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Displaying items by tag: Alex McCullough

Monday, 25 April 2011

Hanoi Backpackers Hostel

Hanoi, Vietnam is a city that has no equal. Not because it’s superlatively lavish. Nor is it due to any specific tourist attraction – as Hanoi is best as a base to see things an hour or two from the city. Hanoi just happens to be one of the most unique cities in all of Southeast Asia.

The streets of Hanoi are so crowded with motorbikes it makes Bangkok feel like a calm day in Central Park. Crossing even the smallest street is an exercise in faith in your fellow humans that your camp counselors could never have prepared you for no matter how many trust falls you’ve done. But amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, a certain calm permeates the people. Unlike most Asian countries, no one is really thrilled to see white people. You regain a certain sense of anonymity in the city, as well as most other places in Vietnam.

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Walking into a city like this can be intimidating, especially if you’ve spent the rest of your time in the friendly safe havens like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. But I encourage you to visit if you have the chance. It will change your view on the region in general and provide a little diversity to your trip.

When there, it’s always nice to have an escape, where you can get back to the familiar backpacker community. The Hanoi Backpackers Hostel is perfect for this. Situated on a tiny back road – think Khao San Road in Bangkok boiled down to a handful of hostels and one convenience store – the hostel has 2 buildings and plenty of beds for $7 a night, or private rooms for a bit more. Call ahead as they do fill up pretty quickly.

The staff is friendly and the kitchen provides free breakfast. There’s a movie room called the Annex with couches and bean bag chairs for when you’re wiped out from a day of walking and museum hopping. You can also set up trips to any of the nearby destinations. Although the trips are a bit more expensive than going to an independent office, you will have a guide from the hostel with you in addition to a Vietnamese guide. You’re also guaranteed to have a group of fellow backpackers with you. Booking through an independent company leaves you with a random group that may not turn out well. I tried both, and although I am usually as frugal as possible while traveling, I advise every traveler headed to Hanoi to stick with the hostel’s trips.

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IMG 1011The trip to Halong Bay is not to be missed. You will spend the first night on a boat in a beautifully isolated area. You will be led on a kayaking trip by your guides weaving in an out of the islands, and there will be plenty of time to spend jumping off the 15 foot tall boat into some of the prettiest waters you have ever seen.

IMG 1013The hostel is affiliated with a small, private beach, where you will spend the second day and night. No one has access to it except those who book their Halong Bay trip through the hostel. The island is completely private – 500 foot+ cliffs surround the beach on all sides, and it is fully equipped with kayaks, a beach volleyball court, ping pong tables and a stereo system. Feel free to take your pick of sports as well, including a range of water sports, or even rock climbing for the colder days.

And if a good, down-to-Earth hostel with friendly staff who help you plan your time in Hanoi and throughout Vietnam is not enough, rest assured that there is a bar downstairs (only open until 9pm), and that it is the best place in town to find friends to experience the Hanoi nightlife with. And believe me, Hanoi is very unique and not easy to navigate. Having some hostel buddies will make your stay that much nicer.

©Alex McCullough

Published in innkeeper
Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Bodhi Villa, Kampot, Cambodia

Traveling through Southeast Asia, you will be hard pressed not to stumble upon some of the most relaxing guesthouses the world over. Set on rivers, on oceans, or even in the middle of nowhere, there is a certain calm about the land that seeps deep into your veins, soothing every last ion your body has to offer.

IMG 1353No establishment is more guilty of exuding this Zen-like aura than Bodhi Villa in Kampot, Cambodia. The guesthouse is infamous for ensnaring travelers in its web, curtailing their journeys and rendering them utterly defenseless against a complete lack of desire to move on. The most drastic case was a visitor who planned a week’s stay, and was still there not days, not weeks, but 11 months later.

IMG 1279Set on the bank of the humble Kampong Bei River, Bodhi Villa’s open layout has the feel of a large tree house. A small, square dock rests in front of the main building, dubbed the ‘Chill Room,’ and an elevated but narrow jumping platform resides several yards away.

Several styles of rooms are available – from private floating bungalows to single beds for just a dollar per night. Atop the main building is a room with 360 degree views and a queen size bed. Garden bungalows afford a bit more privacy, and are surrounded by trees, plants and flowers on all sides.

Throughout the day you will find both guests and staff – or as they call them, ‘chill consultants’ – swimming, playing games, shooting pool or just having a laugh. Give them a day’s notice and you can arrange to partake in a number of water sports, such as wakeboarding and tubing. When patrons do feel the desire to contact the outside world, wireless internet access is provided in the Chill Room.

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The kitchen boasts a delicious array of western and Khmer foods, is delightfully expansive and 100% organic. A computer is stationed at the bar with a water and food proof keyboard, but don’t log in to your email. The computer at the bar is devoted to one cause – music.

The first time I met Hugh, the owner – a young, amiable Aussie – was as I was meandering through his 200,000+ song library.

“Is this all your music?” I asked

“Some of it,” he said. “I’ve got another terabyte in the back.” Another terabyte. In other words, they have what you’re looking for.

Patrons are encouraged to create their own playlists, or just select whatever tunes they like. Bob Marley and similarly laid back artists course through the house-wide speaker system most frequently, but when the right mix of people get together, the environment can get a bit more lively – particularly at night – though the main attraction is to slow down, cool your jets, and let life wash over you.

And if just having music isn’t enough, you can make your own. Guests can arrange to use a recently built recording studio on the premise, and Friday night is live music night. Bodhi truly has music covered – something not easily found in Southeast Asia.


Although Kampot is not a large town, there is much to do in the surrounding area. Local markets abound everywhere in Cambodia and Kampot also has salt fields, pepper plantations, the Elephant Mountains, Rabbit Island and Bokor National Park, providing ample ground to explore. The staff are happy to arrange transportation and/or guides.

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On top of it all, Bodhi Villa is an establishment with a heart and a purpose. The staff is comprised of local Cambodian people who speak fluent English and who frequently facilitate volunteer opportunities for travelers with the local community, which many take up for extended periods of time.  The laundry is outsourced to provide impoverished locals with a steady income. A great way to explore the surrounding area and give back is through renting one of the villa’s bicycles – where a third of the profits are donated to a local school to help pay for books and uniforms for less fortunate students.

The ease with which Bodhi Villa has conjoined a great business with a charitable cause is beyond description. The perfect blend of a care-free, isolated atmosphere with more than reasonable technology is unparalleled – anywhere. Visit for a day, a week, or 11 months, and you will leave feeling rejuvenated and good about yourself and the world around you. Very few guesthouses can promise as much.

© Alex McCullough


Published in innkeeper

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