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

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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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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Oh, the tangled webs we weave

Only 11 days until we leave for Vietnam and the Philippines.

Philippine Visayas
Salagdoong beach” by Patrick120603 at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 

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