8 Tips for Sleeping on an Overnight Bus in Vietnam

At the end of 2012 I spent three weeks travelling through Vietnam from Hanoi right down to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon. Just like many other backpackers my primary mode of transport was by overnight bus.

Overnight busses are a win-win because they are so cheap yet also double as accommodation for the night so the price of a bus ticket covers it all!

However, they have a reputation – and for very valid reason – of being uncomfortable, noisy and not particularly conducive for sleeping. I’m not going to make any promises that you will get a solid 8-hours sleep, but these tips might just make the trip a little bit more bearable – you will certainly come out feeling fresher on the other side!

9 Tips for Sleeping on an Overnight Bus in Vietnam

1. Eat a good meal before you board – best to avoid the beers before the overnight bus though! Take a couple of snacks and a big bottle of water.

2. But don’t drink too much water! Some overnight busses don’t have toilets so you just have to hold on and wait until then next stop. You never know how many (or how few) stops there are going to be. Sometimes they are a couple of hours apart, other times they are very few and far between. Don’t take any chances – there is nothing worse than waking up and needing to go! Try to get off at every stop even if just to stretch your legs.

3. Take a sleep sack/sleeping bag liner, and an extra warm layer (like a sweater). It may get cold in the wee hours of the night and there is nothing worse than trying to sleep when you are an icicle! Snuggle up in your little cocoon, it will help you to sleep so much better.

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4. Don’t take unidentified sleeping pills! My friend and I took our chances buying sleeping pills from a pharmacy and they came out rather secretively in an unidentified black bag – not entirely sure they were sleeping pills as I was wired all night and got no sleep whatsoever! If you think you are going to need sleeping pills, bring them from home or buy them from somewhere legit (i.e. not a Vietnamese roadside pharmacy!).

5. Make sure your iPod is fully charged and has some relaxing/chilled out music that you can listen to all night. I’ve never felt more relaxed than I have taking in the Vietnamese view out the window in the early evening with my favourite music in my ears.

6. Don’t expect to get a good nights sleep. Let’s face it, you’re unlikely to get a good nights sleep – you’ll spend hours looking at the Vietnamese travellers lying in the aisle peacefully snoring away, oblivious to the hooting, dangerous swerving of the bus and all of the potholes you seem to bounce over in the road. Unfortunately, sleeping in conditions like this just does not seem to be part of our genetic makeup! If you board with the expectation that you probably won’t get an amazing sleep, any sleep you do get will be a bonus!

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7. Take a scarf – for three reasons! 1. To put over the pillow provided to protect your head from potential bedbugs/other nasties! 2. To wrap around your head to try and dull out the honking that carries on all night! And 3. To wrap around yourself as another layer if you get cold!

8. If you can, get a bed on the side. Vietnam’s overnight buses are three rows wide, so the row of bunks in the middle has an aisle on either side. The sides are a preference, as not only do you get your own window, but you can sort of huddle up against the wall to feel secure. In the aisle row you have to hold on a bit more to save rolling from side to side (or falling off the bunk altogether!). That said, I had a bed in the middle row once and came out unscathed – just had a bit less sleep is all.

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Yep, the horn will be hooting all night and at times it will be like being on a roller coaster. Its all part of the journey! We paid a measly NZ$45 for a 5-stop bus ticket from Hanoi to Saigon. Three overnight buses and a four hour bus to travel down the entire country – cheap as chips!

Dare I say it but with the beauty of hindsight, overnight bus journeys are actually quite fun – and I will certainly do it again!

Do you have any more tips for overnight bus journeys?

Visiting Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam

In October 2012 I realised it was time to stop resisting the travel bug.

It was the same month in which I resigned from my job.

In November I boarded a plane and travelled halfway across the world.

Over three months I backpacked through Vietnam, the Philippines and India. And no, three months most definitely was nowhere near long enough!

I flew into Hanoi on November 15th. I was meeting my friend Gena there, she had arrived from Thailand a couple of hours earlier than me and was waiting amongst the cluster of taxi drivers holding a little sign with my name on it. Cute!

We’d reserved a couple of beds in a dorm at the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel (The Original), which i would definitely recommend if you’re young, not bothered by dorm rooms, and keen for a good time in Vietnam! Its affordable, a decent breakfast is included, and most of all its just fun. We met so many people there!

Gena and I spent a couple of days wandering the streets of Hanoi, planning our trip through the country and booking a tour to Halong Bay.

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Hanoi is a bustling city – quaint buildings, scooters en masse, loud horns tooting from every which way, and a tangle of power lines above every street. Very beautiful in a rather rustic way.

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After a couple of days in Hanoi, which included lots of delicious food, exploring the city, and a night out at a club that got closed down by armed police (yikes!), we made the 3 hour bus journey to Halong Bay for a 2 night/3 day cruise on our junk boat “Elizabeth Sails”. Junk boat by name, but not by nature – this was upmarket by our backpacking standards! We had a cosy twin cabin with ensuite (complete with an incredible shower, we jumped up and down with delight when we saw it!). Given we had read and heard horror stories of boats with rats (!!!) we were delighted when we boarded our immaculate boat.

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On arrival onto our boat we enjoyed a delicious lunch of fresh seafood, veges, rice and fruit, as we cruised through the bay. The striking limestone hills protruding out of the sea were beautiful, reminding me vaguely of the tranquility of the Marlborough Sounds back home in NZ.

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That day we visited the “amazing caves” which were pretty amazing (although most of the sights at the cave were along the lines of “here is a rock that looks like a woman” “there is a rock that looks like an elephant” “here is a rock that looks like a – what do you think it looks like ladies…a cannon…?” and so on). For the remainder of the afternoon we lazed about on the sun loungers on the rooftop of our boat, and visited a beach that was just so-so (too full of tourists).

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Our busy day was completed with a delicious seafood dinner which we washed down with a couple of Hanoi beers and promptly headed to bed for a bit of reading and an early night. We were tired…and also attempting to avoid joining in on the karaoke upstairs that pounded through our ceiling for hours on end!

The next morning was an early start – we breakfasted at 7 and were quickly shuffled onto a new boat that took us to Cat Ba Island where we spent our second night. We arrived on Cat Ba at lunchtime and checked into our hotel…again it was luxurious for our backpacking standards! We ate our all inclusive lunch in the restaurant overlooking the ocean – another tempting array of (mostly) delicious Vietnamese cuisine. Right now we just felt like we were winning at life.

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For the afternoon we had the option to either jump back on the boat and visit Monkey Island, or stay on Cat Ba and chill out on the sun loungers at the resort there… Given a rather terrifying experience I had with an oversized monkey when I was in Thailand a while back that scarred me with a mild fear of wild monkeys, coupled with the fact that we were now 4 days into our Vietnam trip and had not yet had any tanning opportunity (I know, right!!) we easily selected the option to laze on the beach.

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It was a glorious afternoon.

Later that evening we decided we would hit Cat Ba town for a good night out. We started at the Downunder Bar, owned by a guy from Dunedin who married a Vietnamese woman. It wasn’t very busy that night (we must have been the only kiwis in town…) so we got a beer and a manicure from his wife and headed back to the hotel for dinner and a cocktail. Somehow they managed to make my pina colada taste like flour, so we washed that down with a few 2 for 1 mojitos at another bar in town. We bumped into two German friends we had made in Hanoi and they joined us for a while, but Cat Ba wasn’t exactly raving so we called it a night.

The next morning we were up with the sun again for an early breakfast (buffet, yum!) and back on board the boat to Halong City where we would eat lunch and then bus back to Hanoi.

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Halong Bay was stunning and I would definitely recommend a tour if you’re ever in Vietnam (it was significantly better that our Mekong Delta trip down south which I will come to later/in another post). It is very touristy and I imagine rather difficult, if not impossible, to explore without doing a tour – but in my eyes it was absolutely worthwhile.

Have you visited Vietnam? What was your favourite city/region?

5 Things I Learnt From Seeing Wild Elephants in India

Aka one of the most incredible, yet scary, experiences of my life.

It was on my list of things to do on India – see wild Indian Elephants – but given some experiences I’d heard from other travellers I didn’t know how realistic my expectations were.

I was travelling with my brother (Tim) and we decided to give it a shot at Periyar Wildlife Reserve, in Kumily, Kerala. 925 sq km of wild animals roaming free.

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Tim insisted we go with the walking option, rather than the jeep or the boat. I wasn’t too keen about coming face to face with an elephant on foot (let alone a tiger, which also live within the sanctuary!), I would have much preferred the safety net of a getaway vehicle! However, my brother won the battle and we went with the trekking option.

We met our group at 8am the next morning. There were five of us, plus two guides initially. After the first half hour or so an armed forest guide joined us – clearly stating that no animals would be harmed with the gun, it was merely for protection. While I was of some relief that we had some form of protection, I’m not sure if this made me feel more safe or less safe!!

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We walked for a few hours, stopping to demolish some morning tea and lunch from our brown paper bag (provided by the trekking company). During this time we saw plenty of monkeys, bison, a sambar carcass – we were told it had been eaten by a tiger – and a tree trunk that had been scratched to buggery by a tiger marking out it’s territory….we were reassured this was from a few years back – still mildly terrifying none-the-less.

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Post lunch and gazing across some breathtaking views of the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border, we began the trek back towards civilisation. We were all feeling a bit deflated thinking that since we hadn’t seen any elephants that morning, it was probably pretty unlikely that we would see any at all. Of course like with anything, when you are least expecting it is when it always happens, right?! DSC04971

We were trekking along, much of the conversation revolving around the fact that yes, people get trampled to death by elephants (thanks for that, yup that’s exactly what I want to hear while we are actively searching for wild elephants!!), when all of a sudden the guide at the front whipped around and urgently waved his hands signalling us to be quiet. There were elephants ahead!! And there they were – just over a mound in the path, were FOUR wild Indian Elephants.

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My heart leapt out of my chest!

It was the most incredible sight to see. Elephants are such majestic animals, and it was the most humbling (read: scary!) feeling to be in their presence in such a vulnerable state, i.e with no escape vehicle other than our very own feet!

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Though of course while this was all happening, my mind was frantically panicking about the fact that we were probably going to get crushed to death but also I had better get some good photos before that happens to prove we saw them!

We lingered around a while, well-hidden, and took some photos. Problem being, these elephants were standing directly on our path – there was no getting back to town until they were on their way.

Thankfully after we had our fix they strolled off to one side and we were safe to continue.

That safety lasted about 10 minutes, as we walked directly into an open space and were suddenly in the presence of another MASSIVE elephant. I was petrified because we were in such an open space that being seen by this elephant would not be ideal! The elephant had heard something and slowly turned around, while the 5 of us bounded after our guides to hide in some bushes.

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The elephant turned away and we dashed away further to safety, and after watching him in all his glory for anther few minutes, continued our trek back to Kumily.

What did I learn from my experience looking for wild elephants in the Indian jungle?

1. Seeing elephants in the wild is terrifying (I admit I’m a but of a wuss when it comes to scary animals but I swear this would be scary for anyone). You feel so vulnerable, so small, so insignificant. At that moment there was no way out. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do but do your best to stay calm and take in as much of the experience (any experience!) as you can.

2. I have never felt so close to nature as I did that day. You have to take a bit of a risk and live life outside your comfort zone to remind yourself that you are alive! Seeing elephants in the wild is a very different experience to seeing them in a zoo.

3. Experiences make the best memories. Hell yeah I will spend however much it costs to do something like this. But spend $200 on an item of clothing…not so much.

4. Don’t always go with the easy option. Not just when looking for wild elephants, but for life in general. For me, trekking was the hard and scary option. But it was soooo worth it. If you go to Periyar, don’t do the boat trip.

5. Wild elephants > elephant rides. Please DO go trekking in India looking for wild elephants. You will never regret it.

What’s the scariest/bravest thing you’ve ever done?

NY Times 52 Places to Go in 2014: Christchurch!

Last week, the New York Times published this article on their 52 Places to Go in 2014. 52 – that’s one a week, right?!

I feel lucky to live in #2 on the list: Christchurch!

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What they say about Christchurch…

“Three years after two large earthquakes devastated central Christchurch, the city is experiencing a rebirth with creativity and wit — thanks to the ingenuity of its hardy residents — and is welcoming tourists back again. Though much of the central city has yet to be rebuilt, entrepreneurs and volunteers are finding surprising ways to make temporary use of empty lots and bring life back to the downtown. The Gap Filler program, begun a couple of months after the first quake in September 2010 and expanded after a more destructive second quake in February 2011, has created an open-air performance space made of blue pallets, a dance floor with coin-operated music and lights, and even a nine-hole mini-golf course in vacant lots across the city. The Greening the Rubble campaign has since the 2010 quake been planting temporary gardens on the sites of demolished buildings. To replace the destroyed 19th-century ChristChurch Cathedral, a magnificent transitional church by the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban opened in August with sturdy cardboard tubes for the roof. Businesses are also trickling back downtown. One bar, built inside shipping containers, has a name that encapsulates the spirit of the entire city: Revival.”

– Justin Bergman

Christchurch has been hugely impacted by the earthquakes, to an extent that I simply cannot describe in words – but as the article depicts, our city is growing back in such a creative and exciting way!

There are so many places on the list I would love to go. Ummm…how about all 52 of them! But right up there at the top of the list…

 – Ethiopia. It would be so different and interesting and wonderful. Plus, Ethiopian food looks deliciously unique.

– Nashville, Tennessee. “Leather jackets and skinny jeans join cowboy boots.” Yes please!

– Uraguayan Riviera. Doesn’t this sound like perfection? A little bit off the beaten track, a little bit of beach, and a whole lot of amazing.

– Chennai, India. Because I am obsessed with India, I LOVE it. I have only been through the airport in Chennai, I was so disappointed not to be able to explore!

– Krabi, Thailand. One word – glorious!

– Mekong River. I’ve done a day trip in the Mekong Delta before when I was in Vietnam just over a year ago. The sound of a 7 day sailing from Vietnam to Cambodia is utterly tempting!

– Athens, Greece. Where I would eat feta and olives and drink ouzo all day and live happily ever after.

Nepal. Mountains and beauty and wonder and a country I dream of exploring!

Oh lets be honest, I’d like to go everywhere.

What is on your travel wishlist this year? Have you visited any countries on the NY Times list?

10 Things I Love About India

Before I started The Butterfly Editions I used to write sporadically over on my first blog, Springjumps. Whilst I no longer write over there, I don’t want to lose some of my favourite posts! Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some of my favourites, originally posted on Springjumps (slightly rewritten, so as not to confuse!). 

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In December 2012 and January 2013 I was lucky enough to spend nearly two months backpacking around a country that I plan on going back to time and time again – India. I originally wrote this post about halfway through my time there, when I had travelled the Golden Triangle (Rajasthan, Agra & Varanasi) and had a few days hanging out on my own in Delhi before heading west to Gujurat to meet my brother.

I can visualise exactly where I was that afternoon in early January writing this post: perched at one of the communal computers at Smyle Inn (such a great hostel, right in the middle of the Main Bazaar + the best breakfasts). I was chilled to the bone, Northern India gets cold guys!

The following is a list of 10 things I loved and learnt in my first few weeks in the grand country that is India.

1. Camels. Turns out I really like camels. I only was able to do a one hour trek in Pushkar, but boy they can turn your mood around! Next time I’m in Rajasthan, I’m going do a camel safari in Jaisalmer for sure.

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2. Markets. The markets are incredible! You never quite know what you’re going to get in your next breath…if it will be delicious or putrid. Full of a whole lot of unnecessary needs and wants, you can get lost for hours.

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3. Henna. Is so pretty!

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4. The peaceful havens of temples, gardens and water. In such a chaotic place, it is such an amazing feeling when you find yourself surrounded by tranquility. Some of my favourites: the Jain temple in Ranakpur, Lodi Gardens in Delhi, being rowed along the Ganges in Varanasi, and the abandoned hilltop temple we watched the sun rise from in Pushkar.

Lodi Gardens, Delhi

Lodi Gardens, Delhi

5. Pushkar. Small (less than 15,000 people), genuine and beautiful, Pushkar is an oasis set amongst a desert backdrop. I felt so relaxed there!

Pushkar at dawn

Pushkar at dawn

6. The kind people. This is India, and the brutal truth is that not everyone is genuine, or honest. But, many are! We met a lovely Indian family on our train to Varanasi who stayed awake right through the night to help us so that we wouldn’t miss our stop.

7. They fight for what they want. On a small scale: shopkeepers non-stop hassling you to buy their goods. On a large scale: the protests and uproar over the gang rape in Delhi that horrifically resulted in the death of a girl a couple of weeks ago. Positive change is happening right now in India as a direct outcome of this.

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Protests in Delhi last week

8. The food. You definitely need a break from it every now and then, but there is no denying that Indian food is one of the greatest cuisines in the world. It is also a lot more diverse than the Indian restaurants back home would have us believe! Yum, yum, yum. By the time I get home, I think I’ll be obese! (edited to add: actually, I got food poisoning and came home lighter than when I left!)

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9. The beauty. Its smelly, dirty and quite often run down, but you can’t deny that India has a magical sparkle that makes it one of the most beautiful countries around. The colours, the sparkly saris, the henna, the wildlife, the music, the architecture…

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Amer Fort, Jaipur

10. The history. India’s history is deep, rich and diverse. There is so much to learn, see and explore. It’s an ultimate destination for history-lovers!

You just never quite know what to expect. Sometimes its good, sometimes its incredible, and other times its a tad frustrating, but that’s half the fun. You just have to keep in mind, that whatever you’re expecting, it is probably going to be exactly the opposite!

Have you experienced India? Is it on your travel wishlist?

I’m Ready, Here We Go

Gosh, this is so cliche, I almost can’t believe I’m doing it. Starting a brand new blog early in the new year – one of approximately a million or more doing the exact same thing!

I did used to write a blog over at Springjumps a few months back – however this new blog here has been brewing in my mind for a while! I am ready to move on from my Springjumps days (sporadic as they were) as I am at a new phase in my life, with fresh dreams, thoughts and plans.

I think this blog is going to teach me a thing or two. I strive to lead a positive life, an adventurous life, and a meaningful life. It is here that I plan to share my stories, ideas and experiences not only for my own personal growth and memories, but to inspire others (yes, you!) to live a full, purposeful and happy life too.

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Shall we? Lets do it!