Time machine: Northern Vietnam

Our path through the frontier.
The road through Ha Giang province.

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

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We will not be herded: Bai Tu Long Bay

wpid-img_20150501_202155.jpg We really dislike organized tours.

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:

  1. When the intended destination presents significant logistical challenges that the use of privately arranged transportation can solve,
  2. When the site to be visited contains esoteric cultural information that would be difficult to decipher without a knowledgable guide, and/or
  3. 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.

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The City of Gentle People: Dumaguete

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“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.
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Unintended, expensive, lovely derailment: Saigon

image 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.

Except:

  1. Flights in Asia are rarely on time.
  2. Nobody is in a hurry at any airport, it seems.
  3. Customs and immigration is, expectedly, a laborious and frustrating process.
  4. Apparently certain budget airlines only operate their check-in counter for an hour every day.
  5. Bypassing this brief window by checking in online renders your ticket non-refundable and unchangable should you miss your flight.
  6. Not speaking a word of Vietnamese is not conducive to speeding things along.

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On waiting and embracing: a somewhat apologetic return from a lengthy hiatus

At times it is folly to hasten; at other times, to delay. The wise do everything in its proper time.
– Ovid

Golden aspens near Buena Vista, CO.
Golden aspens near Buena Vista, CO.

More than six months have passed since we moved to Colorado and, regrettably, since I last wrote here. My extended silence has certainly not been for lack of inspiration; here we are surrounded by indescribable beauty, settled in the eastern shadow of the Rocky Mountains. Endless jagged peaks rise to the west as a seemingly impenetrable fortress of granite, snow, and ice. Aspen groves scatter like boneyards, their golden leaves long abandoned by the frigid night. Rivers, half frozen, wind tortuously through hidden valleys and intimidating gorges. From these mountains, the eastern landscape spills forth almost as an afterthought. Foothills kicking at flatlands. Waist-high grasses rolling in the wind like waves on a golden ocean. The eastern horizon interminably flat and unremarkable, save for a jumble of urban monoliths protesting the impending monotony. Beyond, innumerable fields of sunflowers, wheat, corn, and soy, waiting patiently for spring. The Great Plains, expansive and uninviting like the southwest deserts from whence we came. Continue reading