Braving Ha Giang by Motorbike [Tourist Guide]

Ha Giang is one of  the secret adventures in Vietnam. It’s a tough one, surely “off the beaten path”, but the trip will take you through some of the best (non-beach / ocean) sights in Vietnam as you make your way through the northern most points in the country, near the China border. It also gives you a great look of true third-world Vietnam. People there are unlikely to make $100 USD a month, and yet still get reminded constantly by government billboards over the roads to pay their taxes. These are not people who are checking their Facebook updates – in fact, I wonder what hopes they have of a life other than having kids at age 16 and struggling to survive.

Needless to say, while you can still get Pho in these areas, don’t expect much of anything else in terms of luxuries.

While you can make the trip through the various mountain passes by bus, it’s much better by motorbike (well, moped) as you can go at your own pace, take a look at things that interest you. It’s about the voyage through the province, not getting to the individual towns (the towns suck). Ha and I went through Ha Giang during late January, when it was quite cold (wind chill + 10 degree Celsius temperature) and one of the days was blanketed by a thick fog, which created tremendous issues with visibility.

If you can read Vietnamese, try out these forums to learn and discuss more: http://www.phuot.vn/forums/161-T%E1%BB%95-ch%E1%BB%A9c-c%C3%A1c-chuy%E1%BA%BFn-%C4%91i-TRONG-N%C6%AF%E1%BB%9AC. Otherwise, check out my advice (and more photos) below (these also have more English information: http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/vietnam/2012/04/10/motorcycling-around-ha-giang/, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/travel/31vietnam-ha-giang.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, and http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/five-days-in-ha-giang-unforgettable.cfm).

Over a 2 Day Trip: (our friend drew us the very useful map below)

In Day 1, you are essentially going to Dong Van.

First, make your way to Ha Giang by bus (or motorbike). While we went to Ha Giang from Sapa / Lao Cao (8 hour bus), you can also take an overnight bus from Hanoi. In Ha Giang, you can rent a motorbike from this guy (below) at To 7 Phuong Tran Phu (next to his shop is a solid place for Pho and breakfast) for about $8 USD per day – you will want to start in the morning, before 8AM if possible. I am not sure the owner speaks English but he told us he has rented to many foreigners. Rent a motorbike that has gears, not an automatic. You don’t need a super powerful bike, but it’s better to get a lighter, more maneuverable one. We got an automatic, heavier bike, which we really regretted as we had trouble feeling confident on the mountain roads.

From Ha Giang, you are trying to make your way north to Dong Van, which is about 170KM away (100 miles). This does not sound far, but depending on how fearless you are on the road and the weather, it may take you all day to get there. With heavy fog, some rain and tremendous fear in our hearts, Ha and I did not get to Dong Van until 4PM (after leaving around 830AM). This is not a place you want to go driving around when it’s dark.

Do not go faster than a speed with which you are comfortable (as in experience, not daring). Ha and I are fairly comfortable on motorbikes but we both were constantly frightened – the roads are generally OK, but expect blind turns on mountain roads in which you may or may not know if cars / buses are about to run into you. The road is about 1.5 or barely 2 lanes wide; I consider it a one lane road because when you go off the road, you’re falling down thousands of meters. These aren’t gradual declines either – you fall, you die. Most of the way, the road won’t even have a protective barrier.

As you drive and see a turn, honk your horn to warn others that you are coming. Hopefully, the other drivers do the same for you.

During the first 1/3 of the trip you will be seeing a lot of the Mieng river, which produces sights like those at the beginning of this post and below.

After this, it’s a daunting stretch through the mountains. Again, be safe. The roads are fairly simple to follow as there will be continued signs pointing you to Dong Van, but do bring a map – do not expect 3G to work everywhere in the mountains if you are lost. If you know Vietnamese, this is much less of an issue.

Ha and I encountered rain and heavy fog as we made our way through. We fell on this patch of road below (I was driving).

On the way to Dong Van, drop by Lung Cu, the northern-most point in Vietnam. You will see the signs for it once you are about an hour away from Dong Van (30-40 km, 18-25 miles). Make sure that you are at this point before 2PM, or have been comfortable driving faster than 50 km/h (30 mph) – you want to make sure you can get to Dong Van while visibility is still good.

When leaving Lung Cu, there are actually two ways back. You do not want to take the way you took all the way back, but instead take another road to go to Dong Van – it appears half way on the return trip. Worst case, if you cannot find the road, go all the way back to where you started going to Lung Cu, and there will be another sign for Dong Van.

Stay the night in Dong Van. Hotel rates will be around $15 a night. This is a bare bones town, so I would eat dinner early, grab some snacks in case you get hungry, and stay in the hotel.

In Day 2, you will want to go though Meo Vac, a mountain pass which will let you view China and the Nho Que river, and then head back to Ha Giang. From Meo Vac, there is a road back to Ha Giang that’s slightly closer than taking the road you traveled on in Day 1. (If this is confusing, see the map above) However, Ha and I decided to go back on the original road. We actually didn’t go to Lung Cu on Day 1 as we arrived so late, so we did it on Day 2 on the return.

On the road to Meo Vat (look how close this child is to falling off the edge, 2000 meters down – he plays with no hesitation). Below, photos from the way back to Ha Giang.

It really is a very straightforward trip, with a lot of great natural sights. While Ha and I valued the experience, we were so frightened by the actual motorbike riding, it’s unlikely we would ever do it again. That’s not to say that we are particularly brave. Local natives traveled the roads at much greater speeds, often carrying tremendous cargo on their motorbikes as well, but for us, it was our first time and the glancing at the steep drops nearby constantly sapped our confidence.

In case you are curious about any aspect of the trip, please send a comment below!

For more photos and even a few videos, see: http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Ha-Giang-Motorbiking-Adventure

To see more Tourist Guides from my travel, see: http://www.ispithotfire.com/tag/tourist-guide/

The Best of Wedding Fun–A Bonanza! [Photos]

I am now married. What seemed to be an impossibility for many years has somehow happened and I have the photos to prove it!

The event took place in the Binh Quoi Tourist Village in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, a venue run by SaigonTourist. It’s a big tourist venue (trap), though I had never heard of it until the wedding. It was a big of a rarity for Vietnamese weddings in two ways. The first was that we only had 80 people attend (Vietnamese weddings typically have 200+), so it was a small reception (technically, Ha and I had been married two months earlier according to the government paperwork). We had to plan the wedding on very short notice, so I could not invite people from the US, where I am originally from. The second was that the wedding took place outside – we were able to get a small grassy area by the river, with a cool breeze coming in at sunset.

Overall, I felt that the party was intimate, comfortable, and relaxed.  I hope that the friends and family that were able to attend enjoyed it too!

After the wedding, a small group went to McDonald’s. McDonalds just opened its first franchise in Vietnam two months ago, so Ha and I thought it would be interesting to visit in full wedding garb and check it out. Thankfully, we have a couple of friends who work there who were able to make sure we got through with no problem – it’s stupendously busy as people often have to wait in line outside the doors – going through Vietnam’s first and only motorbike drive-through.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the “Wedding Photos”, the actual wedding, and the McDonald’s trip:

Wedding Photos:

The Actual Wedding:

McDonald’s:

To see all the photos from the various events, please see:

Pre-Wedding “Wedding Photos”, including the fun Thor shots:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Wedding-photos/

Actual Wedding:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/The-Wedding/

Post-Wedding McDonald’s Vietnam Bonanza:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/A-McDonalds-Vietnam-Wedding-Su/

Discovering Your Six Pack and Losing 25 Pounds [Body]

Starting college, I was 140 pounds. However, after a couple years, I finally realized that eating a whole pizza and other things for dinner every day wasn’t quite in the recommended daily 2,000 calorie maximum for students when I noticed I had ballooned to 160 pounds. As a teenager, I used to eat super sized double quarter pounder meals at McDonald’s and think to myself, “that was a solid meal”. Not an insane meal, a solid one.

Knowing my friends, who were all pretty skinny at the time, this was what it was like to be American in the mid-1990’s.

A year ago, I was about 170 pounds. I am 5’6 (167 cm). I wore medium-sized shirts and size 33 pants.  I had given up on losing weight, I just wanted to be fit. I don’t think I was ever fat or obese – I just had a good body frame for holding (mostly down low) weight. Even when I was doing intense 2 hour basketball sessions in the Vietnamese heat multiple times per week, I never lost any weight.

After I read Timothy Ferriss’ Four Hour Body last year, I began to understand why. In general, Ferriss talks about how carbohydrates and not fat (from meat) are the key to storing fat in the body. Consuming no carbs meant your body could not store fat. Based on the advice in the book, I decided to change my diet to see what could happen. Essentially, it’s the load-up-on-meats-and-vegetables while avoiding-all-rice-and-bread diet, or the Atkins diet. I also avoid sauces and dressings whenever possible to avoid extra filler calories.

Today, one year later, I am 65kg (143 pounds). This is what I looked like a couple of years ago versus now:

I never thought I could have a 6 pack, but today’s it’s pretty much there. I’m no Ryan Reynolds, but I almost feel like we have a common bond (other than an initial love but now dislike for Scarlett Johansson). I am down to a size 30.5 waist, size small shirt, and a big need to make money to buy new clothes.

I highly suggest reading the Four Hour Body to learn more (or can just research online) – Ferriss does a good job of answering detailed questions and complaints that people may think of against doing this. As a side note, Ferris  also recommends loading up on green tea extract and a number of compounds that is now called the PAGG stack. While both may help in overall health, they are also fairly expensive. I don’t think they are necessary for the weight loss (I tried the PAGG stack for a couple of months and I don’t feel the results were different).

The major changes in my diet, massive reductions in the following:

  1. Drinks: no juices, no soda, nothing with sugar. The only things I drink normally are teas (preferably green tea), plain water, and vegetable juices (with no added sugar). I do have the occasional beer and wine should be ok. Beer is not that high in carbs (generally 12G per can) with 150 calories, especially compared to soda (35G carbs, 200 calories), but if you drink a lot of beer, it really adds up – each beer makes up roughly 8% of your daily caloric intake. I do not drink diet sodas either – this somewhat relates to consuming “real food”, discussed more below. Besides, there is research that suggests drinking diet sodas gives people the false security that they can eat more, so these people actually end up being worse off than drinking normal soda.
  2. Processed Grains: rice, bread, cookies, cake, etc. If I do eat these, I try to get wheat bread when possible. Bacon and eggs for breakfast, no cereals.
  3. Manufactured Foods: I avoid these almost completely, including frozen foods (even vegetables) and boxed foods. I am against these types of foods (though they are amazingly delicious) for long term health (I believe in eating real food over stored or processed food to avoid long term health issues).

Vegetables: I really like Spinach and Broccoli, as I find them easy to eat and they are highly nutritious. Eat a ton of these or whatever vegetables you can handle.

Meats: Load up! For overall health, eat organic when possible. In Vietnam, however, organic meats were not easy to come by.

Snacks / Junk Food / Fast Food can usually be grouped in one of the three things above. Nuts, while healthy for you, are incredibly energy and carb-dense. I avoid fruit as well, though I am not really sure fruit is a problem. Fruit contains high amounts of glucose (sugar), but when is the last time you saw someone become fat because they ate too much fruit? As I understand, fructose (almost always in manufactured foods) is the real issue in fat building (it’s also an issue in cholesterol, according to The Great Cholesterol Myth)

To make what might seem like big changes in your diet, I suggest take things slowly. First, don’t expect to lose a ton of weight quickly. Be patient, give it a few months. Don’t scale yourself constantly. I didn’t weigh myself for 8 months. As my friend Jimmy recommends, do look at yourself in the mirror – as you begin to lose weight, you will want that positive reinforcement of seeing your body shape change.

Start with just one of the diet changes and reduce. If you drink one soda per day for example, just drink one per week. The other times, drink water. If you eat two bowls of rice per day, begin to maximize yourself to one. If 3 beers a night, first reduce to 2 for one month, then reduce to one afterwards. You don’t need to take extreme measures – if you do something you cannot maintain or enjoy, you will only give up later. As you get used to scaling back, try to scale a little further. If you scaled back your beer consumption successfully for a month, now also eat less bread and rice, for example.

Log what you change in your diet and mark each time you do it. For example, if you only want to drink one soda per week, note each time you drink a soda. I made an Excel sheet with a cell for every day. In that day, I write everything I eat or drink. If I eat something bad, I highlight it. I update and review the list every day, so that if in a particular week I have been highlighting too many items, it helps reinforce that I cannot break my rules again.

This may seem silly, but it really does help – you will have that reminder in the back of your mind to lay off, especially as you see yourself change in the mirror.

In case you feel you will sacrificing (what, no ice cream cake!?) too much, Ferriss’ schedule does prescribe a cheat day, in which you can eat whatever you want all day one time a week. In general, however, I still eat rice and other things I love from time to time, I just cut back and keep track so that I don’t fall into bad habits.

If you find yourself getting hungry, you just need to eat more. More meat! Eat baby carrots in between meals!

In addition to diet changes, I still work out, and my suggestion is to pick something you can do at least 5 times per week. Even if it’s just walking the dog for 20 minutes, stick to what you know you can do rather than overpromising yourself. Anything beyond that is a bonus. For example, I hate lifting weights, so I don’t bother vowing to do it. I absolutely hate running. If you live in a city in which you walk a lot already, perhaps add seven minutes of circuit training five days per week.

My workout, each of these done 5 times per week:

  • 50 pushups (I cannot do these straight, I usually do 30-15-15 getting a few minutes rest between each set. It’s a bit lazy, I know)
  • 50 squats (done straight)
  • 1.2 KM Swimming (about .7 miles, I feel I swim at a fairly fast pace, but definitely not a sprinting pace. This is 30 laps in a standard 20 meter lap pool)
  • 8 Minute Abs (see YouTube for the video).

The swimming is done for overall fitness rather than weight loss. I have heard many people say that losing weight is all about diet, and it’s true. I have not been swimming much this year due to travel, and I am still able to retain my weight and body shape as long my diet stays intact. I don’t play basketball anymore, but would like to pick it up again later this spring.

Based on my experience, losing weight is not as much a sacrifice as people often imagine. You can do it too! Best of luck!

Trips on the Autobahn and First Impressions of Germany (Frankfurt, Muhlhausen)

I was in Germany for 6 days visiting my wife’s relatives and this has been my first trip to Europe. First stop: Frankfurt, Germany’s financial hub, and then Muhlhausen, a small town of 30,000 in the German countryside (it is literally in the woods near castles). Some early thoughts of my experience:

1) You can get a Porsche taxi. The one below was parked, oddly, at an elementary school.

2) Mettbrötchen / Mett is really damn good – it’s raw ground pork on bread, for breakfast.

3) People park their cars ON the curb. This concept will be super familiar with Vietnamese but unheard of for Americans. As a plus, this does free up space on the road, but reduces sidewalk space.

4) The vast majority of the cars being driven are from German carmakers – BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Audi. Must be 90%, and a count watching cars showed 24 consecutive German cars passing me by. Smart (that’s a car company) cars are super small 2 person vehicles that are allowed to park perpendicular to parking spaces.

5) Frankfurt is a good looking city. It’s got the old-European town feel like (as seen on TV!). Perhaps that’s boring to Europeans though. it’s also consistently clean, at least in the areas that I walked around (financial district, area around the Mein river). Muhlhausen, however, is a real old European town. From the places and homes I visited, Germany in general is really clean.

(Frankfurt and the Mein River)

(Downtown Frankfurt)

(Dom Römer Area)

(Muhlhausen City Center)

(Muhlhausen City Center)

6) Some roads are somehow one-lane two way roads. In case there is oncoming traffic, you either have to back up or with some roads, there is a place you stop on the right hand side so the other car can pass by.

7) While the Autobahn was not the super racetrack freeway I envisioned (in my dreams), Germany still seems like a great place to drive. The Autobahn feels like Highway 5 in California. Perhaps it’s just been too long since I drove a car consistently, but I feel like Germans drive fast.

8) I thought that all 1st world Europeans were fluent in English. This is not so true, at least for spoken English, though Germans do study English in school.

9) Germans neighbors commonly greet each other (“Allo!” for “Hello”, “Cheers” for “Goodbye”) in the mornings – I do not feel like this happens in the US, and it certainly doesn’t happen in Vietnam.

10) Chipotle exists here. As does Footlocker and Gamestop. (I hung around a Frankfurt mall) Starbucks exist but nowhere with the density you will see in the US, or even Tokyo.

For more of my photos from Germany, see:

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Frankfurt/

http://ispithotfire.smugmug.com/2014/Muhlhausen-Germany

A Grand Opening Preview of McDonald’s Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City

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Yesterday, Ha and I had the opportunity to eat at the first McDonalds in Vietnam. It’s not open to the public yet, and won’t be until February 8th. But from what I’ve seen, it’s absolutely worth checking out, whether you’re a McDonalds / fast food fan or not. The location is in District (Quan) 1, 2-6 Bis Dien Bien Phu, Puong Da Kao (Ward) in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

It’s complete with McDonalds staple, the drive-through, a first in Vietnam. I didn’t get to try the motorbike drive-through, but I want to. Maybe that sounds weird, but as an American living in Vietnam, I can tell you that McDonalds is completely different from any other restaurant, fast food or otherwise, in Vietnam right now. If you live in Vietnam, it will feel completely misplaced, and that’s a good thing. From the sheer size of the restaurant (don’t worry about parking space) to its great wifi (inside joke for my friend Hai Do) to its children’s playground to its prominent arches sign that you will see from very far away, you feel like you’re in an amusement park in the middle of the city.

Ha and I tried a good number of items, a few of which I’ve never had at any McDonalds. In total, we had:

  1. McRoyal with Cheese (Quarter Pounder – remember Pulp Fiction?)
  2. McPork (not sure if these exists in the USA, it’s not a McRib)
  3. McFlurry
  4. French Fries (they are the same ones you know and love)
  5. Apple Pie
  6. Ice Cream Cone (priced at 10K VND, about $.50)
  7. Chicken Wings (I don’t think they are the same as Mighty Wings in the USA, but they are excellent nonetheless)

Yes, that’s a lot of food and we could not finish everything. Everything was excellently delicious however, and the entire experience was very polished.

h

I can’t wait until I can pick up a Happy Meal toy. But in the mean time, I picked up an adult “toy”, the awesome McDonald’s Vietnam t-shirt shown above. You can pick up your own once it opens. They’re also selling nice travel mugs, a special grand opening pin (got one of those as well; you can see it, albeit not clearly at the bottom of my shirt), and two other shirt options. And because these items are unique to Vietnam, not generic McDonald’s, they make excellent Vietnam souvenirs and gifts if you’re traveling through. (I especially like the French Fry pocket holder shirt, ask about that one)

Get more info on McDonald’s and the Grand Opening through its Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/McDonaldsVN