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Hanoi’ed: Three Days in Vietnam’s Capital

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Old Quarter. Rush hour.

Honking motorbikes and scooters, people squeezed everywhere, motorbikes with 14 cases of empty Halida bottles bungee-d precariously to the back wheel, buses, cars, people on people on people on motorbikes — all barreling to and through the scuttling Anthill Avenues akimbo to the city’s crammed ribcage of shape-shifting buildings, seemingly held up only by veiny rat’s nests of wires stacked upon extempore cafes and closets and alleys spilling tchotchke trinkets out of doorways below ragged awnings next to restauranteurs boiling pots of odoriferous, alluring concoctions served on plastic tables sitting atop jagged footpaths with bicycles blocking everything and there’s nowhere to go yet you can’t stop or you’ll get trampled and you can’t move too quick crossing the street or you’ll get killed and it all seems like the Old Quarter was assembled by Moffy Cacophony the chaos muppet.

Hot damn is my introduction to SE Asia fun as hell.

At night, the madness continues as the Old Quarter gets roped off to pedestrians only. Buskers blend into artisan/food markets purveyed by locals, perused by hostel-goers and tourists and both… 

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Then, at 11 o’clock pm sharp, it all shuts down. The streets reopen to motorbikes as the local police roll in. Whistles blow, batons casually wave people home, and the shops/bars are shuttered close. But, the party spills into the streets, where locals sell $0.25 beers from warm kegs (yes, $0.25 beers) and give out stale rice cakes to sop up the booze until, again, the police come in – this time for a final warning.

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If you’re lucky enough to meet some amazing Hanoians, they may drag you down a dark alley to a secret, smoky club with one toilet, where you think you might be losing a kidney to the black market, but the metal door rolls up half way and a bouncer quickly ushers you into (name omitted so you don’t get in trouble) to dance to Katie Perry and drink Tiger beer until 4am.

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21°02’10.0″N 105°51’11.1″E: Uncle Vic, The Beer Giver, and Roam About Idiot. Photo by @henryfrawleyfulcher

Just before dawn—after slurred farewells—it’s eerily calm for a few precious moments; an unnerving contrast to the insanity of the day, lit only by buzzing, jumbled fluorescents. A quick breather but still, with habitual head on a swivel. Then, with the sound of the morning’s first motorbike shattering the silence, the cycle of insanity starts again.

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Henry & Vic: Vietzombies

‘Hanoi isn’t for everyone’ are the only words I would end up scratching into my empty travel journal the entire trip to Vietnam. Hanoi isn’t for everyone; but that’s good news for the rest of us who are down to tackle one of the world’s most alluring cities in arguably the most magical and hospitable countries on the planet.

Where to Play:

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Maybe don’t play here…

Get lost, you walking walker!

If tenacious enough, you can do majority of the main sights of Hanoi in one day…but you’ll be hurting tomorrow. Learn from our mistake: don’t try to cram everything in a day! Take your time to soak up the city.

But, here’s a foot blister-and lactic acid inducing lovely day itinerary:

Take a morning stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Sword Lake), marvel at the haunting Tortoise Tower in the middle, where legend has it, Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lives.

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Walk across the Cầu Thê Húc bridge on the North East side of the lake to visit the charming Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain), where there is a preserved turtle to pray to and philosophize upon, Confuciusly. ($0.50 Entry)

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Slowest knife fight in history.

At the southern tip of the lake, you can go left towards the chichi French Quarter to stop by Prada before checking out the stunning Hanoi Opera House, or take a quick dip into the Vietnamese History Museum that smells exactly like the Spaceship Earth Ride at Epcot Center in Orlando. Random, I realize.

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Kill the wabbit, kill the waaabit! (The only opera song I know is from a Bugs Bunny cartoon…)

Instead of heading east, you can conversely make your way west over to Hanoi Hilton, which serves as a jarring reminder of the worthlessness, and deplorable inhumanity of politics and war. (Cost: $2)

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From Hanoi Hilton, head over to the Temple of Literature to shake out the residue of the last stop. From the HH, it’s a straight walk through an industrial area of spice shops, bike shops, various neon colored cocaine stalls, and restaurant furnishings.

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buzz buzz give me (yellow) yeyo!

Make sure you try to time your Temple visit near closing (or opening) for respite from the mass amounts of tourists and some sublime moments of zen within the ground’s impressive gardens. I didn’t ask anyone, but there were cookie jars everywhere. Maybe one of my readers can help me out (because I’m too lazy to Google it and really this is a shabby ploy at reader interaction). Some people leave cookies for Santa – well, Confucius loves Nabati cookies (pic).(Cost of ToL: $0.50)

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Crouching Dragon, Hidden Cookies

After the Temple of Literature, head northwest to see Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. It’s a huge open complex with a parade route in Ba Dinh Square; open to showcase the size of one’s missiles. And Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum looks exactly like Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. How do you say ‘sad concrete’ in Russian?

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Unfortunately the inside of the mausoleum is closed when we stop by (Uncle Ho was napping), so we make our way around the corner to the One Pillar Pagoda and the very famous One Tree Bathroom.

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Nature Calls

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Where to lay:

Like any big city, you have innumerable choices on accommodations in Hanoi, but definitely try to centralize yourself by staying in the Old Quarter, specifically, the Hanoi Focus Hotel.

It’s relatively cheap (the cost is somewhat negotiable as a walk-in but ~$65USD/Night for a 3 person Suite online); it’s in a great location; it’s clean and the people here (especially Ruby) are phenomenal. If you need to book a ride to the airport, need directions, or simply want to find the best place for Bun Cha, the staff here are incredibly helpful and extremely accommodating, even to goofy Americans with a knack for staying up stupid late.

And the complementary morning breakfasts here — holy crap. I seriously miss the flaky pork spring rolls and delicious choco-motor oil Vietnamese coffee every morning to go with the beef pho.

A lot of options out there on Air BnB as well, with super cheap home stays in Old Quarter (~$17-$25/Night), or way up in the WestLake area.

Feed your carcass: Must Eats in Hanoi.

Try the Pho King Bun Cha!

Pho is so good. Pho is amazing. Pho is the best Vietnamese dish…bbbzzzzzzzzzzttt. Bun Cha is the staple dish and go to food in Northern Vietnam.

So, what is it?

Bun Cha is a sweet/savory broth with vermicelli noodles, shaved papaya, carrots, little bits of fatty pig parts and sausage served with side dishes of flaky spring rolls, basil, sprouts, and garlic and red chilis to eradicate that sinus infection.

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Bun Cha essentials. Photo by the very talented @henryfrawleyfulcher

A street stall down Ngô Tất Tố, just off Văn Miếu across the eastern border of the Temple of Literature has the best Bun Cha in Hanoi. Legit, the best we had…and had we did, multiple times a day.

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Henry FF (aka Young Heezy) and Vic pause briefly before continued annihilation of Bun Cha

The proprietor (and her husband) of this no-name stall, make everything right on the sidewalk. We’re offered a table a few steps away at Cafe 49, where we order three Bun Cha(s) and wait out an afternoon storm with a few Hanoi Beers apiece. The entire meal with drinks totaled $6USD. $6! 

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Next thing to try in Nam: Durian. Buy some. Eat it. Spend the rest of the day fascinated by how weird your fingers and beard smell from this sweet-banana-pudding-stinky-balls-onion fruit. I’ve never been so repulsed yet, so in love with a food: I love you, durian *gag*.

If you haven’t been convinced to go to Vietnam with all these pretty pictures and goofy words, please, go for the food. It’s a whole new experience; rapture for your taste buds and the best bang for your buck you’ll ever experience. Be brave – talk often to your best friend, Mr. Pepto Bismal, and hit up the Bun Cha stalls. It’ll be worth it.

Get Outta Here! 

Day trips from Hanoi are a toss-up between two spots: Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Mountain terraces vs. Water Dragons – we chose Water Dragons. If you want a really fun, comprehensive unleashed tour on Ha Long Bay, go with Vietnam Awesome Travel.

Our guide, Trang, was fantastic, and put up with mine and Vic’s collective incompetence in being so hung over from Beer Lady in Hanoi, we could barely push the shutter buttons on our cameras.

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Young Heezy and Trang. Notice the angle of this shot – taken from the ground, because I was dying from $0.25 beers.

 

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I’m not a fan of being herded around in a tour group, but Awesome Travel kept things small and fun. There were 5 people total on our boat and they only offer tours to a maximum of 10 people at a time. 

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We get a quick tour of a cave on one of the islands, after which we take a gentle ride through the thousands of islands in the area, and we’re served a traditional Vietnamese lunch of fish, fish stews, steamed oysters on the boat— the smells of which wreak havoc on my hangover.

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Limping to the end of day three and I was already hooked on ‘Nam. The food, the culture, the people in Hanoi were just incredible, and even as I write this, I have a smile on my face just reminiscing about the experience, trying to convey the magic best I can.

But the adventures would only get better as we head south towards Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to spend a few days with a guy named Jungle Boss.

Stay Tuned, Roam Abouts.

-Mike

 

88 Comments Post a comment
  1. Looks like a fabulous cultural vacation! Love that weird fruit!

    May 21, 2015
  2. I admire you. I wish I could travel and blog. Boats and noodles look great!

    May 21, 2015
    • Thanks, Paaldana – I totally should have named this post ‘Boats and Noodles’. Good one!

      May 22, 2015
  3. Reblogged this on travelobuzz.

    May 21, 2015
  4. Great post! Reminded me of my time in Hanoi!

    May 21, 2015
  5. Jungle Boss sounds massively bad ass. Loved the blog, just makes me want to go pack up and buy a ticket

    May 22, 2015
    • Jungle Boss is one crazy mofo. Can’t give away too much for the next post, but I got the sense he could kill us, at any point, with minimal effort…

      Thanks, Leroy!

      May 22, 2015
  6. Fun read Mike. I’m based in Singapore and Hanoi is my favorite city in Asia.

    I don’t recall seeing the Nabati cookies during my many visits there but sweets are often used as an offering. And even though Confucianism is more of a philosophy or way of life than a religion – offerings are still common practice.

    I did find this little tidbit which might further explain things. It is a Confucian ritual that once a couple are “engaged and after the wedding day is chosen, the bride announces the wedding with invitations and a gift of cookies made in the shape of the moon or offered at Confucian temples”. So there you go…maybe you just missed the bride and groom making an offering.

    Always look forward to your next adventure – keep up the wonderful writing.

    May 22, 2015
    • Thanks so much, John. Glad you liked the post. Hanoi has quickly become one of my favorite cities of all time—was unfortunate we only had 3 days (technically 2.5) but I vow to get back there soon.

      The cookies, Nabati’s specifically, were pretty prevalent throughout the temples we visited. The wedding offering makes sense…they were always set up as an offering in the shrines. Delicious, tempting, offerings. 🙂

      Ah! That’s great! Now that I think about it, the Temple of Lit in particular closed down early as they were setting up tents for a wedding.

      Curious: How’s Singapore? It’s been on my list for quite some time.

      May 22, 2015
  7. I love a well structure run-on sentence…
    My visit to ‘Nam in 1969 lucky did not include a visit to North Vietnam and/or Hanoi.

    May 22, 2015
    • Just a little grammatical chaos to match the environment. 🙂

      Curious, Jim – Would you go back now?

      May 22, 2015
  8. My husband and I are planning to take 6 months next year and do a SE Asia trip, basically for the food. Spicy noodles for breakfast is my idea of heaven.

    May 23, 2015
    • Awesome, Erin. Do you have a tentative plan yet? First time over there? My co-navigator to Vietnam has frequented SE Asia quite a bit if you need some recommends.

      May 23, 2015
      • We know we want to do Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, and potentially Japan, with a stop in Hawaii either on the way over or on the way back (we’re coming from Colorado). Other than that, we are clueless. I’ve done a lot of traveling through Europe, but never to that part of the world, so yes – I’ll take all the recommendations I can get!

        May 23, 2015
        • Sounds awesome, Erin!

          Vietnam – Hanoi, Hoi An, and Phong Nha National Park are musts (didn’t have time to make it down to Saigon)

          Japan – Tokyo is amazing, but I liked Kyoto more, felt less like nyc. Nikko was a cool spot for hiking/temple visiting; actually reminded me a bit of small town CO.

          Hawai’i – Only been to the big island, but stunning white and black sand beaches, great hiking, and star gazing up on Mauna Kea at 14,000 feet was one of the most humbling experiences i’ve ever had.

          Just to note, my co-navigators have been to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia multiple times and they rave about all three (though, Vietnam was their collective #1). Like Europe, domestic/international flights in SE Asia are super cheap on some solid carriers so getting around is simple and keeps you on point with budget.
          Ex: We flew from Da Nang to Hanoi for $48 on Vietnam Air.

          May 25, 2015
          • This is such solid information, Mike – thank you! Vietnam is the spot we’re most excited about, but I think it all sounds pretty awesome. The trip will definitely be a step outside my travel comfort zone.

            I’ve heard really good things about Laos, but haven’t decided on whether we’re going to venture in Cambodia. From a safety perspective, it seems more risky than the other countries. Just curious – did you or your co-navs ever hire local guides? We’ve never done so in Europe, but Asia seems like a whole different ballgame.

            May 26, 2015
            • Of course! I thought Tokyo would prepare me for the craziness of SE Asia, but it was a whole new ballgame (in a good way).

              Maybe it’s just my naiveté, but I never felt like we were in danger the entire trip in Vietnam. Well, I take that back, I felt in danger on a mountain/cave trekking expedition when I realized the size of the spiders/poisonousness of the snakes we were dealing with. 🙂

              Unless it’s an expedition of some sort, I’m not a fan of guides…at all. Just grab a good map, have a decent idea of what you want to see before hand, and ask your hosts/hotel folks for any assistance/recommends for food.

              The people in Vietnam are so incredibly nice…but just be careful, as people will try to rip you off (especially in the touristy areas in Hoi An). Just familiarize yourself with the currency, and don’t be afraid to bargain (which is actually pretty fun).

              My friend Victor (Uncle Vic in the post above) was filming study abroad videos for Cambodia – they had guides in Phnom Penh for a day or two, but the rest of their leisure time they went at it alone (Siem Reap as well). He also went up to Northern Thailand in Chaing Mai – said it was amazing, as well as the southern part of Thailand to hit up the beaches.

              Sorry, I’m rambling. Email me if you want more recommends, or I can connect you with Vic about the other countries. michael.bukach@gmail

              May 26, 2015
  9. Vietnam has always been on my list. It just moved closer to the top, thanks to this post!

    May 23, 2015
    • Thanks, kinecticheart. That’s the best compliment I could get. Definitely go, it’ll change the way you travel/look at the world.

      May 25, 2015
  10. Great post about hanoi!
    I haven’t even finished mine yet but we obviously have different impressions of hanoi. I like saigon more!

    cheers

    May 25, 2015
    • Gracias, Thuymi.

      Uh-oh – you didn’t like Hanoi?
      Didn’t make it down to Saigon, but I’ve heard nothing but great things. Hoping to make another trip to SE Asia soon to include HCM, Siem Reap, and Luang Prabang.

      May 25, 2015
  11. I’ve always imagined Hanoi as chaotic in the sense of crowds and worried it would be overwhelming or overstimulating. Did you find that it was or was there enough calm to take in the true beauty?

    Another great piece, Mike. 🙂

    May 25, 2015
    • Hey, Mike.

      It’s kind of weird; there’s so much going on, so much movement and noise, especially in the old quarter, your brain just switches off and let’s everything happen. Serenity in chaos.
      But there are pockets of quiet hidden away in the city. Places for reflection and meditation, especially the temples, and day trips outside of Hanoi.

      The city seriously shuts down at 11pm, so if you stay up long enough, they use library voices.

      Thank you, friend.

      May 26, 2015
  12. Courtney #

    Was just in Vietnam. Love that crazy place 🙂

    May 26, 2015
    • Hell yeah, Courtney!
      Where did you go in ‘Nam?

      May 26, 2015
      • Courtney #

        I bought a motorbike and spent almost two months going all over the country, working my way from North to South, starting in Hanoi. I had to learn how to drive a bike for the first time in that insane traffic haha

        May 26, 2015
        • You are one brave soul. Seriously, I would have never done that.
          I rode a bicycle in Hoi An, but a motorbike? No way. Not in that traffic.

          Was it a rush? Did you die? Are you the ghost of Courtney?

          May 27, 2015
          • Courtney #

            Hahaha! I’m the most uncoordinated person on earth haha I ended up loving it so much that I biked through Laos as well. I’ve had my fair share of falls and exhaust burns….but Im still alive and kicking! I actually think it’s easier driving in Vietnam than back home. But, I like your blog. It’s different from other travel blogs bc you add humor and storytelling. Keep up the awesome work 🙂

            May 28, 2015
            • You give me great hope. 🙂 Glad you’re alive, and thanks for the kind words. I’ll keep traveling if you keep reading.

              May 28, 2015
  13. Wow! I live in HCMC and I know a lot of Hanoians come down here for the night-life – I knew about the 10pm curfew but not about the underground club system! Call me strange but that alone is reason to go up to Hanoi (to which there are obviously many more reasons to add)

    May 29, 2015
    • Underground clubs and Bun Cha…and underground clubs that serve bun cha. 🙂

      June 4, 2015
  14. Woahh this looks insane!!

    June 2, 2015
  15. HRH #

    You know sometimes I skim your posts due to lack of time and go back to read in-depth. This is my first pass at this one, and this sentence struck me (not physically, but almost): /Spend the rest of the day fascinated by how weird your fingers and beard smell…” Who told you I have a beard??? *opening Photoshop*

    June 3, 2015
    • We all have an inner beard, HRH. It’s a metaphor for life, but sometimes it just takes some photoshop to find this follicle nirvana.

      June 4, 2015
  16. Sounds like a rad adventure! The Bun Cha looks and sounds yummy.

    June 7, 2015
    • It really was and still is. Can’t find good Bun Cha in the US, though. May have to return…

      June 22, 2015
  17. the honey trail #

    Love this post! Such great writing.

    June 15, 2015
  18. Beautiful and bright pictures!

    June 18, 2015
  19. Amazing landscape! loved your post and your images.:)

    June 19, 2015
  20. exploringthisearth #

    I love reading travel stories like these, what an amazing adventure!

    June 30, 2015
    • Thanks, exploring. More Vietnam adventures heading your way this week.

      June 30, 2015
  21. That fruit was everywhere when i went to the Guangzhou Province in China!!! The smell is VERY distinct…so distinct I couldn’t bring myself to try it…. Is it worth it????

    July 10, 2015
    • Nice! How as Guangzhou? I’ve never been to China.

      Worth it? I would say yes because it is one of the more unique things you’ll ever eat.

      Thanks for reading, reenahmed!

      July 13, 2015
      • It was interesting – my first time to Asia, the culture shock hit me! I then went to Guilin which was breathtakingly stunning!
        Ok, I will take your word for it, thanks mabukach!

        July 17, 2015
  22. down road want to go really enjoyed map and pictures

    July 18, 2015
  23. Inspiring post and amazing insights about the city. I’ve met some people from Hanoi when they were visiting the Philippines and we eventually became friends. They have invited me several times to visit them but I was hesitant to do so because of the cost. Your post made me inch more into going to Vietnam. Cheers!

    July 23, 2015
    • Inch closer, J. Just go – it’s amazing. Where do you live in the Philippines? Always wanted to go, just haven’t made it over.

      July 25, 2015
      • Born and raised in Manila. But I am currently living in Abu Dhabi for some work. I’ll definitely reserve Vietnam as my next destination. I hope you’ll be able to visit the Philippines and experience it’s misplaced Latino flair being the only former Spanish colony in Asia.

        July 25, 2015
        • I very much hope to visit soon – but I have a quick stop in Seoul, and a visit to Bali coming up sooner. 🙂 Will definitely pick your brain when I’m heading to the Philippines. How’s Abu Dhabi?

          July 30, 2015
          • Amazing line up of destinations for you. Abu dhabi is good but not as great as its neighbor Dubai. Lots of development happening around the city. After everything is all placed up it will be a must go destination in the next 5 years.

            August 2, 2015
            • Will keep that in mind for the ‘5 years from now’ list.

              August 13, 2015
  24. GillianGacuma #

    Amazing! I’m eyeing Vietnam as one of my first backpacking destination outside the Philippines. This is really helpful, thanks for the tips!

    August 14, 2015
    • Hey guys! If you are into traveling then check out my blog!

      August 14, 2015
      • I like to travel, hence the travel blog. Thanks!

        August 14, 2015
    • Thanks, Gillian! Where in the Philippines do you live?

      August 14, 2015
      • GillianGacuma #

        That’s amazing! What places you’ve been to now? I live in Fairview, Quezon City. The northern most tip of Metro Manila.

        August 14, 2015
        • Just domestic US travels until next year, unfortunately. Been looking at Cebu City and the surrounding area in Philippines, though. Beautiful beaches/karsts/turquoise waters…

          August 16, 2015
          • GillianGacuma #

            If you’ll be in Cebu, I suggest that you try whale shark encounter in Oslob, Canyoneering and Kawasan falls in Badian and a lot more actually.

            August 16, 2015
  25. About the cookie jars, from what I know (as I am a Vietnamese), people give different things to the Deity. I think it is just coincidental that cookies jars are present on the table when you saw them. A lot families use various kinds of fruit instead of cookie jars.

    August 16, 2015
    • Thanks for clearing that up, butabo. Interesting about the cookies – they definitely seemed a little out of place in the Temples, though I didn’t want to offend anyone by asking.

      August 16, 2015
      • My pleasure. Thanks for making people want to visit Vietnam. You did an awesome job!

        August 17, 2015
  26. Oh man oh man, I grew up in Vietnam albeit in Saigon. This post reminds me of that tiny, crazy country. I’m glad that you had a good time in Vietnam for it is evident that the culture is relatively hardcore compared to other tourist attractions in SEA such as Thailand.

    Travelling through cities is no longer my mode of travel! Too hectic. I now vagabond into nature for her calm, and serene beauty. Perhaps growing up in Vietnam did that too me.

    Continue to travel my friend, and have a lot of fun doing so!!!

    September 6, 2015
    • Definitely appreciate your vagabonding into nature approach, VV. 🙂 You as well – good luck out there!

      September 22, 2015
  27. Oh yes it can certainly be ‘hanoi-ing’ at times but its such a great city to explore! Plus there is always the cheap beer to keep you from getting too Hanoi’d!

    October 7, 2015
  28. A #

    Reblogged this on dauntlesssoule and commented:
    My destination next year, VIETNAM! Keeping my fingers crossed. 🙂

    November 2, 2015
    • Thanks for the reblog, A!

      November 3, 2015
      • A #

        Youre very much welcome! Keep it up!

        November 4, 2015
  29. I plan to ‘hanoi’ me soon 😉 nice to read you! regards PedroL

    November 5, 2015
    • Hopefully soon, everyone will be Hanoi’ing! Thanks, Pedrol.

      November 6, 2015
  30. You have painted quite a picture – sounds like quite an experience!

    November 20, 2015

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