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By: Christine Khuat/Julio Moreno (HaLong Bay Tour: $25/500,000 VND, Train to Sapa: ~$5/100,000 VND, Tour of Sapa: $12USD/240,000VND)

Buying fruit from a Canoe in Halong Bay

Note: This article is part of a 3 part series detailing how to make the most out of Vietnam by exploring geographically from North to South (starting with this one, the North, then the Center, and South coming soon). In addition a 4th article on Phu Quoc Island is already posted (hit the link).

Note2: In this and any Vietnam article, the name “Saigon” and “Ho Chi Minh City” will be used interchangeably  as they are the same city. Saigon is the pre-communist name, and Ho Chi Minh is the current official name.

Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:

Take a flight from where ever you are to Hanoi, Vietnam, the capital of Vietnam. Visa information was already posted on the Phu Quoc Island article. You can either get there directly, or fly to Saigon first and fly North to Hanoi. Jetstar.com offers flights from Saigon to Hanoi for around $50 USD/1Million VND. From here you will most likely need a tour company. “The Sinh Cafe ” is a well established international tour company which can help with tours and even visa info. They have tours and info on both Sapa (which is not required) and HaLong Bay (which is required).

Skeezy Tips:

  1. It is recommended that you book the HaLong Bay trip first as it is more popular, and ask them about info on how to arrive to SaPa by other means if you don’t want their tours.
  2. BEWARE of copycat companies.  Many places will tout that they’re “Sinh Café” or “The Sinh Tourist,” but they’re not.  This is especially true in Hanoi.  Double check the address to make sure you have the right company.

AIRPORT TRANSFER:

  1. Jetstar has an airport bus that will take you to/from Old Quarter for 30,000 VND (~$1.50).  The journey takes about an hour each way.  For travel to the airport, visit their office at 204 Tran Quang Khai STREET where you can check in and get your boarding ticket before boarding the bus.
  2. Vietnam Airlines offer the same airport bus departing to and from their office in Old Quarter.  The ticket costs 40,000 VND ($2 if paying in USD).  The earliest bus leaves Old Quarter at 4:30 am and departs every 1-2 hours.  Book ahead and check the schedule.

Skeezy Tips:

  1. Book at least 2 weeks ahead to ensure cheaper airfare and better time availability
  2. You will be charged 50,000 VND (~$2.50) per ticket for credit card payments, plus the 3% foreign transaction fee by your credit card company.  A cheaper option is to pay at the post office.  Book your ticket online and opt to “hold payment” at a post office (or bank).  This option costs you 25,000 VND per ticket, but you must pay in cash.  NOTE: If you choose to pay in person (post office or bank) you must do so within 48 hours of your online booking.  In addition, this method does not work if you’re booking a last minute flight within the next 48 hours.
  3. SKIP all the frills (seat selection, insurance, check in luggage) as they WILL COST YOU EXTRA.
  4. The limit for carry on luggage (free of charge) is 7 kg (~15 lbs).  If your backpack exceeds this weight limit, opt for the 15 kg checked baggage for an additional 60,000 VND (~$3).  They WILL check and make you pay extra (more than what you would have paid online) upon check=in if you exceed the 7 kg limit.

The Stories:

Halong Bay: It is a natural bay formed by the delta coming out to the East of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Its beauty is world renowned and was a finalist of the New Seven World Wonders contest. It is known for its snorkling and fishing, traditional boat tours, overnight boat stays, and amazing natural island/rock formations. It is only accessible by tours but it definitely a site to see if you are staying in the Hanoi area.

A closer look of the rock formations in Halong Bay

Halong Bay as viewed from a boat

Sapa: Is known mainly for its amazing beauty and its ethnic minorities. A very intriguing spot that doesn’t get too many foreigner visitors, as it is not well known thus remains a little known treasure among “road less traveled” travelers. It is near the Chinese border, and historically a highly contested land. However, in recent times, its small town feel and cultural diversity (mostly Hmong minority) is what attracts visitors.

Lake in SaPa, Vietnam

The Hmong minority in Sapa

Other things to do:

1) Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh: Since you will already be in Hanoi, go see Ho Chi Minh himself. The Mausoleum is an indoor museum where you can actually see his body. Be prepared to wait in a long line, however there are very few leaders preserved in this way (like Lenin in Moscow and Mao Zedong in Beijing, must be a communist thing). Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Cong to a most improbable win, now only over the Americans, but over the French from colonization, and his legacy lived on to defeat the Cambodians of Pol Pot, and the Chinese in their brief 1980 invasion.

Other relevant info:

1) Pho Bo: For foreigners, Pho is the signature dish of Vietnam. Hanoi is the birth place of Pho and like any foreign food, you probably will get a tastier version in the source of its inception. Grab a bowl from a mom and pop shop.

2) Relative cheapness: While Vietnam is already considered cheap, many foreigners will be surprised by HOW cheap. Consider that in the “tourist” part of town, a large bowl of Pho is $2.50 which might be considered cheap if you paid $6-7 in the US. However out of those areas, to Vietnamese people, its more like $0.60-$1.00. Also sandwiches can be bought off street vendors for $0.75 and full meals can be had for about $1. You can REALLY stretch your dollar if you know what you are doing.

3) Shopping in super markets: If you will stay a long time in Vietnam, consider shopping at the local market and you will find amazing deals on produce. The market places on the street also have great cheap fruit, including the amazing Dragon Fruit!

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By: Julio Moreno (Entrance to Ruins: $4 (51 MXN), Bus to ruins $5 (70 MXN roundtrip))

Pyramid of the Sun, The largest pyramid in all of Mexico, and one of the largest in the world.

Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:

1) By Plane (international/MOST national) if you stay at Lafayette Hotel (info below):

Take a plane from wherever you are to Mexico City, Mexico (Benito Juarez International airport MEX). While they have taxis, the metro is 3 MXN (15 cents) compared to 255 MXN ($22 USD) if you take a taxi to downtown Mexico city. Follow the signs in the airport to the Yellow #2 line Subway Stop “Terminal Aerea” and take it towards “Pantitlan” (subway map below). Get off on “Pantitlan” and switch to the Pink #2 line (only one way to go). Get off on “Isabel la Catolica” exit. When you get off the subway, take a left on the exit, and another left on the first light, and follow the map below to the Lafayette hotel.

The Hotel is on Motolinia Street, which is only a pedestrian road. After you settle down,  continue north on Motolinia road until the end (3 blocks) and you will bump into the subway Blue #1 line entrance “Allende”. Take the subway direction “Cuatro Caminos” and get off on “Hidalgo” exit. Switch to the Dark Green #3 line direction “Indios Verdes”. Get off on “La Raza” and switch to the Yellow #2 line, direction “Politecnico”. Exit Autobuses Del Norte (Bus Depot). From the exit, you will see the huge depot in front of you. Enter it, turn left and you should see desks with pictures of the pyramids saying “teotihuacan”. They cost 35 MXN ($3) each way. Once on the bus, just follow the crowd into the gate. You will exit from the gate closest to the Moon Pyramid (the smaller one). On the exit, cross the street and wait for the bus. They leave and come by around every 15-30 minutes.

You could also NOT switch on “La Raza” and get off instead on “Potrero” which is also a (less simple) bus depot which has buses that go to Teotihuacan.

2) By Bus:

If you have no heavy luggage, you will most likely arrive to the “Autobuses Norte” bus depot (as it is the main bus depot in Mexico City), so before you exit, turn right and you will see desks to Teotihuacan. OR, you could go outside, take the same route back described above in reverse.Using the subway, take Autobuses Del Norte –> La Raza–> Hidalgo –> Allende and walk south along Motolinia Ave to Lafayette hotel. Drop off your stuff in the hotel and return here.

SUBWAY MAP:

Skeezy Tip #1: You will probably use the subway a lot in Mexico City. You probably want to buy a bunch of tickets as lines can get ridiculously long in certain stops.

Skeezy Tip #2: Many places offer tours to see the pyramids for 350-400 Mexican Pesos, RIP OFFS! Use this guide and you can go round trip, using subways for 76 Mexican Pesos

Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (the snake) in his temple

Story:

Teotihuacan was once upon a time, was one of the largest cities in the world, having 200,000 people at its peak. It was built around 200 BCE and thought to have fallen apart by 700AD. Its name means birthplace of the gods, according to Aztec mythology. It consists of 2 large pyramids (the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon), the avenue of the dead, the Jaguar temple, and numerous other minor temples. It is believed that the pyramids were used to make sacrifices to the gods, but the site was abandoned long before Europeans first arrived. The two largest pyramids are amongst the largest in the world, and the sun pyramid is the largest in all of Mexico. Teotihuacan is not to be confused with the “Aztec City” which is a suburb of Mexico city, nor Tenochitlan, the Aztec (Nahuatl language) name for their capital and what is now Mexico City. The actual site lies outside of Mexico city, but within the State of Mexico (There is a City, State, and country with the name “Mexico”).

Despite popular belief, “Aztec” is not a single ethnicity but everyone who fell under the domain of the Mexica people of Tenochitlan and their allies in Texcoco, and Tlacopan who together formed the “Aztec Triple Alliance” or “Aztec Empire”. The Aztec Empire was the most powerful political entity in the entire new world at the time of European contact, dominating most of what is now Mexico. Most, including the capital city of Tenochitlan, were destroyed mostly by disease and partly by superior Spaniard weapons.

Pyramid of the Moon

Logistics:

Airplane: Use Kayak.com or vivaaerobus.com

Lodging:

1) Hotel Lafayette, $15 (180 MXN) 1 person, $20 (230 MXN) 2 people; Phone# 52-55-5521-96-40

They don’t have a website, but it is so “budget” and hidden, its never full. The location is also phenomenal as its a few blocks from the main downtown square “El Zocalo”.

2) Hostel Moneda; $13 shared, $18 Private (pay online American dollars)

Very clean, next to El Zocalo, free internet, and English speaking staff

3) Use either Hostelbookers or Hostelworld hostel search engines.

4) Couchsurfing.org, to crash in a Mexican person’s house for free!

There are many people who sell nice arts and crafts.

Avenue of the Dead

Other things to do:

1) Best Tacos on the Planet:

As a side mission, you can eat Mexico’s most common and famous food, TACOS. But not just any tacos, I am talking about the best tacos I have ever had in my life. You can reach it by taking the subway Dark green #3 line and exiting Indios Verdes. Take exit E, and you will come out in a flea market of sorts.You will come out of the subway onto a row of shops right in front of you. DONT TURN, go straight and it leads to another Exit E (north and south side). On this strip, look for a taco place with using the pictures below to guide you. If you cant come out on Exit E (some times before 5:30PM its locked) look for exit E once you come out onto the surface. Think geographically!

You can also combine this as dinner as you come back from the pyramids. Instead of the bus depot, say you want to get off on “indios verdes”. You will be dropped off in front of a green pedestrian bridge. Use the bridge to cross to the other side. As you come down the last set of stairs of the bridge, GO STRAIGHT IN THE SAME ORIENTATION AS THE STAIRS and you will come across a row of shops (this is where Exit E is) and the taco place will be on your right.

LOOK FOR THIS sign and THIS GUY!

Look for this sign

Co-Owner with his Siblings. You'll be lucky if there is a place to sit. It will nonetheless be worth it.

Best Taco Ever

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By: Julio Moreno (Entrance to Monument: Free; Transportation up the mountain: $9 (100 MXN); )

"Christ King" at the top of Cubilete Mountain.

Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:

NOTE: Guanajuato is the capital city of the state of Guanajuato within Mexico. “Leon” is the largest city in Guanajuato state. Unless otherwise specified, when referring to Guanajuato, we mean the CITY.

1) By Plane:

Take a flight from where ever you are to Leon/Guanajuato International Airport (BJX) [The 2 cities share an International Airport]. From here, sadly, there is no option (as there are no buses) than to take a taxi, which will run you $33 (400 MXN) from the airport to downtown Guanajuato. Ask them to leave at whatever hotel you reserved (suggestion on a cheap one below). If you stayed in our recommended hotel (below), it is next to the marketplace, the center of the entire “historic downtown” area. While you COULD drive to the Cubilete mountain yourself, it is about a 90-120 minute drive through mountains and not really worth the gas, the rental, or the risk. The more economical and sensible thing to do is go with a tour, which charges 100 pesos to take you up there. There are many competing companies that go up every day (info below).

Skeezy Tip #1: Some of these, including the one I went on, take this trip rather late in the day in order to maximize their profits. They run a tour of the city in the morning, and then this tour in the evening. If you want to take decent pictures, it is best to go in the summer when there is more sunlight, OR demand that you go as early as possible or you wont pay. As the city is moving from arts and crafts to a tourism economy, competition is tough, so they will budge. It really helps your case however if you have a large enough group to make it worth their while.

Skeezy Tip #2: Apparently everyone in Guanajuato works for free. This is mentioned because at the end of any tour, any museum, or any insignificant walk thorough, they will mention this “fact” and ask for a tip. Don’t feel obligated if you don’t think the service was worth it as it is not a widespread custom in Mexico as it is in the US. However, most people will tip, so to show your appreciation / save face, you might want to carry some 10 Peso coins (short things), or some 20 peso bills (long tours).

Skeezy Tip #3: As a result of this being a relatively new industry, none of the services I came across had English Guides. While it is possible they exist, it is likely you will be stuck paying 2-3 times the cost of a normal tour. For this one, you really don’t learn anything too important besides the fact that the monument has been rebuilt 5 times. However, you might want to invite a bilingual CouchSurfer and get a free translator.

2) By Bus:

Take a bus from anywhere in Mexico to the Guanajuato Bus depot (the default of anyplace that says Guanajuato). As you get off the bus, there will be people selling tours to this monument, as well as hotels. The tours are identical in price to the ones found in the city, and the hotels are surprisingly amongst the most economical. Once you purchase / skip the tour to the monument, go outside and take a cab to your hotel/hostel for about $4 (40MXN). If you scheduled a tour, just wait for the bus to pick you up on time. If not, find a tour service (you can find them walking around the single main street of the city) that takes you there. They are all 100 pesos (you can get a deal if they are desperate, and departing immediately).

Skeezy Tip: It is recommended that (if they have a convenient schedule) you buy the tour when you get to the city (or at least get their info), so you don’t have to worry about finding a tour company as they are all the same price.

Golden Crown on the inside of the Pedestal

Story:

Almost everyone has heard of “Christ the Redeemer” in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil which is one of the 7 new world wonders. While that is a larger site, this one comes pretty close. Counting the mount, this monument is about 33 meters (108 ft) and is claimed (by the people of the city) to be the second biggest in the world. It is a testament to human architecture and the Mexican faith in the Catholic Religion. It stands on a huge mountain called “El Cubilete” making people often ask if you are going to see “El Cubilete” but really asking about the monument. It has been rebuilt 5 times on the same mountain, making constant upgrades, and additions. The current one has 2 angels next to him. One is smiling, giving him the crown of the king, while the other one looks away in shame as he is giving him the crown with spines. Unlike some other monuments to Jesus Christ around the world, the pedestal of this one is not solid. You can enter it, to view quite an impressive temple shrine, with a large golden colored crown on the top, an even larger spines crown surrounding the entire room, and a solid gold star which is only shown on special occasions.

Skeezy Tip: Plan to stay at least a few days in Guanajuato, as it has a lot to offer, at a surprisingly economical price which is not common anymore in Mexico. The food is also really cheap here, especially in the marketplace with 6 Peso (50 cent) Tostadas!

From the back of the monument.

Logistics:

Airplane: Fly into Leon/Guanajuato International Airport (BJX) and follow the instructions above. Use Kayak.com, or if possible vivaaerobus.com as they give you the best rates.

Lodging:

1) Posada San Francisco: 011-473-732-2084 (No Website)

We got this one as we entered the city. No reservations were needed at the time, but we did notice other people getting turned away because they didn’t have any more rooms.

2) Hostelworld Rooms as low as $10 Shared (120 MXN) $18 Private room (220 MXN)

You could move to this one night, then more to option 1 the following nights. While this is cheaper, Posada San Francisco is where tour buses drop off people, and the exact center of town.

3) Hostelbookers Rooms as low as $7 Shared (80 MXN) $8 Private room (100 MXN)

4) Couch Surfing FREE

While the couch surfing community does exist in Guanajuato, don’t be fooled. Most people life in “new Guanajuato” which is a 20-40 MXN ($2-$4) cab ride from the historic downtown. Just be advised you will be a bit far from most things to do in the city.

Tours:

Sadly, most don’t have set offices beyond the tour company in the bus depot. Go with that if you arrived by bus. You will see them (since they crowd around you) as you exit the bus (but still inside the bus depot). If you arrived by plane (or missed this company), follow the map below, as it is centered where many Tour Company Kiosks are. Many other Kiosks exist if you walk along Juarez Street towards the market place (and past it) from where the map is centered below.

MAP: Centered at Posada San Francisco, which is also the exact center of the city and where many TOUR service kiosks are.

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By: Julio Moreno (Sedona “Red Rock Pass” $5 ).
Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:
Driving is the only real choice unless you get expensive tours from flagstaff. Map it out using the map below. You head north on the 17 freeway if from Phoenix, and South if from Flagstaff. If you life far, fly into either Phoenix, or Flagstaff.
MAP:
Story:
Sedona: Is a city next to many smaller parks known for their Red Rock formations. If you like hiking, this one has plenty of options (dozens), from really easy to really hard. Just head to Sedona, no planning needed and as soon as you enter, you will see a “visitors center” or something similar, depending on your entry point (north, south). You need to stop anyways to get a “Red Rock Pass” as you can’t park anywhere and hike without one. The people are so friendly to give you tons of maps, and options of hikes to do for free. They will also work with you if you want to camp, stay for more days, or anything. If you like other things such as mountain biking or ATVing, check out the “Other options” link below:
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Skeezy Tip #1: Some hikes which are sold as “super good” cost an extra $10 for parking. You could always check where it is, and say you made a wrong turn to get out. Then park anywhere along the highway where its not prohibited as its already covered by your “Red Rock Pass”.
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Skeezy Tip #2: Sedona is famous for its abundance of big red rock formations. With that said, sunlight will be a problem, since you generally hike in the canyon of these formations. Try to go as early as possible to get your money’s worth, because even in the summer, it will “get dark” early.

River along the West Fork Trail

USEFUL SITES:
ATVing and Mountain Biking:
Red Rock Pass Info

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By: Julio Moreno (Entrance: $15)
 

Center of the Meteor Crater, taken from the Observation Deck

 

Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:
Drive from where ever you are to an exit on the 40 freeway between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona. There are dozens of signs, and the exit is “Meteor Crater Road” so you cant miss it. If you are coming from far away, fly into Flagstaff and rent a car at the airport. Then follow this map.
Map:
Story:
Meteor Crater: This is, as the site claims, the best preserved meteor crater on the planet. A meteor hit this spot 50,000 years ago, before humans even existed in Arizona. The site itself is privately owned and has been very well taken care of for tourists. They have however, gone a bit overboard with the “Meteor Crater Experience” full with movie, museum and an enormous gift store to commemorate your visit to the crater. While its quite breath taking, it only takes 1 hour tops to take it all in and take pictures, so plan to do other things in Arizona.

Probably the only time you will have this choice to make.

USEFUL SITES:

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By: Julio Moreno (Entrance to the Park: $25;  Camping: $20/night)
The crack goes to the Colorado River

View from "Angel" Hike.

Simple “how to” [get there] quick walk though:

Drive from where ever you are to the intersection of the 89 and 67 highways in Northern Arizona (Point A on the map below). Fix the google map below accordingly. Switch to the 67 South, and drive for 43 miles. You will cross the Kaibab Forest before you reach the canyon. There is only one road so you can’t get lost.
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Skeezy Tip: Any other form of transportation is out of the question. If you live really far away, you can fly into St. George, Utah (the closest large city) and rent a car to drive to the canyon. This is by far the most economical way to do it.
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Map:
Story:
The Grand Canyon: Was formed over millions of years and is carved out by the Colorado River. Is quite the sight to see with amazing landscape, and hikes for all levels. Most people do the simple hikes towards the top which are 1/2 a mile to a mile. However, if you go to the information office in the north rim, the rangers can give you maps, and hike options. Unless you are planning for a multi-day hike, there is no need to make plans. If you want to camp, you might want to make reservations as its popular.
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Skeezy Tip #1: If you go off season (after Oct, during the winter) and don’t mind the cold, there is no one charging at the entrance of the Canyon [went Dec 2005], avoiding the $25 as it is officially CLOSED. You could probably camp for free too as no one is there (minus a ranger who told me it was ok to come in). You might also see lots of cool snow as you enter the Kaibab Forest. You might see 1-2 cars as opposed to hundreds in the Summer but bring chains just to be on the safe side. While closed, there were 2 other cars there (with the canyon essentially to myself) which, although I was unprepared for the snow, was better than having crowds of yelling kids when I returned 2 years later.
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Skeezy Tip #2: If you love the outdoors, you could get admission to all National parks for $80 [2010 figures]. If youre not sure, a ranger told me to save all my reciepts and once I accumulate close to $80 (most parks are $20-$25), just pay the difference for the year pass! Ask as you are buying the first one if this is still possible when you go.
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Lodging:
1) Camping, $20,
2) Village of Many Nations: $70 and up depending on season.
Sleep in either a Tipi or a Navajo Hogan and get a Native American experience. While this is actually a tad too commercialized,and a bit guided towards children, the place IS run by Native Americans. They old different events such as teaching you how to throw tomahawks, teaching you about their ancient sacred medicine circle, and have a performance at night. When I went, it was a flute performance by the former Chief of the Paiute Tribe. They also sometimes have other Native American guests. Everything except the tomahawk throwing is included. This is also about 3 miles from the entrance of Zion National Park, but a good 2 hours from the Grand Canyon.

Traditional Navajo Hogan. It is actually a lot roomier than it seems.

You need to bring your own sleeping bag.

Former Chief of the Paiute Tribe, and one of only 8 people who can still speak the language.

Map to Village of Nations:

USEFUL SITES:
Hikes:

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