Nazaré, Portugal.

Places to Visit in Central Portugal – Part I

From Sintra, we drove north to our next destination, Nazaré, a town on the central coast of Portugal. We chose Nazaré as our base for exploring this region of the country due to its location, choice of hotels and natural beauty. Since there is much to see in this part of Portugal, I will cover some sights in this post and others in Part II.

Almourol Castle

This scenic, small medieval castle sits on a rocky outcrop in the Tagus River, the same river which flows through Lisbon.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

A view of the castle from our small boat.

The castle is located 110 km (68 miles) east of Nazaré. Not much is really known about the castle’s history, but it was likely built prior to the Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1129. The Knights Templar had stewardship of the castle and surrounding lands until their disbanding in the 1300’s.

Almourol Castle, Portugal.

The massive walls of the castle.

Almourol Castle, Portugal

Entrance to the castle.

To reach the castle, you have to take a small boat, and you are given about 45 minutes to visit the castle before the boat returns to the mainland. The castle is in a rural area–there is a small snack shop near the parking lot, but not many restaurants around. Also, the boat operator takes a 1.5 hour lunch break, so plan your visit accordingly.

Leiria

This town would be another good base for visiting central Portugal (it’s just 37 km northeast of Nazaré). Even though Leiria is surrounded by many tourist sights, the town itself is not on the tourist map, but is still worth a stop. Sitting on a prominent hilltop overlooking the town is an old castle (which was turned into a palace).

Leiria Castle, Portugal

Leiria’s town square with its castle on the hilltop.

The town square below (known as Praça Rodrigues Lobo) has a nice view of the castle. The town also has some quaint streets, a cathedral, an old 15th century paper mill and a little 11th century church (near the castle).

Leiria, Portugal

Street scene in Leiria.

Just 15 minutes south of Leiria is the stunning monastery of Batalha, which I will cover in Part II.

Obidos

About 40 km south of Nazaré is Obidos, a medieval town encircled by a high wall. At the south end of the old town is a beautiful gate and at the north end is an old castle watching over the town and surrounding countryside.

Obidos, Portugal.

At the north end of of the old town of Obidos with its castle.

Obidos, Portugal.

Main Gate, Obidos. A 14th century gate, with 18th century tile work.

You can walk on the walls around the whole town for free.

Obidos, Portugal.

One of the entrances to the wall by the castle.

Obidos, Portugal

On our walk around the walls of Obidos.

We made it one half the way around the walls and then decided to do some shopping and have lunch in this magnificent setting.

Obidos, Portugal

Obidos Town Square. There are several interesting old churches is the town.

Obidos, Portugal.

Street scene in Obidos.

I would consider Obidos on the “must see” list in Portugal.

Nazaré

Nazaré itself is an interesting town and was our home for a few nights as we explored the region. It is a fishing village and a summer destination for the Portuguese, given its good beaches and central location. Nazaré doesn’t really have a “surfing vibe” like spots in Southern California, but I understand it has some of the best waves found in the Atlantic Ocean.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Looking down on the lower part of Nazaré with its wide expanse of beach. (The funicular tramway is in the lower part of the photo).

The beach is wide and quite beautiful, but unfortunately, we were there in the fall time (October) and didn’t get to enjoy the water. The town is split into two distinct parts, with the lower part hugging the beach, and the oldest part of the town sitting on a bluff overlooking the ocean, lower town and beaches.

Nazaré, Portugal.

Old Town Square, “upper” Nazaré.

Lots of good restaurants down by the beach. We stayed at the Hotel Magic, a great boutique hotel in the lower town.

Nazaré, Portugal.

The lower part of Nazaré has a nice promenade along the beach.

In my next post, I will cover our visits to the world famous Alcobaca, Bathala and Tomar monasteries.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Conquering Kilimanjaro and Finding My Heart for Adventure

Note from the Independent Tourist: The below post was written by my nephew, Mark Bitton, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in the spring of 2017. At the bottom of this post, he provides some practical tips for anyone considering this climb.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Photo by Slavomir Hepka

Mt. Kilimanjaro rises 19,341 ft. above sea level and is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. Being in Africa, the average temperature is higher, making it one of the few 5000m+ mountains in the world that can be climbed without crampons, ice picks and technical training. In fact, the primary skill level required to summit is simply being in reasonably good shape, which is why over 25,000 climbers a year come to Tanzania and attempt to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. That said, not everybody makes it to the summit. The Kilimanjaro National Parks department put out statistics showing that of those climbers that tried to summit in 5 days or less, only had a 27% success rate. By contrast, those who take 8 days to summit have about an 85% success rate. In other words, it’s not about how fast you can run the mile, it’s based on how your body acclimates to the higher altitude and the more time you give your body, the greater your odds of success.

Turning 40 this year, my primary motivation for flying solo to Tanzania was not solely recreational. My life lacked a sense of adventure and the idea of traveling alone to Africa and scaling one of the world’s taller mountains seemed to adventurous and frankly a little scary. I’d never climbed anything higher than 14,000 feet and had only done that once. In addition to not knowing how I’d do with the altitude, by going alone, I was to be mixed in with a hodge-podge group of 11 other climbers from around the world. Fortunately, not only did they all speak English at least as a secondary language, but we quickly discovered everybody in the group to be very friendly, open and humorous.

Mt. Kilimanjaro climging group.

Our climbing group. (That’s me on the right in the white shirt).

In 8 days, I felt like I’d made lifelong friends with almost everybody in the group.

Day 1:  The first day entailed a muddy drive up to the starting point of the hike. We were doing the Lemosho Route, so most of the scenery at the bottom of the mountain was tropical rain forest. It was pretty humid, though already being at about 4,000 feet, it wasn’t as hot as it had been down in Moshi or Arusha, the two closest towns to the base of Kilimanjaro.

Day 2:  On Day 2 you hike for about an hour before you say goodbye to trees for the remainder of the climb. Much of day 2 was filled with what I would describe as overgrown sage brush.

Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Typical terrain on Day 2.

At the end of Day 2, we were introduced to all of the porters and guides in our group. In all, there were 36 porters (guys that carry a portion of your equipment, food and tents, etc.) and 8 guides.

Days 3-5:  If you’re looking for lush, verdant vistas and valleys, this is not the place. There is no mistaking Kilimanjaro for anything in the Swiss Alps. The terrain is rocky, with very little vegetation and very little protection from the sun. There are some plants you’ll find on Kilimanjaro that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

This is the Senecio Kilimanjari plant. Each branch represents 25 years of age – some trees are over 400 years old.

The weather can change quickly as well. We were fortunate that Day 5 was the only day in which we were soaked by a heavy thunderstorm. Nobody’s “rain proof” gear proved completely waterproof and when combined with our sweat from hiking, it made for a soaked day. Most of the day was filled with conversation while hiking, mixed in with a bunch of “pole, pole” reminders from the guides, which is Swahili for “slow, slow”, reminding us that in thin air, going slow will help us adapt better. Our late afternoons and evenings were generally occasioned by a couple of card games, dinner and then hitting the pillow early each night as camp fires were not allowed.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Typical terrain on Days 3-5 of our climb.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Carefully finding our way.

Days 6-8: Due to the rocky nature of the landscape, we were impressed at how well the porters did in finding flat spots for our tents.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Our camps included facilities for sleeping, eating and a portable potty.

On Day 6, we arrived at the final base camp named Barafu, which is at about 15,331 feet.  The air was noticeably thinner here and we were told to sleep as much as we could before and after dinner as we would begin the final ascent at about 11pm. I was not accustomed to sleeping in the afternoon and my brain refused to sleep. (Side note: It’s not safe to take sleep aids at this elevation). So with no sleep, we started climbing for Uhuru Peak, which was another 4,000 ft vertical climb in the dark, with only headlamps to show the way. The higher we went, the colder it got. I tried sipping from my CamelBak® every 5 minutes or so to keep the line from freezing, however, about an hour before the summit, it froze anyway and the rest of the way I was without water and only had snacks that were frozen solid. Not everything was pain and drudgery however. The star filled sky from the top of Kilimanjaro was magnificent.  I’ve never seen the stars with such clarity and brilliance. The final ascent was quite hard and only through extreme determination and effort did about 2/3 of our group make it to the peak. The other third did so without too much of a struggle.

Summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The exhilaration of making it to the top – 19,314 feet above sea level.

I felt extremely fortunate to not feel the heavy toll of the altitude as extensively as most of my hiking comrades. Talking became rare as we approached the summit simply because the expiration of breath cost too much to do so. That is, except for the guides of course who seemed to be well acclimated and accustomed to the hours and the elevation.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

From the summit of Kilimanjaro at sunrise. What a beautiful sight.

Around 6:30am we arrived at the peak, just in time for the sunrise, the dim light revealed a large glacier near the peak and the solemn expanse of a treacherous and rocky peak.

Once you’re at the summit and have taken your pictures, there’s no hamburger joint to hang out at, so after about half an hour of the frigid cold, we headed back down. The journey back down proved to be the most difficult part of the entire hike for me. Upon beginning our descent, I’d now been awake for over 25 hours straight and the exhaustion from a combined lack of sleep and thin air was beginning to be apparent. The descent was steep and filled with loose shale and rocky dust, resembling volcanic ash more than it did a loamy dirt.

About half way down to the Barafu base camp, my knees started to feel the pain of absorbing the stress. I hobbled into base camp at about noon and was told to sleep as we would be doing some more hiking that afternoon. At this point I had a pounding headache, was sweating profusely and had both knees throbbing. 800mg of Ibuprofen didn’t seem to make the slightest dent and I had no hunger for lunch. I didn’t even come close to sleeping that afternoon and around 2pm we headed out for what I thought would be a short hike to get to a lower elevation. Twelve miles later and what felt like a gazillion rocky stairs later, I finally arrived, dead last to the camp. In all my life, I’ve never felt so exhausted. I had gone just over 40 hours without sleep, in some of the most strenuous conditions I’d ever faced. When my head hit the pillow that night, sleep finally came easy and I enjoyed one of the most restful nights of sleep I’d had in years. The next day, I awoke and to my great relief, with sleep my leg muscles had rejuvenated and my knee pain as a result had dissipated about 75% making the last 8 miles of decent feel easy by comparison to the prior day.

When I’d left the U.S., I’d wanted it to be tough. I was looking for a challenge, so in an odd way, I found the grueling descent experience perhaps the most rewarding part of my adventure. Most of the others I should note, did not have similar issues with their knees. I guess that’s my reward for enjoying one too many skiing moguls as a youth.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The descent seemed never-ending.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Our tired, but happy group. Photo by Slavo Hepka

Upon returning I’ve been asked by several persons if I’d experienced the adventure I was looking for. Yes, I did. However, on Kilimanjaro I discovered that it’s not simply about experiencing an adventure, it’s about finding the heart of the adventurer inside yourself.  That, my friends, is a thirst I cannot quench, but one in which I’m happy to live the rest of my life pursuing. ‘Til the next great adventure.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Photo by Slavo Hepka.

Practical Notes:

Season: The Kilimanjaro climbing season is late September through late February, with November – January typically being the best weather.

Tour Company: The company I used was “Ultimate Kilimanjaro”. Of the companies I researched, they had the best combination of overall value, price and expertise. I also added a two-day safari at the start of the trip. Very worthwhile.

Access: Kilimanjaro National Airport, near Arusha. The mountain is near the city of Moshi, about a one hour drive from Arusha.

Route: Our tour company took the Lemosho Route, about 42 miles total, and one of the longer routes. Most of the miles are spent going up and a shorter route is taken coming down.

Preparation: I am in fairly good physical condition, exercising regularly. I hiked 5-10 miles a couple times a week with a 50 lb pack for a couple months prior to the trip. The porters carry most of the camp gear and the group members each carried about 25 lbs of personal gear with them. Most of the group was between the ages of 20 and 50. You do NOT want to have medical attention on this trip. Very difficult to get assistance.

What to Bring: The website provides lots of information. Don’t skimp on the rain gear or warm weather clothing. Also, bring a couple card games for entertainment – there are no campfires so evening entertainment is limited. Solar is the only practical way to charge your electronics (e.g. phone) and lamps, and they will probably not last long each day. Diamox for altitude sickness is very helpful.

 

Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here – Part 2

I had been to Sintra a few years ago while on business to Lisbon, Portugal. I knew one day I would have to come back, and I finally did. It is a short drive (or train ride) away from Lisbon (about 40 kilometers or 25 miles).

Sintra, Portugal

A view of Sintra and the surrounding countryside.

As I said in my original post on Sintra, it is one of the most enchanting towns in Europe, due to its multitude of fascinating sights. I don’t know of any other small town that offers so much for the tourist in such a compact area. Even after spending the better part of two days here this time, there are still things I did not get to see.

Sintra has its roots in Portugal’s Moorish past, dating to the eighth or ninth century. On my first visit I saw the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros, a fine set of ramparts high above the town) and the Pena Palace (Palácio Da Pena), the polychromatic post card image of Sintra.

On this trip I added three more sights:

Quinta da Regaleira. This manor house with its gardens takes its name from Baroness da Regaleira, who bought the property in 1840. This was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family beginning in the mid 1800’s, and most of what we see now is from the late 1800’s and early 1900s.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the house and chapel. The chapel contains scenes of the lives of Mary and Christ, and symbols from the Templar Order (Knights).

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Ornate wood work and beautifully painted walls adorn this bedroom.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Hunting Room. The mantlepiece depicts exceptionally well-carved hunting scenes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The decorative exterior can be appreciated in this view.

The house exterior exhibits the ornate “neo Manueline” (named after King Dom Manuel I) style, but what really sets this incredible estate apart are the fascinating (and extensive) gardens.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Regaleira Tower, which provides a great view over the gardens and sits on top of Leda’s Grotto.

The Monteiros had quite an imagination in creating these gardens – which contain numerous grottoes, underground walkways, an inverted tower (that goes several stories underground), gardens, pools, towers, statues and a chapel.

Quinta da Regaleira,Sintra, Portugal

A view from the bottom of the inverted tower at Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

One of Quinta da Regaleira’s grottoes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Entrance to one of the many tunnels in gardens.

Many of these features contain symbolism from mythology, ancient classical works and the medieval period.

The National Palace (Palácio National, or Palácio de Sintra). The palace occupies a prominent spot in the center of town. It was originally an Arab construction and became the residence of the Portuguese royal family from the 12th century. Later on it became a royal summer retreat. Although the outside looks rather plain, painted white, the interior is something to behold. It has a unique blend of styles, including Gothic, Mudéjar (Iberian Arabic), and Manueline, with incredible collections of tiles and other artistic treasures.

Palace of Sintra, Portugal.

A view of the Palacio de Sintra from the Castelo dos Mouros. The conical towers are chimneys over the massive the kitchen.

National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The Grand Hall (or Hall of the Princes) at the National Palace.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

The Blazons Hall, built during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521). The ceiling in carved gilded woodwork is crowned by the royal coat-of-arms and is surrounded by the armorial bearings of seventy two noble families. The late 17th to early 18th century panels of painted tiles depict courtly and hunting scenes.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

Grotto of the Baths, the decorated tiles depict scenes of nobility, fountains and gardens.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

A view of the kitchen.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal.

Another room in Palácio de Sintra.

The Convent of the Capuchos (Convento dos Capuchos or The Convent of the Holy Cross in the Sintra Hills). This is probably my favorite spot in Sintra and perhaps all of Portugal. This 16th century convent sits south of Sintra about 7 km (4.5 miles). It was abandoned in 1843 when religious orders were extinguished in Portugal.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Courtyard of the Crosses. The courtyard leads into the Convent and contains three crosses representing Golgotha.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Courtyard of the Fountain, where visitors making the long journey to the Convent would take refreshment.

Built among the huge boulders of its hillside location, it embodies the ideal of universal fraternity of the Franciscan friars who lived here.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Hermitage of Our Lord in Gethsemane, with frescoes (near the door) of St. Francis of Assisi (left) and St. Anthony of Lisbon (right).

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the Cloister, a private space for the Franciscan community.

Covento dos Capuchos Entrance2

Entryway ceiling, lined in cork.

It is simple, small, very picturesque, and feels like something right out of The Hobbit. Many of the rooms (especially the dormitories) and corridors are tiny.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Dormitory corridor. Note the ceiling and door frames decorated in cork.

The unusual extensive use of cork (that’s where the name ‘Capuchos’ comes from) throughout the monastery was for insulation, sound proofing and decoration.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Chapter House, with cork entry way.

We were given a brochure as a guide and allowed to wander the site on our own. Be sure to explore the nature trails above the monastery for a few other interesting sights.

All added up, I’ve spent about three days in Sintra and I could have easily spent one or two more. This is a special place. For more information on Sintra, visit www.sintra-portugal.com

Bryce Canyon National Park

24 Hours in Bryce Canyon National Park

When planning a trip to Southern Utah, it’s hard to go wrong when deciding between the five National Parks that span the area. Each park is quite unique, and all are spectacular. As the smallest of the National Parks in Southern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is suited perfectly for visitors who are dealing with a time constraint but would still like to experience nature and take in incredible views.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon as seen from the Rim Trail

On a recent adventure, a good friend and I spent 24 hours in Bryce Canyon and can confidently say that we saw and explored a great deal of the park. While the park is small (only 18 miles long with paved roads from north to south) there is plenty to explore and visitors could easily spend several days in the National Park.

Bryce Canyon

Durant and I at Bryce Point

My friend, Durant, and I planned to backpack Riggs Spring Loop Trail, an 8.6 mile loop out of Rainbow Point in the southern-most part of the park, and were also intent on stopping at as many viewpoints and exploring as many of the short hikes as we could.

Bryce Canyon

Taken near Sunrise Point along the Queens Garden Trail

A few notes on backpacking the Riggs Spring Loop: 1) backcountry permits are required and can be purchased at the Visitor Center for $5 per person, 2) backcountry camping is only permitted at designated campsites, of which there are four along the Riggs Spring Loop, 3) reservations may only be made at the Visitor Center, and only up to 48 hours in advance.

Bryce Canyon Thor's Hammer

Taken near Sunset Point. The large hoodoo in the center of the photo is appropriately named, “Thor’s Hammer”

We arrived to Bryce Canyon National Park and the Visitor Center just before noon on a Saturday in the spring and had no problem securing one of the campsites along Riggs Spring Loop for that night.

Bryce Canyon

Taken from the Rim Trail, close to Sunset Point. Afternoon showers are common

With a few hours to “burn” before starting our overnighter we hit as many of the viewpoints as we could on our way to Rainbow Point. Each observation point is slightly different, and all are well worth the stop.

Bryce Canyon Piracy Point

Taken from Piracy Point, with a view of Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument to the East

To visitors who only have a couple of hours to explore Bryce Canyon, I would recommend the four viewpoints closest to the Visitor Center: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point. I would also recommend the 1.8 mile hike along the Queens Garden Trail.

Bryce Canyon Rainbow Point

Looking North from Rainbow Point

At around 3:30 pm, and after seeing both Rainbow and Yovimpa Points, we took off along the Riggs Spring Loop Trail heading east, clockwise around the Loop.

Riggs Spring Loop Bryce Canyon

Taken from Riggs Spring Loop Trail

The hike from Rainbow Point to Riggs Spring Campsite (where we spent the night) is 5.3 miles and is all downhill. Rainbow Point is the highest point in Bryce Canyon at 9,115 feet, while Riggs Spring Campsite sits at only 7,514 feet. In this situation, what goes down must come up, and 1,600 feet of elevation gain is significant over the remaining 3.3 miles of the hike while carrying a backpack.

Riggs Spring Loop Bryce Canyon

A view of Yovimpa Point from below

Corral Hollow Campsite Bryce Canyon

View from the Corral Hollow campsite along the Riggs Spring Loop Trail

We got to our campsite at about 6 pm (it’s typical to plan 2 miles per hour when backpacking), set up camp, ate our meager backpacking meals, and watched as the beautiful night sky crept over us.

Riggs Spring Loop Bryce Canyon

The night sky as seen from our campsite

Riggs Spring Loop Bryce Canyon

Surrounding cliffs on the climb to Yovimpa Pass from Riggs Spring campsite

After a typical night’s rest when camping (my small air mattress deflated on me several times throughout the night), we broke camp bright and early. We were out by 7:30 am, and made our way up Yovimpa Pass and back to Rainbow Point by 9 am.

Riggs Spring Loop Bryce Canyon

The view, looking South, between Yovimpa Pass and Rainbow Point

Once at Rainbow Point we got in our car and decided to stop at the remaining viewpoints we had yet to see. Several viewpoints and hundreds of photos later, we left Bryce Canyon National Park well before noon and headed home.

Bryce Canyon

Taken near Bryce Point

Bryce Canyon National Park features a great deal of amenities including two campgrounds, a lodge with 114 rooms (lodge suites, motel rooms, and cabins), showers, laundry, a restaurant, and a general store. Just outside of the park are several motels, gas stations, etc. There is also a $30 entrance fee per vehicle to enter the park.

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon is famous for having one of the highest concentrations of hoodoos on Earth

Bryce Canyon is open year round. We visited in the spring and there were still trace amounts of snow on the ground. Other than that, the temperature was quite comfortable, although it does get cold at night.

Bryce Canyon

Another view of Bryce Canyon taken from near Bryce Point

For information regarding Bryce Canyon National Park, including camping, hiking, weather, permits, etc., please visit the National Parks website.

War Museum, Saigon

5 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. The city was known as Saigon for many years until it was renamed after the end of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, locals still often refer to it as Saigon. This is Vietnam’s largest city with about 10 million inhabitants.

Ho Chi Minh City view

View of central Ho Chi Minh City. The central tower has an observation deck for tourists.

The first thing we noticed on our drive into the city from the airport was how different it felt from Hanoi! Ho Chi Minh City felt much more vibrant, fashionable and modern – with lots of marquee international stores and young people on scooters going everywhere.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the observation deck mentioned above.

We spent two days here. Our first day was spent exploring the sights in the core downtown area (on foot) and on our second day we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 70 km (45 miles) outside the city.

War Remnants Museum

This is the main tourist attraction in Ho Chi Minh City. It tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and their Communist regimes.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

Exterior view of the War Remnants Museum.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

The courtyard of the War Remnants Museum is filled with various U.S. Military equipment.

Of course, horrific tragedies occurred on both sides and no one was innocent in this conflict. The whole war was an unfortunate disaster that caused pain and suffering on both sides.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

A sign post in the War Remnants Museum.

Saigon War Remnants Museum11

Prisoner cages.

Vietnam War Map

This map shows the areas of heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War (areas in black).

Saigon War Remnants Museum12

A display inside the War Remnants Museum.

The museum is large and well organized, with exhibits on several floors and outside the main building. Plan at least two hours for your visit, and if you want to read everything, even longer.

 

Jade Emperor Pagoda

This temple takes the cake for weirdness for those of us less initiated in the Buddhist and Taoist religions – with crowded, smoke (incense) filled rooms.

Jade Pagoda, Saigon

Exterior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Exterior detail at the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

It’s hard to describe, although Lonely Planet does a pretty good job: “this is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes”.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Interior view of Jade Emperor Pagoda with a variety of figures.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Another view in the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

One other view of the interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

The temple is not old, having been constructed in 1909 in honor of the supreme Taoist god (known as the Jade Emperor), Ngoc Hoang. It is crowded with strange-looking figures and jumbled rooms. Definitely worth a visit!

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

This basilica was built between 1863-1880 by the French during the period of French colonialism in Vietnam. One of the vestiges of their occupation is this beautiful (and out of place) cathedral located in the heart of the city on a pretty square.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica

A view of the Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City. The statue of Mary in the foreground supposedly shed tears in 2005, stopping traffic in this busy area.

All of the materials for this cathedral were imported from France.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica1

Interior view of the Basilica.

Central Post Office

Right next to the Cathedral is another relic of the French era, the Central Post Office. This building was constructed in the late 1800’s and contains two beautiful paintings on its walls (maps of Saigon and the larger region) and a variety of shops.

Central Post Office Saigon

Exterior view of the Central Post Office.

Central Post Office Saigon

Interior view of the Central Post Office.

There is a tourist office here where we arranged for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels (see below).

Cu Chi Tunnels

These relics of the Vietnam War are less than 45 miles outside the city, but took about 90 minutes to reach due to traffic getting out of the city. They are well worth the effort. We did this as part of a day tour (our group had about eight people).

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The extensive tunnel systems served as communication and transportation networks to aid the Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. There are two main tunnel areas that can be visited: Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh, our tour went to Ben Dinh.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A main entrance into one of the bunkers at Cu Chi Tunnels.

Some rooms were large enough to be used as conference rooms and hospitals.

Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the war rooms in the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Hospital display at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

There are 250 km (155 miles) of tunnels here, some are two levels deep. It must have been quite an engineering feat to dig these tunnels and lay out the system in a stealth manner.

We were shown secret entrances, disguised air vents, and treacherous booby traps.  We had the opportunity to crawl on our hands and knees through tiny tunnels that had lovely bats flying around you!

Hidden entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels

A hidden entrance to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A typical corridor in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Cramped space in the Cu Chi Tunnels!

Cu Chi Tunnels air shaft.

Concealed air shaft to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Booby trap – watch your step or you could end up falling on these huge spikes.

Be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty! After spending time crawling on our hands and knees in the tunnels in a damp humid climate we gained an appreciation for what it must have been like to live in these conditions for months or years.

Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to visit, be sure it’s on your itinerary in Vietnam.

 

Grand Canyon Toroweap

Toroweap, the Lesser Known Observation Point at Grand Canyon National Park

Boasting close to six million visitors, Grand Canyon National Park was the second most visited National Park in 2016. In fact, the Grand Canyon has been the second most visited National Park since 1990, with numbers ranging from 4 to 5 million visitors per year. And why wouldn’t people want to see the Grand Canyon? With stunning views and breath taking heights, the canyon is a marvel to behold! However, for those of us who like to enjoy nature’s splendors in relative peace and calm, making the more traditional visit to the North or South Rim of the Grand Canyon can be slightly dissatisfying. Dealing with busloads of people at every observation point, fighting the hoards for the perfect photo op; somewhere along the line the spiritual experience that comes with beholding something truly magnificent is tainted.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

Looking East from Toroweap Overlook on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

There is one observation point along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon that is still widely undiscovered, a place where visitors can enjoy the Grand Canyon in complete solitude, Toroweap, also known as Tuweep.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

You don’t want to fall from there! The Colorado River lies 3,000 ft below

The names Toroweap and Tuweep are used interchangeably when referring to the area. “Tuweep” is the Paiute word for “the earth” and is used to refer to the general area. “Toroweap” is the Paiute word for “dry or barren valley” and refers specifically to the valley and the overlook.

Tuweep Grand Canyon

At the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park

In 1870, John Wesley Powell was led to Tuweep by a Paiute guide. He spent time mapping out the area and naming many of the prominent features.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

With my mom, Robyn, and my Grandma, Donna. We visited in the Spring and had beautiful weather.

Despite not being very far from civilization as the crow flies, Toroweap is a very remote area, with no amenities, so visitors need to be prepared with whatever they need for the excursion, water, food, gas for their vehicles, etc.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

Looking West from Toroweap Overlook

From St. George, Toroweap is roughly an 80 mile drive on unpaved roads. Taking the final Utah I-15 exit before entering Arizona, head South on County Hwy 5. The paved road becomes a dirt road the moment you cross into Arizona. Follow County Hwy 5 South to the old Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse. Originally built in 1918, Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse is a fun stop along the way to Toroweap. From the Schoolhouse, head East on County Hwy 5. You will be driving over Mt. Trumbull. Continue to follow the road as it turns South and into Grand Canyon National Park. Total driving time from St. George to Toroweap is between 3 and 3 ½ hours.

Note that the last 3 miles before arriving to the observation point are very rough. There is parking available at this point for vehicles with low clearance. Only vehicles with high clearance are suited to continue.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

Taken from the 4-wheel drive section of the trip. Toroweap, dry or barren valley, was certainly named appropriately.

There is no entrance fee to enter the National Park at Toroweap. Near the overlook, there are several hikes to explore. There is also a campground with several available campsites, however, backcountry permits are required for camping and there is a small fee to spend the night. As I previously mentioned, there are no amenities. Be sure to bring sufficient water, food, clothing, gas for your vehicle, etc. Also be sure that your vehicle is in good condition, that you have a quality spare tire, and that you are ready to change a flat tire if needs be.

Toroweap Grand Canyon

Nothing more fun than exploring nature’s beauty!)

For information regarding current conditions at Toroweap, hiking and camping in the area, etc. the National Parks website is very helpful.

Visiting the Charming Village of Hoi An (with a Day Trip to My Son ruins)

From Hanoi, we flew to Da Nang, a city on the central coast of Vietnam and kind of like the “California” of Vietnam – the winter weather here was sunnier and warmer than Hanoi. The setting is quite pretty with green mountains surrounding the city and long stretches of beachfront and resorts along the South China Sea coast, making it somewhat of a vacation destination. Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and a major port.

Da Nang, Vietnam

A snapshot of Da Nang from our taxi.

Our purpose in coming to Da Nang was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, a picturesque village just about 30 minutes south by taxi. Several centuries ago, when Vietnam was just being “discovered” by European explorers, Hoi An was a major port and trading hub for much of Asia.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A view of the village of Hoi An with the river boats.

Japanese Bridge. Hoi An, Vietnam

The 18th century Japanese covered bridge, the symbol of Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A temple in Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A street scene in Hoi An.

Hoi An is now a primary tourist destination—with well-preserved 15th-19th century architecture and lots of shopping and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. Speaking of shopping, good values can be found here – I got a wooden ship (junk) model for $25 and my daughter bought a couple pairs of custom made leather sandals and my son bought a leather wallet, made overnight after they copied the best features of his current wallet!

Hoi An18

My ship model. A bargain for $25.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Some fashionable shoes for sale in Hoi An!

The Thu Bon River is the lifeblood of Hoi An – providing a highway for transportation, access to the sea and sources of food. We took an hour tour along the river – very enjoyable, with views of homes, boats and daily life along the riverfront.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Demonstration of how to cast a net on our Thu Bon River cruise.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Our river boat guide.

Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

View along the Thu Bon River.

The evenings are when Hoi An shows its best, with the decorated lights along the river, and lively sounds coming from the restaurants, shops and bars around the town.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An comes alive at dusk, with the tourists looking for food and drink after the day’s adventures.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A dusk river boat ride.

Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the many tailors in Hoi An.

My Son Ancient Hindu Temples – A Good Day Trip from Hoi An

Another thing we did while in Hoi An was hire a taxi to take us out to the My Son ancient ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which was about 37 kilometers (20 miles) distant. These are ancient Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

View of the ruins of My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the better preserved temples at My Son.

Most of the temples were built out of brick rather than stone. There is a large visitors center and interpretive signs in English at the major temples. The ruins are some distance away from the visitor’s center, and you can either walk or take a cart ride provided by the park.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Another temple at My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

This ruin has been restored; the UN is providing some funds for restoration of these temples.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Detailed carved writing (with some bullet marks) can be seen on this stone.

While this site in its current state does not compare to the ruins found in Siem Reap, it is nonetheless interesting, partly for the history and partly because there was significant fighting here during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, much of the site was destroyed during bombing runs by the U.S. Evidence of this can still be seen in the bomb craters.

My Son Ruins17

Bomb crater (the mud hole at bottom of photo).

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Some ruins are still covered by dense jungle foliage.

Unexploded land mines are still in the area too, so don’t wander off the main paths.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Going out on patrol in this dense jungle must have been no fun (some ruins can also be seen).

It was rainy the day we visited and I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to slog through the humid, wet jungle for days and weeks on end constantly in fear of being shot or captured. Plan about 4 hours for the round trip from Hoi An, which leaves about 2 hours for the site visit.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Descending into Black Canyon of the Gunnison

In his book, Images of America: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Duane Vandenbusche put it best by saying, “Several canyons of the American West are longer and some are deeper, but none combines the depth, sheerness, narrowness, darkness, and dread of the Black Canyon.” With depths ranging anywhere from 1,800 to 2,722 feet (at Warner Point) and a width of only 40 feet at its narrowest point along the river, Black Canyon of the Gunnison owes its name to the fact that some places along the canyon only receive 30 minutes of sunshine each day. Black Canyon of the Gunnison was made an official National Park in 1999 so that visitors could enjoy the spectacular views, the daring climbs, the breathtaking (literally) hikes, and the Class V rapids that the canyon offers. The National Park encompasses 14 miles of the 48 mile canyon.

Black Canyon, Sunset View

A view of the Black Canyon, looking North West, taken from Sunset View

In our recent adventure to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, my father and I somewhat tiptoed the line between bold adventurer and casual sightseer. We decided to descend into the canyon following the Gunnison Route, which is the most popular, and supposedly the “easiest” route to the bottom.

Black Canyon, South Rim Visitor Center

Black Canyon of the Gunnison as seen from the South Rim Visitor Center

Permits for the descent to the river are required and are issued (free), on a first-come first-serve basis from the visitor center. To that end, we arrived at the South Rim Visitor Center when it opened (8 am), applied for our permits, and got an early start to, what we figured to be a physically exhausting day.

Gunnison Route, Black Canyon

Taken along the descent into the Black Canyon

The Gunnison Route begins at the South Rim Visitor Center and initially follows the Oak Flat Trail for 1/3 miles until you reach a sign, “River Access. Permit Required.”

Gunnison Route, Black Canyon

The Gunnison Route follows the drainage seen on the far right side of the photo

At that point the true descent begins. The descent is steep, but very doable, we just made sure to take it slowly, and followed a drainage nearly the entire way to the river.

Descent into Black Canyon

My father, Paul, using the chain to help with the descent

About 1/3 of the way down, there is an 80 foot length of chain to hold onto. Although the chain isn’t necessary to use, we found it helpful for extra balance.

Black Canyon chain descent

I too, found the chain to be helpful

As we descended closer to the river, the temperature began warming up and it seemed as though we were entering a lush paradise, complete with thick foliage and stunning views of the rushing river and towering cliffs.

Black Canyon

Our view as we neared the bottom of the canyon

Along the river there are several backcountry campsites available. Although we had originally thought about camping in the canyon we decided to camp at the South Rim Campground and descend into the Black Canyon as a day hike.

Gunnison river in Black Canyon

Taken near the campsites along the river

Total, the hike took us about an hour and a half each way. Remember that the descent into, and the ascent out of the canyon is about 1800 foot change in altitude, so be prepared with good hiking shoes, water, snacks, knee braces, ankle supports, etc. We also found it extremely helpful to use gloves while descending/ascending the portion of the trail that has chain.

Gunnison River in the Black Canyon

My dad and I near the campsites. Happy to have successfully descended into the Black Canyon, but nervously awaiting the ascent.)

The South Rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is roughly 15 miles from Montrose and 64 miles from Gunnison. To get there from Montrose take Colorado State Highway 50 (Main St. in Montrose) heading East. After about 7 miles you’ll exit onto Highway 347 heading North East. Follow the highway for about 7 miles into the National Park.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

One more view of the paradisiacal setting along the Gunnison River in the Black Canyon

There are several campgrounds with access to water and electricity within the National Park. For more information regarding amenities, weather conditions, visitor center information, trail conditions, etc. please see the National Park website.

Black Canyon descent

A view the Black Canyon, not far from the South Rim Visitor Center

 

Biking in India

10 Exhilarating Biking Trips in India

In this article our guest writer, Rohit Agarwal, explores 10 great biking adventures in India. See his bio below.

For the biking enthusiasts among us, India can prove to be a wonderful destination to take amazing trips because of the differing levels of challenging terrains across the country and the breath-taking view of the landscapes it has to offer. Here are ten of the best trails within the country that are sure to provide you with a delightful experience.

1. Iruppu To Ooty

Biking in India

Photo by Zigg-E, CC BY-ND 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 4 h 35 min (157.0 km)
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Lakeview in Ooty & Tropical Blooms in Iruppu.
  • Bike Rentals: From Royal Brothers Bike Rental in Coorg (1 hour away from Iruppu). One way rental not available.

A trail that takes about 4 to 5 days to complete, the places the trip of Ooty covers are absolutely stunning. The glorious sound of the mountain streams and lush greenery of the Nilgiri Hills will make you gaze in wonder at the beauty of Mother Nature.

2. Bomdila To Tawang

Biking in India

Photo by Bobinson K B, CC BY-SA 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 5 h 48 min (170.2 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Tashi Ga Tsel in Tawang & Hotel Seagull in Bomdila.
  • Bike Rentals: Rent a bike from Guwahati via Rentrip, Awerides or The Highland Outback Riders etc. One way rental not available.

With the snow-clad mountains peeking in at almost every point of this trip to Bomdila, this is a trail that offers a moderate difficulty level and unlimited views of Nature’s exquisiteness. The rice plantations and gorgeous forests the trail takes you through are truly sights to behold.

3. Shimla To Manali

Biking in India

Photo by _paVan_, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 7 h 4 min (247.5 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Sidharath in Shimla and Hotel Greenfields in Manali.
  • Bike Rentals: Rentrip offers one way rental services in this route.

The trails of Himanchal Pradesh are absolutely stunning and the Spiti Valley offers many challenges to get the blood pumping in your veins as you travel to Manali through the charming valley as the rich vegetation surrounds you with its splendour.

4. Salem To Kolli Hills

Biking in India

Photo by Sodabottle, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 1 h 13 min (61.8 km).
  • Places of Stay: Nallathambi Resort in Kolli Hills and Hotel Ashwa Park in Salem.
  • Bike Rentals: Self Drive in Salem, A 1 Tour & Travels and many other options available. One way rental would require extra charge.

Not only are the impressive Kolli Hills known for the amazing view of the extravagant landscapes but also for the 70-hairpin bends that offer a real challenge to all those biking junkies with prior moderate experience.

5. Mumbai To Daman

Biking in India

Photo by Jugni, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 2 h 54 min (176.9 km).
  • Places of Stay: Silver Sands Beach Resort in Daman & Hotel Transit in Mumbai.
  • Bike Rentals: Ziphop, GetSetWheel and many more. One way rental would cost more.

This is a calm and quiet trail filled with beautiful forts, fun casinos and striking beaches. It takes about 2 to 3 days to complete the journey to Daman and is an ideal choice for those looking for a modest trip to appreciate the quaint town out in Daman.

6. Pollachi To Chalakudy

  • Distance Covered: 2 h 43 min (129.3 km).
  • Places of Stay: Pollachi Classic Club in Pollachi and Bethania Resorts in Chalakudy.
  • Bike Rentals: From Coimbatore via Rentrip or Royal Picks. One way rental not available.

Rated as one of the most breath-taking journeys to take, this trail passes through the amazing Vazhachal Forest, with numerous waterfalls, streams, dams and reservoirs along the way to make the experience that much more memorable. The evergreen forests and stunning flora along with the thrilling terrain creates an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

7. Jaipur To Jaisalmer

Biking in India

Photo by Jorge Láscar, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 9 h 19 min (558.9 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Tokyo Palace in Jaisalmer and Hotel Kalyan in Jaipur.
  • Bike Rentals: Rent Set Go, Rentrip, Wicked Ride etc. One way rental would cost extra if the bike rental is not in the end destination.

What makes this trail unique is that it takes you through astonishing deserts and beautiful views of the landscape of Rajasthan. You also get the chance to experience the colourful local food, the jaw dropping architecture and the inspiring lifestyle of the people inhabiting the rural parts of the state.

8. Darjeeling To Sikkim

Biking in India

Photo by MithilaConnect, CC BY 2.0

  • Distance Covered: 4 h 36 min (126.2 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Shangri-La Regency, Darjeeling and Hotel Saikripa, Gangtok.
  • Bike Rentals: Adventures Unlimited and Darjeeling Riders. One way rental would cost more.

A trip to Darjeeling, that is sure to mesmerise your senses and get your adrenaline rushing through your veins, this trail offers a fantastic view of the mighty Himalayan mountains all throughout the surreal journey and the various cultures and religions you get to discover and explore along the way are unique and impressive in their own rights. Add to that the hospitality and warmth of the local people and what you have is a beautiful collection of memories and lovely experiences to take away.

9. Delhi To Nainital

Biking in India

Photo by Ekabhishek, CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Distance Covered: 6 h 50 min (301.0 km).
  • Places of Stay: Hotel Delhi Darbar, Delhi and Treebo Cloud 7, Nainital.
  • Bike Rentals: Rentrip, Rent Set Go and Wheel Street. One way rental available.

The trip which starts from the enthralling capital and leads to the exquisite city of lakes via Corbett-Mukhteshwar is a journey filled challenges and thrills. The winding roads, orchards lining the sides of the trail and lavish woodlands filled with various types of flora are truly sights to behold.

10. Siliguri To Gangtok

Biking in India

Photo by Christopher J. Fynn, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • Distance Covered: 3 hr 45 min (116.1 km)
  • Place of Stay: Hotel Saikripa Gangtok and Hotel Sharda, Siliguri.
  • Bike Rentals: Darjeeling Riders, Adventures Unlimited, Rentrip. One way rental available.

One of the most popular trails in the North-Eastern region of the country, the journey is quite challenging due to the steep route that is sure to test your skills. The astonishing culture present here is a lovely mix of both Hinduism and Buddhism.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick up your gear, choose the destination and set on a trail that challenges the biker in you. With the rush of adrenaline pumping through your body and the exquisite scenery you get the chance to visit, any journey you choose is sure to be unforgettable and full of lovely memories to take back home.

Guest Author Bio: Rohit is an adventure sports junkie and enthusiastic traveller residing in India. He enjoys writing content for Trans India Travels and hopes to inspire his readers to join him on the numerous trips he takes across the country.

Cruising Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Our main reason for visiting Hanoi was to have a launch point for a Ha Long Bay cruise. Ha Long Bay is one of the most scenic locations in Vietnam.

On the morning of our cruise departure, we were picked up at our hotel at 8 am by a transportation service that took us to Ha Long City, a 3.5 hour drive east of Hanoi. We enjoyed seeing the countryside and towns along the way. The transportation van was first-class, very comfortable with amenities such as wifi and water.

Ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi, Vietnam

Our comfortable ride to Ha Long Bay from Hanoi. The van has wifi!

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Ha Long Bay, with a new ferris wheel being constructed in the background. The goal is to make the town a tourist destination in its own right and not just a transfer point for the cruises.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The crowded port with the launches lined up for the waiting junks.

Upon arrival in Ha Long City, we completed some paperwork at the cruise terminal and then took a small launch to our boat (the ‘Prince Junk’). We had purposely chosen a cruise company that offered a smaller boat (see featured image above). There were just four guest cabins, or room for 8 passengers total. After getting settled in our cabins, we were offered a welcome aboard lunch and an orientation to our cruise itinerary. A young man was our cruise director and in addition to him there were 3-4 other crew, plus the captain.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Dining area on our ship.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our cabin. Since there were only four rooms, all have large windows with a view.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

The large shower and bathroom in our cabin.

Since it was January, the weather was overcast most of the time, with just a few sprinkles and the air temperature was probably in the upper 60’s F – just a bit warmer than Hanoi. Because of the gray skies, it looked colder than it actually felt. The water was quite warm and perhaps was a bit warmer than the air.

Ha Long Cruise, Indochina Junk, Vietnam

Enjoying the Ha Long Bay view from the lounge deck.

In addition to enjoying the passing scenery that first afternoon, we went on a kayaking adventure with our cruise director, one of two kayaking tours during our cruise.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, with the beautiful rock formations and islands everywhere.

Ha Long Bay Kayaking, Vietnam

Another view of our kayaking – our cruise director is in the first kayak. We each had a watertight container for cameras.

On our 2nd day we went on another kayaking adventure and also to an island with a large cave and lovely beach–this was one of the few places where we ran into other cruise ships.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

The island with the cave, about halfway up the hill.

Cave, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Inside the island cave, Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A view of Ha Long Bay from the cave island.

Also, on the 2nd day we were treated to a beach-side lunch at a quiet cove on another island where we were the only people on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Setting up our lunch on the beach.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

A panoramic view of the beach where we had lunch. Our boat can be seen in the distance.

On our third day, we went to a floating fishing village in the morning, where the local women rowed small boats for a tour of the village (the men are fishermen) and then a stop at an oyster pearl farm.

Floating village, Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Our tour guides for the floating village. These women work very hard and row a long way!

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam

A view of part of the floating village.

After our tour of the floating village and pearl farm, we had an early lunch as we cruised back to port for disembarkation at around 12 pm. On the way back to Hanoi, we stopped (along with all other cruise passengers from multiple cruise lines) at Yen Duc village, for a water puppet show, which are unique to north Vietnam. At the show, the hosts provided a wide array of fruits and snacks; the whole event lasts about one hour.

Practical Details

We arranged the cruise several months earlier and were overwhelmed by the choices of cruise companies. We learned that most cruise companies complete the same general itinerary and activities, even though prices for the cruises vary a lot. The junks vary in size from two to 20 cabins.

Ha Long Bay Cruise, Vietnam.

Example of a larger cruise junk in Ha Long Bay.

We choose a more expensive, small cruise junk option, so that we could have a smaller number of passengers and (likely) increase the quality of the food (the food is well prepared and presented, the cuisine is mainly seafood with a few other meat and chicken dishes too. Bring some snacks/fruits along if you wish to supplement what is provided). Given the immensity of the bay, we were largely out of sight of other cruise vessels. Most cruises are one or two nights. We opted for the two night cruise. Tips are provided directly to the captain (which he distributes to the crew) and cruise director at the end of the cruise, so be sure to bring cash. I don’t recall the specific amounts, but the equivalent of $10-15 per person (guest) should be sufficient.