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...

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

“I don’t know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler.” -Thomas L. Friedman Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about politics but anything that has to do with the Middle East inevitably gets political.  I openly admit I’m not even remotely an expert on this issues so I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve witnessed and heard and have no intentions of making strong political proclamations.  I’ll try to base most of my claims in pictures. Israel… what a place.  This modern state feels like an idealogical pre-teen in shoes too big for her feet, blowing bubbles and dispensing free hugs outside a supermarket while the world falls apart around it.  I don’t know if that’s a good metaphor.  It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been and despite all my efforts to figure out this country, it’s still hard to articulate why.  Obviously, some of the weirdness comes from the founding principles of the nation: as one of the youngest countries designated as a Jewish State in 1948 to be as a home for people persecuted from everywhere.  So it houses an incredibly random crowd, from really Orthodox Jews with curls by their ears, to post-army, pot-loving people with strange piercings to non-religious Jews who are proud of their past but barely visit the synagogue.  In its 60 years of existence, it has quickly become home people of various backgrounds, languages, cultures and foods.  Most occupants are Jewish, with American or European heritage. But then there’s Arabs, most of whom are Muslim but there’s Arab Christians, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Part of this tremendous diversity is reflected in the food, which features falafel, hummus, kebab and sabich (my new favorite- an eggplant, hummus, tahini, boiled egg, parsley pita creation) from the Middle East, couscous and grilled meats from North Africa but also schnitzel and pastries from Jews that fled Old World Europe. So it’s a bit disorienting to be in a place with all these random people running around, all kind of loud and obnoxious and in your face, the Israeli way.  There’s Orthodox Jews hitchhiking.  Female, teenage soldiers putting on blush and lipstick while wearing army uniforms.  Schoolboys in yarmulkes elbowing each other to get into the synagogue in a boisterous buzzing pack. Crazy drivers, so much noise, but if you speak above a whisper on a bus… how dare you?!?! (I got yelled at three times haha).  All of this insane activity is set to a backdrop of a Mediterranean coast which implies relaxation but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly going through checkpoints and there’s kid soldiers everywhere. Speaking of soldiers, security is yet another one of the many contradictions in Israel.  Based on my past encounters with Israeli security, Israel is one of the most tightly monitored and controlled countries (rightfully so!).  Despite being so uptight that they would not let me leave the country with my travel sized contact solution, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Israeli police are surprisingly laid back.  Drinking in public is supposedly illegal but it’s common to see people drinking at the beach or on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv (I don’t know how anyone can afford to drink at a bar, with beers usually starting at $7 for ~0.33 liters).  Marijuana is also supposedly off-limits but according to my friend, “everyone smokes pot” and clubs are clogged with it.  Graffiti is still illegal but municipal authorities usually turn a blind eye.  Furthermore, it’s no secret that most Israelis can successfully schmooze their way of speeding tickets and other minor violations with the local police. And then there’s the infrastructure.  Certain aspects of Israel are extremely modern and Westernized. As a country in a barren desert with few natural resources and water supply, the people had to be creative to survive and they are.  Israel has the largest number of startups per capita and the highest proportion of scientists, engineers and technicians worldwide.  Israeli companies have invented voice mail, anti-virus software, Uber app, electronic vehicle batteries, Video On Demand, and the list goes on and on… While this list (and the high...

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

In many ways, Cyprus is one of the most boring places I have ever visited.  I partially visited it for that reason… although things in Israel and Jordan turned out to be quite calm, I wanted to make sure I had some time to relax somewhere far away from Middle Eastern squabbles.  Cyprus, especially in April, is idyllically quiet, peaceful and lined with gorgeous beaches.  I strolled by flamingos hanging out in a salt lake in Larnaca, walked for miles on the boardwalk in Limassaol, got blown away by the wind and the beauty of Cape Greco near Aiya Napa (infamous beach and party town).  Along the way, I toured a few castles, walked some boardwalks and it was nice but I felt like I had seen it at all before.  Especially since I have visited Greece and Turkey, even the food, language and culture was familiar. However, one aspect of my trip to Cyprus was something completely new, different and totally bizarre… Nicosia: Europe’s last divided capital. Before coming, I was aware of some aspects of the situation.  I knew the country was split into a Greek and Turkish side but I didn’t really know what that meant.  I had a Greek-American friend who studied in Cyprus for a bit and she talked about peering over the border to the Turkish side which was plastered in flags, including flags painted onto the mountain side. She assured me that I could walk right across the border and that “things were getting better”.  But the Turkish guy who was studying on the Turkish side and he told me he could not cross to retrieve me.  But the directions seemed easy- he said, “I live right near the bus station, just go down, cross the border and you will see me.”  My Larnaca host who had been living in Cyprus for a decade gave me similar instructions, “From the bus stop, go down the hill and you can cross”.  I asked the man at the bus station and he made it sound similarly simple, “Straight then left”. I started happily marching forward but after five minutes, I found a surprising lack of signs.  I asked a couple people on the way, and despite being assured multiple times, “Everyone in Cyprus speaks English” (it was a British colony after all), everyone waved away my question.  They replied to my inquiry with feigned ignorance and vigorous, almost desperate, “don’t-ask-me” hand motions.  Eventually, beyond a patio with a dozen hanging magic eyes, I followed the “tourist information center” signs to a dusty basement where a lady paused shuffling brochures to instruct me to retrace my steps down the main shopping street. So I went.  Past the Greek grandpa’s nursing already-cold coffees, kids chomping on cheese pies and pottery shops.  “This can’t be right,” I thought, hunting for wifi to tell my host that it might take me longer than expected to cross.  But then I almost walked into it. Some cones, a tent, a small sign “Nicosia: the last divided capital” and two border officials playing Candy Crush. One barely lifted her eyes from her phone as she plopped my passport on the scanner and waved me onward.  I walked for about 25 meters through some abandoned shops, lined with barbed wire and “no photograph” signs then I was at another booth.  The Turkish officials had me fill out a small paper which they stamped and waived me forward to where Sercan was waiting for me expectantly.  On a similar shopping street but now the shops sold simit (round thin bagel-ish like breads sold from carts everywhere in Turkey), kabobs, Turkish SIM cards.  Instead of a time warp, I felt like a entered a culture warp… the street felt eerily similar but simultaneously different. As I tried to re-orient myself, Sercan (my host) explained some of the border crossing regulations.  Greek and Turkish Cypriots could cross the border freely (although some refused on principle).  Turkish citizens could not cross but members of the EU and other countries could visit both freely.  He had only been in Cyprus the past couple years but had no desire for the island to be united since he felt that would mean he could no longer go to school here. I continued to peer around as we returned to his place to drop off my bags.  It sounded like Turkey.  It looked like Turkey.  By the looks of the restaurants, it tasted like Turkey.  I just spotted a few exceptions: I saw very few Africans in Turkey but here there were many, either studying for university or doing hard labor.  Towering casinos (which aren’t allowed in Turkey) dominate the streets.  As we crossed the street, Sercan pointed...

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Amsterdam Attractions Beyond Anne Frank & The Red Light District

Usually when you ask people about their time in Amsterdam, they don’t say much. “I don’t really remember… I was high the whole time”. I knew the capital city of the Netherlands must have more to offer than a massive Red Light district and stoned tourists, and since I had an invitation from a couch surfer I hosted last year, I decided to check it out. I found it to be a fascinating place, well organized, practical and efficient but a little bit trippy at the same time, which kept things interesting for completely sober visitors like me. Prior to coming to the Netherlands, I pictured it as postcards advertised it: wooden clogs, windmills and quaint little canals lined with maroon and navy houses. However, on my trip into the city from Eindhoven airport, I was greeted by extraordinarily modern architecture… daring, steel-cable bridges, glass towers (not too high) in shapes that appeared to be built by toddlers testing the limits of LEGO stability and curvy windows illuminating more spherical buildings. Hmmm… the Dutch have advanced a bit from the days of wooden shoes, footwear that I never understood because it couldn’t possibly be comfortable. The areas near the port contained some of these innovative spaces but as our bus pulled up to Central Station, the city center contained more of what I expected from a European capital: a gilty gold train station, intimidating towering cathedral and quaint floating restaurant near the canal cruise stop. I boarded a smooth-sailing street car to the home of my first Amsterdam host and marveled at how cute the city looked everywhere, even on a 30 minute tram ride outside its center. Christmas lights reflected off the calm water of canals, cyclists lined the streets with scarves waving like welcome flags, people relaxed at outdoor cafes serenely sipping coffee or beer. I expected instant immersion in Bourbon Street-like insanity but this was so much nicer! My first night in Amsterdam was rather low-key but thoroughly enjoyable… a scooter ride through the city to a soundtrack of bicycle bells, past the Heineken factory and the illuminated …. (Amsterdam’s most famous museum), getting to know my host with a nighttime walk and a relaxed beer in a couple pubs. Our first stop (Sound Garden) wasn’t particularly extraordinary but I enjoyed the second, De Nieuwe Anita, a Berlin-esque bar with a dance floor in the basement. I’ve never been to Berlin so I didn’t know what that meant, but supposedly the German city takes a minimalist approach to decorating its bars… someone provided the example of throwing a few plastic chairs on a rooftop and calling that Berlin’s best new hangout. This particular place looked more like someone’s home than a restaurant, with random vintage paintings on the wall, mismatched couches and overstuffed chairs, worn carpets and even a “kitchen” supplied with appliances like spaghetti strainers and flour jars, behind the bartender. And the people matched the place. The people in the bar donned flannel, oversized puppy sweaters, vintage dresses, pearl necklaces threaded with ribbons, and busted out 1970s disco dance moves. The next day, I grabbed an umbrella and splashed through the misty, wet streets of the City Center with only a skeletal idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I headed in the general direction of Dam Square, nearly in the place where people first attempted construction of the city over this muddy land. I wondered what kind of event the police was blocking off the square for, then I saw a band of black people in Renaissance costumes. “Interesting choice of dress for a music group imported from Africa”, I thought briefly before getting distracted with a shop selling warm waffles dripping with melted nutella. I wandered through the sweet-smelling streets of the Red Light District, shyly adverting my eyes at the ladies in see-through slips posing provocatively in the windows. Attracted by colorful objects, I thoughtfully peered the artistic collection of bongs and inventive assortment of space cakes. My attention was peaked by rainbow colored tiles around a street corner and I found a parking garage that doubled as a nighttime art gallery, near Spuistraat street. The brightest building had posters that begged “save the snake” and I wondered whether the city was trying to eliminate street art in their attempts to clean up the city and appeal to upper-class tourists (supposedly there’s already legislation in place to close 40% of the windows and restrict the red light district to a couple blocks by the canal). After taking enough pictures of bikes leaning up against arched canal bridges and row houses tilting in various directions (tilted forward...

Escaping The Crowds in a A City Of Tourists: Venice, Italy

Escaping The Crowds in a A City Of Tourists: Venice, Italy

I have no desire to visit most of Europe’s most famous cities: Paris, Rome, London, Athens have no appeal to me. Why go somewhere so well documented and expensive, and battle crowds of tourists when you can pay less to explore something new and different? Despite my dislike of touristy places, Venice was the one epic European destination that still captivated me, despite being a city of tourists, where foreign visitors can comprise up to 90% of the population during the summer. Why? I love water so a city where the waterways are the only road fascinates me. I decided to give myself 24 hours in this sinking city and braced myself for the worst: crowds so thick that I couldn’t move and readied myself to drain my wallet. With some smart navigation on my part, I’m happy to say Venice pleasantly surprised me and I’m glad I went. But it’s easy to fall into the tourist trap without proper planning… here’s a few tips I picked up about exploring the best of this lagoon city differently than the rest of the crowd. But first, why go? I expected extravagance and luxury, imagining the city as a height of trade and culture, probably the way it was centuries ago. I naively envisioned a hustling and bustling as they swapped Ottoman spices for silk and loaded Venetian Murano glass onto ships with dozens of sails, fluttering in the wind like frightened seagulls. I think I knew better, since I knew the city’s current population was a fourth of what it was during its peak in the late 13th century and I knew trade ships weren’t a thing anymore, arrived at night, things looked kind of dreary and that keeps things infinitely more interesting than places like Vienna where everything is too perfect.  But Venice isn’t like that.  It’s a sinking city, it’s a dying city, it’s a city of slime and mud, puddles and decay.  And that makes it infinitely more interesting to dream about what it used to be like, back in the 13th century when it was a kingdom in its own right. 1) Wake Up Early Getting out of bed before the rest of the tourists can completely change your experience of this city. I arrived to St. Mark’s Square around 7 AM and had Venice’s #1 tourist destination practically to myself. In late October, I timed my visit as the sun was rising and painting the buildings around the Bridge of Sighs pink. The only people I saw on the marble plaza of St. Mark’s were a few photographers and locals pushing wheeled carts around to prepare themselves for the day. The gondolas were still under tarps, the souvenir booths weren’t rolled out to clog the walk around the water and I was completely free to roam as I pleased. With the square empty of occupants, I could dream about what it was like a few centuries ago when Venice was a capital When I returned to the square around 2 PM, it felt more like a circus or Times Square than the elegant and royal retreat I found earlier. Street sellers almost impaled me as they waved around selfie sticks they were trying to sell. Remote controlled helicopters buzzed over my head, contaminating my view of the basilica with obnoxious red lights. There were so many people camped out, I was wondering where they were handing out tickets for the university football game or presidential induction speech (neither of which were actually happening…). 2) Get Lost In Side Streets I love places you can get lost and Venice is one of the best cities to do that.  Even a stone’s throw form St. Mark’s Square, you can get lost in a labyrinth of streets that leads you to small piazzas, dead ends and endless numbers of churches.  When you wander it, especially in the mornings, you’ll see the way the locals live, smashing their shutters to peer out at the ambitiously-packed delivery boat whose goods were piled too high and it got stuck under one of the pedestrian bridges.  You’ll see people moving wheelbarrows of goods, with brilliant maneuvering up arched bridges and down uneven, weathered steps. You’ll find glass shops, technicolor pasta shops, and amazing homemade stationary shops, where paper becomes a sensual, scented pillow to encapsulate your most private thoughts.  You’ll mentally bookmark a place, thinking you’ll return to it when you have more time but when you think you have retraced your steps, you will have found that it evaporated.  Things are constantly disappearing and reappearing in Venice and even your smartphone doesn’t know where things are.  It’s one way to...

Enjoying Simplicity in Trieste, Italy

Enjoying Simplicity in Trieste, Italy

 “I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye.  Who can?  It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination.  It offers no unforgettable landmark, no universally familiar melody, no unmistakable cuisine, hardly a single native name that everyone knows.  It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the Adriatic Sea and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999, some 70 percent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all” -Jan Morris, Trieste And the Meaning of Nowhere Why am I in Trieste?  I’m not sure to be honest.  I just saw it on the map and read that it is a rather atypical city, that is more Balkan and Mediterranean in its influences than Italian.  Trieste’s roots go back to before its Roman empire occupation it in 1st century DC, it flourished under the Austrian empire, was occupied by French troops during the Napoleonic Wars then was annexed to Italy after World War I.  How did I arrive to this culturally confused land?  I found a ride there and yoga loving lady to host me, and here I am. As Jan Morris writes, there’s nothing about Trieste that’s particularly notable.  It hosts the International Center for Theoretical Physics which has brought at least one of my colleagues here.  But most people don’t come for science.  You can climb to the top of San Giusto Castle, peak at its unimpressive Roman Ruins and hang out in the Cathedral of San Giusto.  You can take a bus to Miramire, which is a much prettier castle on the sea, instead of perched on top of the city.  You can explore historic cafes frequented by literary giants like Rainer Maria Rilke and James Joyce.  You can take the tram to the obelisk for an incredible view of the city and a jolty ride where the tram randomly rolls backward for non-trivial periods of time.  You can people-watch in its main square, the largest in Europe and supposedly one of the most beautiful in the world.  If you’re lucky like me, you’ll puzzle over people wearing Christmas wreathes in October and get serenaded by their cheery caroling.  Except for Miramire, I did all those things but that’s not why you come to Trieste. You come to Trieste to wander amongst a hodgepodge of architecture (neoclassical, eclectic, art noveau and neo-gothic), an eccentric collection of religious buildings (Greek Orthodox, Serb-orthodox, Jewish synagogues and Christian cathedrals) and take the time to do things you typically don’t make time for when you have a list of museums to visit and attractions to see. In Trieste, you should spend hours watching the sun sink below the local lighthouse, listening to rowers grunt as they practice and watching sailboats capsize.   You should find a bench, watch the people pass and wonder how men got so gorgeous just over the border.  As in Greece, where the economy is also bad, they don’t age well, probably because of too many cigarettes, glasses of wine for breakfast and hours sitting in cafes.  But there must be something in the water that makes the men, pizza and coffee infinitely better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Maybe Trieste isn’t real Italy but it allows you take advantage of the perks of the country without emptying your purse.  You can meander along Trieste’s grand canal sipping a rich cappuccino that will cost you 1.5 euro instead of 15.  Your tastebuds can turn into a melty puddle, like the cheese on your 4 euro 14″ pizza at Pizzeria L’Orizzonte.  You can lick GROM gelato and get swept away with the magic that happens when milk, eggs, sugar and Italian ingredients are prepared simply according to traditional methods. My stay in Trieste stayed interesting thanks to Aruna, my  couch surfing host.  Aruna is a 48-year-old, intelligent but quite eccentric, woman who encountered yoga and her life changed forever.  Her cozy home is covered with colorful tapestries from Tibet, wrinkly photos of Hindi deities and smells sweetly of incense.  Walls are covered with handwritten notes about chakra points and garland made from used tea-bags.  She led me through a a candlelit yoga practice with her neighbor, where we breathed through one nostril at a time and talked about the way it made us feel.   We made a Halloween-esque sandwich out of sugary biscuits, halved grades and lumpy vanilla pudding.  She saw my tie-dye leggings and instructed me to decorate her stairs with chalk, to make it as colorful as my clothes.  For me, Trieste has been a trip back in time, when life was simple and there...