Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

“Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible” –Lonely Planet Halong Bay: UNESCO world heritage site, the top attractions in the northeast of the country and the sole reason that some people come to Vietnam.  So naturally, one of the first things I did after arriving to Hanoi and dropping my stuff at the hostel, was to arrange a trip there.  All I had to do was return at 8 AM the next morning with an overnight bag, packed to spend one night on a boat on the Bay. After booking the tour, I returned to my hostel where a Polish couch surfer, working at a local hostel, waited for me on his motorbike.  We buzzed around the major city sights in a couple hours, hitting a couple parks, a lame temple, two lakes, the fancy shopping street and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.  Although the sites were interesting, much of our day was spent darting honking motorbikes, squeezing through Vietnamese ladies wielding long poles carrying their produce and arguing with people about parking.  All of it confirmed my readiness to get out of the city and into some beautiful nature, even if it was on a boat  (apparently the scars from my recent sailing trip didn’t take too long to heal).    As we emerged from a shady seat in the park and blinked in the hot Vietnam sun, I commented, “It’s supposed to be monsoon season but it hasn’t rained on me during the day once.”  He replied, “Monsoons are worse in the South… if you made it through that without rain, you’re probably in the clear”.  Despite both of us sweating a bit in the sun, I smiled, “Maybe I’m finally finished bringing apocalyptic weather on vacation with me”.   [If you haven’t been following my adventures, my February trip to Peru brought rains that contributed to me slipping on a rock and breaking my arm, my April trip brought snow to Jordan and atypically freezing temperatures to Cyprus, my road trip through the United States in late May brought 40 tornadoes to the vicinity of Oklahoma City the night we stayed there and a snow storm that piled 5″ of snow and freezing rain to Colorado Springs and of course, my sailing trip in the Florida Keys brought a whole new set of storms] So after a night in Hanoi, falling asleep a lullaby of roaring motorbike motors, drunken tourists and shop owners trying to sell people things, I bounced out of bed and to the tourist office, ready for the sea.  I arrived early and asked the guy at the desk if I could leave my bag, grab some coffee then come back.  He shook his head no, tried to sputter some things and dialed the phone furiously, but his English wasn’t good enough to explain why he was denying me my caffeine fix.  I sighed and sat down.  Fortunately, a few seconds later, the lady who sold me the tour arrived on her motorbike, and panted as she took of her helmet (as if she had to pedal the bike herself).  “Typhoon.  There’s a typhoon in the Bay.  First typhoon of the season.  Tour is cancelled,” she huffed and puffed.  I asked if I could postpone the trip until tomorrow and she vigorously shook her head no, “all trips for next three days, cancelled.  Big storm”.  Seeing the disappointment on my face, she offered an alternative.  “We switch your Halong Bay tour to two day trips.  Almost the same as Halong Bay”.  She explained an itinerary with boats and mountains that I didn’t quite understand but still half asleep, having been denied coffee, I shrugged in slightly skeptical agreement. Plan B, Part 1: A Cranky Bus of Hot Tourists on a Death March to Trang An & Bai Dinh Pagoda I sat in her office for awhile… waiting 15 minutes, 30 minutes beyond the  supposed “8 AM pick-up time”.  She didn’t seem surprised that the vehicle hadn’t arrived but saw that I was getting antsy so she started showing me some of her favorite music videos.  Apparently this 31 year old Vietnamese lady with two kids had a big crush on the Russian equivalent of the High School Musical Star.  She blushed as she showed me...

Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

Small but scenic… loving Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

I came across a Slovenian proverb, short and sweet, “All roads do not lead to Rome”.  For me, stopping in Slovenia on the way to Italy (and never actually making it to Rome) was the best decision I’ve made on this trip so far.  The country and its capital are small (the smallest capital in Europe, to be precise), but as I was warned, something about Slovenia and its capital that steals hearts. To capture the essence of this endearing and precious capital, I think the city emblem is a good place to start.  Through my journey through Europe so far, cities have been saturated with lion statues, which symbolize many of the same traits as the dragon (strength, courage and might).  But there’s something about the dragon and the way it perches on the city’s most famous bridge, adorns manhole covers and makes an appearance of the coat of arms and even represents the local soccer team that is so much better than the cliche choice of a lion.  It’s not the scariest looking dragon, but its a little quirky, a little badass and infinitely more memorable.  Legend has it that this fearsome lizard lurked in the marshes that surrounded the city, gobbling up fish, otters, river rats and even unfortunate farming folk that crossed its path.  Its reign of terror ended after a legendary Greek hero raged an epic battle against the sinister scaly creature.  There’s more details about the grisly battle and Slovenia’s “first fireworks show” as the dragon fought to its death but in the end, killing the dragon made the mudflats an infinitely more pleasant place to inhabit.  And that’s what Slovenia initially was mudflats, inhabited by people undeterred by a little dirt. I first learned about Slovenia when I saw the popular image of its most famous attraction: Lake Bled, the fairy tale lake that contains a floating castle and is snuggled at the feet of the Alps.  This relaxing resort town is about an hour’s drive from the city center and just breathing in the invigorating air is worth the trip.  You’ll also have spectacular views of mountains and cute, white houses along the way.  There’s not too much to the town except for sauntering alongside the lake, feeding the ducks and climbing the castle… if you’re lucky, there will be a makeshift camp of medieval men who may challenge you to a hatchet throwing contest or invite you to an evening of fire celebrations. If being Robin Hood isn’t your thing or you’ve already wandered through all the Bled woods, don’t worry, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Ljubljana. I pictured the capital full of charming, colorful Old World plazas, cutesy baroque churches, overlooked by a castle on a hill.  Ljubljana certainly has all of that, enhanced by rivers, bridges and cafes galore.  Despite colorful exteriors, the buildings were more worn than other parts of Europe and the peeling paint and faded exteriors made them all the more endearing.  But what I found most interesting is the city’s punky alternative vibe.  There were lots of people wandering the streets with pink hair, piercings and skateboards.  Not rocking dyed hair in a scary extreme way, more like “I think about things and I don’t need to dress like my grandma”.  The city has its share of graffiti and actually has an area dedicated to alternative cultural expression in metelkova mesto.  First built as the barracks of the Austro-Hungarian army, it has been used by the kingdom of Yugoslavia, Italian facists, German nazis then the Yugoslavian army again.  Despite authority’s initial attempts to regulate it, squatters insisted on expressing themselves in the former military barracks until the government eventually accepted it as a cultural space.  There’s artist studies, cafe bars, art galleries, second hand galleries and it hosts various events throughout the year.  This is something that I kind of explored the outskirts of but didn’t really find out about until I left, which kills me! In general, this area and the city represent an energetic spirit, not strangled by its small size or old school past or series of army occupations.  There’s an intelligence here, a creative thinking-outside-the-box, a kind of rebel-without-a-cause vibe which I never expected but absolutely adore.  In closing, I only spent about 24 hours in this country but it was enough to convince me, without a doubt, I need to come back! Song of the Moment: Preko Beograda do Ljubljane– Djomla KS (Ft. Mambo King)… not sure this counts as quality music but it’s filmed in Ljubljana so you should watch the video! If YOU want to go to Slovenia: You can get to the capital rather easily from Vienna or Budapest…...

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Before coming to Tokyo, I was a little disappointed with the lack of strangeness I found in Japan. Where were the Japanese grandmas with purple hair? People who pay extra to drink coffee in cafes surrounded by cats they can’t touch? Man carrying around life-size pillow woman? As much as I don’t like big cities and dreaded coming to Japan’s crowded capital, the quality of people-watching more than compensated for feeling trapped by skyscrapers and watching my life waste away on trains.  This is the quirky, crazy capital that I dreamed about encountering, where the best attraction is the people walking past.  If you want to plan your visit around the most “fashionable” and ridiculous parts of town , pay close attention where to grab a seat and enjoy the show. 1) Cosplay Teeny-boppers on Takeshita Dori Street- Harajuku  Take the train to Harajuku on any weekend (supposedly Sundays are especially good) to see pre-teen fashion at its most extreme.  Geered for a younger crowd, the street is packed with cheap 100-yen shops, all-you-can-eat-buffets, crepe stands and used clothes stores (its a great place to buy a used kimono!) and the central zone for Cosplay (costume play).  Here, Japanese girls rebel against spend their weekdays in long skirts and pious pig-tails with wild wigs, short skirts and dramatic make-up.  I saw giant tiger backpacks, boys in green alien spandex, another guy dressed up like Rainbowbrite, many girls dressed as poofy princesses toting matching purses and stuffed animals.  Even the surrounding streets take part in the insanity… eight kids dressed up as Mariokart characters waited at a red light, surrounded by taxis and normal cars. While in the area:  On the other side of the railroad tracks, visit Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrines.  On the weekends, you’ll likely find traditional Japanese wedding processions passing through, with the priest in platform shoes and the bride in a massive white headdress.  The tourists tend to stay near the main shrine but if you want a peaceful place to relax, pack a picnic to enjoy at the spacious Yoyogi Park.  If you need a one-stop shopping experience for souvenirs, try Oriental Bazaar’s two-story shop which contains everything from kimonos, to samurai swords, to traditional ceramics. 2) Straight-Off The Runway Supermodels at SHIBUYA109 And when I say “straight off the runway”, I mean straight out of those fashion shows where models are dressed in duct tape and feather outfits that would never fly in real life… except in Tokyo.  Shibuya109 is an 8-floor department store for women fully stocked with small boutiques from Japan’s top designers with names like “bubbles mart”, “doll kiss”,”merry me”, “peak & pine” and “titty & co”.  Each boutique has a small corner store of themed clothing sexy schoolgirl, gothic wedding, army brat, etc.  So the shops themselves are highly entertaining and surprisingly un-repeatitive, despite a mind-boggling number of stores.  Even more amusing than the shops themselves, are the  shoppers who are living embodiments of these obscure fashion trends.  The crowd near Shibuya tends to be older and have more money to afford female catsuits with over-the-knee leather boots, boyfriends with matching designer purses, fake eyelashes (beneath the eye) and more.  If I come back to Japan, forget cherry blossom season- I want to come to Halloween in Shibuya- check out a video here. While in the area:  When I heard that people crossing the street is one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions, I shook my head in horror at tourists reaching a new level of pathetic-ness.  Then I happened to be there to witness it myself and I was mesmerized.  3000 people per minute cross this five way intersection in an event more magical than the parting of the Red Sea.  From below, it looks like the ultimate mob scene… humans swarming like ants overtaking a piece of dropped fruit.  From on high (the 2nd floor Starbucks where all the tourists go to witness the action), its surprising organized (which is  probably not surprising when you remember you’re in Japan where everything is organized).  This is just one of those things you need to see for yourself to believe. 3) Flannel and Hiking Tights at Mt. Takao When a Japanese friend invited me hiking at a mountain an hour from Tokyo by train, I envisioned dirt paths, fresh air, pit toilets and an invigorating void of people.  When I arrived at Mt. Takao, I quickly realized that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Japanese people love to get outside and as one of the closest hiking opportunities, Mt. Takao is the most highly trafficked mountain in the world.  A chairlift or cable car short-cuts...

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

If Tokyo’s cosmopolitan craziness has you yearning for fresh air, travel south for an hour or two for mountains, sleepy neighborhoods and onsens (hot spring baths) everywhere you look. I haven’t even gotten to the city yet and I was ready for some R&R. Immediately after reaching the Hakone-Yumata Station, you know time flows at a different pace. Instead of the uber-efficient metal trains you find around Japan, a charming, nostalgic red car chugging slowly along the tracks will pick you up. The train will stop a couple times, momentarily alarming the train, for the conductor to hop out, manually activate the switchbacks before you can continue on your merry way. Whatever stop you get out, it may contain a couple gift shops but you’ll probably have to wander up a mountain to find your accommodations for the evening. Hakone is one place where there’s not a convenient store within eyesight from anywhere but it’s kind of nice to experiment with mom and pop restaurants where you have no idea what you’re ordering. As with most tourist cities in Japan, Hakone has a fairly foolproof prescribed route through the town, that will take you five hours or so. It begins with a ropeway ride up Mount Owakudani, an active volcano probably responsible for the hot springs all over the place. If your day is anything like mine, you’ll inevitably encounter swarms of schoolchildren in matching uniforms and wide-brimmed hats. Judging by how many Japanese kids I saw along my trip today, they don’t go to school, they just go on field trips. Pre-teens dressed in yellow swarmed the ropeway station, girls gossiping and boys lovingly swatting each other on the heads. Ten-year-old kids dressed in white marched in perfectly straight lines on the trail to the hot spring. Toddlers in red uniforms held hands in pairs as they waited for the sightseeing cruise. Anyway, so once you advance past the army of kids, you will “float above” the trees as you ascend over 500 meters to the sulfur-smelling wasteland at Owakudani, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. There’s a short (10-minute) hike through steaming streams with views of Mount Fiji on a clear day. Make sure to try the famous black eggs, cooked in the hot spring… it’s supposed to bring you seven additional years of life! From there, you’ll hop back on the ropeway to descend back down to Togendai-Ko port.  You’ll hop abroad an extravagant pirate ship (complete with a captain dressed for the occasion) for sight-seeing around the lake (including views of Mt. Fiji on a clear day).  I got out at Jakone Machi-Ko to walk by the lake, pass through the Ancient Cedar Avenue and check out the Hakone shrine (which was pretty minimal).  From there, you can hop back on the boat at Motohakone-Ko to return to the ropeways or I took the bus back to Gora. Hakone has a whole host of museums to chose from (several art museums, Hakone local museum, Hakone Museum of Art, Kitahara Toys Wonderland and even the Museum of Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince… not sure why it’s here and not in France but that’s cool).  I had seen pictures from the Hakone Open-Air Museum, it sounded like a place I’d like and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The sculpture garden hosts over 100 sculptures which rotate with the seasons.  Lucky for me, the leaves were changing which enhanced the experience further.  The grounds showcase the surrounding mountains and contain all sorts of modern metallic and funky colorful statues.  There’s also five exhibition halls to explore (sort of on the small side but still containing interesting pieces) and a foot bath onsen, if you need a break from walking around the extensive grounds. My favorite parts was a tower of stained glass with an observation tower on top, where you can look out on the surrounding valley.  They also had a knitted playscape where kids can play- I love interactive art like that! Song of the Moment: Volcano– Jimmy Buffet If YOU want to go to Hakone: It’s a less than two-hour trip from Shinjuku (Tokyo station) or Odawara Station. At both of these stations, you can buy a 2 or 3-day Hakone Free Pass which will cover all local Hakone transportation (ropeway, lake cruise, cable car, buses, train) and provides discounts on some museums. The trip can easily be done as a Tokyo day trip but I found it to be a relaxing place to spend the night, especially since your money goes much farther here and it would be difficult to find accommodations that include access to onsens… I spent one night at B&B Pension where...

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Ok, so “the Hippie City” may not be Hiroshima’s official nickname but what could be more appropriate for a place that proclaims peace from the rooftops, is covered in rainbow blankets of paper cranes and has extreme flower power from omni-present gardens! After teaching a nuclear science course for years, I felt it would be a travesty to come to Japan without seeing the atomic bomb memorials so that’s why I ended up in Hiroshima. While you can easily cover the major city attractions in an afternoon, I found Hiroshima has something to offer everyone- large parks, beautiful waterfront views, excellent shopping and nightlife. And I found Hiroshima attractions to be very walkable. There’s street cars if you need extra speed but everything I wanted to visit was quite close. I think my visit to Hiroshima was rather typical so I don’t have a tremendous amount of insider tips to add. I started by wandering around the sculptures and gardens at the Peace Park, the A-bomb dome to commemorate the epi-center then visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum (cheapest museum in Japan so far for 50 yen admission!). The museum wasn’t huge but it was poignant and moving and sometimes gross. You could see the tattered clothing of school children fried by the blast, shadows on steps from someone vaporized by the heat, pieces of skin and tongues containing cancerous growths resulting from radiation exposure. The exhibits made me tear up because for a relatively small country, Japan has had more than its share of tragedy: two atomic bombs, a nuclear power plant disaster and countless earthquakes, tsumnis, volcanoes and typhoons. As with all countries, Japan isn’t perfect but it’s uplifting to see a site that witnessed such devastation into a beautiful spot of peaceful reflection, that really makes you appreciate being alive. After the museum, I headed to Okonomi-mura, an international food hall in search of Okonomiyaki, the area’s famous dish. I headed up the stairs and pulled up a barstool at a packed, hole-in-the-wall place where students, couples and businessmen sat around a sizzling metal hot plate. Two chefs worked furiously to feed everyone with towering stacks of cabbage, bean sprouts, soba noodles, pork and egg. I later learned the dish originated sometime after WWII, when people mixed US Army flour rations with water, spread it on a hot plate and sprinkled it with spring onion. Now people like to stuff it with all the things I mentioned above and it makes an incredibly hearty and delicious meal. To work off some of my full stomach, I waddled off to Shukkein Gardens to witness whether gardens in Japan look anything like the Japanese Gardens I’ve visited in the West. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole gardens were arranged around a beautiful reflecting pond, which hosted lazily paddling turtles, greedy larger-than-life coi fish and even a few herons. Adorable arched bridges encouraged me to get closer to the waterfowl and there were plenty of gazebos to kick back and relax. After reviving my inner-Zen amongst the lily pads, I looped around to Hiroshima Castle, Gokuku-jinga Shrine and Central Park. You can pay to get closer to the castle (which is highly unnecessary) but the rest of the park is free to explore and the grounds behind the fort structure are quite extensive. On my way back, I found a small sculpture garden associated with Hiroshima Museum of Art and enjoyed the elephant found and giant, gleaming silver goddess. Miyajima Island Less than an hour away from Hiroshima city center, you can be transported to the magical, mystical island of Miyajima, supposedly one of the top three scenic spots in this country. It’s also a pilgrimage spot for rice lovers, since you can find the world’s largest rice scoop in the O-shamoji stop, if that’s on your bucket list. The postcard-perfect image of Miyajima is the vermillion Oh-torri Gate, perched on the Seto Inland Sea, welcoming visitors to the island. These torri gates usually signify the boundary between sacred land where gods live and non-sacred land, which is why you often find them at entrances to shrines. Although I knew what to expect, the combination of those gleaming gates and the glistening sea against a mountainous background, approach the island did feel like entering somewhere holy. When you land, you’ll encounter deer roaming everywhere, cheerfully munching on grass or bathing in river streams, not even disturbed in the slightest by foreign tourists. I started at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (actually the whole island earned UNESCO recognition), which is one exception to the“Shinto shrines are free” rule but it’s worth...