Misty Mountain Hop: Two Days in Ha Long Bay

Being an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, I had been familiar with Ha Long Bay and its incredible scenery for a long time.  And while I am not a fan of boats or deep water, putting this on our list of things to do in Vietnam was a no-brainer.  I would suck up my fears in order to see what I imagine to be one of the most beautiful areas in the world.

Based on friends’ recommendations, we signed on with Indochina Junk (don’t worry, it’s because they use junk boats, which is a kind of ancient Chinese style of ship) on their two day, one night Dragon Legend cruise.  This would take us to the less-traveled Bai Tu Long Bay which would be less crowded, but just as beautiful as Ha Long or Cat Ba Bays.

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The company had us picked up in a van to get from Hanoi to Ha Long, which we shared with another family and took turns imploring the driver to keep the air conditioning on.  They made us stop at a souvenir rest area for a bit, so the ride took about four hours altogether.  Once at Indochina Junk’s HQ, we checked in, gave them our bags, and grabbed a beer while we waited.  When it was finally our turn, we were all put on a small boat to get us to the larger junk boat.  We went through a small presentation, were given our room keys, and found our bags already in our room.

IMG_2680Having spent the previous few days trekking in Sapa with limited facilities, and taking two overnight trains, the absolute first thing we did on the ship was take a shower.  As we began our journey into the bay, just sitting in the room (which was much larger and nicer than you would expect, even on a “luxury” ship) and watching the karsts go by out the window was incredible.

We had lunch – a nine-course affair of small plates – sitting on the front deck of the ship and watching the scenery.  Thus far, it was the most calming, beautiful thing we had seen—and we had just been in Sapa.  With only the murmur of our shipmates and the quiet noise of the boat’s engine, we could not have been more relaxed.  Especially with a surprisingly delicious meal and a few beers (note: meals are provided, alcohol must be paid for separately).

After lunch, we were presented with some optional excursions: we could either go on a small boat tour of the area, or take a group kayak tour.  We opted for the boat (I’m no fan of kayaks), which included checking out the local floating village of people who actually lived in the bay.  We were told due to the dangers of living there, the government had offered money to the people to get them to move to the mainland and learn new jobs, but they were not interested in leaving their way of life.

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After the tour, we had some downtime.  However, with the previous overnight train being bumpy, and not being able to sleep much in the van, even the scenery couldn’t keep us awake long and we took a quick nap.  We were awoken with a phone call when they had noticed we were absent from dinner.

breakfastThe next day we awoke to grab breakfast (pho and Vietnamese coffee, you can’t go wrong), after which there was another excursion to explore the well-hidden Thien Canh Son Cave.  It wasn’t super adventurous—there were lights all throughout the cave and about three boats’ worth of people, but it was still nice to see.

After the excursion, we checked out of our rooms and met in the dining room for a buffet lunch as we made our way back to the harbor at Ha Long, where we disembarked, grabbed our bags, and once again spent time in a van on the way back to Hanoi trying to get the driver to leave the air conditioner on.

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Our time on the boat still ranks as one of the most relaxing parts of any vacation we’ve ever taken, mostly due to the fact that we had no choice but to go with the flow of the ship (no pun intended).  There wasn’t a restaurant to run off to or a hike to take in—we just sat around and watched the world go by, which turned out to be a pretty excellent way to spend two days, especially after navigating the streets of Hanoi, trekking in Sapa, and hustling around to catch overnight trains.

The cool breeze on the ship would also be the last we got for a while, as afterwards we began our trip south and into the incredible heat of Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.  But for now, we would enjoy the ride.

Eating food not from the country you’re in

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It should probably come as no surprise that I spend a lot of time surfing the Travel subreddit.  Whether it’s just to look at nice pictures of different places, get tips and ideas for traveling somewhere new, or trying to help others with my limited knowledge, it’s one of my favorite places on the internet.  And one of the threads that popped up there recently has had me thinking quite a bit.

Traveling abroad and eating food NOT FROM THE COUNTRY YOU ARE IN?

The basic gist is, if you’re looking for the best food to eat while you travel, and somewhere like Vietnam has the best Italian food, why not eat Italian in Vietnam?

I know there can be a lot of variables to what you eat while abroad—sensitive stomach issues, allergies, fear, palate fatigue—but I’m going to take this from the perspective of someone with none of these issues who just loves food.  And for me, this would be a huge no-no.  Have I done this before?  Of course.  Is this why I go to other countries? Not even close.

bratislavaWhen I go to a country, I want to experience their culture.  I want to know everything about their food and try it all.  I never have enough time, of course, but I try my damnedest.  For me, there’s no time to really try Italian food in Vietnam, because I just want to eat all the Vietnamese food.  And not just one time, either—I wanted to try pho in the north and in the south.  We went to small places, had it at our bed and breakfast, had it at a hotel, and had it at a chain.  And they were all different.

When we were in Bratislava, as well, I was researching restaurants and there was a great-sounding sushi place.  Highly rated, one of the best restaurants in the city. But I just couldn’t bring myself to eat sushi when I was in Slovakia.

It really comes down to what you’re traveling for.  If you just want the best of the best, you’ll go for it.  But personally, I want to try the best of the best of what the culture has been making, because I can tell you from experience I can get great, top-of-the-line Italian food in Philadelphia, but I’ve never had pho that matches what we ate in Vietnam.  I’ve never tracked down half of the food we had in Hue.  The stuffed cabbage in Hungary was next level.

My former wife would always mention opportunity cost vs opportunity lost, which is something I still keep in mind when planning trips.  The opportunity cost of going to a Chinese place in Germany—no matter how good—is the opportunity lost of trying another, different German dish or getting someplace else’s spin on a dish you’ve already had, both of which can give you deeper insight into the history and culture of a place.

I also realize this could have sparked something in me because the first comment mentioned Italian food which I find, by and large, to be incredibly boring.  Yes, I’ve had some amazing Italian food, but I would also feel the same way about Chinese or Vietnamese food, which is probably my favorite.  At home, I could eat it anytime or anywhere.  Just don’t expect me to eat it in Italy.

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Would you eat a “foreign” cuisine while traveling abroad?

Culturally Diverse. Unlike Anywhere Else.

This is a “photo essay” I started about three years ago, highlighting how diverse and unique each place we go can be.  With the vast cultural differences found throughout the world, there will surely be more to come.

Arequipa, Peru: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Bogota, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Bratislava, Slovakia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Budapest, Hungary: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Cartagena, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Eger, Hungary: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Hanoi, Vietnam: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Iceland: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Lima, Peru: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Medellin, Colombia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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Prague, Czechia: Culturally diverse.  Unlike anywhere else.

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The Inca Trail

To quote Jim Gaffigan, “I’m what you would call ‘indoorsy'”—but when my then-wife LeeAnne suggested we take a vacation to Peru to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, I agreed instantly.  I’ve always had a thing for seeing historical sites, and Machu Picchu is right up there among the best of them.  The fact that we would have to hike for four days to get there just added to the allure of the place.

As the Inca Trail is well protected, there are a limited number of passes issued to hike the trail each day, and you must go with a registered guide.  We picked Intrepid Travel based on a friend’s recommendation, and they were great.  From our tour guide Elias to the unbelievable porters, the trip was made much better with them in it.

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We began with a day and a half in Cusco to get acclimated to the altitude.  At the time, we were both smokers and had had almost no experience at altitude (we did all of our practice hikes outside Philadelphia), so the day and half was not enough.  But we made it work with plenty of altitude medication and coca tea.

The night before our trip, our guide dropped off the bags we were to give the porters with extra clothes, snacks, or whatever else we wanted during the hike as long as the bags were under 6 kg. We could also carry our own backpacks with whatever we wanted to have on us.  He went over the route and what we could expect from day to day, and then we were left to pack up.  The hotel we stayed at would be stashing most of our stuff while we were away, so we’d be bringing minimal gear with us.  From Intrepid, we were able to rent sleeping bags, a sleeping mat, and hiking poles.  Everything else, we had.

And then, just like that, it was time to embark.  The hotel let us in the breakfast room early so we could get some food before we left, and that’s when it hit me: diarrhea.  That’s right: I had felt fine the past few days, and then just as I was about to embark on a long trek where I’d be outside in the middle of nowhere for four days, I get hit with a bad case of the tummy struggles.  I went from excited anticipation to absolute dread.  Was it the nerves? The aji de gallina I’d had the night before? The alpaca burger? All the coca tea I’d been pounding? Who knows.  Who cares.  This was about to suck.

11134144_10153145221022209_2780531494105828084_nWe took a two-hour van ride with our guide to the small town of Ollantaytambo, where we stopped for a more substantial breakfast, a few trips to the bathroom, and to meet up with the rest of our group.  There were eight of us total, and we’d be joining a group that was on a longer Intrepid trip.  They were nice enough people, but we didn’t end up spending much time with them outside of our camps each night.

We drove up to the trail entrance, had our passports stamped, and were underway. The first day was hot and arid, mostly uphill.  I made the mistake of trying to keep up with the more fit non-smokers on the trip and ended up getting winded pretty quickly, and the altitude (even though we were nowhere near as high as we would eventually go) was getting the best of me. It wasn’t long before I fell behind.  Luckily, LeeAnne was there to keep me going, because I almost immediately wanted to give up.  I absolutely hate the feeling that I am holding someone back, and I didn’t want to feel like that with a group of strangers the entire time.

We stopped to see some ruins, and then we stopped for lunch.  I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I ate what I could in order to have as much energy as possible, and then took a quick nap in an adjacent field.  One of our follow hikers gave me some coca leaves to chew on. They weren’t as good as the tea, but they definitely helped.  Now, the coca leaf is indeed the raw material for cocaine, but the amount in a leaf is miniscule.  The leaf itself is a mild stimulant that combats thirst, hunger, pain and fatigue, but is nothing like cocaine.  Although I did become pretty addicted to coca candy while I was in Peru.

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Day two started with a great breakfast and I was feeling much better, but our guide sent us out with one of our companions a bit early so I could get a head start.  It wasn’t long before the rest of the group caught up with us, though, because we kept going higher and LeeAnne started developing some altitude sickness.  We were slowed immensely by this, and now it was she that needed the convincing not to turn back.  She stuck it out, though, despite having to stop every few meters on our climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass, which tops out at 4,215m/13,829ft above sea level, the highest I’d ever been outside of an airplane.

At some points, our guide had to make LeeAnne smell rubbing alcohol to keep her wits about her, and it took us way longer to get to the pass than everyone else.  It was also a complete climate change from day one, being freezing cold and windy at the top of the pass.  Having not prepared as well as I should have, our guide lent me his gloves.

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After a brief rest, we went down the other side of the pass to where we were supposed to stop for lunch.  Recognizing that we were struggling—as well as a few others in the group that had some problem—Elias made the decision to camp there for the rest of the night.  This did, however, mean that the porters who had gone on ahead to set up camp for dinner would have to break down the camp and come all the way back.

It should be noted that these porters are nearly superhuman.  They wear sandals for the entire trip and carry 50 kg of gear on their backs and practically run the trail in order to get to the next stop, set up camp, and cook the next meal.  And the meals were not your typical camping food—they were miles above what any reasonable person would expect on a trip like this.  Watching them get through the trail was awe-inspiring, and if you do it be sure to bring enough cash to tip them well.  They are amazing.

Day three, our guide had LeeAnne and I get up even earlier.  This time, we set out with a porter to accompany us and woke up while it was still dark and while everyone else was still asleep to get a 2-3 hour head start.  It was slow going, and we were able to meet pretty much everyone else on the trail with us because we had to stop so frequently and all the groups passed us, making sure we were okay.  Right before our lunch stop (which was supposed to be our dinner stop and camp the night before), the rest of our group caught up with us. Right after we stopped atop the high pass for the day for some yoga.

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Just kidding, we only watched other people do yoga. After lunch, Elias and a porter accompanied us once again as the rest of the group went on ahead. We were slow as cold molasses, but we made it through to camp eventually—tummy struggles, altitude sickness, and all.  Luckily, even though we were there right on the edge of rainy season, it didn’t rain at all.  The combination of being wet and miserable with being on slippery rocks next to some pretty heady cliffs (I’m afraid of heights) would have made the trek that much more nerve-wracking. We heard later from some folks who had experienced rain on the trip that it made everything excruciatingly worse.

On night three, we had one last group dinner and tipped out our porters, who would be leaving the next morning in order to get a train back to the city. That morning, we woke up early—probably around 3am—in order to get in line to get into the actual national park that includes all of the sites.  We climbed along cliffs, up higher, finally coming to the “gringo killer” stairs that lead up to the Sun Gate, which are so steep they basically need to be climbed like a ladder.

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It should be said that, with all the struggles we were having, I was pretty nonplussed by the idea of seeing Machu Picchu at this point.  I stopped caring and figured it would be anticlimactic at best.  At the Sun Gate, which looks down upon Machu Picchu, the clouds were still in and we could see nothing.  We stopped for a brief snack, and at one point the sun came out and the clouds parted and we could see it, and I was immediately enthralled.  The whole thing was so incredibly impressive, it was almost breathtaking.  Once I saw it, all the hard work and the talking myself out of leaving and the diarrhea and everything else suddenly became worth every minute.

We took the walk from the Sun Gate down to Machu Picchu, where we got some touristy pictures and proceeded down to tour the city.  I immediately hated all the people who had taken trains and buses to get there—the ones in jeans, wearing perfume or cologne, the ones who had clearly bathed in the last three days—they didn’t deserve this! They didn’t suffer for it! Jerks.

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Though I don’t have much hard going to compare this to—running a marathon probably comes the closest—hiking the Inca Trail was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.  With everything we had to deal with on top of the altitude, it was a struggle to say the least.  But the struggle paid off with one of the most impressive sites I’ve ever seen, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  If only to prove that I could do it a little quicker.

After leaving Machu Picchu, we grabbed lunch in Aguas Calientes, the town below, and then hopped a train back to Ollantaytambo where a van drove us back to Cusco.  Back at our hotel, it was immediate showers, followed by devouring two massive Peruvian pizzas and a long, hard sleep.  By morning, of course, my tummy struggles had ended—but not my love of coca tea.

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All photos taken by LeeAnne.

What I Pack

If there’s one thing I hate when traveling, it’s lugging around a ton of unnecessary shit.  A typical vacation is usually trying to hit multiple cities in a short span, and oftentimes staying at two different hotels in said cities in order to be close to the next transit option, so we’re moving around a lot.  I don’t want to be carrying six pairs of shoes with me the whole time just in case I might use them.

Now, I am by no means an expert packer, and I’m sure I still bring too much or even bring the wrong things.  But here’s a look into the kinds of things I take with me on each trip to try to pack as lightly and economically as possible.

Osprey Farpoint 40 Travel Pack: I used to have a 60+ liter pack, but it got to be a little much after hauling it around Vietnam for two weeks.  The 40 liter Farpoint has just enough room for everything I need, with a bunch of convenient compartments for the smaller things. Putting my little bag of toiletries in the top front pocket is especially convenient, because the bag is carry-on size. It can even fit under the seat in front of you in a pinch.  And remember: there are two kinds of luggage – carry-on and lost.

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Packing cubes: Since the bag has one main compartment for clothes, packing cubes have become one of my biggest necessities when traveling.  I can split up my clothes, keep them folded and neat at all times, and be able to easily dig out something that may otherwise be buried on the bottom of my bag.  For convenience, these things cannot be beat.

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Hiking boots and Smartwool socks: These are the perfect combo to keep your feet happy the entire trip, no matter what kind of terrain you’re on, or whether you’re wearing long pants or shorts. Bonus, the socks can go a few wears before they start to feel weird, so you’ll have to wash them much less, if at all.

Hiking pants: When you pack light, your clothes have to be versatile.  I love my LL Bean Cresta pants, which tick all the boxes: light, moisture wicking, abrasion-resistant, and UPF 40+, but they also look nice so you can wear them on a hike or wear them to a nice restaurant. I also pack a pair of North Face Paramount convertible pants: water-repellant, UPF 50, durable, and they can zip off into shorts so I can get two bottoms for the space of one.  This was very handy on the Inca Trail, where we walked through hot desert and cold mountaintop.  One of each of these pairs of pants should keep you covered your entire trip.

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Reversible shirt: Recently, I discovered the magic of the reversible shirt, and it’s changed my packing for the better.  I only have one at the moment, but I’m definitely going to invest in more.  I can get two shirts packed for the space of one? It’s a dream come true.  The one I currently have is a moisture-wicking long-sleeved button-up, so it can be used in almost any situation.

Folder for documents: We always have a folder for our travel documents.  It’s kind of old school, but if your phone runs out of battery or you can’t get onto the internet, it comes in handy.  We put our flight itinerary in there, our travel insurance, and a calendar list of places we want to go with addresses and days we want to get there.  The spreadsheet also has our other travel information—bus numbers and times, etc.

Quick dry towel: LeeAnne brought one of these on our trip to Iceland and it was the envy of our group.  You’re not always going to need something like this if you’re staying in hotels, but when you do need it, you will find it irreplaceable.

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Collapsible small backpack:  I’ve got a tiny backpack that folds up into itself that is great for day trips when I want to leave my larger pack behind, and also great for having on the plane with whatever I’ll need for the flight if for some ungodly reason I need to check my main bag, or even if I just don’t want to get up to the overhead compartment every time I need something.  Also works for filling with souvenirs on your way home.

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Collapsible rain jacket: Anything you’re not going to need constantly should be able to fold into itself to save space, and a rain jacket is one of those things.  The one I have is much more condensible than a bulky umbrella.  It also functions as a lighter spring jacket if necessary.

Kindle Paperwhite: I don’t always have a lot of time to read on a vacation, and often when I have downtime I want to be sleeping.  This doesn’t allow me to justify carrying around a big book for a long time, so I bought a Kindle.  It takes up no room and weighs almost nothing, and as long as you have a WiFi connection, you can pick up new books almost instantly if you need to.

Melatonin: I recently realized the miracle of melatonin chewables when I had to take a redeye from San Fran to Philly and go straight to work.  I sat down in my window seat, chewed two melatonin gummies, and put on the Sleep playlist on Spotify.  I’ve never slept better on a plane, and was actually ready to go to work after I landed.  That’s never happened to me before.

Those are pretty much my only requirements.  Of course, I bring other clothes, but you can pick and choose what you’ll need. A few t-shirts (making sure one can double as an undershirt for something nicer if need be), and underwear—but not too much.  For longer trips, you can always do some sink laundry if necessary.  Sometimes, I’ll also try to bring an extra pair of shoes, but nothing too clunky; either a pair of Toms or some flip-flops will do for when I want something I can quickly slip on or off.

Hopefully this can help, or give you a little insight into your own packing habits. Everything I think about packing, I ask myself how often I would use it and if I really have to be carrying it around for a week (or more).  The answer is almost always no.  Always remember: you’re not going to see any less of the places you go if you don’t bring your 12 favorite shirts.

Pack light!