Exploring Small Town France


With Barcelona being located in northern Spain, close to the French border, we had planned from the beginning to cross it at some point during the trip. I thought going all the way up to Paris might be a bit too ambitious, as I like to have significant time in one city to actually enjoy everything, rather than rushing through it. Eventually, considering time and cost issues, I decided the best course was to visit Narbonne and Carcassonne.

Narbonne is a small town with few tourist attractions, and probably wouldn’t have been on the radar if it wasn’t a train hub. In order to get to Carcassonne from Barcelona, you have to go through Narbonne. Since Narbonne does have a few things to see, we planned to stay one night in Narbonne before going to Carcassonne (which was only a half hour away by train) the next day.

Tickets aren’t particularly cheap and the cost does increase the closer time gets to the booking date, so I would recommend booking as ahead of time as possible (tickets must be reserved). Seat61.com is an extremely informative and useful site to use for extensive information on train travel from Barcelona and throughout Europe in general. I used the website Loco2.com to book, and I was pleased with their service. They simply email the train tickets and I printed them out.


The French trains are very nice and comfortable, even more so than the Spanish trains. On high speed, Narbonne was a little over two hours away. Originally, I had planned to spend about five days in Barcelona first and then head to France, but after five days, we would have had to leave on a Saturday, and from what I’ve read, public transportation in Narbonne is very spotty on the weekends. (We didn’t wind up using it much, since we stayed in the city center and walked everywhere, but I wanted to at least have it available).

The hotel we stayed at was the main city center hotel, called La Résidence. I would highly recommend it, since the few tourist attractions in the town are located a short distance away, and the service and rooms were great. It’s about a fifteen minute walk from the train station, but due to exhaustion we took a cab (which was a mistake, since it was a 10 euro flat rate and the ride was only a few minutes).


The lobby area in La Résidence is very quintessentially French, like the rest of the town.


Breakfast at the hotel was simple, but good. I limited myself to just a croissant (which was delicious) and some coffee because unfortunately, I had a bad stomachache while in Barcelona. I won’t go into too much detail but, while there, I lost my lunch. The strange thing was that my mom had the exact same lunch as me and was fine. I went about a day after that without eating, and by the time we were in France I was feeling better but still cautious.


The hotel was moderately priced, at about $100 per night. I though it was completely worth it since it was a nice place and I was sick and exhausted. There are a few hostels in the area though so more budget options are available.



Narbonne is best known for being an important port city during the Roman Empire, which was then in a region known as Gaul. In the middle of town, a portion of a road built by the Romans has been excavated.


Though probably the most famous landmark is the Narbonne Cathedral, also known as the Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur. The construction of the church began in 1272, and remains actually unfinished. 





Narbonne also has a lot of narrow streets and shops to explore. Unfortunately my phone camera couldn’t really capture the charm of the area.

When we searched for a place to eat for dinner, we came across a crepe place that was fairly cheap. My mom got a dinner crepe, whereas I got a sweet nutella and strawberry crepe (which luckily my stomach handled fine).

After dinner though, we couldn’t find our way back to the city center, and at the time, neither of us knew that Google Maps worked without wifi via satellite. So we spent hours walking around, until it eventually got dark. We tried asking for directions but no one we came across spoke English. Finally, a short middle aged Frenchman basically walked us the full 20 minutes toward the city center (he spoke no English, but chatted a bit in French until we told him “no comprende”, but even after that he was pretty talkative.) Once we saw the cathedral spire, we both breathed sighs of relief. We shouted “Merci! Merci!” numerous times to the man who was nice enough to go far out of his way to assist us.

Narbonne was actually my favorite place on the trip, despite the fact I went there more because it was on the path rather than seeking it out on its own. It doesn’t have a ton of attractions (particularly while we were there in winter, when boats along the Canal du Midi, a tourist attraction in the area, generally aren’t running). But nothing beats just sitting back and relaxing in a French cafe, walking the cobblestone roads and checking out the shops. If you are taking a train through Narbonne, I would highly suggest actually stopping there for a night.


La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada Familia. I don’t think it even needs an introduction.

It has a reputation as a must see in Barcelona, and could even be considered one of the great masterpieces of Europe, though it remains unfinished. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi, a famous Catalan designer, who in Barcelona is almost on the level of saint.

Gaudi took over the project in 1883 after the original architect resigned after one year, and he made it according to his own style and vision. The church relied entirely on private donations for its construction, and it was considered only 15-25% complete at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926. The work continued under another architect but was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The project’s halt lasted until the 1950s when the work was carried on by different architects. The church is predicted to be finished by 2026, a century after the death of Gaudi, and 143 years after the start of the building.


The building as is, even unfinished, is magnificent, but the main spire (seen above in the photo, behind the front towers) is the most majestic in the models of the finished product. This spire is dedicated to Jesus, whereas the shorter spires are dedicated to other important New Testament figures, like the Virgin Mary, the Twelve Apostles, and the Four Evangelists. The front facade represents the Nativity, while the Passion Facade (pictured below) represents Jesus’ death by crucifixion.


The details around the church are astonishing.




The ticket cost for the Sagrada Famila is pretty steep (though standard for Barcelona) at 29 euros including the audio guide and entrance into the towers. I would recommend buying in advance to avoid the line. We didn’t buy in advance, but for us the line wasn’t that bad since we went in the winter.

However, it is totally worth it to go inside.









I do wish I had a better camera with me to do it more justice, though really nothing can replace the experience of actually seeing it.

The tour of the tower involves going up an elevator, and then going down hundreds of stairs. (I think it was around 400 or 500). The tour guide assured us that it went fast, which it did, but it also felt like a workout. Going down a spiral staircase for that many steps also made me pretty dizzy but I was quite tired that day, not really having recovered from not sleeping at all during the flight.


This probably goes without saying but I would totally recommend going to see La Sagrada Familia while in Barcelona, indeed in Europe in general. It’s definitely a “bucket list” monument, and I hope to visit again after 2026 when hopefully construction is finished.

The Sagrada Familia is extremely easy to get to, just take the Barcelona Metro to the Sagrada Familia station on lines 2 and 5. The church is a step away from the exit and can’t be missed.

The church also has a gift shop which seemed to me to be decently priced (by gift shop standards) and had some nice items to buy friends and family.

First Time in Europe: Barcelona

So it’s been over a year since I’ve updated this blog. Part of the reason why is because it’s a bit difficult for me to talk about, but I had some personal and health issues after returning from living in Korea that made it impossible to travel (I also went a long time without a job). However thankfully I’ve been better for a year now without issue.

So in November, on Cyber Monday, I found an opportunity to travel again when my mom informed me that Norwegian Air was offering some very cheap flights to Europe in February and March. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and we looked at the various cities that were available, and we decided on Barcelona because the weather would be best at the time (the other places, like London, Copenhagen, and Oslo would be very cold). We then, spur of the moment, booked tickets for February.

Both of us got the days off from our jobs after the fact, and I spent the next couple months planning the trip. Both of us wanted to go into southern France while we were there since it was so close, so we booked nine days so that we would have the time to see enough of Barcelona and take a train to France without having to rush too much.

As the day of departure approached, I found myself excited but also very nervous. Barcelona has a famous reputation as the pickpocketing capital of Europe, and I feared having to deal with a stolen credit card, or worse, passport. Granted, I had gotten through Vietnam (another country with a reputation for pickpockets) without being robbed, but it had been over a year since my last international trip and I wasn’t feeling so confident as a traveler. Also, given that the flight was so cheap, the time was pretty inconvenient — our flight left at 11:00 pm, and it took about 7 hours to get there. Not only that, but we had to fly from East Tennessee to Newark, and the only plane we could take landed at 2 pm, so we had to wake early to travel an hour to the airport, and then when we landed we waited 9 hours for the Barcelona flight without being able to take a nap. And I’m the kind of person that can’t sleep at all on planes.

So when we finally landed in Barcelona, we were both exhausted, but it was also a surreal moment, landing in Europe for the first time. Europe was kind of like a dream to me — a continent I always wanted to visit but remained out of reach due to cost both while living in America and Asia.

I do want to add that although the timing is inconvenient, Norwegian Air is a pretty good airline for the price. Like any other budget airline, everything extra costs you — an (overpriced for airline food) meal on flight, checked baggage, amenities while flying — but the plane was fairly comfortable, they have in flight entertainment, and a charger for your phone/tablet. If you want a blanket though, you have to pay for it. But I would definitely fly with them again and I’d recommend any American that wants to fly to Europe but is put off by the cost to check them out.

When we arrived at the Barcelona airport, it was around noon in their time, and we took a RENFE train to the center of town. This train is easy to find and can be paid for with a T-10 ticket. The T-10 tickets are very useful, as they can be used for the airport train as well as the metro, and they can be used by more than one person (there are 10 rides in total). The cost is also reasonable at 10.20 euros. We purchased the tickets right at the airport train station.

Via the metro, we arrived at our first hotel, the Hotel Gotico. I didn’t go for budget hostels on this trip because I was with my mom, but the Hotel Gotico is budget friendly, basic hotel. The location is excellent, just a few minutes walk from the metro station, located right in the famous Gothic Quarter, the medieval part of the city.


When we arrived at the hotel, I’d been awake for over 24 hours and just wanted to nap, but we figured we probably should try and at least see some of Barcelona before it was dark. We were too exhausted to even try to really go in anywhere, but we did walk around the Gothic Quarter and see the beautiful Barcelona Cathedral, the old Roman gate and aqueduct, and the remains of the Temple of Augustus.





Being a huge history geek, I really enjoyed this despite my exhaustion. We ate at a local tapas restaurant, and then headed back to our hotel for some much needed sleep.


Of course, the highlight of any trip to Barcelona is of course La Sagrada Familia, while I’ll discuss in the next post.

Is My Son Worth It?

My Son, spelled Mỹ Sơn in Vietnamese, and pronounced “me son” is a collection of temple ruins in central Vietnam, about an hour from the city of Hoi An.

My Son is a Unesco World Heritage site and gets thousands of visitors per year, so the Vietnamese government has accordingly raised the price of both the admission fee and the guided bus tours. When I was there, the entrance fee was 150,000 dong, up from last year’s price of 100,000. The tours to My Son used to cost around $5, but is now around $9-11 for a share tour. The government claims that the admissions will go to restoring the site, but it seems likely the price will get more expensive in the future.

My Son was built by the Chams, a Malayo-Polynesian people who formed the Champa Kingdom around 200 CE that eventually became prosperous through maritime trade. The kingdom had a rich Hindu culture highly influenced by India. The Chams were eventually annexed and absorbed into Vietnam and now live as an ethnic minority. Many converted to Islam starting in the 11th century though some have remained Hindu.

Supposedly a traditional Cham dance, performed near My Son.

Construction of My Son began in the 4th century and the temple buildings were the main religious center of the Champa Kingdom until the 14th century and probably the most important of the Hindu buildings remaining in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, My Son was extensively carpet bombed by Americans during the Vietnam War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam) because it was a hiding place for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the ruins are quite small, crumbling, and have lost a lot of their beauty. Since the years of the war, the ruins mostly haven’t been restored or well-maintained, and many of the more significant pieces of artwork have been taken to museums.

Carpet bomb crater.
Spider web covered bricks.

So that brings us to the question in the title: is My Son worth it?

I personally thought it was worth it, but I had my expectations in check and made the trip to get out into the countryside and see some of the permanent damage done in the country during the Vietnam war, and not just for the temples themselves.

Do not come here expecting anything on the scale of Angkor, or even Ayutthaya. If you do you’re pretty much guaranteed to be disappointed. The buildings are much smaller and have generally suffered more damage. Some of the designs and carvings on My Son are fairly similar to Angkor but not as impressive.

Hotels and homestays in Hoi An will all offer tours of My Son, the price for a tour to My Son by bus and back to Hoi An by boat was $11, the price for the bus both ways was $9. I decided on the boat trip, which included a very simple lunch of rice with some vegetables and tofu on top.

The tour bus came to my homestay around 8 am and the tour guide told the group some information on My Son and the Cham Kingdom on the way. The bus first stops at the ticket office, and then everyone crosses a bridge to a small lot. From there, shuttles are available to take visitors to the temples.

My Son bridge.
Carpet bombs.
Temple undergoing restoration.

The ruins are in a beautiful jungle setting, but keep in mind it does get very hot in the afternoon so have water and a hat. Also, it gets quite crowded, so it can be difficult to get photos without a bunch of tourists in the background.

I would definitely advise coming here with a guide or guidebook. There are basically no descriptions of the ruins in English anywhere on the site. The guide for my tour was quite a character and very funny, he provided a lot of information though at times a bit too quickly that it was easy to miss what he said.

After touring the temples, I got on the boat ride back to Hoi An. The boat ride was nice, but there isn’t much to see on the river so I don’t think you’d be missing much to opt for the bus ride. The boat can also get somewhat crowded.

The boat ride back.

As a complement to My Son, check out the Cham Museum in nearby Da Nang. The museum was built by a Frenchman in the 1800’s and holds collections of Cham artifacts from many different periods. One section has artworks taken from the My Son site.

The outside of the museum.
An Elephant-lion creature.

The entrance fee is only 40,000 dong. I made a stop here before heading to Da Nang airport. The airport is within the city so it was only about 7 minutes away in a taxi.

Da Nang from the airplane.

While I personally did find the My Son day trip worthwhile, it’s important to note that there are plenty of other Cham towers in southern Vietnam. While I haven’t been to any others myself, my understanding is that the Po Nagar towers near the beach town of Nha Trang are some of the best preserved, although the site itself is smaller than My Son. If you rent a motorbike in Vietnam, then that could provide many more options of Cham ruins to visit.

Getting Clothes Made in Hoi An

Hoi An has a lot of tailors. A lot. Picking a tailor can seem overwhelming with so many shops packed into such a small town. Luckily, many hotels will offer recommendations (often because they are paid by the tailor) and many tailors are reviewed on Tripadvisor.

Typical Hoi An clothshop.

I only got two articles of clothing made at Hoi An, a pair of jeans and a dress. I used two different tailors for each. I kind of regret not getting more clothes done, but at that time I didn’t want to spend too much.

I stayed in Hoi An for 4 nights, and I would recommend at least 3 if planning to get clothes made, and possibly more depending on the amount of clothes. When I ordered both the jeans and the dress, each tailor told me to come in the next day for a fitting. After the fitting, they told me to come in later in the evening to pick it up. I would suggest going into a tailor shop as soon as possible when arriving in Hoi An to maximize time.

I would also recommend having a pretty good idea of what you want before going into a shop. When I got my dress made, I went in without really deciding what kind of style or color I wanted, I had just assumed there would be examples I could choose from, but there weren’t. The clerk gave me her tablet which had an endless amount of dress styles and told me to pick one, so I spent quite a lot of time looking through to decide what I wanted. To make the tailor shop experience smoother, look online and choose a style beforehand, then show it to the clerk on a mobile device. Or print it out.

Tailor shops at night.

I got my pair of jeans made at Trang Cloth Shop, which is located on 47 Hung Dao St. I actually didn’t plan to go here, but while I was walking down the road an Australian lady that was coming out of the shop told me that it was a good tailor, so I went inside. I ordered a pair of dark denim straight-leg jeans. I tend to have trouble fitting jeans at most stores (I’m short so most pairs are too long on me) so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get a pair made. The price was only $23 USD, which is cheaper than a lot of jeans in stores, so it was a great deal.

Like many of the tailors in Hoi An, Trang is outsourced — the measurements are done in the shop but the clothes are actually made elsewhere. When I picked up the jeans at the shop I had to wait for a motorbike to arrive with them. They ended up fitting really well, but the problem they had was that the blue coloring was all over when I first wore them (without washing them first). However, after putting them in the washing the coloring no longer runs, and they look fine. They’re without a doubt the best fitting jeans I own.

I got my dress made at BeBe Tailor, a shop that was recommended by my homestay. They have three branches in town, and are one of the most popular of the tailors.

When I chose a style for the dress I had made, the clerk asked for the type of fabric I wanted. I asked for the cheapest fabric, and she told me it was cotton. A knee-length dress made from the lowest-quality cotton was $70 USD. The price for the highest-quality was $105. I decided on the highest quality option since the other cotton types seemed pretty flimsy, so I paid $105 for the dress. BeBe is more expensive than most of the other tailors in town, which is something to take into consideration. However, from my understanding BeBe has in-house tailors unlike the majority of shops that just outsource.

I’m happy with the fit and quality of this dress as well. I didn’t have any issues with the coloring for this one.

For me getting tailor made clothes in Hoi An was a good experience. I do hope to re-visit Vietnam sometime and if I do I’ll probably go back to Hoi An for more tailoring.

Hoi An: Outside the Old Town

Hoi An in is home to a small but beautiful Old Town located in the center of the tiny city, but it only takes about a day to see it. Here are some ideas for the rest of the time in town.

The majority of hotels and homestays in Hoi An are located at least a few steps outside the Old Town, which really isn’t a bad thing, given that restaurants and cafes outside the town center tend to be cheaper. Most accommodations will offer cheap bike rental as a way to get to the Old Town and explore the area.

About a 20 minute bike ride or a 5 minute taxi (about 70,000 dong) from the Old Town is An Bang beach, which was great for wading in the ocean and relaxing. The sunbeds/umbrellas aren’t free though, prepare to pay 40,000 dong to use one.

There’s several restaurants on the waterfront as well.

View from a restaurant.

There is another beach at Hoi An called Cua Dai, which was actually closer to my homestay but (according to what I read from online reviews) is suffering from erosion, so it’s probably best to go to An Bang. An Bang also has a few accommodation options.

Closer to the Old Town (but still technically outside of it) is the Hoi An Museum. It recently moved locations, and is now located at 10B Tran Hung Dao Street.

The museum covers a bit of ground, displaying some Cham artifacts, old photographs of the town, and even some more recent war artifacts. The collection is small, however, and there’s little information in English. Normally the museum requires a fee or a punch on one of the 6 places in Hoi An the ticket covers, but the guard let me in anyway even though I had used up my ticket. I was glad I got lucky and was able to see the museum for free, but normally it does require a fee and it isn’t that impressive of a collection. In my opinion it’s a decent place to learn some of Hoi An’s history but can be skipped if you don’t want to spend the money. There were only a few other people looking at the collections besides me, which was nice.

The Hoi An history Museum.

The main thing I liked about the museum wasn’t actually in the museum itself, but actually the Sky Cafe at the top. I tried to get there by climbing up the stairs inside the museum but the door to the top floor was locked. Turns out I had to go downstairs and out to an elevator, then I took that to the cafe.

Some nice views at the top.


There were a lot of young Vietnamese people at the Sky Cafe but only a couple of other tourists, which felt strange since Hoi An has tons of tourists everywhere. It was kind of refreshing in a way to go somewhere geared more towards locals. Because of this it was also cheaper than the Old Town cafes.

Down the street from the History Museum is a Confucius Temple, which is free and was also almost empty when I was there.

Quite a few of the back streets outside the town center are worth a look either on foot or on a bike. While lots of tourist shops are around these areas, it still feels more local and less crowded than the Old Town.

Tet Lanterns near the Confucius temple.

My accommodation in Hoi An was Eden Homestay, which was a really nice place about a 10 minute walk from the main town. The room was a great deal on Agoda, about $20 USD per night for a large room with two beds for just me.

The staff was very nice and helpful, they will arrange tours outside the town and provide maps and tailor recommendations.


The breakfast and Vietnamese coffee were good and included in the room rate.

In this post and my previous post on things to do in Hoi An, I left out probably the most popular activity in Hoi An — getting clothes made at the tailor shops. I will discuss this in the next post.

What Not to Miss in Hoi An’s Old Town

Hoi An, a tiny World Heritage town in Central Vietnam, is one of the most photogenic places in Asia that I have been to. The blend of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and European style buildings are beautiful to look at, especially at sunset and at night when all of the lanterns are lit up.

Lanterns at the Night Market.

Hoi An is an ancient port town that was owned by the Champa Kingdom of Central and Southern Vietnam until they moved the kingdom farther south. The native Vietnamese then used Hoi An as a major trading center in the 16th-18th centuries. Ceramics from Hoi An went as far as Egypt and merchants from all over Asia and Europe traded there. In the 18th century, Hoi An’s influence diminished significantly as the port center was moved to nearby Da Nang. In that time, Hoi An has remained remarkably well-preserved.

Pretty much all of the buildings in the Old Town are souvenir shops, galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, or tailor shops catering to tourism. This also means the streets are pretty crowded with tourists. Even so, the town is really a sight no to be missed, especially when the sun goes down.

Sunset at Hoi An’s river.
It’s also a popular spot for wedding photos.

The city does have it’s fair share of touts, that might come up to tourists to give them directions and then ask them to come into their tailor shop. They weren’t pushy after I turned them down, however. But it can be kind of annoying when vendors on the river constantly try to get you to get in their boat or buy a candle.

Hoi An has a couple of landmarks and attractions of interest, and in order to enter them I had to buy a ticket. This ticket is considered an “entrance ticket” for the Old Town, but there are no ticket checks on the town’s actual borders, or at least there weren’t when I was there. It seemed entirely possible to explore the Old Town for free, but to enter a few places, the ticket is required and costs 120,000 dong. It covers 6 places, which isn’t all of Hoi An’s historical sites but I didn’t want to pay for more than one ticket so I limited myself to a few places.

Possibly the most famous landmark in Hoi An is the Japanese covered bridge. It was built by the Japanese merchants to link with the Chinese area.

The ticket will have to be punched in order to cross the bridge, but it can also be viewed from outside.

The beautiful Fujian Assembly Hall, built in the 17th century, was a meeting place for Fujian Chinese before transforming into a temple for Goddess Thien Hau.

Quan Cong is another well-known Chinese temple in the Old Town, right across from the Old Market. I didn’t have enough spots on my ticket to go into this one, but I believe there is a museum on the inside.

A few of the Chinese style temples are free, however.

Another free Chinese temple.

Hoi An also has a lot of backstreets around the town that are quieter than the main streets and no less picturesque.

I’d also recommend checking out some of the old houses — all of these do require punching the ticket, so perhaps choose two or three. The Tan Ky house had the best tour and a lot of informative information about the generations of the merchant family that lived there.

The house at night.
Inside the house.
Inside another old house, the Phung Hung house.

In addition to the old houses, there are plenty of very charming art galleries in Hoi An holding some beautiful works of art. These are totally free to enter and provide some nice views of the surrounding houses.

Inside an art gallery.
Another gallery.

A good place to go shopping in Hoi An is Reaching Out Arts and Crafts. It’s a fair trade craft shop with some beautiful and unique products made by adults with physical handicaps.

Reaching Out workshop.

Hoi An has two main markets, the Old Market and the Night Market. The Old Market is for the day, and the Night Market for night. Both are well worth visiting. The Old Market has some local dishes made inside for only about $1. Plenty of fresh fruits and other items are on sale there as well.

The Old Market.

The Night Market has tons and tons of lanterns and other more souvenir-type stuff, such as jewelry and other trinkets.

In addition to the Old Market, pretty much every restaurant will serve Hoi An’s local dishes. Some examples are Cao Lau, a noodle dish with pork, vegetables, and croutons. Another is Com Ga, Hoi An chicken rice. White Rose is a type of shrimp dumpling shaped like a rose, and Quang noodle is a mix of pork and shrimp with yellow noodles.

Quang noodle.

Many of the restaurants in the town offer cooking classes, and hotels will also offer cooking class tours.

The town of Hoi An can only be reached by getting to Da Nang first. Da Nang is the third biggest city in Vietnam, so it has it’s own airport, train station, and bus station. To get to Hoi An, a taxi or motorbike is needed. It takes about 45 minutes from the airport. I booked a driver through my homestay in Hoi An, and it cost $15 USD.

Hoi An’s Old Town is pretty small and can be seen in a day. But there are a few more things to do outside of the Old Town center, which I will discuss in the next post.

A Day in Ninh Binh

Ninh Binh is a beautiful province only about two hours from the city of Hanoi. The limestone scenery is similar to Halong Bay, only inland.

Hotels and hostels can arrange shared tours to the province, costing around $38 per person. There were only four people in the tour group (including me). The other group members were an older English couple and a young Korean woman.

The first stop on the tour was Hoa Lu, a 10th century ancient captial of Vietnam. Hoa Lu was a small kingdom surrounded by a citadel and protected by the surrounding limestone mountains from the Chinese. The citadel did not survive, however, but a temple dedicated to Dinh Tien Hoang, the emperor of Hoa Lu, was built in it’s place.

Inside the temple.
The moat and the limestone mountains.

Hoa Lu is a beautiful spot but it was cold the day I went, and I completely wasn’t expecting it since the temperature in Hanoi was kind of hot the day before. I was wearing shorts, a thin sweater, and a thin denim jacket which really wasn’t enough for the temperature, in fact all the others in my group didn’t quite prepare well for the cold either.

After the tour of Hoa Lu the group went back to the van and headed to Tam Coc, which means “three caves” in Vietnamese. There is a buffet restaurant nearby where we ate lunch. The food was pretty average but it’s included in the tour price.

At Tam Coc, two people get inside a canoe and a rower rides along a river that goes under three caves.

The rowers row with their feet.

The ride takes about an hour and a half to go around. Some of the caves are quite dark and have bats, which made me slightly nervous.

The scenery was beautiful, and probably would be even more so during the warmer months when more of the rice crops are grown.

The Ninh Binh tour also included bike riding after the boat ride, but after being out in the cold for two hours no one in the group felt like riding bikes, so we got some warm coffee and headed back to Hanoi.

Scenic Halong Bay

One of the “must-go” places in northern Vietnam, UNESCO-listed Halong Bay is certainly worth the trip to get to. There are countless cruise options; the question of which cruise to take seemed to me to depend on budget. Hotels and hostels, as well as tour agencies in Hanoi, will have a few different tours to choose from. Many tour companies run different boats with prices depending on the luxury level, and how many nights on the boat. I booked a 2 day 1 night cruise, but there were also 3 day 2 night cruises available, obviously with higher prices. The itineraries seemed to be pretty similar with each cruise.

From my understanding, it is generally advised to book the cruise with a hotel in Hanoi rather than before the trip since prices are usually cheaper in the city.

My hotel offered three cruise options, I went with the cheapest of the three, which was with Lemon Cruises. The total cost for the 2 day cruise was $100. Since I was travelling alone and wanted my own room, I had to pay a $25 single supplement, so solo travelers be forewarned.

The ship.

The price of the cruise is all-inclusive of everything except drinks, so I thought it was a good deal. From what I had read, it’s best not to skimp out too much on price for Halong Bay since you really get what you pay for. Most people I had spoken to paid at least $90 for a good cruise, though it may be possible to find something cheaper and good quality.

One great aspect about the Lemon Cruises tour is that it went to Bai Tu Long Bay, which is a larger bay above Halong that is larger, cleaner and less crowded since only overnight ships go out that way. It was indeed peaceful and water very clean for the most part. I did see other boats around but not a huge amount. If you are planning on doing a 2 day tour it may be a good idea to look for a cruise that goes to Bai Tu Long.


The tour guide for Lemon Cruises picked me up at my hotel, and joined a van heading out to Halong. The ride takes about 4 hours and the van stops for a bathroom break. The pit stops in Vietnam have huge shopping areas with clothes, jewelry, and silks as well as a small restaurant and snack area.

After arriving in Halong, the group boarded the boat and we were given our room keys. The rooms in Lemon Cruises are pretty nice, though the bathroom was quite smelly (perhaps inevitable for a bathroom on a boat I guess) but I locked the door from the outside to prevent the smell from getting in the bedroom area. The bed was a good size, comfortable and clean.

The other members of the tour group were also friendly, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s, which is my age group.

The first thing we did on the tour was go to a beach to do some kayaking or swimming.

The weather was beautiful and warm when I was there, but this isn’t always the case in winter. Halong Bay can be quite cloudy and cold in February, so I lucked out.

Next the group stopped at a pearl farm, where mollusks are farmed for their pearls. It was actually fairly interesting.

Of course they have a pearl store for tourists to shop, but they did let us try the pearls on without having to buy them, and they weren’t pushy either, which was nice.

I didn’t buy this.

After that it was back to the large ship, where I mostly sat on the roof and took more pictures.

The food our group was given for lunch and dinner was very good. At lunch there were a few different options, consisting of yellow curry chicken, spring rolls, tofu in tomato sauce, and others. Everyone took bits of what they wanted and put it on their plate. Dinner was prawns, fried chicken, pork spring rolls, fried fish, and a few other options.

The sunsets on the bay are absolutely gorgeous.

The activities for the night were either to sing karaoke or go squid fishing. But the karaoke machine wasn’t working so one of the group members gathered everyone to play charades. After the game was over (I think my team lost but not certain) there wasn’t much left to do so everyone either went to bed or continued squid fishing.

The next day, the group had breakfast at 7 am, which was eggs and toast. Then we went to a limestone cave. The cave was pretty cool, but every tour group seems to go there at the same time, so it was very crowded. Also the cave is small so it crowds easily.

Kind of looks like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

View looking outside the cave.

After that the group went back to the boat where we made pork spring rolls in a cooking class and ate them for lunch. The meal was again good. Then the boat took the group back to Halong and on a bus back to our hotels in Hanoi.

I really enjoyed the tour of Halong and Bai Tu Long. The tour guide was informative, the food delicious, and the staff on the ship were helpful as well. The only issue was that the ship didn’t have wifi, and there wasn’t much to do on the boat after dark. Other than that it was great.

As I mentioned previously, there are literally dozens of Halong Bay tours and many have similar quality and itinerary, so there’s no need to be particular about which cruise to take. Many tours have reviews on Tripadvisor and other websites. Lemon Cruises at least for me was a great experience and a pretty good deal.