)

An Awesome Two-Week Itinerary for Vietnam

 

Day 1 –  Ho Chi Minh City

Our Australian adventure was over and it was time to head home with a little pit stop in Vietnam. We flew from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur and then flew to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) the following morning.

Once you arrive in Vietnam you have to go to a separate desk to get your visa stamp before seeing immigration officers. You have to fill in a quick information sheet and give 1 passport photo and also pay USD$45 for a single entry 30 day visa, longer stays incur a larger fee.

After we passed through HCMC immigration and got our bags we headed outside to catch a taxi to our hotel. Some advice, don’t pay at the desks inside and outside the airport for pre arranged taxis they look to charge you 300,000 VND (€10) which is a hugely inflated price to what you can actually pay. Head straight to the taxi rank it’s on the left as you leave the airport building. Look out for two companies, MaiLinh (Green taxis) or Vinasun Taxi (white taxis) they seem to be the best and most reputable. These taxis are legitimate and they only use the meter. Our taxi took about 30 minutes to reach our hotel in the city centre and it came to 140,000 VND (less than €5) but our driver didn’t have change of 100,000 so he let us off with paying 134,000 VND.

He dropped us to the door of our hotel where we were met by a friendly and welcoming front desk. We were staying in Saigon Sports 3 Hotel, which is situated on Pham Ngu Lao right in the heart of District 1. We got a private room for two nights and it cost us €38 (USD$50). Paying €9.50 a night each is a huge difference from Australia prices and one that we welcomed with open arms. The hotel is good value for money and the staff is very helpful.

Mimi at the travel desk had organised our train tickets and helped us book some trips, which was great.

The location of the hotel is brilliant as it’s within walking distance to most of the city attractions such as the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Ben Than Market and Notre Dame church and also the main backpacker area with lots of bars and restaurants.

After a quick shower to freshen up we headed out to explore HCMC. We got our first beef and chicken pho in a place called Phuong Mai art and cafe, which is beside the Ben Thanh market. The service was great and they even showed Síofra how to use her chopsticks. We got two bowls of pho, an orange juice and a beer and it cost us €9.

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We walked around the crazy Ben Thanh Market and strolled around for a while before making our way to the War Remnants Museum, which was open again at 1.30pm. It closes everyday for lunch from 12-1.30pm so make sure you plan around it. The museum is well worth a visit and only costs 15,000 VND (50c).

There’s lots of US Army tanks, choppers and planes in the courtyard before you enter the museum where there is lots to read about the Vietnam War. There are also lots of very powerful photographs of events throughout the war and the after effects it has had on the Vietnamese people and country.

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On the walk home it was an adventure in itself. Crossing the roads in HCMC is not for the faint hearted. Thousands of motorbikes drive the streets in what can only be described as a free for all and you just have to put the head down and go for it.

After a well needed lie down we went out for some food. We ended up in a Mexican restaurant called La Casa but ordered Vietnamese food. Again our whole meal came to around €9 and was pretty good.

We took a stroll up the busy Bui Vien Street in District 1 and went into The Hideaway bar for some 80c beers and cocktails.

We didn’t stay out too long, but on the way home we decided to get foot massages. We went to a place called 881 Massage and got neck and foot massages for 60 minutes for 180,000 VND (€6). It was a great way to unwind after a long day.

Day 2 – HCMC

We were up early enough as we were going on a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We booked with a travel company around the corner from the hotel called An Travel. The full day trip cost us 168,000 VND (€6) but entry to the tunnels wasn’t included, this was an extra 90,000 VND (€3). Also not included is the price of lunch or the option of shooting guns.

We arrived at the Cao Dai Temple at 12pm and saw a ceremony. It was strange but cool to see. I would however recommend just doing the half-day tour and skip the temple, as it is another 4 hours on a bus.

After the temple we stopped for lunch. Lunch cost us 155,000 VND (€5) and wasn’t that bad.

After lunch we made our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels. When we arrived we watched a video of the war and the people of Cu Chi and how the tunnel network worked. It was very interesting to see how they worked and how they were beneficial during the war. As we walked through the jungle we were shown various different traps and bunkers and went to the shooting range. If you wish to try shooting the guns you can choose which weapon you want and shoot targets in the range. The prices start from 25,000 to 45,000 VND per bullet and you have to buy a minimum of 10 bullets. I shot an M60 from an army car which was pretty cool and came to roughly €10.

 

The tour ended with us entering the tunnel network and making our way through the dark underground. You can exit the tunnels every 10 meter’s or so but if you brave it till the end you will go through 110m in a tight dark space. The tunnels are so humid and being a little claustrophobic I didn’t last too long.

I would definitely recommend the tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, as it gives you a good insight into life in Vietnam during the war, especially for the communist guerrillas who designed and lived in the tunnel network.

We arrived back in HCMC at 6.30pm and showered before getting some food. We went to a place just off the Main Street, I can’t remember the name of it but it was pretty nice. We tried some Fried Noodles with beef and got some cheap beers and again our bill came to like 150,000 VND (€5). We went to a pop up bar on the side of the road that had plastic chairs and tables and it cost us 12,000 VND for a beer. We spent a while sitting and talking to fellow travellers before making our way back to the hotel.

Day 3 – HCMC

Check out wasn’t till midday so we took our time checking out, as we knew we weren’t catching a train till 11pm so would have the whole day to do stuff. We missed our free breakfast so we left our bags in the hotel and went searching for some food. We tried some bread egg from one of the street vendors, which was pretty tasty. Síofra wasn’t the biggest fan though so we went to Allez Boo where we got some eggs and fruit shakes.

We went to the Reunification Palace at 1pm when it reopened after lunch. It cost 30,000 VND (€1) and took us just over an hour to get through it. This is where the presidents of the Republic of Vietnam used to live. The palace has replica tanks to the ones that crashed through its gates when the north overpowered the south. They also have a replica of the fighter jet that bombed the Reunification Palace too. It was an interesting tour especially if you have any interest in the history of Vietnam.

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After this we went for a drink in the Ben Thanh market and had a proper look around for some presents and souvenirs. We bought a few t-shirts and bags and it was ridiculously cheap. We didn’t buy too much as we didn’t want to be carrying stuff for the duration of our travelling.

After enduring the blistering heat amongst the markets it was time for a well-deserved drink. We went to the Spotted Cow and caught the Super 15 Rugby Final, which was an added bonus.

After building up an appetite again we decided to get some dinner. We went to a place called 5 Oysters, which we heard so much about from people we know and fellow bloggers. Siof’s something new for the day was Saigon fried noodles and we also tried some pork and shrimp spring rolls. All were very tasty and again it was another cheap meal so was well worth it.

We strolled up the busy Bui Vien Street one last time before picking our bags up and heading to the train station.

Mimi and co at the Saigon Sports 3 Hotel were extremely kind and helpful throughout our stay and I couldn’t recommend staying here anymore. It’s value for money and location alone are enough to be satisfied but the cleanliness of the rooms and kindness of the staff really made our stay more enjoyable.

We got to Saigon train station and boarded our overnight train to Nha Trang. We were in a 6-bed berth and luckily we got the bottom bunks. Also luckily for us we had a nice berth with no “dodgy” characters in it.

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Day 4 – Nha Trang

We arrived into Nha Trang station at 5.35am and jumped into a taxi to our hotel. We were staying in Sun City Hotel, which was only about a km away and cost 35,000 VND in a taxi. The hotel is located just a two minute walk from the beach and has great views from the breakfast room. We got a private room for one night and it only cost us €18. Unfortunately when we arrived we were told that we couldn’t check in till 2pm however after getting a quick breakfast and sitting at reception for a bit they allowed us to check in just after 7am when the reception staff arrived for work. Our room was brilliant it had a huge queen size bed and an extra single bed, a big bathroom, a flat screen TV and it looked very new and clean.

Since we only had two days in Nha Trang we decided not to go for a sleep and make the most of our time, so we jumped in a taxi to the Po Nagar Cham Towers. A defining attraction of Nha Trang, these Cham ruins are the best kept in Vietnam. Set on a hill with views overlooking the river crowded with fishing trawlers, the whole complex is quite impressive. The Chams started to build the towers in the seventh century to honor Yang Ino Po Nagar, Mother of the Kingdom. Of the original ten edifices, three now remain. The entrance fee is 30,000 VND (€1) and the site opens from 7am to 7pm.

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Next on the agenda was a trip to the Thap Ba Hot springs, famous for its mineral mud baths. There are various different packages to choose from and they all vary in price. We chose option 3 “Hot mineral mud bath privately” and we paid 500,000 VND (€17) for a 20-minute private mud bath, a 30-minute natural hot mineral water bath and unlimited time in the various other swimming pools.

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It was a strange experience but one I’d recommend doing whilst in Nha Trang. By the time we got back to the hotel we were ready for bed, so we took a quick nap before heading out. After sleeping through several alarms we eventually got up. After reading several blogs recommending a place called “Galangal” we decided to check it out. It is a traditional Vietnamese & street food restaurant. Their ethos is to produce quality Vietnamese food the way it should be without changing them to suit Western tastes. We decided to go all out and ordered a few different dishes to share. We got the stir-fried chicken with pineapple, vegetables and cashew nuts, BBQ pork skewers served with rice paper and vegetables and charcoal grilled swordfish steak in a spicy sauce served with steamed rice and salad. All three dishes were amazing and it didn’t cost too much (€14 I think).  I’d highly recommend going to Galangal, as it didn’t disappoint to all the good reviews we heard.

Being so full we had to walk off our dinner before getting a few drinks, so we wandered through the night markets and down the beach. As we strolled down the beach we made our way to the Sailing Club Bar where we tried some of their specialties, the Jam Jars. It was a great beach bar with good tunes and if you didn’t want to go crazy on the dance floor you could chill on one of the many beanbags on the beach.

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We managed to stay out past 1am before we got tired again, however apparently once the Sailing Club ends people head to the backpacker bar Why Not.

Day 5 – Nha Trang

We got up early (8am) to head to the beach before the blistering heat. On the way I tried some more egg bread from the street vendor at the top of our road, and we walked for a bit until we found somewhere that did fresh smoothies/juices. Trying both of these things is something I’d recommend when in Nha Trang.

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It was about 9am by the time we got to the beach and it was already pretty hot so we decided to rent sun loungers to stay out of the sun. All along the beach there are sun loungers and they charge different prices, we went near the Sailing Club, which cost us 35,000 VND each.

After a couple of hours at the beach we had to head back to the hotel to check out. It was lucky because it was so hot and we would have been scalded alive. We were a bit hungry after checking out so we went to Olivia Pizza And More and got a couple of sandwiches. After this we jumped in a taxi to the Dam Markets, as it was too far to walk in the blistering heat. It wasn’t as good as the Ben Thanh market in HCMC which was disappointing as we put off buying more in HCMC. It was still too hot to be out in the sun so we decided the air conditioned Nha Trang Center was a good place to go to see if we could pick up anything. Unfortunately the prices were very similar to home so we said we’d wait till Hoi An and Hanoi to buy our presents.

Eventually after a couple of hours the temperature dropped so we went back to the beach for one last swim to cool down. When we got back to the hotel they allowed us to have showers before we caught our overnight bus to Hoi An. This was great as they offer people a late check out up to 5pm to do the same thing but you have to pay for half a night’s accommodation.

We had booked our bus with the travel desk in our hotel and it cost 220,000 VND (€7.50). The bus was meant to be picking us up at 6.30pm but due to monsoon rainfall it was delayed by 45mins. Within this 45mins so much rain had fallen that there was a stream outside the hotel about a foot deep. What happened next was just comical and you couldn’t help but laugh at the situation. I slipped on the wet hotel steps with two bags on and cracked my head off a wall at the bottom, and then we had to walk to the end of the road with no umbrellas or jackets on and had to trudge through a foot of water. Needless to say our first overnight bus experience in Vietnam was going well.

Once we got on the bus we were shown our seats/beds. They are reasonably comfy but if you’re a tall person then you could be in trouble. I’m only 5ft10 and it was quite a struggle to find a way to fall asleep. It was just for one night and all part of our Vietnam experience so we didn’t mind too much.

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Day 6 – Hoi An

We eventually arrived in Hoi An at 8am 2hrs late, this was due to the monsoon in Nha Trang which delayed us.

We were meant to be collected by the hotel but they thought we were in at 6am so they had left. A taxi there didn’t cost much though so it was all good. We stayed in Sunshine Hotel and got a private room for €42 for two nights.

When we arrived we were able to check into our room thankfully, which was great, as we had spent the last 12hrs on a cramped bus. It was a big room with a nice bathroom and was very clean.

We got some breakfast from the hotel and then made our way into the town. The town is about a 20-30 minute walk from the hotel however the hotel provides a FREE shuttle bus service and also offers FREE bicycles. As we didn’t know where we were going we took the shuttle.

We began walking around the old town and got some linen dresses made for presents for 450,000 VND (€15) in total.

We continued venturing through the streets admiring all the tailors and shops. As we were walking past the local market Síofra got roped into a manicure and eyebrow threading by the craziest Vietnamese woman, who insisted she get one. She tried roping me into getting them too but I resisted and settled for a beer instead.

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As we continued to stroll around it was getting very warm so we went back to chill by the pool and got some food.

We got ready and caught the shuttle bus back to town for dinner. We ended up in a place called Lowland’s restaurant, which was right on the river. Síofra started to feel unwell so we didn’t stay out for long. We put some lanterns into the river for good luck and watched them float down. After this we went over the bridge to the night market for a quick look. It’s not much of a market; it’s more souvenirs and novelty gifts but was still nice to see.

Day 7 – Hoi An

We woke up and took advantage of the FREE buffet breakfast the hotel offers before we got bikes out and cycled into the town. We looked in many shops to see if we could pick up presents and I got a dress made for my sister who sent me an image of what it looked like. The dress cost me $30 and was going to be ready later that evening.

 

I wasn’t feeling great and we were set to do a cooking class so we headed back to the hotel. We were picked up by the cooking school at 11.30am and brought to the local market. Here we got shown various different things, which we would use for cooking later in the day.

I was starting to feel seriously unwell so we left the cookery class to recover. We rescheduled our cooking class for following day as we thought we’d be feeling better. The rest of the day was spent trying to recover by sleeping and drinking lots of water.

After a couple of hours sleep we got bikes out again and cycled into town. Síofra was feeling better so she got food while I picked up Naoise’s dress. It turned out brilliantly and looked exactly like the picture.

Day 8 – Hoi An

After a good nights sleep and lots of water we both felt a bit better. We checked out, left our bags in the hotel and cycled into town one last time.

We stopped for a drink in Fusion cafe, which is on the other side of the river and after spent time roaming the streets looking for some last minute presents.

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We got back to the hotel and chilled by the pool till our taxi to the airport came. We paid 300,000 VND for it and took 30 minutes to get to Da Nang Airport. We had to get a private car as the travel agent we booked with didn’t have a shuttle bus that would have got us to the airport for the time we wanted. Upon further viewing in other travel agents we found out that they offered a shuttle for a time we wanted, so make sure you look around before booking like us.

When we got through security there wasn’t much shops or restaurants so I’d strongly advise not getting there too early. As we hadn’t been feeling well and hadn’t eaten in quite some time, we were over the moon to find a Burger King because we needed some familiar food.

Our flight to Hanoi took just over an hour and we were met by someone who was dropping us to our accommodation. I think the hostel charged us AUD$23 to be picked up. Taxis will cost something similar and there is also a shuttle bus that costs a little less too, but takes a little bit longer.

We decided to stay in Hanoi Backpackers (Downtown), which is situated, in the old quarter of Hanoi. We chose to stay here over a hotel as we had booked our Ha long Bay trip with them and thought it would give us an opportunity to meet people before going.

It took us a good 45 minutes to get to the hostel from the airport; from there we checked in and were shown our room. We got a double bed dorm which only cost us €9 a night so we saved a bit.

Once we got settled in we wandered the busy streets of the old quarter taking in all the action. We made our way up to the night market for a look before heading back to the hostel.

Day 9 – Hanoi

We got up early and took advantage of the FREE breakfast on offer and went out exploring Hanoi again. We walked down the side of Hoan Kiem Lake and decided to head to the famous Hoa Lo Prison, which is also referred to as the Hanoi Hilton by American POW’s. The entrance fee was 20,000 Dong and it again gave insights into how much the Vietnamese suffered over the years. It was interesting to see and again if you like dabbling in a bit of history it’s something you should see. Unfortunately a lot of the other museums were closed for the day as it was Friday so make sure you double check the opening times to any of the others such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum before you get to them.

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After a quick refreshment stop we made our way to the north of the old quarter to the Dong Xuan Market. It was pretty big and well worth a visit if your still looking to pick up some last minute presents or souvenirs. However, after visiting other cities I’d strongly recommend you to buy your knock offs and tailored clothes in HCMC and Hoi An. There are some really good shops that sell products too so make sure to keep an eye out for them.

It was very warm and we were hungry so we stopped by the hostel for some lunch. Surprisingly enough it was really good western food.

After lunch it was time for more shopping. This time we found a shop that sold what genuinely seemed like legitimate Converse, Vans, Toms and Nike Runners. We took full advantage of this and bought in bulk and received a hefty discount.

After a long day of walking around in the humid sun we stopped to get a drink and some well needed AC to cool down.

We headed back to the hostel to freshen up before making our way to Green pepper bar where we kicked back on our small plastic chairs and make shift table with some Bia Hanoi. This beer is locally produced everyday, has no preservatives and is sold until it runs out so make sure you head out early.

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Day 10 – Ha Long Bay

We were up early for our trip to Ha long Bay and Castaway island.

After some breakfast and a quick roll call we got on a bus that took us about 4 hours to get from Hanoi to Ha long Bay port.

When we arrived at the port we were split up and put onto two different boats, Hanks boat and Mamas boat.

We were put on Hanks boat, which was a little smaller, but it didn’t make much difference, as the two boats would be attached for the evening and night. Once we got onboard we were all brought to the top deck for an introduction and a welcome shotgun of beer.

Afterwards we went back downstairs for some lunch where we were treated to a mix of seafood, beef and breaded pork, which was pretty good. We continued to cruise through the bay having a few more beers and getting to know one another until we got to an inlet where we got in kayaks and paddled through caves and took in the amazing scenery. After a while we made our way back to the boat where we were allowed jump off the top.

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After swimming it was time for a quick shower before dinner was served at 7pm. Dinner was again a mix of seafood, beef and chicken and again was pretty good. As we ate we cruised on to the inlet where we would be mooring for the night.

After dinner the drinking games started and “happy hour” began with a buy 2 get one free offer. Beers cost 30,000 VND and spirits 35,000 VND.

As the boats were attached we were able to cross-boats for a massive game of kings cup where cross-dressing, forfeits and dance offs were in full swing. One of the tour guides was only doing his second trip so he had to do 6days of initiation, which included a danger shotgun (flaming toilet roll), which was for our amusement. We retreated back to our boat for AC and to cool down but it turned into another drinking game. The tunes fizzled out at about 1.30am and people began to tire after a long day.

 Day 11 – Ha Long Bay

We were woken at 7am for breakfast where there were a few sore heads.

By 8am it was already sweltering and we were all chilling on the top deck, some braved the sun while others hid in the shade.

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A few brave souls began to shotgun cans at 9am and rum was passed around until it ran out.

Just after 10am we transferred boat to a smaller one that would bring us to the Castaway Island.

Eventually after a while we made it to the Castaway Island. It was nestled between the sea stacks and looked like paradise. It had amazing views from the huts; it had a volleyball net, rock climbing, kayaks and a bar. We settled into our dorm huts and had a nice lunch of sandwiches and noodles. After lunch we went swimming and began the activities of rock climbing and tubing. The tubing was great fun so make sure you do it.

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As it cooled down we took kayaks out to explore some of the other islands in Ha Long Bay. The scenery was unbelievable and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

When we arrived back we were greeted to another shotgun before dinner. The dinner was great and again was a mix of everything.

The drinking got into full swing shortly after dinner and we began playing another big drinking game with crazy rules. The tables turned into a dance floor and the party continued before EVERYONE went swimming to see the plankton. It was a super moon so we didn’t see anything because it was so bright but it was still good all the same. The partying continued into the early hours of the morning before people headed to bed.

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Day 12 – Hanoi

For those who were heading back to Hanoi we were up at 7am. There were LOTS of sore heads bracing themselves for the long trip back to Hanoi. Some chose to stay another night on the island whilst the rest got on the boat home. Once we made it back to Mamas boat the food was served to try help cure the hangovers.

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We finally made it to the port and faced a 4hr bus journey back to Hanoi. After a torturous day travelling we arrived back to Hanoi at 5pm. We picked our bags up from the hostel and moved to a new hotel for the last night. We decided to go all out on our last night and stayed in the Tirant Hotel, which is a 4 star hotel not far from the hostel. We paid €45 for one night in a private room. Upon check-in we were upgraded to a bigger room as they were undergoing renovations to the rooftop area and compensated us with a bigger room. The room was huge and was a great way to finish our trip. We freshened up and went for food in Thai Express. It was good Thai food and reasonably priced. We wandered the night market before heading back to the hotel as we were wrecked after our Ha Long Bay trip.

 Day 13 – Hanoi

After a great nights sleep we got up at 9am to catch our free breakfast, which was really good. We took advantage of our room and chilled in it until we checked out at 12.

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We were staying near the airport that night so we left our bags in storage while we went shopping for the day.

For lunch we went to a place called Gecko, which had really nice sandwiches and has a few restaurants all close to the hotel.

We continued shopping for the last few things before stopping for some drinks, as it was just too hot.

We needed to kill some more time and had money to use so we decided to get one last massage in a place just around the corner from our hotel. We haggled with them and got foot, neck and head massages for 200,000 VND each.

We got reception to book us a taxi from the hotel for after 7pm, but a private car arrived and it cost us the same as a taxi would have, 330,000 VND (€12).

We arrived to our airport hotel and how it was a difference from our nice 4 star hotel in Hanoi. We got a private room for €11 but it was the most basic room I’ve ever seen. It was in what seemed like a dodgy area and had nothing around it except a cafe or two. If you decide to do something similar to this make sure you eat before you leave Hanoi and arrive as late as possible as there is nothing to do and there’s not even any English TV channels in the rooms. There is however FREE Wi-Fi so that was at least something.

I had read some reviews that no taxis would drop you to the airport as it is too short a journey so you are forced to use the service the hotel provides which costs $4 which in the scheme of things doesn’t sound that expensive but in Hanoi or anywhere in Vietnam a journey that short would never cost that much.

Day 14 – Travel Day 

In the airport at 7am as we faced 34hours of travel till we got home.

After spending the guts of two weeks in Vietnam I can now say that it is a beautiful country with great food, people and lots of interesting things to see and do. Our biggest concern prior to travelling was the amount of time we had. We thought 13days wouldn’t be enough time to see and do everything we wanted to, but we made the most of our time by getting up early and travelling at night.

We did miss out on a few things and would have liked to stay in some places longer but this gives us an excuse to return.

Ideally you should have longer to explore Vietnam as the pure size of the country takes time to get around. However saying that it most certainly can be done in as little as 13days.