Friday, January 30, 2015

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Ninh Binh is a small village a few hours south of Hanoi. It’s often called “Halong Bay on rice paddies”, with huge karst mountains erupting out of serene, green flatlands. The common thing to do there is take a boat ride through the most pristine stretch of scenery, through caves and, at this time of year, past hundreds of farming families planting their rice crops. There are also some historic pagodas scattered about, and a really scenic viewpoint reached via a 500-stair climb. While it’s a popular daytrip from Hanoi, we decided to venture there by bus and stay a few days to take it all in (and not have to backtrack back to Hanoi before our continued journey south).

I knew we’d encounter a sleepy, very rarely tourist-ed town. I knew we’d hire a guide to take us around to the best sites. What I didn’t know, is that we’d decide to do it by bicycle. And that the ride itself would be my very favorite part of the whole experience.

Through herds of buffalo. Down silent country roads. Along narrow crests jutting from rice fields. It was an incredible day, with a lovely and knowledgeable guide. Totally exceeded our expectations.

For photos of the unexpected delights in Ninh Binh, click HERE.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Gift

You hear a lot of talk about learning to “be present”. My man Anderson Cooper recently dedicated a 60 Minutes (our favorite podcast) segment to the concept. There are workshops and retreats all over the world targeted at busy folks who want to learn the art of living in the moment. Apparently, just being is harder than most of us realize.

Think about it. You’re at work – Preparing for an important meeting. Debriefing on your last project. You’re with friends – Sharing the story of your last Tinder date. Planning a weekend getaway. At just about any moment throughout the day, we are focused on either the past or the future. Aside from those mindful folks who practice some form of daily meditation (me, not included), there are few of us who devote any time each day to being present. Too much to do and plan and think about. 

I am the WORST when it comes to this. A real "multi-tasker", I'm rarely able to focus on one thing at a time. I remember once taking part in a “Sound Bath” in Joshua Tree, which promised me aligned chakras, waves of peace and total relaxation. As I lay in the large wooden dome, odd crystal sounds washing over me, grocery lists and song lyrics and decorating ideas danced uncontrollably in my head. More often than not, my brain is anywhere but here.

And then I realized the other day, deep in conversation with fellow travelers about the aforementioned podcast and the importance of "now" and whatnot, that maybe that’s one of the subconscious draws of long-term travel. When we disconnect – from our jobs and our bills and even our friends – every moment has no choice but to consume us. The majority of our days spent completely present, absorbed in whatever it is we are doing, seeing, the conversation we are having. There is nothing but us and this place, right now. Sure we tell stories of things we’ve done and plan where we’re going next and miss so many people back home – lots of distractions pull us from the moment. But generally, far more of our day is spent here and now than it would ever be back home. Touching, tasting, trying, feeling, experiencing. Maybe that’s why traveling makes us feel so alive.

While on a bike ride through the rice fields of Ninh Binh, we approached an ancient pagoda, its entrance a large arch flanked by two smaller ones. Our guide told us that the three openings represented the past, present and future, then challenged us to guess which is the most important (and thus, in the middle). Everyone in our group guessed simultaneously – “The future?” But I knew immediately that the most important thing, the central arch under which we should enter, is the present.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Halong Bay, Vietnam

It’s such a (rare) treat when you pay for something that’s actually worth every penny.

It took us A LOT of research to finally book our Halong Bay trip. Like, hours of walking around collecting quotes and reviewing itineraries and quadruple checking our options. Cause you see, it’s pretty much the highlight of any visit to Vietnam. There are hundreds of places offering the excursion, and even more horror stories surrounding it. Rat infested boats and terrible food and filthy accommodation and promises of sights you never get to see. Prices range wildly, and on the one hand you think “you get what you pay for” but on the other you don’t want to be the sucker that pays a more for the same tour cause you know all these agencies farm out to the same few operators anyway.

So, we did what any tired-of-thinking-about-it folks would do, and went with the one who spoke the best English. A young American guy actually, who met his Vietnamese wife while backpacking Asia and gave us the lowdown on exactly what we could expect. We opted for a three-day trip, with one night sleeping in a boat and another in a beachfront hut on a tiny secluded island. Done.

And… It. Was. Amazing. The boat was wayyy nicer than we had expected. Staff rained rose petals down upon us as we boarded for Christ’s sake. Our room was spotless and the bed was more comfortable than most hotels we’ve stayed in and each six-course meal left us more stuffed than the last. We kayaked amongst the limestone karsts (as promised) and toured an amazing cave (as promised) and received the ocean view upgrade we’d asked for in our rustic bamboo bungalow. And we did our best not to smile when we learned that just about everyone else on the trip paid wayyy more than we did. So if you ever find yourself in Hanoi and aren’t sure where to turn, Dao’s Travel is your guy.

For photos of our cruise through beautiful Halong Bay that did not disappoint, click HERE.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hanoi, Vietnam

Where can you get freshly brewed, preservative-free beer for 25 cents? Drink it on the street atop tiny stools amongst hundreds of cheerful locals and travelers? Wander the narrow lanes through a flurry of sights and smells and sounds with an alarmingly high chance of getting run over by a motorbike?

Hanoi, Vietnam!

We enjoyed this small city much more than we were expecting to. We were enchanted by its energy, tantalized by its flavors, and embraced by its open arms. And we’re looking forward to discovering how the rest of the country stacks up.

For photos of our fun times in Hanoi, click HERE.

Friday, January 23, 2015

My favorite game..."First Impressions!"

So, what is our first impression of Vietnam?? 

We love it. Cheap and flavorful food. Warm and kind people. Amazing value accommodations. Relaxed vibe and tons of travelers and an ease of getting around. One of the only places we’ve ever been where locals and travelers seem to be enjoying themselves equally, in the streets and bars and restaurants intermingling with one another.

Funny thing is, we’ve heard very mixed reviews about this place. Everyone we know personally who has been here also seems to love it. It’s one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite countries in the world and hey, if it’s good enough for Anthony, it’s good enough for me. But a quick online search reveals pages and pages of folks who hate it. Who find the people rude and dishonest, the food disappointing, the sights overrated and the transportation miserable. Are they seeing something that we’re not? Are we in denial? Have we just been lucky? We’ve found ourselves peering cautiously around every corner, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I will say though, I'm curious about the travel experience of these naysayers. Southeast Asia tends to be the first place many young people travel to (a group affectionately known as “baby backpackers”) and I wonder if that contributes to the overall score of this country. Are the majority of these reviewers just experiencing third world shock? “OMG the bus was dirty!” “There are rats in the restaurant!” “The driver was rude to me!” (Possible translation: “He didn’t respond to my English, no matter how much I raised my voice!”)

There is really no way of knowing how much weight to give these opinions. And I’m sure we will encounter awful bus rides and the occasional rip-off and various disappointments (just like anywhere). But I’m doing my best to approach each day with an open mind and not let the negativity affect my impression. Either way, we’re excited to be here, anxious to learn more, and prepared for the range of adventures in store.