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.

Kakadu National Park

Kakadu is one of, if not the most famous national park in Australia, and even worldwide, boasting caves filled with Aboriginal stone art from 20,000 years ago all the way up to the 20th century. It’s a living nature reserve and aboriginal culture museum, burned and flooded every year throughout its six indigenous seasons. It’s massive in size, taking nearly the same amount of time to drive through as it takes one to drive clear across Iceland. Half of it isn’t even accessible in the wet season, but the whole of it can hardly be called ‘accessible’ in the dry season since it was a scorching 42`C high every day and hiking around to all the art sights, billabongs and look-out points were nearly suicide missions (I swear I almost melted).

a dwindling billabong, crowded with birds

a dwindling billabong, crowded with birds

It’s nearly the end of the dry season, and the only water left was a few muddy puddles, covered in lilies and hundreds of birds, plus three major rivers, affectionately named West Alligator River, South Alligator River, and East Alligator river (aren’t their only crocodiles in Australia? and the South one was really the middle one, since they were all parallel in a row… unimportant technicalities I guess). It was scorching hot, even at night, and I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much water or sweated it out so quickly.

aboriginal rock art

gunbim at Nourlangie rock

Luckily we had a car with air conditioning to provide temporary relief between the walk-abouts, and the hikes always proved worthwhile once you stood under a shady cave covered in cartoony but intricate images of fish and kangaroos painted by someone in red-ochre thousands of years ago.

We saw dozens of kangaroos and hundreds of birds – geese, storks, and colourful parrots to boot. Yellow-crusted cockatoos flew overhead as often as lizards crossed our paths, and we even saw one crocodile make a lunch out of one unlucky bird (or fish, it’s hard to say… just glad it wasn’t one of us). Our luck continued as we drove out of the park, where we sighted a dingo cross the road, and 3 wild horses, aka brumbies, grazing right beside the road!

the park is purposely burned every year, causing huge smoke plumes

the park is purposely burned every year, causing huge smoke plumes

We found the perfect Kakadu decompression site on our way home, the Douglas Daly hotspring national park, where we bathed in hot water, but at maybe 36`C, the water mas still cooler than the air and we managed to enjoy it under the shade of cockatoo-perched trees. It’s hard to imagine places like this exist, naturally, and total in the wild, and all it took was a weekend roadtrip from Darwin to find them.

Birthdays and stars in the City of Angels and Joshua Tree

I started reaping the benefits of a family member working for Icelandair with me and my cousins Boston trip, but then I dragged her to LA to reap all the benefits of my former California livin´, dreams and friends included.

cruisin down Venice beach

We were picked up at LAX airport by a friend from San Diego, who spent the day with us sightseeing Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, and Hollywood´s many sunny boulevards. We met uncountable crazies at Venice beach, zooming past us on skateboards yelling ”Under the sea!”, and even the trademark Harry Perry came by playing electrical guitar on his rollerblades. We got our own bicycle cruisers to join in on the boardwalk fun, almost got Sara tattooed,  and were asked forgiveness by the street folk who were either constantly cat calling or asking for weed money.

We went in and out of tourist shops to buy postcards and souvenirs, but otherwise we blended in perfectly fine. I´m not sure if that´s a good or bad thing, but we were also a bit crazy. Sara´s favourite store was the CVS pharmacy (which she could have spent an hour in just ´browsing´), and I insisted on beer and mexican food as our only staples for the entire 5 days we were in California. We drank oversized coffees and In n Out burger as a couple exceptions to the rule, and tried not to look like kids in a candy store everytime we went shopping for clothes – the prices and selections of things were overwhelming to us Reykjavik dwelling girls.

Luke at the Fonda Theatre box office

We were staying with my friend Luke, who works for the concert promoting company Golden Voice. We went to a concert with him on Hollywood Boulevard, where he worked the Fonda Theatre´s box office. There´s an amazing roof top terrace at the Fonda, where we watched Amon Tobin perform, and learned that the bartenders there really like vodka cranberry. We got stuck in ridiculous traffic getting out there, and could only laugh insensitively at Luke´s road rage (favourite quote: ”For the love. of. GOD. GOOO!”). There was another friend of Lukes throwing a birthday party on Feb 28th that we atttended, and didnt realize it was a black-tie/Cocktail dress event, so we ended up looking pretty silly in my new Lululemon yoga jacket and Luke´s faded leather jacket.

Sky House view

Luke and I have a mutual friend named Bracewell from northern California, who I went to school with at UBC, but me and Luke had never met until he came to Reykjavik for Iceland Airwaves ´12 and crashed on my couch in exchange for an all-access pass to the festival. Under those kinds of circumstances, youre bound to become best friends, and we also have our birthdays 4 days apart, so the main mission of this vacation was to meet Luke and the house he rented in Joshua Tree for a weekend out in the desert, celebrating our getting older.

the Joshua Tree

The house was called ´Skyhouse´, perched on top of a hill looking over the town of Joshua Tree and with the national park to the east. The star gazing at night was inexplicable, with numerous firepits and a hottub outside to enjoy it from. The house is meant to sleep 6 people comfortably, we invited about 20, and somehow 26 people showed up. Three of my Berkeley friends (and some of my most favouritest people in life) drove 8 hours+ to join us, Bracewell came, and my startruck cousin was there, which was more of a birthday gift than I could ask for. Sara was star struck because the rest of Luke´s band members showed up, Y Luv (who make great music, by the way… check out their facebook page), and one could safely say their young, bandly influences started rubbing off on her pretty quick…

Pioneer town saloon

We had a day long photo shoot in the desert, compliments of Mike Reiter (whose birthday is also the last week of Feb), after hiking 5 miles around Joshua Tree trails. We visited Pioneer Town, a small village outside of Joshua Tree that was built as the set of a Hollywood western movie and stayed on as a regular street in Pioneer town. I found some big western horses to cuddle there, as per usual, and even rode one that I couldn´t get one without standing on a hay bale for leverage.

We finally drove back to LA, in half the time that it took to leave LA (the traffic is unbelievable in that city), and had one last birthday shebang on Abbot Kinney street in Venice. My friend Jake, who I met in Reykjavik working on visual effects for a Baltazar Kormakur film, had just gotten back to LA after 4 months in Iceland. He took us out to the Taste Kitchen, followed by the best butterscotch dessert in the world at Gjelinas. His music movie producer friend Peter Harding joined us, and gave us a sneak preview to a John Martin film he´s making. He makes all sorts of promotional material for artists and music, and his 9 minute short on Swedish House Mafia´s angelic voice made me totally John Martin star struck.

Hope, half clydesdale

After a few days in the city of Angels, and glimpsing into the lives of Hollywoods gear grinders, we both left LA sunkissed, star struck and shop crazed, with repeated promises to come back soon and relentless attempts to invite our hosts back to Iceland again.