There are few places in this world that still hold vestiges of the distant past, where you can imagine yourself transported, transmuted, transfigured by the landscape and people around you. The far northern region of Vietnam is one such place.
Ha Giang province borders China in the northernmost reaches of Vietnamese territory and is often referred to as “Vietnam’s final frontier” — rugged, remote, and scenic. This region is also home to the recently designated Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2010.
The landscape is surreal: towering karst formations create a labyrinth of near-vertical cliffs and ravines, gaping caverns, and a few very sinuous roads. The steep hillsides are cultivated by colorfully-clad hill tribes such as the Tay and the H’mong people. While you might occasionally see the indigenous folk riding a motorbike to the market or making a call on an old cellphone, you will see no farming machinery here; water buffalo still pull plows, and tribespeople still tend every plant by hand. Continue reading →
Being told where to go, what to look at, when and what to eat, and being ushered around with a bunch of interminably obnoxious other tourists as a public spectacle is not our idea of a good time. We will not be herded.
Having said that, there are several instances when organized tours might make sense:
When the intended destination presents significant logistical challenges that the use of privately arranged transportation can solve,
When the site to be visited contains esoteric cultural information that would be difficult to decipher without a knowledgable guide, and/or
When a guide is legally required.
For us, Bai Tu Long Bay fell into the first category. We had read online that the journey there from Hanoi requires several transfers, and the relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure exacts a financial toll on a cornered market. We only had two days before we wanted to head into the north country, and we just didn’t have the patience to hack our way through the DIY process for a two-day boat ride.
Manila was a tough end to our stay in the Philippines for several reasons:
First, it was hot. So very very hot. I am a person who likes the heat, even. I relished the 100-degree summers in the New Mexico desert when we lived there. But this was… oppressive, stifling, sweltering heat. Relentless equatorial sun, steamy humidity, and near 100 degrees that felt like 120. And we were out in the sun all day for two days.
Second, our arrival in Manila from Dumaguete simply underscored the fact that in the Philippines, everything runs late. Nobody gets anywhere quickly, it seems. Our flight was late (of course), and we had to sit on the tarmac when we arrived as well. Once out of the airport, we had to queue up for a taxi in a line more than 50 meters long, with taxis only trickling in every 10 or 15 minutes. We waited almost 3 hours for a taxi. We did well to resign ourselves to this fate, taking a cue from the locals who sat calmly reading books or playing games on their phones. This obscenely long wait, apparently, was no surprise to anybody except us. We didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am, and we were due for work rendezvous at 5:30 am. Ugh.
“Why are you going to the Philippines?” A Canadian man inquires of us at a bar in the Tokyo airport. I don’t know what time it is. Five o’clock, perhaps, or maybe noon. Regardless, the traveler is slightly drunk, slurring his words, leaning in a little too close.
“Why not? Beach time, some scuba diving, jungle hiking… doesn’t sound so bad,” Ben replies.
The man snorts, takes a swig of beer. “I don’t know. I spent the entire time there shitfaced. I planned that trip for the wife. And man, the food there is terrible.”
Fortunately, experience and perception are relative. After a week in Dumaguete, we’re placing The Philippines squarely in the win column. Continue reading →
What is the value of a lesson learned? In this case, $832. When booking our flights to SE Asia, I was presented with myriad scheduling challenges. After many hours spent researching, I finally came up with an itinerary that would waste no full days, and left a comfortable 3-hour layover buffer at all stops. Denver to Tokyo to Saigon to Manila to Cebu, where we would catch a bus to Dumaguete. Such a good plan.
Flights in Asia are rarely on time.
Nobody is in a hurry at any airport, it seems.
Customs and immigration is, expectedly, a laborious and frustrating process.
Apparently certain budget airlines only operate their check-in counter for an hour every day.
Bypassing this brief window by checking in online renders your ticket non-refundable and unchangable should you miss your flight.
Not speaking a word of Vietnamese is not conducive to speeding things along.
Only 11 days until we leave for Vietnam and the Philippines.
I’ve noticed that the older I get, the more preparation a trip like this requires. Ten years ago, when I left for South America on my first big solo trip abroad, there was little that needed attending to before I left. I simply saved up a thousand bucks, packed up my camera, and boarded the plane with a clear mind. But now…
Now there are dogs to recruit care for. There are bills to pay in advance. There are projects to wrap up at work. There is a yard to tidy before spring explodes in a forest of weeds while we’re away. There is insurance to verify, medications to refill, and gadgets to synchronize. Continue reading →
The prize of that view, that feeling that you are a giant, that in fact you might be a god, and the entire world stretches out before you, the snowy mountainside falling away beneath you and the solemnity of those dwindling pines at the treeline… I feel like these things should be earned. Perhaps these beauties should be more rarefied, the sole domain of those willing to struggle endlessly upward to attain them.
But here, in Breckenridge, I stand strapped into a pair of long, slender planks comprised of wood, carbon fiber, epoxy, polyethylene, plastic, steel and wax. I glide across groomed, domesticated snow (some of it probably man-made) with hundreds of other “outdoor enthusiasts”, queuing up in orderly lines for the ski lift. Jovial teenage boys scan the breast pocket of my jacket with a device that then produces the sort of fake laser noise you might hear in a 1980s sci-fi film, or maybe Star Trek. We all scoot along slowly and awkwardly (skis are meant for going fast, not slow), sort of like cattle in a pen, toward a row of electronic gates that open and close rhythmically. As my row of six skiers bursts through the gates and shuffles toward the loading line, the attendant delivers an oft-practiced speech about holding your poles up, looking behind you, grabbing the back of the lift chair… Continue reading →