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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ICOT 2013 in Limassol, Cyprus

The Cypriots claim all the best parts of Greek culture, like their raki, gyros, and Mediterranean beaches, but still have a unique Cypriot identity, with a splash of random foreign influences. They drive on the left side of the rode and use British power plugs, and the highest number of tourists come annually from Russia. My couchsurf host was a perfectly sculpted Cypriot, who ate only salad at night, and had a white shitzu terrier. She wore a pink bow on her head and always greeted your arrival by running up the stairs to eye level and offering her paw out to shake hello. I spent little time there, but instead saw the inside walls of a classroom for most of my time in Cyprus (which were very pretty walls, I must add).

me and Theo at TEPAK

ICOT is the annual International Conference on Tourism that I decided to attend last minute since I missed all things Greek. Cyprus isn’t quite Greece, but an independent tri-state country (the British, Turkish and Greek have unofficially split up the country) that I could also add to my country list. And, who am I kidding to not say I mostly wanted sun and 30`C. I also got to present my paper on ecotourism, which had a surprisingly large turnout, which was either thanks to my supervisor Dr. Nelson Graburn, or due to the fact that I was listed as a speaker from the University of Iceland in Israel. There was some confusion when the country code “IS” was expanded to Israel by the conference organizers, and people must have been curious to hear from a student at the unheard Icelandic university of Israel.

The conference included about 100 papers being presented over 2 days, minus a few no-shows, including the guy who won best paper (that award ceremony was a bit awkward). It was full of interesting characters, including the hunchback of Notre dame and a vivacious Brazilian woman who made an imovie presentation about the bikinis and beautiful people of Brazil for her talk. There was also a resident dog at the Cyprus University of Technology, who befriended everyone as if he had already known them for years.

Ironically enough, the largest problems we had were technical, with mics, computers and the internet not cooperating as they should, especially considering the fact that we were hosted by a technological institute. Other issues were the same things that come up at every international conference; the native English speakers spoke too fast, the non-native speakers of English couldn’t understand the accents of other non-native speakers, the South African’s always kind of sounded like they were speaking Afrikaans, and the North Americans couldn’t understand anyone except for other North Americans. This resulted in a lot of English to English translations and a few total misunderstandings lost in translation.

The clash of international cultures was more apparent, with different levels of classroom manners pushing the tolerance of each and every speaker. There were those who found it acceptable to talk amongst eachother, walk in and out of the middle of presentations, and the Cypriot photographers who were always switching lights and shutting doors in order to get the best photo of the nerve-wracked speaker. The Greek speakers were always the loudest, since they couldn’t whisper or exercise their inside voices. They even managed to walk louder than everyone else, their footsteps in the hallway heard from every classroom. But, their warm, friendliness never allowed you to lose your patience with them… so you just had to carry on and talk over them.

There were also those speakers whose last names you knew from referencing in your own work, and putting a face to those papers was always a pleasant surprise. The free time between lectures included lunch and coffee breaks, where all the presenters mingled among themselves. The superficial conversations always went the same, “Where are you from? What do you study?” Once you got past that, you were sized up as worthy of more conversation or not, and each and every academic had this natural inclination to compete with eachother in confidence and knowledge of what they do. The presentations were all strictly limited to 15 minutes, so it was always a race against time to show and prove as much as you could during your talk.

The conference had its funny quirks, but in the end, an international conference like this is always the perfect chance for academics to meet and mingle with people from all over the world, inspiring eachother to think about tourism in other ways and other places. But, despite our different backgrounds and various histories, it was wonderful to see how much we all had in common in the end, sharing our interests in tourism while being tourists ourselves in Cyprus.

The Pearl of Africa

To get from South Africa to Uganda, I had to change planes in Rwanda. At Kigali International airport, I waited on the tarmac for my next plane, and was issued a boarding pass for “Kategre Ndege.” Im still not sure if that was someone else or a rough Kinyarwanda translation of my name…

the shore of Lake Victoria in Entebbe

My east Africa trip started in Entebbe, the international airport town on Lake Victoria which has a huge UN presence. Couchsurfing with a couple of them made me feel like I wasn’t too far from home or that exotic but as soon as I traveled west, the word Mzungu greeted me everywhere I went. Mzungu means “foreigner” or “white person” and thank God we’re no longer seen as colonial devils since children run up excitedly to wave and yell mzungu. In earlier times, from the start of the slave trade and into about the 60’s, children would run away from any white people they saw since it was a common saying for mothers to warn their children, “behave or a muzungu will eat you!”

Its been a whirlwind since I arrived in this beautiful place. It borders magnificent Lake Victoria, boasts the start of the longest river in the world, has snowcapped mountains at the equator, has the highest concentration of primates in the world, and amazing bird watching. Some say Uganda is the pearl of Africa, squeezing in all the African attractions you’d ever want in one, very-safe country. Funnily enough, this hasn’t caught on with backpackers yet, as the infrastructure for traveling around the country alone is pretty minimal (and insanely cheap). There is usually a hostel with a couple other mzungus in the main cities and most touristy places, but most of the tourism is high-end tourism related to gorilla wildlife tracking.

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the big boss walking past my gorilla-tracking friend Jon who took this great snap

Gorillas are the biggest driver of wildlife tourism in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo has recently reopened their parks and begun hosting more gorilla tracking tours. They all cooperate on price (circa $500 for an hour with a group) and work together for conserving their natural habitat since it sits most of the gorilla groups live within the tri-national park. Since the gorillas are free to move between all three borders, its possible that the gorillas all slowly migrate to one or two countries, but so far, their numbers have only been increasing and many groups are totally habituated to human presence, so it looks like the gorilla tracking industry will just keep growing in all three countries. Im hoping it won’t only bring more international visitors to see these primates, but also allow travelers to discover the other hidden jewels in these sometimes misunderstood and underrepresented countries.

Thinking about Tourism in Kampala

Last week I attended an international conference on Sustainable Tourism in Kampala, Uganda. It was hosted by Makerere University, which is one of Africa’s oldest and most prestigious universities. Although it was established by the British and probably maintains excellent tuition, the campus itself seems weary from lack of funding, and parts of it look more like a deserted army base with crumpled buildings surrounded in rusty barbed wire fence. Around the skies above the hill the university is perched on circle dozens of Malibu storks, with massive wing spans and vulture looking stances. They sit on the tops of trees and create an eerie atmosphere, though they’re truly beautiful. Locals consider them the pigeon of Kampala, annoying garbage scavengers with stinky poop.

a malibu stork at dusk on campus

There were mostly Ugandans and Americans at the conference, in total about 100 people, and some interesting characters made the 3 days of constant presentations barable. There was a Masai from Kenya jingling around in his colourful garb, one very enthusiastic Chinese professor who was extremely difficult to understand, and an American professor who had a squinty, perma-“huh?” face twisted up so weirdly that you always wanted to ask him “are you alright?”

the welcoming committee at the ATLAS Africa Tourism conference

The conference was a first for me, and I was happy to present my research on ecotourism but it seemed like no one was really there to hear you talk, but to see if you were useful to them. People capitalized on the coffee and lunch breaks to network with all the most strategic people and once in a while, swap business cards with those people they found interesting. When presentations sparked a discussion, there was barely time to facilitate a dialogue since there were 6 consecutive sessions running at any given moment, for only 30 minutes each.

my Masai friend James

In the end, I kind of noticed that everyone had something smart to say about sustainable tourism in theory, but only bad things to say about actual cases of attempted sustainable tourism. Local Ugandans complained about it as a form of neo-colonialism and almost everyone recognized tourism as an activity exclusive to the rich. In the end, even the things we had to say about theory just ended up having a lot of academics and practitioners talking in circles, so not much came out of the conference except new friends and potential industry connections. For me, I lucked out with some great connections in the places Im headed next, and some well-knowledged people who actually know a thing or two about tourism in East Africa since the backpacker trail seems hard to track.