Friday, March 23, 2012


...As Adrian Cronauer would say.
We arrived at the Hanoi Airport on time and for the most part everything went very well. However we did pay $25 to for the “fast track” service that was to help us get by the red tape at immigration. The representative that was to meet us showed up 35 minutes late and did nothing but make a phone call to someone doing absolutely nothing for us.

Jessica and I had already submitted our passport and were just waiting to pay the $25 fee to enter the country. To make matters worst there was a tourist group from France that refused to pay the $25 entrance fee to Vietnam. Because of this there were about 30 angry French people crowding a very small counter area pushing and shoving and being...well French. This made it very hard for those of us that actual read the entry requirements for Vietnam and just wanted to pay our $25 and get on our way. After about 30-40 minutes, which would have been a 5 minute ordeal, we got our visas stamped and headed to customs which took another 5 minutes.
As expected our driver from the Hanoi Holiday Diamond was there waiting for us and we were in the car and headed for Hanoi which was about 45 minutes away from the airport.
Upon arriving at the “Diamond” before we could even get out of our car the entire staff was in the street greeting us and taking our bags into the lobby. I’m going to keep this short but you could not and I have not ever found a more personable, kind, friendly, helpful staff in any hotel in the world. They were there 24 hours a day to make sure you had no wants what-so-ever.
We arrive at the Hanoi Holdiay Diamond Hotel

My room was exceptional clean and had a comfortable bed, huge shower, flat screen tv, refrigerator, fresh fruit and water daily and a computer for my use a long with wifi for my own computer. There was also a great buffet style breakfast included in the price of your room, which was $30 per night.

Great room for a great price...$30
After checking in Jessica, my travel partner, and I went for a walk through the crowded streets of Hanoi.

Jessica and I begin our Hanoi adventure

It was amazing to see all the people especially the scooters that were everywhere going in every direction. We dubbed it "organized chaos." Traffic just flowed in every direction and to cross the street you did the same. We called it the “zombie walk”. You just looked straight ahead and started walking regardless if it is a red light or not and they dodged you. The same went for the other scooters and the occasional car. They just kept moving and getting out of each others way.

We also noticed that many people both on scooter and walking throughtout the city wore masks covering their nose and mouth, hats and also longsleeves and gloves. This happened even in the southern cities where it was very hot. We were told it was not only for the soot and smog but to keep them protected from the sun.

We walked throughout most of the afternoon and into the evening hours and found a beautiful lake called Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) to visit that has the Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower) in the middle of it only about 15 minutes from the hotel. It is named so because of a 15th century legend stating that heaven sent Emperor Le Thai To a magical sword to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war a giant golden tortoise surfaced grabbing the sword disappearing in the depths and returned sword to it's devine owners.

Thap Rua in Hoan Kiem Lake

As we walked around we also noticed how the people seem to be drawn to the lake. We visited it many times and it was always the same. People were doing tai chi, exeercising, resting on park benchs, enjoying the lake and each other.

I also noticed across the street from the lake a young child chasing a ball in front of a statue of Emperor Le Thai To and took one of my favorite pictures.

A Gesture of World Peace at Hoan Kiem Lake

Jesssica and myself at Hoan Kiem Lake
The bridge leads to the Ngoc Son Temple on the lake

Near the top of the lake is a building we dubbed "Backdeck" as it reminded us of the back of the Rhapsody where the "Backdeck" Crew Bar is located. It is five stories, each with a restaurant/bar with an outside deck to sit and drink your favorite beer...just like on the ship.

Backdeck Hanoi

In the same location each night are the hawkers and vendors all dodging traffic and trying to sell everything under the sun to whomever will buy. This led me to get a couple of my favorite photographs.

The Hanoi Melon Lady

The Hanoi Balloon Lady

The next day Jess and I went exploring again. This time we went to the shopping streets where each street has a speciality. There is the locksmith street that is block after block of locksmiths, the tin box street, the toy street all doing the same thing. We were told this is because there are no telephone books in Vietnam. So all the same type of stores are in the same location. This way when you need somethng you know where to go. We also went to the silk street where Jess bought a dress and a pair of linen pants that were made for her for $30 a piece. It took just one day to do.

Hanoi Silk Worker

After shopping we went to St. Josephs Cathedral which was very old and very gothic. After a few pictures we decided it was time for lunch and we found a place called Pho 24 that we noticed had a few people in it eating. Pho is a type of noodle soup dish and we both had Pho Ga, which has chicken added to it. It was a very large bowl and it cost around $2.50. In fact all or our meals with something to drink and more food then you can imagine ran right around $5 each.
St. Joseph's Cathedral

After lunch we made our way to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where the American prisoners of war were held. The vast majority of the prison, now a museum, was about how badly the French had treated the Vietnamese during their occupation. There was also a couple rooms that focused on the American Vietnam War. They even had McCains flight suit, parachute and some personal items along with a few others on display. Being a Vietnam Era Vet it was very sobering walking around the prison.

The following day I walked around the backpacker again snapping away while Jess was taking a cooking class. This was a great way to spend my morning as two more of our friends from the ship were arriving that afternoon.

At one point I came across the White Horse Temple and there was a ceremony going on inside. There was a woman being dressed in ceremonial clothes by two men and music played and about six women dancers performed behind her.

Once dressed she started to dance as well and other “helpers” handed out candy and 20,000vdn which is about $1US to the crowd. I later learned that she represented and spoke for the dead relatives and blessing those that were there.

Once David and Maureen arrived at the hotel and got settled Jess and I gave them the tour of the backpacker area which we were becoming very familiar. We headed down to the lake and after dinner that night went to the Water Puppet Show. This was a very ancient play performed, yes by puppets in water which was inside of a theater. 

The next morning the four of us took a taxi to the Ho Chi Mihn Mausoleum which unfortunately was closed. We still were able to walk around the ground which were huge and the area is very different to the backpacker area. It is a very clean and upscale area. 

Right in front of the entrance there was a very large parade ground and Jessica it reminded her of Red Square in Russia. Our timing was great as while we were there we saw the changing of the guard.

There was also a temple on the ground that we visited. From there we walked a fair distance to the West Lake area, also very upscale and where many of the embassies are located.

Next it was time for lunch and we found another Pho 24. This one was located right next to the Temple of Literature which was our next stop. It is literally around 1,000 years old and surround by high brick wall. It contains both the shrine to Confucius named Van Mieu built in 1070, and the university for mandarins called Quoc Tu Giam, literally the "Temple of the King Who Distinguished Literature" built in 1076.

We then took the long walk back through more small streets filled with people, shops and yes scooter and even more scooters. After a snack break at the lake we headed back to the hotel to shower before heading out to a spa for a massage.

It was a beautiful spa with a wide variety of services being offered. I opted for a 90 minute aromatherapy session and a 30 minute facial that were absolutely great. Even though it is thought of as a bit pricey it still ran only $36. After a late night dinner it was back to the hotel to pack as the next morning we were off to Cat Ba Island.

We got up and took a taxi to the bus station and bought our transportation to the island. It consisted of a bus, to another bus to a boat to another bus for the 4 hour trip. As scary as that sounds it was virtually seamless and very easy. Except when David noticed he left his passport at the hotel. The Hanoi Holiday Daimond kept shining and sent a drive to the bus station with David's passport. Next stop Cat Ba Island...


After an uneventful process of immigration and passport checks I did some shopping at the airport before my flight. The flight itself was also uneventful and I wrote my blog posting on Bali.
Upon my arrival in Singapore it was a 20-minute taxi ride to the Mitraa Hostel where I was staying with my travel partner Jessica. This was my first hostel experience. We had booked here primarily as it was the only hostel that I found that offered two to a room. That and it received good ratings on
When I arrived Jessica was already out and I was given instructions where she was waiting to meet me. It was a 5 minute walk to the Singapore Subway. I had to make three changes to get to Marina Bay where Jessica was waiting at the top of the Skypark Sands Hotel.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel and "DNA"  Bridge

I was told that it was a $20 charge to go to the top of the 57 story hotel but was able to get a free pass with a little finesse but talking to one of the concierges.
After a ride on the express elevator and out on the outdoor deck I was amazed at the beautiful views in every direction. Within a couple minutes I spotted Jessica and another friend of hers from the ship, Caroline. One of the most amazing aspects of the hotel is their infinity pool also on the very top of the hotel. We were not able to go to go there as it is for guests only but it was close enough to take pictures and understand what the view from the pool must be like.

Infinity pool on top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel

After taking pictures of the cityscape we left the hotel to get something to eat. Nearby there is a lagoon lined with buildings, amazing bridges one of which represents a strand of DNA, one of the world’s largest Ferris wheels and a football playing field and stadium.

Marina Bay

DNA Bridge at Marina Bay
Also in this area is an outside food court that was packed with people ordering from one of the half dozen food carts. It was mayhem with people pushing to get their food and food being sent out of the carts cooking area at break neck speed. I had crab rolls and seafood fried rice costing $13 and Jessica had chicken wings and a noodle plate with a fried egg on top for around $5.
After dinner we said our goodbyes to Caroline and made our way back to the hostel by subway at the cost of $2.40 one way. Once there it was time to shower, double check we had all of our paperwork together for the next day’s flight to Vietnam and to catch up on emails.
Having left the hostel we headed to the airport by taxi costing $25sgn including the surcharge for rush hour. Getting through the airport was a breeze including immigration, customs and ticketing.
Flying Jetstar Airlines the checking process was very quick but once onboard the seats are very close row to row and a bit cramped. If you are just sitting or reading it is not too bad but to type on a laptop it would be close to impossible. The only reason I am able to do this is there is nobody sitting in either seat in my row and I am using the tray table from the middle seat.
On the subject of Jetstar they have the WORST possible customer service. No matter what method you choose you can never get in touch with them. And at the airport all they will tell you is you must contact customer service for a refund. 
When my vacation plans changed from Cambodia to the Philippines I had already bought my ticket from Siem Reap back to Singapore to catch the ship. It is absolutely impossible to contact customer service. For two months I have written 6-7 emails to no avail. I have tried to call when on land and you are on hold forever. They tell you to Skype on their website but that doesn’t work either.
So my advice is if you know for sure that your plans will not change fly Jetstar if you want. But for me I will NEVER give them one more penny. Thankfully the flight I wanted to cancel was only around $100 but still it is the principle involved.
I have however gotten three emails advising me that my flight times have been changed asking me to accept and confirm or contact customer service if this is unacceptable….good luck with that…

Friday, March 16, 2012


It started out what we called in the Navy as a Cluster F**k and turned into F**king Fantastic.
So lets start from the beginning, as that is always a great place to start. Caroline and I were signing off the ship together and that is when all the trouble started. It seems that because we were staying in Bali a couple days that we had to be “registered” with Immigration.
Nobody in the Crew Office said anything about this and when we arrived on shore nobody seemed to know anything either. M&R did her best but it was not her job and it is my opinion that Crew Office dropped the ball. We were told that when we hit shore that Immigration would have our passports ready to hand over to us, make sure we match the pictures on the passport and check our baggage.
In reality Immigration was not there and the Port Officer didn’t seemed to have a clue. First after some pressing from Julie (M&R) he said that we would get our passports when we left the country. We all knew better then that and Julie jumped on him. Then he said that it would take an hour. To make a long story short Caroline and I waited 6 hours for our passport to arrive from Immigration. Nobody came and looked to see if we were who we said we were, nobody checked our baggage and nobody checked what we brought off the ship.

Caroline waiting for her passport
One reason they said that it took so long was that they did not know we were staying in Bali or going to an island. They certainly did as the Crew Office gave them a written itinerary that I typed up of everywhere we were going, where we were staying and our flights information.
I also found it amusing that we told them that we had to catch a boat to the island that we were staying at and the last boat left at 2pm. They arrived with our passports at 2:20. I’m really glad I didn’t tell them that the actual last boat left at 4:30pm or I am sure they would have shown up at 5pm with our paperwork.
So within a few minutes our ride to the water taxi arrived and we were finally on our way. Once we got to the boat staging area it was about a 40-minute wait and it started to rain. Well it was more like a downpour. We boarded the boat and we were off to the island.  It was a 25-minute ride to the island of Lembongan. When we arrived everyone was taken to a road that led to their hotels etc. We were asked to board a small 20 foot boat to be shuttled to up the coast to the Blue Corner Dive Resort. Of course it was still pouring rain so our day continued to be an adventure.
Upon arrival at Blue Corner we were greeted by one of the owners, Andrew. By then the rain had stopped and we were shown to our bungalows. They were large upgraded versions of traditional style huts with wooden floors and thatched roofs. They had a large bathroom, hot showers and large soft towels. The highlight after living on the ship for 7 months was air conditioning and a huge, extremely comfortable bed. We were discounted the rooms for $33 per night which was a great deal.

Bungalows at The Blue Corner Dive Resort
The grounds have a small infinity pool that doubled as a pool for dive instruction. There is also a “bar” for cold beers and it serves breakfast in the morning. The view is remarkable and it was interesting to sit drinking a beer and watching the local seaweed farmers harvest the ocean during the low tide that night at sunset.

Seaweed Farmers in Bali

Seaweed Harvest at Low Tide
This is a newly opened place to stay and we both found Andrew and his business partner Cody extremely friendly and willing to do anything to make your stay enjoyable. I would defiantly recommend Blue Corner Dive Resort. But do not think of it as a mainland resort, it is not, but it is great for what is and there are many upgrades planned by Andrew and Cody.
That evening Caroline and I ate at one of the many restaurants, Wurang Made, that line the road and the beach. The food in Bali is very inexpensive. We both ate a large meal, had something to drink and it was still less then $10 for the both of us.
The next day we decided to go to a different hotel that we noticed just down the beach on our walk back from dinner the night before. It was the Tarci Bungalows. Rather then traditional bungalows like at Blue Corner it was the typical white cement, stucco type building you would find anywhere.
The room that I had was towards the back and nice sized with air conditioning and again a comfortable bed. It was discounted to $15 per night. Caroline had a very large room that opened to the ocean and was only steps to the pool. Her room also had a very large bath with a bathtub. It was discounted to $30 per night.

Caroline at the pool steps from her room at Tarci's Bungalows
The ground had a medium sized pool, great restaurant with a large amount and variety of food and beverages to choose from. It also had an upper deck with a great view to sit and enjoy your meals, which we choose to do for dinner. The rest of our meals were at one of the tables that literally were at the waters edge. In fact at high tide we were talking and a wave crashed against the wall and soaked both of us. 

Time to check my email at Tarci's Bungalow

Lunch for me consisted of noodles and veggies wrapped in a giant egg

That afternoon I rented a scooter for the entire day for $6 while Caroline lay by the pool overlooking the ocean. I drove the entire island and found a number of temples along the way.

One of the many alters I passed
during my exploration of the island

One of the "Gods"

I rode along mangrove waterways, rainforests and a number of small beaches. At the far end of the island I came across a bridge that lead to yet another island. The bridge it self was wooden slats and I was told “just do not stop and keep moving.”

From One Island To Another...
Once on the other island I made my way around a narrow single road. At one point I met a young man named Ariss that acted as a guide for me and took me all over the entire island. He kept saying “good view” and pointed the way as I followed him up an even narrower road. Near the top of the mountain he veered off down a dirt footpath and I kept following him to the very top. From there the view was indeed unbelievable as he pointed to different bays and other sights.

Crystal Bay from a Mountain Top in Bali

My Guide, Ariss and Crystal Bay from Lembongan Island, Bali
Next Ariss took me to Blue Lagoon, Secret Cove and a couple of other places to get some photographs before showing me the way back to the bridge where we parted company.

Blue Lagoon on Lembongan Island, Bali

Secret Beach on Lembongan Island, Bali
Next I headed back to my hotel, which was still a number of miles awhile. En route I passed through Lembongan Village and stopped at a couple more temples, one of which was open and I went inside to take some photographs. 
After climbing yet another hill and stopping for a couple more pictures it was all downhill to the beach area where I was staying. 

View looking down on the beach where I was staying

The temple on top of the mountain overlooking the village

Driving through the village on the way to my hotel

The next day Caroline and I went to see Andrew at Blue Corner and I took my first dive lesson. Caroline had dove a couple times before and even though I have snorkeled many times this would be my first dive.
I’d have to say that Andrew was absolutely professional and very encouraging. He took his time, mostly with me, as Caroline was doing fine. After instruction and some “pool time” we headed out into the ocean.

My First Dive...Lembongan Island, Bali...
The clarity of the water was truly amazing and fish were everywhere. It really is very different from snorkeling and I became quite at easy swimming among the fish. Part of this was I knew that Andrew kept an ever-present vigilance. This first dive with instruction, pool time and one ocean dive was only $60 and I thought worth every penny. It would have been $90 for two dives but I did not have the time as I was leaving that day.

Bali Underwater...
After my dive, a feast for lunch and getting my laundry that I dropped off that morning I was picked up and taken to the meeting point for the boat back to the mainland.
All in all I really liked Lembongan Island and would definitely go back to the Blue Corner Dive Resort, the Tarci Bungalows, Wurang Made Restaurant and the Shipwreck Restaurant. I’d also highly recommend Rocky Fast Cruise Transportation, as they were also very professional in every way with both boat and land transportation.
Once the boat arrived back on the mainland I was greeted by my driver from “Rocky” and given a ride to Ellies Hotel in Nusa Dua where I would be spending the night before flying to Singapore the next day to meet up with another friend, Jessica, to begin the next part of my journey.
Ellie’s is in a residential area and very simply put a great place to stay. The rooms are nice sized, very clean and air-conditioned. The grounds are filled with plants and a small but very nice pool. There is also an open air dining area and breakfast is included in the price of your room. Also you can arrange for a number of restaurants to deliver lunch or dinner and the staff will set it up for you in the dining area. There is also free wifi available for your use. There is no television other then to use with one of the many DVDs supplied at not charge to you. If you climb to the top of the building you will be rewarded with a very nice view of the surrounding area. It is a great place to sit and relax watching the sunset over the bay.

View from the top of the Ellie's Hotel

The pool at the Ellie's Hotel

Another nice service is Divspa that Ellies has relationship and you get a 30% discount by staying at the hotel. At a moments notice they came and picked me up free of charge and drove me to their spa. It is located at the home of the owner Ketut and his wife.
It is very professional and has a wide range of different massages, facials and treatments available. I choose to get a 90-minute aromatherapy massage, $21 with the discount, that felt fantastic and afterwards I was very relaxed. 
When I returned to Ellie’s they had dinner waiting for me from a local restaurant. The next morning the taxi appeared 10 minutes early and I was off to the airport to catch my flight to Singapore.

Dinner that's service
I cannot say enough about how friendly and professional both David, the owner of Ellie's, and his staff were. All I had to do was ask and everything was taken care of from the minute I arrived. As many others on Tripadvsor .com have said “I would not stay any place other then Ellie’s while in Bali.” Again note this is boutique hotel not a big fancy resort and to me that is what makes it so great.