Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Vietnam: A Love/Hate Relationship Part II

Vietnam - November 2019

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and very hectic in its own right. We again found it too hectic for our liking and the hostel we had picked was a hole. That is one of the problems with booking a place ahead of time, the pictures lie. We would walk into hotels/hostels upon arrival in some towns coming up. However, we still got out an experienced the city and actually liked parts of it in the old quarter (such as the Ngoc Son temple and Imperial Citadel), especially on Saturday when they closed down some of the streets for a festival. I would have been tempted to stay had we not had a bus ticket.

In the end, we only spent 1 1/2 days there before busing off too Ninh Binh, about 2 hours away. Hanoi probably has more to offer but it’s a city and crazy and smelly. Plus, the countryside is much more relaxing.

Ninh Binh was very pretty upon arrival as our hotel was positioned just out of town amongst a towering cliff and sweeping views across a shallow pond, including a few classic fisherman on the hand built boats. We liked this place already. Fabi struck gold with this idea. We would visit 3 different places the next day via motorbike: Trang An boat tour, Hoa Lu Ancient Capital, and Tam Coc (also Mua Cave but we didn't have time to explore this much). All had something to offer but some more than others. 

The boat tour was neat as they took us through several caves and temples over the course of two hours. It would have been amazing to be the discover of these waterways with the towering rock walls shooting straight up. 

The ancient capital was so-so as we wondered around aimlessly trying to figure out where to go and what it all meant as there wasn't a whole lot to read. It is more of a leisure stroll in the park. 

Tam Coc was our favorite. We climbed up these gothic-esque stairs to the temples above with superb views of the valley and river below. One thing we learned was that soon to be married couples take a day and go to all of these beautiful locations for pictures to display at the wedding. One couple that had been on a boat near us was up here too and had must have had some of the best photos from it. Ninh Binh was one of our favorite places so far but we chose to leave for the infamous Ha Long bay the next day. 

Ha Long Bay is famous for its thousands of limestone islands that dot the water. It is on everyone’s list if they come to Vietnam and the most visited place in North Vietnam, so we hopped on a bus and arrived after a few hours. Another girl, Abigal was on our bus and had been dropped off at the same bus stop. The people there, at some tour company, were hounding us for a taxi ride and were very annoying. I could tell that she was more frustrated than us so we offered to share a Grab with her to her hotel and then onto ours. She was from Canada and a pleasant person so we exchanged info to potentially meet up later. 

Our hotel was right on the beach in a quiet street not too far from Poem Mountain; it’s one of the superb viewpoints of the many islands. However, it is now officially closed. Before, it was “closed” and you could still sneak through, granted one of the home owners let you access it by going through their house, for a fee (read: bribe) of course. Sounds weird right? My type of adventure! But, this recent news and reports from people convinced us not to even waste our time. Instead, we set out for the Ferris wheel, a short walk away. It ended up being up the windiest road with half a shoulder if we were lucky. Definitely not people friendly. We made it up a road with a little luck and towards a gate, where the guard (who spoke little English) promptly ran to grab a sign and repeatedly said “stop”. It felt like something out of a bad movie. We were at the maintenance/workers entrance. To get to the wheel, you have to take the sky tram from the other side of the bridge. So instead, we found a nice place to get some smoothies and watch the sunset before taking a Grab back down the crazy road. 

In the morning, we grabbed lunch and headed to Catba island. Upon arrival, there was only one van, which was full by the time we got off, to take everyone to the city some 15 km away for 30 dong. Since we missed it, the taxi driver wanted 450 to take us. So the three of us walked instead. The driver followed behind about 200 yards for a bit but eventually gave up once we arrived to the first town and grabbed lunch before getting a different driver. He was pretty creepy. We found a sweet little place for $7 a night on the beach and settled in. 

There are basically three things to do from Catba, a tour of the islands and bay, hiking in the National Park, and the beaches. On our first full day, we enjoyed the park and aptly hiked up to the peak with Abi to get a view of the area. It’s very beautiful as you get a 360 degree view of the forest below. The beach we went to was pretty empty of people as it was out of season and not the best beach in Catba, but we still enjoyed it.

We finished the day with a nice sunset hike at a popular place.

The second day we scheduled the boat around the bay. We went with the luxury boat for a cool $20. It took us around and through the limestone rocks jumping out of the water like something out of King Kong and we actually visited one of the locations in the film near a fishing village.

The lunch on board was family style and everything was quite fresh and tasty. Even the fish eye. They probably brought out 10 different plates to try. It was a feast. Catba bay is an alternative to Ha Long bay but was very impressive in its own right. Many of the tours overlap from the different bays as well.

We then took a sleeper bus to Sapa the next day over the course of 9 hours and arrived to a foggy night in the city. It was somewhat colder in the mountains of northwest Vietnam but we hoped for better weather the next days as it is known for its killer views of rice fields. Unfortunately, it was cloudy for most of the next day with some much needed sun popping through occasionally but we decided to skip the rice fields due to the weather and explore the French inspired city. After all it is a beautiful city and something highly resonate of the cities in Europe. Due to the weather being so foggy and hiking or any other outdoors activities not possible, it would be our last day in Vietnam as we booked a sleeper bus to Laos on the following day.

In all of Vietnam, we most certainly enjoyed the countryside and the people in the countryside a lot more than those in the big cities. The hospitality and interactions were much more real in places like Ninh Binh, Sapa, and Da Nang. Vietnam was not as we expected but still worth a visit to see the natural beauty of the land. I would go back for the landscapes and to explore other sites.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Vietnam: A Love/Hate Relationship Part I

Vietnam - November 2019

Ho Chi Minh, commonly referred to as Saigon, is a big bustling city where everything is moving, all the time. The sidewalks are full of scooters and street carts and their is the ever presence of people whizzing by on the streets. They don’t typically go in a straight line though; more or less a dance to avoid the next guy pulling out in front of them or merging blindly into traffic. To ride a scooter here is for the most experienced tourist and even then it’s a whole new level of crazy.

Driving a scooter in Vietnam: same side of the road as the US and scooters are everywhere. After all, they are 90% of the vehicles on the road. Watch for entering scooters and yield to bigger vehicles as they enter blindly. Oh, also if you ride near the edge of the road, scooters come down the wrong way there often too. And on sidewalks. As you approach an intersection you better have your head on a swivel cause it’s like kamikaze style coming at you. Best to find a scooter gang to ride with. But they are not your friends either. They will leave your ass behind. It’s a cruel world on a scooter. For this purpose we did not ride one, here. Walking was terrifying enough and crossing the road you have to just walk out in traffic usually.

We spent 4 days in Saigon and it was enough for us; the craziness was too much for our liking and there is so much beauty to see elsewhere in Vietnam in the countryside. The few sites we did see were worth visiting the city but could have been done in less time. First off, get the Grab app. It’s a lot like Uber and the cheapest way to travel in Southeast Asia. Tuk tuks are everywhere but Grab has better rates by nearly half of what they charge on the street. Another app is Gojek and has even better rates but isn't as in many countries.

Along with a lot of walking, we saw few things around Saigon, including the Bitexco Tower, the Cho Ben Thanh market, Quang truong Nguyen Hue, the Independence Palace, the War Remnants Museum, and a host of other neighborhoods along the way. The tower has an observation deck above the city with 360 degree great views. The cost however is $10 a person so we went to the cafe and got food and drinks for less than that, with a view! The market was like most markets, tons of people trying to sell you the same shirts and trinkets with a high price to start. A good place for cheap souvenirs that won’t last long. Quang truong Nguyen Hue is a lovely place to walk and take in the atmosphere without the fear of being run over.

They have many gardens and a few fountains that lead to the statue of Ho Chi Minh and a government building that’s pretty but we could not enter. The Independence Palace is a similar type of environment. The (American) War Museum was very interesting and depressing. They provided a look at how brutal both sides were and the effects it had on both sides. To this day, agent orange is still affecting people. On a lighter note, it is fun just to explore the city on your own and see what you come across and little markets here and there.

Outside the city we found the Cu Chi Tunnels to be fascinating but the information on the tour was lacking a bit. We were able to walk through a few of the tunnels and take in a short lesson in history which made it seem like it was generally a bad idea for the US to be there. The tunnels were a network that spanned 250 km (155 miles) and were hand dug. They were used extensively in the war to house soldiers and civilians and had many booby traps set for opposing forces. It was brutal to see the jungle warfare implored. Two of the more fascinating facts I found were that the tunnels went under an American base and some of the entrances were underwater in the river, James Bond style. They created many genius systems to avoid detection, such as a smokeless kitchen that would disperse the smoke away from the entrances and without detection, especially in the early morning fog or night.

The town of Da Nang (about halfway up the coast) is much quieter and a beautiful place to take in the beach. It’s not as popular as other ones nearby but we found it peaceful with less people. Hoi An is south of it apparently a beautiful city and Hue is north of it with a beautiful mountain pass along the route. We would rent a scooter here to get around. On Saturday and Sunday night, the town lights up, literally. One of the bridges is shaped like a dragon and breathes fire. Two hours to the west is the increasing popular “hands” bridge built in 2018 (it has a high cost of $90 for us both to get there and get into the amusement park) so we skipped it. It was foggy anyways in the mountains. Instead we took in the beach, ate some great food, and took a scooter up to Hue and back. Fabi even found a French Michelin Star restaurant to check out, because of course she did.

The beach was calling our name and was quite empty as we were a good distance from the popular area; it was relaxing after coming from the city. The first night in town, we were feeling a bit lazy and decided to order delivery through the Grab app. It came from two places and we laughed as the drivers from each showed up at the same time and exchanged perplexing looks. The people here were much friendlier than those in Saigon.

We rented a scooter the next day and explored the famed Hai Van mountain pass on the way to Hue but got a late start at 11 and the rental place thought we were crazy...maybe. It provided stunning views throughout with the threat of rain always there but never really coming. As we crossed over the pass a big overlook provides views of the route down, twisting and turning often. It was a fun ride and had beautiful scenery; we even made a little detour and went through the outer beach route through small towns and beaches dotted here and there. While beautiful, it cut down on our time in Hue and took us nearly 4 hours to get there. Beautiful but long. Hue was a happening town but we only had time for some food and then needed to return to Da Nang. As it turns out, we would be halfway into our ride when the sun went down. I ended up following another bike for a while with better headlights and couldn’t use my freshly bought sunglasses because of the tint. It was a bit crazy and made a long day and made for some sore butts!

The Michelin Star restaurant was a totally different experience than either of us had expected. We had dined earlier in the day with some street food that cost us $2 a person and this place would be roughly 25 times more expensive - so much for traveling on a budget! We started off the night with the scooter to see Mother Buddha on the peninsula. She is the biggest Buddha in Vietnam and the grounds are impressive. Many bonsai trees and statues fill the surrounding area and provide great views of the ocean and city below. As we continued on to find the restaurant further on the peninsula, it seemed like very few people were going this way, but not much was down there besides some high end places to eat and a hotel. We found what looked like the entrance and made our way towards this massive resort. On both sides we beautiful trees and flowers as we were driving through the jungle. Even at night we could tell it was impressive. Upon following my phone, it led us to a gate with a guard. Sitting here on the little scooter, we felt a bit out of place. He was very nice though and helped us make a reservation at La Maison 1888. We were in! Following the road down to the entrance and parking our scooter, we found our security escort to the restaurant. This place was massive and so very beautiful as we snaked down the hill and passed massive villas overlooking the ocean. It was unlike anything we had seen before and would be amazing to stay in.

The restaurant was elegantly decorated and beautiful in itself. We had worn our best clothes but were still slightly under dressed for such a fancy place. As Fabi went to the bathroom to take off the hiking pants under her dress (for warmth on the scooter) the hostess asked a few times if we were celebrating anything so I agreed that it was a wedding anniversary. Maybe not the best move in the end but oh well. The service was outstanding and we ordered an appetizer and dessert to split. They brought as some hors d'oeuvres to start. All the food was scrumptious and the dessert was massive. Then they brought us another dessert to follow and a third one as well. The last one being the best - raspberry soufflĂ© and ice cream to celebrate our anniversary. We couldn’t afford a meal on our backpacking budget (the duck for two was $125) and we felt bad but still had an amazing experience at the restaurant and only spent $90 on an appetizer, dessert, and a few drinks. It would have been 50 times more expensive than our lunch! I think they could tell we had a limited budget at some point but were very nice about it. As we left, they took us to the top on their very own tram. It went from the beach to “heaven” and we learned there is a monkey on the campus that is very rare and endangered. I wanted to come back the next day to see it in the light but didn’t quite have to time. It was a great experience to say the least and something very different for both of us. A place you’d go to on a honeymoon or if you are rich. 

Read the full trip chronicles, here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

All's Well That Ends Better

The Ring of Fire trip, September 2nd, 2013; Day Thirty-One and Thirty-Two of Thirty-Two.

The next day after I caught my flight and and made it back to the farm with no issues, this time. I was going to try to ride one of the horses on the farm but decided it would be way too much rushing around and I simply wanted to relax. It was nice to catch up and hang out with the other travelers to compare stories.

It was quite a long way home to Maryland. I had 3 flights in 3 days, so was especially sick of flying by the end of it and had traveled nearly 20 hours with a slight delay on my connecting flight from Las Vegas to Philadelphia (my only flight to be delayed the entire trip). I had my first flight from the South Island to the North Island on Wednesday and was picked up by Malcolm and Shlomi. That night we ate a traditional Jewish meal to celebrate the Jewish New Year and Skype Roni’s parents. It was all new and exciting to me but such a fantastic trip.

After a few hours, Malcolm and I left for the airport after saying our goodbyes and stopped at a local shop. The shop had many unique items made of green stone. It is mined on the south island and has some value to it as it is unique in itself. Anyways, I bought a few souvenirs, including a Maori (the ancient tribe still on the island) hand weapon to add to my collection of unique weapons from different countries. Once I made it to the airport and said goodbye to Malcolm I went into the gate. I had $40 Australian left over from being there and knew the airport would take it. So, I bought some NZ chocolate and a few gifts for people at home. Yes, not the best timing on the gifts but they were fairly similar just about everywhere I looked anyways. I had a short 4 hour flight to Tahiti. I wish I could have spent some time there (who knows if I will ever make it back, right?) but it was just a layover. Maybe, for my next disappearing act. I did have the luxury of having a row of seats to lay on during this flight so that was superb; the added bonus was that we were outside in a courtyard so I at least go to get some fresh air.

The next flight was eight hours and the seat next to me was empty. However, this flight seemed to drag on forever. It was most likely because of the combination of being overnight and simply a long time to be seated. Eventually I made it to Los Angeles where my Aunt Karen picked me up and grabbed some. After a five hour nap, we had a delicious home made meal and she dropped my off for the flight the next day. Therein I flew to Vegas, and then to Philadelphia; getting in two hours later then I expected (midnight) where my parents gladly picked me up! On the flight to Vegas, I met another traveler and we discussed whether the Green Bay Packers would win more or less than 9 games. Anyways, I said no way that they would be less, cause Aaron Rodgers, of course. However, Rodgers ended up getting hurt that year and they lost more than 9. I still don't know which way he bet but it was good fun talking about it. Anyways, it felt so nice to finally be home and sleep in my bed. As one of my friends said, traveling is awesome but the travel to get to the destination can be a pain. I was able to hang out with family that I don’t get to see very often, and made many new friends in Australia and especially New Zealand. Although many of the people in NZ were not from there, it means I met people from all over the world.

I cannot stay still so after just two-three days (getting in midnight Friday) I was off to New Jersey to visit my relatives with my father on that Monday. Good thing i love to travel!

Here are a few stats from my whole trip:
  • Flew on 12 different planes (booked 8 different flights)
  • Flew 28,120 miles (the equator is around 25,000), so I essentially circled earth 
  • Drove around 1,700 miles (mostly in New Zealand) and rode a few hundred more 
  • Hiked a total of 64 miles (only includes trails and hash runs)
  • Gained upwards of 22,630 feet of elevation on my hikes (and yes, if you go up that much you generally go down the same amount) which is comparable to Mount Kilamanjaro but not nearly as strenuous
  • On vacation for 32 days (41 if you count the week at the beach before I left)
  •  Spent $3,730 (as close as I could figure) on my whole trip, 100% worth it!

This blog is dedicated to my late cousin Toby (pictured above), who would do anything for anyone in an instant. I am grateful to have spent some time in his company. The hash runs are something I will never forget.

Read the full trip chronicles, here.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Lake Tekapo

The Ring of Fire trip, September 2nd, 2013; Day Thirty of Thirty-Two.

In the morning I could not believe where I had parked. There were mountains to two sides of me, and a nice, pristine river below. It was quite the beautiful and peaceful place to wake up to; no wonder i slept great! I decided to head to town to get some gas and figure out my route. As I was leaving the gravel car park, I was having trouble going forward. So I got out and checked the tires, they were fine. I got back in, went into reverse to a less rocky area, and was about to drive off fine. There had been an exclamation light in parenthesis on the dash and I was low on gas so I figured it was telling me to get gas right away. I made it to the gas station, pumped some gas and again went to drive away. Then I remembered I had put the parking brake on the night before since I was on top of a hill. Good thing it’s only a rental. I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly this morning.

After getting gas, I decided to check out one last LOTR location and then to Lake Tekapo.The LOTR location was the mountains surrounding the city of Edoras, however, it was private property so I couldn't get as close as I wanted to unless I paid for a tour. The mountains provided the most amazing backdrop across the shrub covered fields and it felt like I was in the middle of middle earth, but more realistically nowhere. I decided not to venture too far as Myriam had educated me on the beauty of Lake Takepo in our brief encounter.

The lake was an astonishing blue color and it was another gorgeous day outside. No matter how much you see the blue waters, it never ceased to entrance me. The mountains with snow covered peaks only enhanced the blues of the lake and sky above. The Good Shepard Church was right off the water and is the foreground to many beautiful pictures of NZ. I did my best to capture the beauty but it just won't compare to being there.

After walking around and taking many pictures, I headed up to the astronomy observatory on the hill above the city. The views again were amazing but this time I was able to drive up. The observatory is one of the top five places in the world to star gaze as there are mountains all around and very little light from the city far below. I would love to be up there to get some pictures, but it’s later than I want to stay and $125. I also met a couple up there from Australia who did it and didn’t think much of it, but Myriam had great pictures. She also has a great camera and did a little photo editing, I believe.

Back down to the beach I decided to finally use the stove to cook sausages by the water on the stone covered beach. I was able to set up a little seat and level out the stove but would have preferred sand. The stove worked pretty well but I didn’t have anything to season the sausages with so they were kind of bland. As I was driving away, I gave a family the four remaining sausages as I had no time to eat them, nor did I want to and they gladly accepted. It is quite the amazing little town.

I found myself lying on another beach nearby to relax before I had to head for Christchurch. I wasn’t sure what my plan was but I had to return the car the next day so I wanted to get closer. On the way I stopped in a little town called Fairlie and got a triple chocolate ice cream. Then went next door to a restaurant, where the girl agreed to give me the password for the wifi.

After checking in for my flight and what not, I made my way to Christchurch and began to search for a place to park. They are somewhat strict on freedom camping, so I came up with a plan: camp right next to the car rental place. I will fit right in and no one can tell the difference between the two cars. So, here I am, and I fly back to Auckland tomorrow. No better time than to watch a little LOTR before I catch some sleep for my flight in the morning.

Read the full trip chronicles, here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

New Zealand's Hiking: Roys Peak

The Ring of Fire trip, September 1st, 2013; Day Twenty-Nine of Thirty-Two.

While at the bar, Catherine and I had both wanted to hike up to the gondola on top of the mountain that overlooked the city. Doing it before the sun came up seemed like a good idea, so I woke up at 6, picked her up, and headed to the trail. We started our way up, ended up going up the wrong trail at one of the many splits (there were also mountain bike trails), but made it to a midpoint eventually where there was a map. However, it had taken too long to get to that point and she had to be back by 8:15 to prepare and leave for skydiving so we hung out a little, took the right trail down, took some pictures, and saw some cool waterfalls plus a nice view of the mountains with the sun not quite up yet. I had failed, yet again, to catch a sunrise in NZ, but still had a fun morning hike.

After dropping Catherine off, I made my way out of the city and to the first commercial buggy jump bridge. It was a 47 meter jump and I was tempted to try but didn’t want to spend the $180. There was even an optional water touch, where you dip into the water before bouncing up. I saw one guy do it and it looked fun but just not worth that much money to me. In hindsight, I wish I had the funds in the budget for it but I will save it for another trip.

A little town called Arrowtown was next; where I found yet another location of from The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). There was also a tour group mining for gold there but I don’t think they had any luck. It was neat to see the side of the river that the black riders were in the attempt to capture Galadriel and Frodo whom have waded out into the river. Fun fact: in the movie, the other side of the river is in a completely different location. Yes, I nerded out on this trip quite often.

Anyways, Lake Wanaka was calling my name and it was about an hour north; I had heard it was stunning from Myriam. Also, Una  and her friends were going up there at some point that day too. Upon arrival I saw what all of the fuss was about. The blue water stretched out in front of me as it weaved around islands as far as my eyes could see. I would have loved to have rented a boat for the day to explore more. It was a magical place, even compared to the rest of NZ.

I continued into to town to find the tourist information station and to jump on a quick hike to take in the area from above. Roys Peak jumped out at me instantly and I honed in on the details. It was a 16 km (10 mile) hike and was from the base (water level) to the top of a mountain. It was a six-hour hike and so leaving at 1:50 I was a little concerned about the time since it gets dark by 6:30–7:00. However, as an experienced hiker and with a torch in case it got dark, there was no changing my mind; I had to do this hike.

Shortly before I left, another guy was just about to start the hike so I knew there was at least someone else that was as crazy as me. He got a head start as I made a quick PB&J and packed my bag for the trek; I ended up catching up to him and hiking the rest of the way up and down with him. His name is Eric and was a great hiking partner. Solitude is fun for a bit but I always enjoy making friends and hikers are some of the easiest people to befriend. He was from the same area in Missouri that I used to live in and owned a gutter cleaning business. Apparently there is a lot of demand in that, a lot more than you would expect, at least. We made it to the top in 2 hours and 20 minutes and were overtaken by the views from the top as we could see 360 degrees of mountains, lakes, snow, the town, islands, and even the smoke from a small fire a ways off. Our tiny cars sat below as we watched people break into them and loot what little possessions we left behind. Only kidding but it was a real possibility with my van screaming tourist. I could see the views the whole way up the mountain but seeing them in every direction adds another element. The water was vividly blue and inviting as the sky matched the scene and the local shrubbery created a yellow-brown contrast that made everything pop even more. Eric and I took turns going out to a peak to nab one of the best shots in all of my trips. It is the defining shot of one amazing hike.

To cut down on the time going down we decided to hike along a ridge and then slide down what looked like loose rocks. After going off trail for a bit and making it to the rocks it was far more dangerous than we suspected; we may have been cliffed in but we were not going to give in so easily. So, we kept following the ridge and kept searching. The bushes we slick, like a long grassy bush, and on a slope it was easy to slip. However, the fall was flocculent so it was fun in a sense. We made it to a fence and followed it down to the trail. It was steep so we held on to one or two wires, leaned back and sidestepped down the slope. It helped immensely and we made it down to the real trail. From the top to the bottom in 1 hour and 50 minutes. We had taken 2 hours off the estimate and I maybe could have done it quicker on my own but wouldn’t have been anywhere close to as fun or enjoyable.

At the bottom we said goodbyes, exchanged info, and split. I headed into town to find wifi and a pizza for dinner. No sign from my other friends so I headed out on the road drive a little in the night. I may have missed some of the scenery but I would rather be hiking and exploring than driving in the day. I will have to return to Roys Peak for a shot at a sunrise hike. I had a very tight "schedule" to keep and only one more day on the south island. Two hours later I pulled into a little town called Twizel and found a place to camp outside the city. At this point, I was pretty tired, so I picked the first place that seemed adequate and dozed off quickly.

Read the full trip chronicles, here.