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...

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

Peru Travel Tricks and Tips: Part 2 (Puno, Ica & Lima)

If you’re thinking about Peru travel, start here with Part 1 to learn general tips or a suggested itinerary for things to do near Cusco.  Here’s a continuation of our itinerary, through Puno, Ica and Lima. Day 8. Lake Titicaca and Puno. Ideally, we wanted to do a 2-day Lake Titicaca tour which included a homestay on Amanti Island which was a better deal (two-day tour, three meals and accommodation for 75 sol… we paid 40 sol just for the day tour/ transportation and had to purchase lunch separately) but it wouldn’t get us back in time to make the bus to Ica. Instead, we booked the one-day, two-island tour through our Qoni Wasi hostel. We first went to Uros, the small man-made floating bamboo islands. When we first pulled up to an island smaller than my house, we weren’t sure how we would spend an hour there… it only had three huts and maybe five people living there. But the time passed quickly, as we learned how about how they built the island, how they find food and how the educational system works. What a fascinating way to live… and I guess family squabbles are pretty easy to resolve… they cut the island in two and anchor their half somewhere else! The next stop on our boat tour was the natural island of Taquile, to see a completely different lifestyle and, fortunately for us, completely different weather (sunny skies!).  Here, the island was large to support brick and concrete buildings, farms, animals and all things needed for a fairly modern life.  Although life looked a lot more “typical” on Taquile, they still had unique governance and dress that made it interesting to visit.  Unmarried men wore plain white hats whereas married men wore flashy rainbow colored ones… before they could get married, they had to knit this hat themselves.  Having a “pre-marriage challenge” like this one, probably gives you some idea of what a peaceful people they are… they also have a town council where they manage village decision-making safety and such without a police force. After our tour of the islands, we headed back to Puno, where the skies had turned stormy again.  As one of the poorest cities we visited so far, there wasn’t too much we wanted to do in the city itself but we did check out the Plaza del Armas and the shops and restaurants around the adjoining Jiron Lima street (the main pedestrian path in town).  Puno’s proximity to the highlands and Alpacas make this one of the best places in the country to find cheap, homemade textiles.  I rarely buy anything when I travel but I couldn’t resist thick knitted gloves (10 sol), wooly leg warmers (10 sol) and a warm, knitted poncho with llamas marching around the perimeter (30 sol). We also had an incredible three course meal (including beverages) for 18 sol at Lago de Flores restaurant- taquitos with homemade guacamole, Jimmy tried alpaca and indulgent chocolate cake for dessert.  It seemed to have won the locals over too because we basically shared the restaurant with a dozen Puno security officers who were happily stuffing their faces. Day 9.  Epic Bus Ride from Puno to Ica.  Our 9th day involved an epic bus journey from Puno to Ica, which you could potentially avoid with a flight.  It was easier to find nice, direct, comfortable night buses to Arequipa (we were pleased with Peru Bus) but options to Ica were more limited.  After arriving at the Arequipa terminal, bleary-eyed at 4 AM, Jimmy picked out Flores bus (the option the locals use) to get to Ica.  In general, we had been advised to splurge on reputable buses since some buses can get held up by thieves who want to hold the bus hostage steal things.  In order to board the Flores bus, we had to get fingerprinted and videotaped and we squeezed into seats as far away from the smelly toilet as possible.  The bus made stops along the way and random townspeople would board and walk down the aisle selling pears, meat pies, popcorn, jello, fruit popsicles and small sandwiches.  They’d join us for a stop or two, until the driver dropped them off in the middle of nowhere.  In addition to the excitement of seeing who was going to hop on the bus, the scenery also helped entertain us for the 12-hour ride.  Most of the route followed the coast, so we loved to peer out the window at abandoned beaches and wild, untamed coast.  We also knew Ica was famous for its desert but we didn’t expect our whole route to be sandy hills and dusty roads. Day...

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

“What a long strange trip it’s been”… and although there was no hallucinogenic drugs involved, Jerry Garcia could not begin to understand the wild, spontaneous romp around Europe that I had.  What was supposed to be a studious two months making progress with my PhD in Loeben, Austria turned into explorations anchored in two workaway opportunities (helping a student prepare for her English exams in Passau, Germany and hippies on their love farm in middle-of-nowhere Belgium) turned into a lot of moving around, not always in the most logical manner. So 18 countries and 44-ish European cities later, I conquered much of the continent that I have publicly denounced as boring, over-priced and over-rated.  It’s definitely true for some places but overall, my appreciation for the region has grown.  Since I didn’t do as much writing during my travels as I should have, I figured I’d leave you with a list of my top ten favorite cities to travel and a brief mention of some of the biggest disappointments.  I’ll probably commit a travel blogger crime by linking some of the titles of my Facebook albums, but I know a picture is worth a thousand words so feel free to click. But first, here’s the grand unveiling of how the final trip turned out: (Vienna) Austria, (Passau & Munich) Germany, (Budapest & Szentendre) Hungary, (Ljubljana & Bled) Slovenia, (Trieste & Venice) Italy, (Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb & Dubrovnik) Croatia, (Budva, Kotor & Perast) Montenegro, (Neum, Mostar & Sarajevo) Bosnia, (Belgrade & Vrsac) Serbia, (Timisoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sighisoara, Viscri, Valencii & Cluj Napoca) Romania, (Amsterdam) Netherlands, (Antwerp, Balen, Ghent, Bruges & Oostende) Belgium, (Deux Caps, Paris) France, (Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund) Germany, (Krakow, Wieliczka, Wroclaw) Poland, (Prague) Czech Republic, (Zurich) Switzerland, (Innsbruck) Austria, (Bratslavia) Slovakia DISCLAIMER:  For all of you amazing couch surfers whose city didn’t make the list, my top cities to travel don’t necessary reflect the cities where I made the best memories or met the most incredible people.  I’d mostly recommend these cities to slightly adventurous, twenty-something travelers on a budget and these recommendations apply to people who want cities easy to navigate independently, friendly locals and plenty of student-friendly free/cheap attractions. 1) Sarajevo, Bosnia The cities of Bosnia barely compare to its natural beauty but I still found Sarajevo a fascinating place to visit.  Every time I traveled through this country, my nose was pressed to the glass to see turquoise rivers, rolling hills on fire with fall colors, sprinkled with rustic farmhouses. It’s a wildly beautiful country with relatively nice roads that lacks Western chain stores and industrial sprawl… until you get to Sarajevo. When the bus first began to approach the city, the shoddily constructed apartments reminded me of Brazilian favelas. Even when I switched from a bus to a tram through some central city streets, I found crumbling and decrepit buildings covered in graffiti, barbed wire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The grassy hills on the city outskirts could have added color and cheer to the city but instead were blanketed with gravestones, which added to the eeriness of the place. I checked into my hostel, and the receptionist gave me vague recommendations to spend the rest of my day: climb through graveyards to a lookout from an old fortress (now covered in graffiti and inaccessible) and check out the mosques and markets in the Old Town. I grabbed the map and marched off with the goal of racing through these sites as quickly as possible since even doing work seemed more appealing than spending time amongst a depressing remains of a city that was under siege a couple decades ago. I don’t know exactly when and where it happened, but some time during my afternoon, I fell in love with the resilient beauty of this city. Maybe when I stood looking out on the city, trying to mentally erase the cemeteries from the natural beauty of a place nestled between hills with rivers running through. I stood for quite awhile, alone except for a few hungry crows, with silent tears running down my face, wondering how the world’s largest genocide since the Holocaust could happen during my lifetime. I tried to compose myself on the walk down the hill, distracting myself by peeking into metal shops, where the rat-tat-tat of artists resulted in ornate plates and Turkish tea sets. I landed amongst the Ottoman market, where the glow of mosaic lamps danced amongst the silver, spices and teas. The stalls exploded with goods from the East, greasy bureks enticed people into same cafes and the sounds of the muezzin call from the mosque kept the time. Eventually, the carpet covered stalls evolved into re-purposed Turkish...

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

After going to these two cities, it seems weird to put them in the same sentence but many people do “as the best of Europe“.  However, their personalities are so different in strange and semi- unpredictable ways.  Paris, the City of Lights, exudes a romantic sophistication and elegance that Berlin doesn’t even pretend to imitate.  Whereas Paris is an iconic embodiment of a charm that nowhere else can emulate, Berlin is a work in progress toward an indeterminate end.   Rory MacLean comments, “Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being”. There’s tremendous attention to detail wherever you look… sculptures embedded into bridges that depict their construction, ornate iron gates with gold detailing, uniform blue roofs accented by carved detailing.  Paris is chic, a cultural hub but despite its classiness, it comes chaos and feels more like a Latin city than a traditionally European one.  People jaywalk, climb their motorbikes onto bumpy sidewalks and walls are covered with scrawled messages about unrequited love.  Everyone complains about snobbish Parisians but I was pleasantly surprised how strangers happily squeezed close on the train, offered up seats for old ladies and generally seemed more patient than people in cities of that size.  And they’re laughably polite… I love it when the metro announces “This is the final stop.  We invite you to leave the train”. Berlin has massive structures, stoic traditional buildings next to mismatched modern ones, wide boulevards and no space is sacred.  There’s construction, things crumbling and street art everywhere… even graffiti on street art sculptures.  As far as the feel I get from its inhabitants, despite its punk history and rebellious lack of respect for unmarked space, it’s still a German city and I find Germans to be a rather compliant, cold and unexciting bunch.  I love to people-watch but in Germany, there’s nothing to see… people patiently wait to march across the zebra stripes when the light changes even if there’s no car approach from either side of the horizon. Despite their differences, Paris and Berlin have been connected throughout the centuries.  People I’ve talked to naively linked them together as mutually “great European cities” and ancient conquerors created a certain rivalry between the two.  The chariot on top of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was actually seized by Napoleon during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and taken to Paris for a time.  Hitler wanted to obliterate Paris to the ground because he knew Berlin could never compete (fortunately, his soldiers refused to follow these orders).  The French still have some animosity toward Germans, rightfully so, given the World Wars. The point of traveling from city to city to eat, see and do different things.  People go to Paris for romance, culture, massive museums of classic pieces and bohemian artsiness.  People go to Berlin for cheap beer, crazy parties, punk culture and the witnessing the aftermath of a divided city.  Greater writers than me have written better things than I can about these places so I’m not pretending to have created a comprehensive guide.  But if you want to take advantage of the “greatness of Europe” by looking for the right things in the right places! Go to Paris… 1) To Eat.  It is not going to be cheap but French food is rightfully delicious.  Expect to pay at least 15 euros for your meal if you sit down somewhere, but its worth it.  The French attention-to-detail fully carries over to their approach toward dining, true for the dishes themselves and the atmospheric surroundings.  Paris is filled with brasseries that feel like a time warp to a Parisian golden age.  Some are cozy, some are charming but they’re usually filled with Art Nouveau decor, heavy wooden mirrors and sparkling chandeliers.  Fondue, crepes, croissants, ever-present fresh French-bread… everything that entered my mouth was delicious and I only sampled vegetarian and backpacker friendly basics.  While in Paris, make sure to eat macaroons, which Parisians have also made an art form.  These colorful circular French pastries have with sweet or tart fillings, sandwiched between two meringue and almond four based cookies.  Bakeries pimp out their pastries with shimmery gloss or gold sparkles in addition the rainbow colored base layers.  Eating these treats is also an adventure… the simultaneously spongey and firm exterior melts away to expose fillings with flavors that really packs a punch.  Per recommendation of my Parisian friend, I bought mine at Pierre Herme, which she liked because of both the quality and wide selection of adventurous flavors.  They are famous for ispahan (a rose, raspberry and litchi combination), mogador (milk chocolate and passionfruit blend) and their vanilla house blend but they dabble in everything from goat cheese to green tea to fig.  My photos from a macaron sampling session are in my camera flying through the air...

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

Cologne is one of those cities that I didn’t mean to visit but ended up being more interesting than I expected. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions: most people who visit snap a few pictures of the massive cathedral in between switching trains at the international station, conveniently located a stone’s throw away. If you’re a particularly ambitious Cologne tourist, you can climb the ~250 stairs to the tower of this lurking structure that took 400 years to construct. You may even walk across the lovelock bridge and snap a few pictures to the other side. But then you’re basically done. As the city was nearly destroyed during the Second World War, there’s very little notable or attractive architecture around town and only a handful of relatively generic museums. But what Cologne lacks in beautiful buildings (even the rathaus (town hall) and the opera are pretty ugly), it makes up for with spirited inhabitants with a strong city identity, different than you’ll find anywhere else in Germany. Do I recommend that you travel far out of your way to see it? Probably not. Even its residents admit that it’s the perfect place to live but not the most exciting city to visit. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, I do recommend finding a local and talking to the special traditions surrounding this city. If you can’t find someone like Thomas (my host) to enlighten you, here’s a few things I learned about what makes this place unique: 1) Gnomes Everywhere! You’ll notice that the people of Cologne tend to be pretty lazy and legend has it that little house gnomes enabled their slothfulness. Supposedly, the heinzelmännchen used to do all the work of Cologne’s citizens during the day until a tailor’s wife tried to see these gnomes. She spilled peas on the ground to catch them by causing them to slip and fall. The infuriated trolls left and never came back… except to decorate the Christmas markets! Find the fabled fairytale creatures in full-force in the Old City Heimat der Heinzel – the “Home of the Gnomes” Christmas market where they take the ski lift to the top of a rustic beer hall, peek out at skaters sliding around the rink and judging matches of eisstockschiessen (a form of curling). 2) It’s Student-Friendly As home to the University of Cologne, the city has plenty of good bars, restaurants and bookshops to their 80,000 students. I scoured the downtown for a good café with wifi to hang out in and didn’t have much luck because they either didn’t have Internet or looked too fancy (Thomas later reassured me that although they might have linen tablecloths, the people of Cologne don’t judge so I could show up to the Opera in jeans and people won’t blink an eyelash. So the cafes may not be as fancy as they appeared to me). So I didn’t find too many neat spots to curl up downtown but the area near the university (Zulpicher Str. is where I mostly walked up and down) had plenty of cute bookshops, affordable and informal eateries and bars to chose from. Even better, the pubs operate on a student schedule so you’ll find places open until 6 AM even on weekdays. Thomas mentioned one, owned by a 63-year-old woman which is open from 7 PM-4 AM six days a week. 3) You Can Ride Public Transport For Free! I’ve never been in a city with this policy but inhabitants of Cologne have an automatic guest pass that allows a friend to ride for free: all the time that a citizen accompanies them, if I’m not mistaken. He said for certain hours on the weekend, the guest pass can extend to all your family members. Although this policy still seems a bit bizarre and too good to be true for me, it frees up extra cash that you can spend on beer instead of U-bahn tickets. 4) Its Past Is Left Up To The Imagination Cologne was a Roman city, developed in 50 AD, but it has very little visible history left since the Allied Troops killed 95% of the population and destroyed most of the city during WWII. You can walk paths paved by the Romans in “old town” by the river but you need to imagine what Cologne looked like centuries ago. The only remnant of real “history” I found was an arch left over from a Roman gate, near the cathedral. 5) It Has a Lock Bridge That Wouldn’t Break Having recently come from Paris where bridges have begun to break under the weight of...

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

“Help wanted: building an ecological project and humanity with permaculture and children playing in the gardens and trees, giving people a peaceful place for drinking tea, relaxing and community sharing… free energy, communication, natural food and consciousness… We welcome people with a positive mindset, believe in a sustainable world and are motivated to help this project thrive and shine”. “I like nature, peace, tea and thriving and shining.  Vegan meals won’t be a problem for me”, I thought, then promptly connected with and accepted an offer to volunteer at this eco-house in middle-of-nowhere Belgium. Since the host was new on workaway, I had very little idea what to expect- goats, farmland and moderately liberal hippies was my best guess. I arrived at the tiny train station, wondering where Nancy could be hiding on the small platform and hoping she could find me with my backpackers gear since I had no idea what she looked like and my cell phone was buried deep in my pack. Fortunately, she popped out behind a pillar with purple leggings, brilliant blue eyes, youthful but with the weathered skin of a gardener. She steered me to her enormous white van and clanged pots together as she made room for my bag in the backseat. Her very bouncy Sheppard appeared to me looking at me curiously, his half-black, half-white face angled for examination but he was too busy leaping around to really figure me out. Fortunately, “Mitch” liked me enough to share a seat with me on the ride home and Nancy told me that contrary to what his puppy energy suggests, Mitch was actually 30 years old. “He eats all macrobiotic like us, beans and rice and pea soup and vegan dog food with no sugar. He ate a piece of normal toast once and was so sick for 5 days that the vet thought he may die”, she explained solemnly, “I gave him love and miso soup and look at him now!”. Indeed, Mitch was the poster child for a macrobiotic diet, with his shiny fur, mischievous eyes and speedy legs. The ride to her house only took a few minutes, past suburban looking houses and flat farmland. We pulled up to a modern A-frame house with lots of skylights and large windows, whose modernity surprised and relieved me. “At least I wouldn’t be spending the winter in a rural love shack,” I comforted myself. But then I walked in the door and a colorful, semi-abstract painting of a nude, elderly and slightly rotund couple greeted me. As I got the grand tour, I started to learn hippies are far from free either. “We don’t eat sugar and we ask that you don’t bring it in the house. Our last workawayer loved to eat sugar and pasta. He didn’t follow that rule and it didn’t work out,” she clucked disappointingly and appeared to be praying for the salvation of his soul. “We shut the doors, especially the toilet door, to promote the flow of feng shui. We don’t like electricity and wifi waves messes with our brain. It just makes my energy go….”, she buzzed her lips and flapped her hands around frantically. Her tables were covered in crystals, dried, flowers and children’s art. I spotted a toy house in the corner and asked whether she had a kid. “Yes, Iaaz was my golden boy but he died”. She spoke about it so warmly that I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly through her accent until she directed me to a shrine in the corner of the room covered in old photos and a candle. “He died in a swimming pool. In May. I love to talk about it”. I wasn’t sure how to react so I passed along my condolences complimented her on what a beautiful boy he was and how happy he looked in the photographs. All of a sudden, the plastic playset in the background, which stood abandoned except for bunnies hoping around its base, seemed to lurk ominously through the morning mist, kind of a depressing thing to look out at when you wake up for morning breakfast. The thought of staying in his old room seemed even stranger. Macrobiotic Eating “Are you hungry? My partner Bernard will soon be joining us for lunch”. And sure enough, he arrived on cue. A tall, thin man with Beethoven hair and plaid bellbottom pants just a tad bit too short. He evaluated me with piercing blue eyes and didn’t say much throughout the meal except to help Nancy with occasional translations or clarifications. As she dished out assorted vegetable-based dishes, she explained some basics of macrobiotic living....