Vietnam on-your-own

Vietnam takes backpacking to a whole new level; it is literally a country that has mastered mass tourism thru solo-backpackers, and with visa free offers to 24 countries and a visa on arrival for some 46 countries means its accessible to travellers from all corners of the world. The price of things also makes it accessible for the poorest of tourists – a hostel costs €2 a night, and a meal with a drink, about the same. If you’ve got a more expandable budget, splurge on a $3 pedicure or a $5 massage, and you’ve still got leftover money to go on a pub crawl for $1 beers and free vodka or whiskey during happy hour.

pretty feet in Vietnam

I was feeling spendy and tried all sorts of more inexpensive things. I ate Pho from the popular chain Pho 10, with lean beef and lots of red chilli. I tried the Vang Ðo da lat wine, a locally made red wine which wasn´t terrible. I enjoyed egg coffee, an espresso shaken with condensed milk and egg white to create a sweet, frothy top. I tried some kinds of local vodkas and rice wines, which were hard to swallow, but they weren´t expensive and you definitely got what you paid for.

the view from the narrow rooftop of Nexy hostel in Hanoi

Hanoi was a charming city, built on one-tenth of the space a similar city with as many people and shops would take in North America. The narrowest buildings and tiniest spaces were built up for something, and the skinny streets had to fit buses, cars, scooters and pedestrians, because all of the sidewalks were parked up with scooters and motorbikes so tightly you couldn´t even squeeze past them.

congested Hanoi

I was surprised to see a few pet dogs, mostly tiny purse dogs but also some larger, long haired ones. They were all on leashes, and I didn´t see a single street dog, so I wonder where the dogs without leashes end up. I didn´t think about it too much but avoided unrecognizable meat, especially in soups.

Ha Long bay from the top of Ti Top island

The main destination wasn´t Hanoi, but Halong Bay. I spent 3 days, 2 nights, cruising around the limestone islands, mountains seemingly floating on the blue-green water. It was probably closer to a shade of brown-green, but it was cloudy most of the time and dozens and dozens of other leisure boats congested the bay so it was hard to be sure.

Sung Sot Cave, aka Surprise Cave in Ha Long bay

We, along with every other boat, visited some caves, hiked to some viewpoints, and watched monkeys steal whatever edible treats you would offer at Monkey Island. I was relieved to get to Cat Ba island, where the national park there actually offered some solitude in nature. It was the first time I hiked without someone directly infront and behind me, and reaching the peak made the fittest of fit break a sweat. Our guide made some excuse why he couldn´t hike with us, but ensured “Everything I do, I do it for you.” Tourism is the main industry on Cat Ba island, but he explained that Vietnamese believe in destiny, so they really don’t care too much about anything. But, when it´s time to get married, the engaged couple has to see a fortune teller to help them pick their wedding date, since that ‘lucky day’ can’t be left to fate.

at the end of the Cat Ba national park hike

Staying in the pleasant little town of Cat Ba was relaxing, and with a bit of rain came more quiet. I made friends with a French Canadian acro-yogi and a couple of professional photographers living in New Mexico, so I didn´t spend much time alone, but it was a relief to be away from the hordes of Chinese boat tourists.

new friends, other female solo-travellers

Leaving Hanoi, I nearly missed my flight because of an accident on the bus route to the airport, but just made it in time to check-in. Going thru security and boarding my plane to Luang Prabang, I had to smile at all the sun-kissed tourists boarding the same flight – everyone was carrying their must-have tourist item, a Vietnamese rice hat, and it brought me back to Fall 2006 when I was last in Vietnam on Semester at Sea and literally 500 college students had done the same.

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On the Road Again

It’s been a wonderful summer in Iceland, the best that I can remember in 8 years. I even had some time off between tours to be my own tourist in Iceland, roadtripping, fishing, hiking and camping in the highlands and west fjords. The horses and people from around the world that I spent my tours with were also wonderful, but as summer winds down and fall sets in, I’ve developed a serious travel itch.

off the beaten track

off the beaten track in a Belarusian forest

I couldn’t imagine a better day to leave Iceland than September 21. I finished 2 sheep round ups, saw the leaves start to fall from the auburn trees, and the first snow fell on Esja mountain in Reykjavik the night before. September 21 is also the autumn equinox, the last day of the year when the day is longer than the night. So in my perpetual need of warmth and light, I have to keep moving south to chase the longer days.

First stop is Belarus. I know it’s an unusual tourist destination, and getting a visa is a nightmare, but what more reasons does a traveler need to tease curiosity? I wanted to go to Minsk when I was traveling in Russia, since it was relatively close by and a similar kind of place, but I only worked out a visa by late August. A friend from New York who has a friend in Washington D.C who I met in Reykjavik knew a girl in Minsk who could help me. Lord knows why or how she did, but she sorted out all the paperwork and paid all the fees for a stranger she’d never met.

there's always entertainment on the road

there’s always entertainment on the road

Even more than that, she offered to host me before I arrived, and luckily enough I did arrive, and get in, legally, and planned to stay with her half my time in Belarus. The weather should have been warmer, but it was only in the teens and the trees have started to turn here too.

The rest of my autumn carries on to the south, first to the Caucuses, then Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. My 200th country might likely be Laos, or I’ll skip down to the Indian Ocean and visit some of those dreamy island destinations – the Seychelles, Maldives or Mauritius. Wherever I’ll be on my 30th birthday next year, every traveler, host or couchsurfer I’ve met throughout the years is heartily welcomed to come join in for the celebration 🙂

East Africa Travel Advice: how to normalize

Learn to squat for hole-in-the-ground toilets, and always carry toilet paper.

Exercise patience (people talk and work very slowly), and learn to talk and do things slowly yourself.

If you’re going to Tanzania or Kenya, learn some Swahili. If you’re going to Burundi, Congo or Rwanda, learn a lot of French.

People speak quietly, unintelligibly even, so practice focused listening, and never yell or raise your voice to be better understood.

Expect variations on the English words used in different countires. For example, public tansport can be called either taxi, bus, matatu, or special car, but they all refer to slightly different things, ie. A mini-bus, a coach bus, a local bus or a private car. A hotel can refer to a bar, restaurant, or an actual hotel, and I haven’t quite worked out what hostel refers to since there’s lots of them, but the most hostel-looking hostels are usually called guesthouses or backpackers.

Be grammatically flexible: prepare for misspellings, ie. You’ll stay at a ‘resourt’ and buy meat at the ‘butcer,’ get used to different pronunciations, ie. Bon-shuu for bonjour, and some phrases like “hello” are often replied with wrong responses like “fine.” The internet is called “network,” as well as cell phone service, and  you won’t have either “network” in many places outside of urban areas. When you do have network, you’ll realize how much you took for granted the fast internet connections we’ve grown used to.

Bring a book to stay away from your ipod, and buy an unlocked cell phone from 2004 to avoid standing out with a fancy smart phone.

Passerby, independent travelers aren’t the norm yet; people will as where you live or work since East Africa is full of expats, so be prepared to explain your story of why you wanted to backpack through East Africa.

Be prepared for missionaries and their prophecies; many will ask if you are Christian, so either say you are with some evidence to back it up, or learn to enjoy spontaneous bible lessons. These can come from white, American Missionaries from Kentucky, or your bus driver from the Serengeti. Even the most indigenous tribes are often Christian, and Masai’s are often renamed at baptism, so get used to meeting a lot of James’ and John’s.

Throw your East Africa Lonely Planet out the window. The Africa shoestring book as more pages on the Congo and Burundi than the East African book (7 pages on Burundi, and 5 pages on the Congo, a country 40 times the size of Rwanda). My East Africa journey was the first solo-trip I’ve ever done without a guide, and although Frommers and Bradt may be ok, Id still say throw you guidebook out the window – facts and things are so variable and dynamic that by the time anything is published on prices or times or places, they’ve most likely changed, and one person’s recommendation for how, where, when or why to do anything is always different from anothers.

Embrace the beauty of chaos and revel in the disorganization of freedom. You can talk your way in or out of almost anything, remember that no never means no, and become friends with the hard working African mindset that anything can be done, either with enough time or money.

Get used to walking between countries, and always crossing two borders to get across. One to leave the country you’re in, and one to enter the county you’re going to, that will have a $25-100 visa payable only in US dollars.

For Rwanda, most countries need to preapply online for a visa, atleast 24 hours before you arrive. NOTE: this may only be true for a little while, or only true of some borders, but there is no way for me to confirm or deny what the real truth is since the transmission of knowledge seems to act like a skipping stone – only some are privy to the truth, others can only speculate what the next skip is as they sink out of sight. Most visas are around $50, and you can only pay with fresh, new US dollar bills. It’s a different year for each country, but I remember cut off mint dates being 2000, 2004 and 2006.

There’s supposed to be agreement between Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya to offer an informal East African Visa, but Ugandan authorities don’t seem to know anything about it and it only dismisses you from paying a single entry visa more than once while not having to preapply for a multi-entry visa when moving between Tanzania and Kenya. There is still rumor about an actual East Africa Visa among all the Lake Victoria bordering countries, but who knows if and when that will be available.

US Dollars in denominations of $5, $10 or $20 get worse exchange rates, about 25% less, than bills of $50 or $100. ATM’s often give you about 5% less than a cash exchange rate, so come with a lot of US cash, especially since ATMs aren’t so common anywhere but large towns or capital cities.

The entire country of Burundi is off the international banking grid, so no ATMs exist and you cannot use any type of debit or credit card.

I still cant remember straight, but some East African countries drive on the left, others on the right, and both right and left-hand drive cars are used in both environments so it gets very confusing if and when you’re on the wrong side of the road.

You can skip the malarone and other slightly-anti-malarial pills, but sleeping without a mosquito net is not ok- so bring your own for the hotels and homes you stay in that don’t have one. It won’t protect you from the sound of creepy, heavy crawlies around or under your bed, but it will keep small bugs from buzzing around your ears all night and biting up your forehead.

Theft is unusual, if there’s any chance of being caught, since stealing is a big deal, even punishable by death. There was an incidence where a farmer in Tanzania walked to Burundi and stole some cows, and 3 days later, had been found by the Burundian farmers and hacked to pieces with machetes, and another where a young man stole a motorbike, and once caught, was doused in fuel and burned to death, right in the middle of the street.

The buses will always say their leaving soon, but they aren’t. They’ll leave the engine idling so you believe they are, and despite high fuel costs, they make the sacrifice as a tactic to try and get the next passengers onboard, which will make their bus filled first, and thus, their bus leave first. If you ask how long a bus takes, seven people will tell you different times, and all will be telling you driving hours not including stops, or they’ll tell you the distance. Knowing the kilometers unfortunately doesn’t tell you anything, because it depends on the road quality, weather, type of car, and if they have to fill up on fuel or wait for a paid passenger after leaving the bus station.

You’ll miss mzungus, and at the sight of one, stop yourself from pointing/waving and yelling “MZUNGU!” like everyone else does to you since you start to think this is a normal reaction. Then when you do see one, you’ll feel strangely intruded, wondering “what are they doing here?” Other times youll feel relieved, have someone to talk to at a more familiar level.

Know you’ll be experience such intense sensory overload that you actually start becoming desensitized. One may also call this a normalization: Normality shifts, time slows, your reactions mellow, your hygiene standards vanish, your comfort boundary expands, and your tolerance for everything and anything increases. One may also call this transformation a rite of passage, since this is the one piece of advice that you can only really understand after having travelled through East Africa yourself.

 

 

Tips on Traveling Light

Photo by malias

Photo by malias

By “light,” I mean two things; first, you should try and reduce your ecological footpring from travel, and second, pack lightly. Trying to get away from mass tourism, over-consumptive all-inclusive, package deal vacations is something every responsible tourist should aim for. Long-haul flights to some resort in Mexico or Spain or cruising through the carribbean from tiny island to island on a floating city are some people’s ideas of travel, but this is quickly becoming an outdated, carbon-heavy form of travel appealing to people who think of a vacation as a time to party, buy lots of things (souvenirs, food, drinks), get escorted around on an air-conditioned coach bus, and be surrounded by common, western luxuries and english speakers. This has gotten us and traditional tourist destinations used to seeing sun-burnt, sometimes over-weight white tourists (retired elderly or young party folk), speaking english to absolutely everyone no matter where they are.

I would urge us all to be more responsible, immersed tourists; do not contribute to these types of waste-ful, energy-heavy, carbon emitting forms of travel. Get off the beaten track, travel slowly, see more places than just your hotel room and the beach, and, interact with the local community by learning more about their culture, traditions, and even their language if you’re brave. wander around, never stay at the same hostel or campground, take one way trips, and remember that the travel experiences is not always in the destination, but in the journey.

Being mobile is alot easier to do if you dont bring too much stuff. Its hard to bus, ferry, or drive from place to place with a huge, rolley suitcase, so stay true to the nature of “backpacking” and only bring a backpack. And, unless you are camping or hiking and need alot of equipment, simply bring an average, regular type of back pack (not a $200, 80L heavy duty bag that screams “im a tourist!”) with the bare essentials. You do not need more than a couple changes of clothes, basic hygene supplies, a camera, a good book to read or write in, and maybe a cell phone. I always find I get frustrated with having too much “Stuff,” a load of stuff I end up carrying around with me for the sake of having it, a disconcerning realization of the material dependency alot of us have developed. Remember to leave a bit of room for souvenirs, but dont buy exotic things that you suspect may harm the local environment (turtle shell jewelery, teak wood carvings, etc) and remember the best thing to take with you from your travels are simply memories.

Succingtly put, leave nothing but your footprints, take nothing but photos.