Four Visas, Three Countries

We will be visiting three countries–Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.  So why do we need FOUR visas?  Fair warning–this post will likely only interest those that are taking a similar trip, or are planning to visit India.

For the three of you that are still reading, here goes.

We fly into and out of Delhi, so since we have at least one overnight stay in India, we need a visa.  A visa that costs (depending on the service used) anywhere from $135 to $173, per person.  A visa that requires you to complete an on-line application that is challenging to decipher.  But there IS a positive aspect.  The visa is good for 10 years.  So, should we decide to spend more than an overnight in India, it will be best to do so before 2026.

If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering how to score the $135 charge.  Well, Cox and Kings is India’s approved visa grantor, so you get the best price if you opt to go direct to them.

Our travel company, OAT, sent out a package with very helpful, clear instructions.  Good thing, because there are lots of hoops you need to jump through for that India online application.

OAT recommends PVS, a visa processing company located in DC, probably because you can send your passport to one service and they take care of visas for both India and Nepal, which is not the case with Cox and Kings.  PVS is convenient, yes, but as with everything, you pay for that convenience.  If we had used PVS, we would have paid a total of $566 for both visas, including mailing charges.

Instead, our total cost was $362, a savings of $204.  How did I pull that off?  In addition to using Cox and Kings, I dealt directly with the Nepali Embassy.

I happened to be traveling to NYC to meet a friend for lunch and a show, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll just go in a little earlier and stop by the embassy.  Located at 216 East 49th St, it is only open between 9:30 and 1:30 during the week.   Right between these two restaurants,
you’ll find this sign on the side of the building:
IMG_2240 (1)You have to press the button on the side of the wall to get buzzed in.  I walked up to their tiny office on the 4th floor, but there IS an elevator.  The visas cost $40 per person versus $90 for PVS, so that represented half of our $200 in savings.

One thing that is important to know if you decide to go–they ONLY take money orders.  No cash, no personal check, no credit or debit cards.  Of course, I had everything that they didn’t take, but all was not lost because there is a place that sells money orders on the next block.  I have no idea what a money order costs, because my bank had a branch on the same block, so my money order was free.   If I had been smart, I would have found this website  before I left home.  It EXPLAINS the money order requirement and tells you what is needed to submit by express mail or courier–good news for those of you that have no intention of traveling to NYC.

It took 30 minutes for processing to be completed.  Passports and visas clutched in one hand, my other raised to hail a taxi, I was off for the Cox and King office 23 blocks away.

I thought I might be able to drop off my package (to be mailed to my home when processing was completed) and still be on time for lunch.  I was delusional.  It was a total waste of time and cab fare.  The smart thing would have been just to express mail the damn thing in the first place and be done with it.  Which is what I ultimately did.  Less than 2 weeks later, our passports arrived.

Two down, two to go.

Bhutan and Tibet both require that you send them a color copy of the first two pages of your passport in advance of trip. (OAT , bless them, is handling this part).  The actual visas are provided when you arrive, but only if you have 2 color passport type photos (2 for each country, 4 in total),  ANOTHER copy of our passport pages (for Tibet) and approximately $70 for Bhutan and $190 for Tibet, per person, in cash.  Cash means pristine bills–no wrinkles, tears or marks.  OAT recommends we bring more, because these fees are subject to change without notice.  See why we use a travel company when we venture to more non-traditional locales?  Knowing me, I  would have missed one or more of the requirements.

So, what did I learn from this adventure?  If you have enough time to submit directly to the embassy and Cox and Kings by express mail (or Fedex or UPS–whatever) you can save a bundle.  You just need to send for one, wait for the passports to be returned, then send to the other.   If, however, money is no object (that’s definitely not ME), and you prize convenience, or are short on time, then a service, like PVS is the way to go.

Next post will be about something other than this future trip.  I promise!


Memories of Global Volunteers

I’ve been back almost three weeks from my Global Volunteers experience in Hanoi. As with the last Global Volunteers project, I accumulated lots of wonderful memories–but this time, only a few photographs. This post is a bit random, but here goes.

All Global Volunteers follow this tradition:  We start each day with a “thought for the day”  and a journal reading summarizing the events of the previous day.  Volunteers take turns contributing thoughts and journal entries.

My thought, the motto of a Bangkok Wat, kicked off our two weeks of service in Hanoi.
“Enlarge your vision and be fascinated by the people surrounding you.”
The people surrounding me (volunteers, teachers and students) were indeed fascinating, and I benefited greatly from spending time with such interesting individuals.

The volunteers:  Jeanne, Jim, Sally, Tom, Shelley, Bob and Judy
The volunteers: Jeanne, Jim, Sally, Tom, Shelley, Bob and Judy at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We were the 21st Global Volunteers team to serve in Vietnam.  The first NGO to be welcomed into Vietnam, Global Volunteers started in the southern part of the country in 1993.  Initially the focus was on building schools, but it soon became apparent that what the people really desired was help learning English.

Jim, our very talented and extremely patient team leader,  reminded us that although teaching English is important, it is really a means to the ultimate goal of developing friendships.  We are all aware that our most important role is that of Goodwill Ambassador.  For some Vietnamese, we may be the first American they meet, so we will be supplementing the knowledge of the USA that they have gotten from TV.  (Yikes. That’s a big job!  But we were up to the task of taking on The Sopranos, the “Real Housewives” and Donald Trump! . )

The six of us volunteers had different backgrounds and different strengths, but we all shared a desire to make our time together a positive, fulfilling experience for students, teachers and ourselves.

On our first day, we attended the Monday morning assembly, where the students  welcomed us with a guitar rendition of jingle bells.


Judy, Sally and I worked with the English teachers in the primary school.

Mrs. Vananh and Miss Lan
Mrs. Vananh (who was due a week after we left) and Miss Lan

On our first day, Mrs. Vananh’s third grade class sang “We are the world” for us. For those of us that lived through the Vietnam War, it was quite an emotional experience, listening to these sweet, beautiful children and thinking that forty some odd years ago, we were dropping bombs on their city.
During our second week, we asked Mrs. Vananh if the children could sing it again, and when they did, I grabbed my iPhone and videoed them. Although I was sick the last two days of the project and missed seeing the kids watch the posting on You Tube, Sally and Judy reported that it was something to behold. The boys were high fiving each other, the girls were covering their faces, they were all pointing and laughing, enjoying viewing themselves on the classroom TV.

"We are the world, we are the children"
“We are the world, we are the children”

Some classroom memories:

Miss Judy at work
Miss Judy in action.
Miss Sally teaching the "apples and bananas" song, a real crowd pleaser!
Miss Sally teaching Miss Linh’s class the “apples and bananas” song, a real crowd pleaser!

We weren’t just teachers–we were also students.  We were lucky to have the very patient Mai as our teacher.  She attempted to help us master the six different tones used in Vietnamese, with varying degrees of success.  (Bob was the star pupil–and I was his polar opposite).

Tom, getting additional help from Mai
Tom, getting additional help from Mai

Jeanne, Bob and Tom all worked with the intermediate and secondary students. We were all captivated by Zac, a very friendly and extremely articulate intermediate student. He is quite proficient with electronics, offering to protect my iPad with 4 levels of security. (I can barely remember ONE password–never mind FOUR!)

Sally and Jeanne with Zac
Sally and Jeanne with Zac

Zac’s grandfather taught him a lot about photography, so I let him play around with my camera. He decided to use the manual controls for this shot of me.

Modeling for Zac
Modeling for Zac

Zac was so impressed by my Vietnamese proficiency that he summoned one of his friends to hear me speak.  I’m sure their hysterical laughter at my pronunciation was their special way of saying “good job”.

Our time in Hanoi wasn’t ALL  work. One of the many high points of our time in Hanoi was an excursion to the Ethnology Museum with Lan and several of the student teachers. The museum was only a 15 minute walk from the school, but walking the streets of Hanoi is always an adventure. These beautiful young girls literally took us by the hand and walked on the outside to make sure that we were safe!  We must have been a sight–the seven of us big Americans parading down the street with our petite escorts protecting us from random motor scooters.

Our leader Jim, with our teachers/guides
Our leader Jim, with our teachers/guides

During our second week, we made it to West lake, the site of  John McCain’s crash. This monument is relatively new, and was probably put up to honor McCain for his role in normalizing US/Vietnamese relationships in the 1990’s.

I had planned on taking lots of photos of the kids and teachers during the last two days of school, but although I was healthy through four countries and for almost 6 weeks, I spent those last days in bed…luckily recovering in time for the plane ride home.  My big disappointment was that I wasn’t able to say goodbye to the teachers and students, and have a farewell dinner with the team…so this post will have to function as my official thank you and ’till we meet again’ to all of the fascinating people that surrounded me.

Sidewalks of Hanoi

I wasn’t in Hanoi long before I realized “sidewalks” is a misnomer. “Beside walk” or “alongside walk” would be far more accurate, because THAT is what you do.

Photo taken from a second floor cafe/bar.
Photo taken from a second floor cafe/bar. Check out the wiring.

Although it LOOKED like one, this wasn’t a parade. They were just getting from point A to point B, and making MY point!

Notice the "bike rental" shop on the "beside walk"
Notice the “bike rental” shop on the “beside walk”

The old quarter is quite crowded, and the Vietnamese are very industrious, so every square inch is utilized.

You can expand your retail space
You can expand your retail space
He's really pushing it!
He’s really pushing it! He’s spilling into the street.
The cases in the right foreground, less than a foot wide, are the local liquor store.
The cases in the right foreground, less than a foot wide, are the local liquor store.
What better place for food prep?  Sorry for the blurriness.  I was dodging scooters while shooting.
What better place for food prep?
You can cook dinner...
You can cook dinner…
Gather with the family for dinner
gather with the family in the dining room
Wash dishes
Then after dinner, it is as good a place as any to wash dishes

Hang with your friends and watch the traffic whiz by
Like young men the world over, the corner is the perfect place to hang with your friends and watch the traffic whiz by

Whoever manufactures those plastic stools must be incredibly rich. They were everywhere!

Hanoi on the Weekend

What do we fun loving volunteers do on a weekend in Hanoi? Well, on Saturday we took a cooking class, beginning with a visit to the local market to buy ingredients for our Caramel Pork dish.

"Get off the showcase!"
“Get off the showcase!” Bonus points to whoever can identify who said that.
We decided on a different vendor.
For some reason, we decided on a different vendor.
This guy reminded me of the lobsters in the bathtub!
This guy reminded me of the lobsters in the bathtub!
Didn't we pick these off rocks?
Didn’t we pick these off rocks?
What would the Massachusetts term for these guys be?
Slap a little paint on these shells, and you’ve got yourself an ashtray!
Our teacher had excellent English. In addition to cooking, he taught  us important Vietnamese  phrases.
Our teacher had excellent English. In addition to cooking, he taught us the Vietnamese equivalents for “cheers” and “bottoms up”.
If cooking gets too strenuous, I'm coming back here!
If cooking (or drinking) gets too strenuous, I’m coming back here!
Miss Shelley and Miss Sally,  who both answer to Ms Shally
Miss Shelley and Miss Sally, super chefs
Our waiter was happy to keep us supplied with free flowing wine
Our waiter was happy to keep us supplied with the “free flowing wine” mentioned in the brochure.

On Sunday, Jeannie, Sally and I made a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, which we subsequently learned is Vietnam’s Mecca. We had thought that a boat ride on the river, into the mountains, would be a respite from the energy and dynamism of Hanoi. And had we visited during the summer, that is exactly what we would have experienced. Instead, we figured that it would have been more peaceful had we stayed in Hanoi, because it sure seemed like everyone in the city decided to visit the Pagoda with us.

Beautiful scenery; quite a bit of traffic on the river.
Beautiful scenery; quite a bit of traffic on the river.
A Vietnamese Starbucks
A Vietnamese Starbucks
I thought there were a lot of boats on the river; I had NO IDEA how many boats were already there!
I thought there were a lot of boats on the river; I had NO IDEA how many boats were already there!
Vietnam has no shortage of shopping opportunities, and religious sites are no exception.
Vietnam has no shortage of shopping opportunities, and religious sites are no exception.

It is difficult to capture the sea of humanity at the Pagoda.  As it got more crowded, it was impossible to photograph.
It is difficult to capture the sea of humanity at the Pagoda. I took this photo before it got crowded. Later, I couldn’t get my arms up to take a picture without bopping people around me.

One of the lunch options
One of the lunch options
There's a lot to be said for vegetarianism.
There’s a lot to be said for vegetarianism.

After lunch, we headed for the gondola. It didn’t take long for us to realize we were the only non-Asians in the very long line. During the one hour wait, the children used the opportunity to practice their English. Everyone wanted to say “hello” to us. Once again, I was impressed with the warmth and friendliness of the Vietnamese.
You jump into and out of these.  They don't stop for passenger entry and exit.
You jump into and out of these. They don’t stop for passenger entry and exit. And if you take too long, the attendant gives you a little push to send you on your way.

A sweet young French girl who was on our tour decided to walk up, and arrived at the top before we did. (I wasn’t kidding about the long lines!) She reported that the way up was very hot and crowded, with gift and food stands lining the road the entire way. We know exactly what she meant. We SAW the rooftops during our gondola ride. So much for fresh mountain air.
Sally and Jeannie, smiling on the boat ride back.
Sally and Jeannie, smiling on the boat ride back. You can’t keep those intrepid travelers down!


Finally, the blog and my location are in synch! Mike and I returned to Hanoi on March 1. On March 2, I started the solo phase of my Asian Adventure. As I was having dinner with team leader Jim and the other Global Volunteers at the Hanoi Legacy Hotel, Mike was heading to the airport. I was glad that he’d been able to spend time in my “neighborhood”, and meet a couple of the other volunteers.

My boyfriend
My boyfriend

Judy and Bob, the only married couple in the group, are from Cleveland Ohio. Jeannie is originally from Lancaster, Pa, but now lives in DC. Sally is from Michigan; both Tom and Jim are from Minnesota. All of the volunteers except Tom have been in Southeast Asia for at least three weeks, so we have adjusted to the time change. Jeannie has been here the longest, having left the US in mid January. Like Mike and me, she traveled with Road Scholar, but she took two back-to-back trips with them.

Sunday was orientation for us volunteers. We started by getting to know each other, discussed why we were volunteering, learned about Global Volunteers’ activities in Vietnam and had a brief meeting with the administrator and teachers at Nuguyen Binh Khiem School.

And now a little about our “home” for the next two weeks. Many of the buildings in Vietnam are extremely narrow and deep, and our hotel is no exception. As with the USA, the tax code has an impact beyond collection and disbursement of revenue. Taxes on buildings in Vietnam are determined by the width of the first floor.

The hotel at 6:30 AM
The hotel at 6:30 AM
So, to bring light into the rooms in the middle of the building, there is a small opening, the width of a window. The advantage to being in an interior room is you are sheltered from all of the street noise. A very big plus indeed.
The view from my room.
The view from my room.

Although the building is old, the bathroom is decidedly modern. I don’t usually get excited about a toilet, but this one is AMAZING! It has a bidet built right into it. My new friend Sally and I have declared that one of these will definitely be a part of our lives in the near future. (Are you reading this, Mike?). It even comes with instructions!
A gadget that cleans your gadidgit
A gadget that cleans your gadidgit

The shower is quite spectacular as well. We had something similar in Italy last summer, but this one has enough water pressure so that you could actually USE all the nozzles at the same time. Ahhhh, a great way to start or end your day.
Another great thing about this hotel is its location near Hoan Kiem lake. I love walking around the lake early in the morning; the locals are out dancing, exercising, massaging each other. Because there aren’t a lot of foreigners around in the morning I’ve been invited to participate in the activities.


One morning Sally joined me, making us prime candidates to participate in the “chicken dance”. Although I don’t have a photo of that stellar performance, judging from the number of cameras that were whipped out, countless Hanoi locals DO.

I’m thoroughly enjoying being with these friendly, gracious people. The kids are wonderful…curious, bright, fun. The older boys like using my camera, so when some of the children ran over to say hello, I handed the camera to one of the boys, and this was the result.
Only three more days till I head home.