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...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...

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...

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Between having a dissertation to finish in the next month and a half, jobs to apply for and a million other things to do and only one hand to type with, I won’t be able to write as much about my trip to Peru as I would like to. Peru is a colorful, spirited and incredibly diverse country. In two weeks, we visited desert, beach, cloud forest and islands on the highest-altitude lake in the world.   If we had more time, we could visit the jungle, more beaches up north and/ or the Colca canyon, famous for its Condors. Peru is also an incredible bargain when it comes to tours, food and accommodation (especially outside of Cusco… anything related to Machu Picchu will be more expensive). Peruvians are quieter and more reserved than I expected from people of South America, but still warm and friendly. Huffington Post recently published an article where Peru placed 9 on their list of 15 top countries to visit in 2015, claiming the country will reach levels of culinary excellence akin to Thailand or France (I’m not sure what the French would say about that). Peru is still developing so especially in cities like Puno, most restaurants appear a bit dingy, potentially unclean, causal mom-and-pop operations and it took my brother and I a little while to warm up to the chicken and rice- based diet (especially since he got sick early on). But toward the end, we began to appreciate the fresh seafood, zesty dishes with an incredible flavor without being drowned in spice. It’s not the healthiest food but quite satisfying, especially when paired with an energizing, citrusy Pisco Sour or, my brother’s new addiction, the radioactive yellow Inca Cola. At the very least, I thought I’d share the two-week itinerary for the trip my brother and I just completed and non-trivial Peru travel tips and tricks we learned along the way. First, if you are planning your own trip to Peru, wait to book most of your tours until you arrive in the country. If you plan to trek the Inca Trail, securing a permit will need to be done months in advance (unless you go in the rainy season like we did, but I don’t know if I’d recommend that). You’re better off waiting for everything else (for example, tours of Lake Titicaca, bus transfers from Cusco to Puno, desert fun in Huachachina/ Paracas) since there’s a million tourist companies everywhere and prices will be three times cheaper booked in person, instead of online. Furthermore, tour companies have basically synched what they offer so you could pay a little more for a faster boat or a smaller group but basically all the tours follow the exact same schedule and take you to the same places. In almost every country I travel these days, I usually just withdraw money from the ATM (I have a Charles Schwab Checking Account with no foreign transaction fees) but Peruvian ATMs charges 12-14 sols for each withdrawal (~3 sol= $1 USD) so you might be better off bringing cash to exchange. Peru also has incredibly varied weather that can change quickly so when they tell you to dress in layers, they aren’t kidding. We went in mid/late January so it was hot, sunny and dry in Lima, Paracas and Ica, and the strong sun made sun protection important. In Cusco and Puno, it was the rainy season and weather could change from blue skies and hot (because of the high altitude, the sun is also very strong here, even if it feels cooler) to cold and rainy in the blink of an eye. In general, it’s not worth trying to look pretty in these cities- everyone is in hiking boots, wearing practical layers and a backpack with rain gear and sun protection. Day 1: Cusco. Everyone recommends that visitors to Machu Picchu spend a day or two tin Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (3300 m above sea level) and explore the “center/naval” of the ancient Incan empire. We took altitude pills prior to arrival so we had no major problems with nausea and lightheadedness but we did notice getting winded really easily. Mint tea, coca leaves and rude water are local remedies that can help if you don’t have pills (I read somewhere that smelling lime or your armpits also helps haha. It’s a rather small, incredibly historic city with gorgeous nature and fresh air easily accessible beyond city limits. We arrived around 11 AM, walked around the main plazas (Plaza de Armas) and cathedral in the city center and headed up the hill to the Sacsayhuaman ruins,...

Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Welcome to Part II of my top ten favorite cities from this 2 month trip around Europe.  If you haven’t yet, maybe start with Part I to get an overview of where I’ve been and see which cities make the top five.  The list will continue in this part and will end with a brief shout-out to people who have made this journey positively unbelievable. 6) Venice, Italy Yes its packed to an unpleasant degree with tourists and priced accordingly, but Venice is unlike any other place on Earth. On this trip, I’ve also been to Bruges, Belgium which sometimes pretends to be the “Venice of the West” but it has nowhere near the tragic charm of this sinking city. I’ve already written an ode to Venice and some suggestions to escape some of the tourists in your explorations, since I know that I probably won’t have the same experience of the city if I slept in and spent my day squished between Asian tourists, stuck in Saint Mark’s square. If you get out of the main tourist areas, the food is delicious and the prices weren’t as bad as I feared (the going rate for espresso at the counter is 1 euro… in Zurich, you pay $5). 7) Innsbruck, Austria Before this trip, I thought of Austria as rolling, technicolor green meadows, soaring Swiss Alps and boys in suspenders eating schnitzel. Maybe Julia Andrews and the Sound of Music are to blame. But when I landed in Vienna, I found a posh capital where everything was extravagant, perfect and no one would be caught dead in clothes made from bedroom curtains. Yes, the ornate town hall was beautiful, the Parliament impressive and the gardens ornate but I wanted Austria make me twirl around in circles. It took several weeks until I returned to this country but when I arrived in Innsbruck, I found the place that made me want to waltz with blue birds, breathing in fresh mountain air. As Austria’s third largest city, Innsbruck is not a nature destination but its a city sewn together with rivers and surrounded by mountains that put you in your place. All of its occupants learned to ski before they could walk, they wander the city streets in wool sweaters with pom poms on their winter hats and all humbly rumble off hobbies like “crossing the Alps on foot”, mountain biking, climbing mountains, bungee jumping… Innsbruck hosted the Junior Olympics so it has skating rinks and football stadiums and a giant ski jump to service these adventurers. Not only are the people amazingly adventurous but the town has something for everyone: cafes, bars and music venues to entertain its large student population, a picturesque Old Town, lavish churches and amazing nature all around. And everything’s just a 10 minute walk away (well to ski, you’ll have to spend 15 minutes on the train). I went to Innsbruck before Christmas so I enjoyed its Christmas markets and streets converted to “fairy tale lane” where witches and giants watched pedestrians from window seats. I learned they also celebrate Carnival in the spring, which could be a fun time to visit!  But anytime you want a dose of fresh mountain air, audacious people, cuckoo clocks and a walkable city center, you can’t go wrong with Innsbruck. 8) Paris, France It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the bias in my Paris versus Berlin entry and yes, I admit it, I liked Paris. It had warmth, energy, chaos and an intellectualism that a lot of European countries lack (Netherlands, Germany, Belgium). Yes, it’s dirty and yes, you see homeless people on the streets but Paris won’t be the same place without poverty… who would have inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. I didn’t like the prices in Paris, but compared to Switzerland, eating fondue in France is an absolute steal. Although Paris is a big city and I won’t want to waste my life away on the tram, I think I could stay entertained here for awhile, exploring different neighborhoods, absorbing the energy of an intellectual and artistic crossroad and meeting interesting people. 9) Amsterdam, Netherlands If I just the city center, I would not like Amsterdam. The Dutch are very economically savvy people and they know most visitors will gobble up generic, overpriced fast food, cliché souvenirs and siren call of legal pot and prostitution. So that’s what it delivers: everything the typical tourist wants, easily accessible in the city center. I hate to break it to you but that’s not the real Amsterdam: locals don’t spend their weekends in the Red Light, most don’t smoke marijuana...

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...