Categories
Oceania Papua New Guinea

Experiencing Tribal Culture in Papua New Guinea

How to describe Papua New Guinea? It seems a lot of people don’t know much about it, unless you’re really interested in birding, since it’s more or less the only place you can find birds of paradise, or linguistics, since it has over 800 living languages, making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world. The main reason for that is that PNG is largely tribal, even today. Outside of the capital, pretty much all of the land is owned and run by various tribes. There are so many cultures being represented there, and it’s a really interesting place to see how modern technology is being incorporated into their existing cultures instead of steamrolling their traditions.

They also have tribal law. When you look at the warnings on the US State Department website, they’re pretty aggressive. Essentially, they say that if anything happens to you outside of Port Moresby, the US government can’t help you. At the time of this writing, the country is at “Level 3: Reconsider Travel,” and portions of the country, including the Highlands where I was, are listed as “Level 4: Do Not Travel.” One of my coworkers, who lives in Australia, was shocked that I was going there due to what he’s seen on the news about it. Just now, as I was fact checking something for this post, I googled Port Moresby and found that 15 people died in a series of riots yesterday and the country has declared a state of emergency. Traveling to Papua New Guinea was absolutely worth it and was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been, full stop, but it is definitely something to be aware of and to prepare for if it’s somewhere that interests you.

I went with Wander Expeditions for this trip! This was their very first tour to PNG, which added to the adventure. In truth, I’ve been wanting to travel with them for ages, but often times I had planned out too far in advance to coordinate the trips that looked most interesting with them. This time, they dropped it slightly earlier than usual and I was already planning to be in region! I had a broader Australia trip planned to visit a friend, so I could adjust the timing of that to fit with this. I joined the recommended flight from Manila and worked backwards to spend the time in Seoul at the beginning of this trip, so it worked really well. I loved traveling with Wander – the Papua Expedition really was a fantastic group of people, and I had an absolute blast.

Kind of obsessed with their Parliament building, ngl
As seen while we were driving through the capital, poor tree kangaroos!

We started in Port Moresby, which is the capital city. Our flight arrived in the morning, and after sorting through money and logistics, we did a tour around the capital, including their Parliament building, the National Museum, a local fish market, and lunch before we headed back to the airport. We were supposed to fly up to Mount Hagen that afternoon for the cultural festival, but what we didn’t realize was that to flying Air Niugini means that a flight delay or cancellation is almost inevitable! After several hours of waiting around playing cards and making friends, we were sent back out of the airport, where we had to wheedle a hotel out of Air Niugini for our extra night in the capital. The next morning, we were back to the airport to try again, and luckily the morning flight left more or less on time!

Not my photo, but from someone else on the trip that had a drone! Such a cool shot.

The Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is a whirlwind of colors and tribes and activity, and it was such a chaotic introduction to the Highlands! Fun fact, the Mount Hagen Cultural Festival is not put on for tourists, but is meant for the local tribes to have a place to come together and exchange culture and ideas, and to reduce tribal tensions. It’s been going on since 1961.

We dropped our stuff off at our hotel and got there in the midst of the tribes arriving! I think their entrances were my favorite part, because they had the highest energy and often a more choreographed piece than later in the day when we were all walking around the field. To set the scene a bit, the festival took place in a large open field surrounded by a tall fence. Once you got within the boundaries of the fence, you could go anywhere you wanted – there was a market selling food and drinks, the area where the tribes spent time during the day, the area where they all entered, and a market where they sold arts and crafts. The arts and crafts were fascinating – I ended up buying a painting, but there were also necklaces made out of animal teeth and jawbones, and a lot of other materials that I don’t think I could have brought back to the United States.

This picture makes it so clear I’m in the process of sunburning
One more selfie with the artist 🙂

One of the other fun things you could do was get your face painted! I did end up doing that, and loved this design that I got. After the face painting, I stood out even more as a foreigner. I would say that it seemed like most of the locals were happy to have us there, as I don’t think they get that much tourism, and they were excited to share their culture with us. People asked me to take pictures with them, and I often wanted to take pictures with the dancers and their amazing costumes. It was fun and overwhelming and truly a once in a lifetime experience.

I love going to grocery stores abroad
Check out this security guy’s weapon!

While in Mount Hagen, we did run a couple other errands – going to a grocery store, getting alcohol, and a few people wanted to get specific souvenirs. One of the strangest things is that as a foreigner, you are basically traveling between walled compounds. From the guarded hotel to the fenced off Cultural Festival grounds to what was basically a strip mall behind a barbed wire fence, and any other time we were in the bus with the windows closed. There’s a lot of civil unrest, with tribal tensions, poverty, and people who come to the cities and urban centers to try to compete for the limited number of jobs. It was a strange experience to be shuttled between the fenced off areas, and we ate dinner in our hotel both nights we were there for safety reasons.

The next morning we left Mount Hagen and headed into the countryside. Our next three days were staying with the tribes! The countryside is gorgeous, mountainous and lush and nearly untouched. There’s so little development in the country that the only way to get from the capital to the Highlands is by plane because there are no roads from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby. That said, I was very impressed at the cell reception and roads within the Highlands, both of which were quite excellent.

This mask is unreal and absolutely terrifying

We were staying in a kind of thatched bungalow. We had one night at the first place and two nights at the second. While we were there, members of the tribes would put on shows for us, explaining the origin of the traditions and where the specific clothing or body paint came from, and then putting on a performance of it, often with singing and dancing. They explained that these are reserved for special occasions, like weddings or funerals or other festivals, depending on the specific tradition.

Behind the scenes with the Skeleton Tribe!
The monster is defeated!
My parents inform me that they did not love getting this picture from me in the middle of the night

The highlight for me was the Skeleton Tribe. For their demonstration, we all hiked down to a river. From my understanding, theirs was sort of a play about their mythology, about overcoming a monster by working together. It was so cool, their body paint was amazing, and the setting was unparalleled. We also hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain for one of the demonstrations, which had one of the most amazing views I saw in the entire country.

A few animal encounters along the way: (1) I have never seen such large spiders as the ones spinning webs between the trees, and I hope that I never do again. (2) In our second accommodation, my roommate Lucy and I had a third roommate – a weird bug with a stinger that we tried to drown or wash down the drain. The bug stubbornly did neither of those things and instead lived in our sink for the duration of the trip. (3) In our first accommodation, there was a rat in our ceiling. I had heard a squeaking noise and thought it was a bird, but we spotted it with a headlamp. I lived in fear that it would fall on me in the middle of the night.

Please trust me when I say this is the least graphic photo of the pig roast. Fascinating to watch but I’m not going to post pictures of the entire disembowling.

One of the other cool cultural things that we were invited to was a full pig roast. We could go to as much of it as we wanted, including the full butchering of the pig. Even though I don’t eat meat, I think it’s worth seeing more of the process where food comes from. In a lot of places, there are markets where you have a lot less processed versions of what you’re going to eat, but so much of what we find in American grocery stores is processed beyond recognition. Anyway, it was super interesting. The actual killing seemed pretty quick and humane, and then we watched them prepare it. The guys doing it would point out specific organs and explain what they were doing throughout the process. The pig was cooked over the fire under leaves/palm fronds and dirt, alongside potatoes and plantains that were wrapped in foil for the sides (and vegetarian portion).

The next day, we drove the rest of the way to Goroka and took a flight back to Port Moresby. We had taken the morning flight to give ourselves a buffer, since everyone had international flights leaving the next day. So we ended up having a chill afternoon at the hotel, which included some time by the pool in gale force winds and another dinner at a hotel, although a much nicer one this time. A pleasant and relaxed end to our week in PNG, and given the chaos of the next portion of my travels, I was glad we had the rest day.

Do not take this photo as endorsement of Air Niugini as an airline!

Leaving PNG is a whole other story and is going to get its own post, but the week I spent in Papua New Guinea was incredible. The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done, and while the destination is certainly not for everyone, I am SO glad that I joined this trip and got to explore the region. For anyone who is considering going, do your research first but don’t let it scare you off – the rewards far outweigh the risk.

Categories
Asia South Korea

The World’s Only Demilitarized Zone

The DMZ is a fascinating place. The history of the Korean peninsula and the geopolitical situation there now remain unique around the world, and I was so looking forward to getting a chance to see more of it for myself. I got picked up from Seoul pretty early – obviously, the border is highly regulated, and so my understanding is that there’s a system where you go from Seoul to a park near the DMZ border, then the guide goes and picks up timed tickets and then from there you can get back on the bus at the specific time they give you.

The park where you start out is mostly memorials and information, including some photos and a shot up train that used to run between the Koreas. We had quite a while there while we waited for our logistics to be sorted out.

From there, you take a bus to the Demilitarized Zone. We started with a movie about the whole concept, which is where the title of the post comes from – they talked about how this is the only demilitarized zone in the world, kind of as if it was a flex, which was interesting. Then we were allowed to go into the 3rd infiltration tunnel, which was one of the cooler parts of the whole experience. We all put on hard hats and headed down, where you can walk through the tunnel basically up until North Korean territory. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the tunnel, but you can take a picture with mannequins of soldiers.

It is a weird tourist destination – sort of like how I had a hard time with Amsterdam making weed and prostitution ~touristy~, there was an element of this that felt very strange. After the infiltration tunnel, you go to the observatory, where you can go to the roof and look through binoculars into North Korea. It’s apparently their third largest city, according to what they told us.

When I was there, it was shortly after that idiot American soldier defected, so the Joint Security Area was closed. It was kind of a bummer because I think that would have been interesting to see, but apparently it gets shut down a lot at any hint of concern so this was probably the more normal version of the tour.

The observatory had a lot of artwork in the lobby about the effects of the separation between North and South Korea, which was pretty interesting to observe. It’s always strange when people don’t cross a border but a border crosses them – my own family experienced that in Central Europe in the early 20th century, but it would be so strange to be in a place that got divided as starkly as North and South Korea for so long.

All in all, a fascinating experience, and something I was glad to get the chance to do while I was in Korea this time. The DMZ is unlike anywhere else.

Categories
Asia South Korea

More Than A Stopover in Seoul

I first visited Seoul on a stopover coming back from China in January 2019. There are a lot of great things to say about China, but it was also pretty tough in some ways, and I remember being unbelievably excited that places in Seoul would take my foreign credit card. I had told myself that I would return at some point, because I could tell that I needed more than 24 hours to explore the city, and it ended up working with my flight path for this trip! I was so happy to get the chance to take more time in Seoul, which remains one of my favorite places in East Asia. I got an Airbnb near the Mapo train station, and it had cool views both during the day and at night.

One of the fun things since the last time I’ve been in Seoul is that I’ve gotten more interested in Korean media. I still haven’t watched any K dramas yet (I know, I need to!) but I did see Parasite in the theater, became mildly obsessed with it, and have been working my way through Bong Joon-ho’s entire filmography. So I was super excited to come across this view of the river.

Yes, that is the monster from The Host (2006). Not the Stephanie Meyer one. Look it up and join me in this rabbit hole. Not too far away is the Korean version of Denmark’s Little Mermaid, and she’s even smaller this time.

I also did a couple things that I found overrated – I went to the top of N Seoul Tower, which had cool views of the city but otherwise felt a little touristy, and went to the bookstore at COEX mall, which was cool to see but obviously I wasn’t the only one who went to go take pictures so it wasn’t exactly my optimal bookstore experience (which is walking through in a fugue state and picking up every book with a cool cover to see if the plot looks interesting).

My favorite thing in Seoul is still just wandering. Especially given my next destination on this trip is not a good place to just walk aimlessly (more on this later), so I was truly savoring it in Seoul. I love getting lost in a place and then trying to figure it out. At one point, I was trying to meet a friend for lunch and I ended up on some sort of pathway, and then had to try to figure out how to get back on a normal street again.

I also love in the East Asian cities how the temples are built seamlessly into ultra modern parts of cities – I still think about that photo I took in Beijing with the temple with the Old Navy sign in the background. I had a fun time trying for some artsy shots in Seoul as well.

One of the other things I was most excited about was getting the chance to do a day trip to the DMZ! I would have loved to go last time but I didn’t have time. The next post will be focused on my experience there before I left the Korean peninsula for my next country and 5th continent.

Categories
North America United States

Greetings from Great Basin

I went to Great Basin National Park twice last summer, once with friends and once with my parents. It was almost back to back, but I did different activities both times so I felt like I got to see a wide range of what the park and surrounding area of Ely could offer! It’s a great little weekend trip from Salt Lake.

We stopped by the Salt Flats on our way to Nevada, which is one of the most interesting landscapes in Utah. It’s the first place I can remember ever seeing mirages for real, and while they don’t look like how they’re represented in Looney Tunes, it is pretty wild to not be able to trust your eyes.

Ely has a lot of interesting history! We took the scenic railroad, which was a fun activity and made for a good primer on the early years when the town was settled. We also went to go visit the Charcoal Ovens. They were part of the mining process, but the more fun claim to fame is that outlaws used to use the ovens to evade the police. The drive out was quite pretty as the sun set but it was slow going with the dirt roads and a herd of cows that also laid claim to them.

There are two main aspects of the park: the mountains and the caves. My friends and I did a hike in the mountains, which was a little harrowing with the snow on the trail – definitely a few slips as we made our way over, it might have been nice to have spikes or something. But the view once we got to the lake was incredible! I loved the mirrored reflection of the still-snowy mountains, and I think it would be equally nice in the later summer once the snow was more melted as well.

The cave tour was also a great activity. It had cool formations, it was fairly accessible, and the history of the discovery of the caves was well told by our guide. Definitely worth doing if you’re in the park! Overall, I would say Great Basin is a bit smaller than most of the other national parks I’m used to in the west, but I still got two great weekends out of it.

Categories
Europe Iceland

A Return to Iceland

I love Iceland. I went a couple years ago with Sam, and we road tripped around the Ring Road and had a fantastic time. We snorkeled between continents and, in one of my top life experiences, we went hiking on a glacier for my birthday. So when my parents said they also wanted to go, I was happy to go again – my only request was that we went in the summer so that we could be there for the peak season for puffins!

One of the biggest highlights of the trip was seeing puffins in the wild!

The start to the trip was a bit rocky, due to a layover from hell that got me to Iceland significantly later than I was supposed to after a night on the floor in JFK, but when I landed at Reykjavik at around 11:30 pm, I got my first taste of an Icelandic summer with endless nights! It looked like mid morning when I stepped off the plane. It was unreal, and I never got used to it for the entire time I was there.

For the first day, we stayed based in Reykjavik and visited the sites of the Golden Circle! The three main ones, Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park, can get pretty busy, but it really is a great intro to the country. I think everyone should go beyond those areas, but as a first day, it was a great start to the trip! It also didn’t take us the whole day so we had a little time to walk around Reykjavik in the evening.

There were two main differences between the itinerary of this trip vs. my first one to Iceland. This time, we were going clockwise around the island, opposite of my first trip. And second, we were adding on the Westfjords! They’re more remote, with roads that are a less accessible (read: somewhat harrowing, especially when it’s foggy out) and they aren’t many people who live there. For the first day, we stopped at the Hellulaug Hot Pots (cool, but very windy and it wasn’t super fun to change into a swimsuit in the parking lot), the Gardar BA 64 Shipwreck (one of the cooler things we saw, the scale of it was amazing!) and the Raudisandur Beach (beautiful landscape but maybe not worth the road it took to get there).

The second day had some incredible scenery! We started at the Latrabjarg Cliffs, which are allegedly one of the best places to see puffins. We did see a puffin, but literally one. I still think it was a worthwhile stop but as a more rugged version of the Cliffs of Moher, and there were lots of other seabirds for the people out there who are interested in birding. Our other stop was the Dynjandi Waterfall, which was gorgeous! One of my favorite stops on the trip – it was one of the more spectacular waterfalls that I’ve seen in Iceland, and because it’s so remote, it doesn’t feel nearly as busy with tourists. My mom and I climbed most of the way to the top.

We had one more full day of driving to Akureyri, followed by a more chill day nearby at Lake Myvatn. There are a ton of things to do in and around this area, so we visited Godafoss, the lava fields, and some of the other geothermal areas. This is the area that reminds me most of Yellowstone. It was so warm while we were in Lake Myvatn that my mom ended up needing to buy a T-shirt! She had only packed sweaters and warmer clothes, which did come in handy on the south side of the island.

The next day started with a detour to Dettifoss, which is a great waterfall and definitely worth the drive out, but it was quickly overshadowed by Borgarfjordur Eystri! This is a famous puffin nesting area and it really delivered. We saw so many puffins and were able to get close to them without disturbing them. Puffins are one of my all time favorite animals, so it was such an amazing experience to just watch them in the wild.

We had wound our way through most of the Eastern Fjords, and so our next day started at the Jökulsarlon Lagoon! The last time I was there, I had thought the boat tours looked fun, but Sam and I didn’t have time with the glacier tour and our busiest driving day of the trip to get to our Airbnb. So this time I insisted we sign up for a zodiac boat tour. When we showed up, they got us bundled into these warm jumpsuits, which are mostly to protect us if we fell in but were also great because it was quite chilly out on the water. The glacier lagoon was absolutely incredible and a true highlight of the trip. After floating past icebergs, we got to get so close to the actual glacier, and we even saw a seal! On the drive from the lagoon to Vik, we also saw an arctic fox, so it was a great day for animal spotting.

From Vik, we didn’t go back to Reykjavik. It’s weirdly far from the airport, so instead I found us an Airbnb in Keflavik. On the way, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, which is one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland! I think it’s so amazing to be able to walk behind it. We did see some people getting very close to the edge of the water in a typical bold tourist move.

Our last stop was the Blue Lagoon! I hadn’t gone with Sam, as he wasn’t interested, but I knew I wanted to go. This was one of those where I was worried it would be too touristy. And don’t get me wrong, there were a ton of people while we were there. But somehow, it didn’t feel too crowded, and it was so relaxing. Such a good way to end the trip!

Overall, my second time in Iceland was incredible. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve ever traveled, and I would recommend it to anyone! After doing both directions of the Ring Road, I think I liked the pacing of the clockwise version slightly better, but both of those are amazing ways to do the trip and there’s no shortage of natural beauty and cool landscapes across Iceland.

Categories
Asia Cambodia

Recent History in Phnom Penh

Although Cambodia has no shortage of incredible ancient history, its recent history is more tragic. The primary activity that comes up in the guidebooks when you visit Phnom Penh is visiting Prison S-21 and the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, which is located at the former Killing Fields. I am always fascinated by how countries represent their dark periods of history, and after taking a course in college about how we memorialize genocide, it was important to me to come see these sites and pay my respects.

As it was explained by my guide, Cambodia tried really hard to stay neutral during the Vietnam War – they didn’t want to anger Vietnam, their neighbor, but they also weren’t excited about angering the United States either given its considerable firepower and economic dominance at that time. However, after an arms deal that helped Vietnam, the United States helped overthrow their King and installed their own government. At this point, it opened the door for Pol Pot and his fellow communist revolutionaries to gain traction. They told the people they were interested in reinstalling their royal family, which was a popular sentiment but also totally untrue.

Once he came into power, Pol Pot and his administration carried out a brutal genocide, lasting from 1975 to 1979 and killing around 2 million people, about a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Even those who were not killed were often whisked from the cities and towns where they grew up to work in rural fields, and a number of those who died were killed by starvation and overwork. I knew some of the basic details. I read And First They Killed My Father, and watched the movie adaptation as well. I also watched the movie The Killing Fields. These were excellent, but I still was not prepared for the full scale of the atrocities that were described at the museums. I took a tour, which ended up being me and a couple from the UK, so our guide was able to take plenty of time with us and answer all our questions.

My tour started at the site of the Killing Fields. After watching a short film (informative but with rather dated special effects), we worked our way through a museum exhibition on the timeline of the genocide and then headed out to the Killing Fields themselves.

I’ve gone to other sites dealing with genocide – first of all, my college course about memorializing the Holocaust that took us to Auschwitz and Birkenau, and also, a number of Native American sites in the United States that focus on that history as well. But in both of those cases, I knew more of the details upfront, so while there was a sense of processing and grieving, it wasn’t necessarily learning most of the details about the genocide from scratch. Between that and how recent these events were, it was a very hard day emotionally.

In the Killing Fields, there were still bones and victims’ clothing embedded in the ground. Our guide told us that more is revealed every year during rainy season. They had built walkways over and around the mass graves, but it was absolutely heartbreaking to learn about the number of people for whom that was their final resting place. They have a memorial with some of the bones nearby, which made the scale of death so much more real.

From there, we headed to the S-21 Prison site. This was closer to the city, and was where they held prisoners before taking them out to murder them in the Killing Fields. It had been a school before it was turned into a prison. We walked through where they held the victims. Some of the areas were kept as they were when people stayed there, including bloodstains on the floors and ceilings. Others had been turned into a museum exhibit. There were images of the victims, and some very graphic images of the violence that had been done here. Other sections included weapons that were used and bones of some of the victims.

Ultimately, I was so glad to have gone on the tour, but it was a hard day for sure. Luckily, the rest of my time in Phnom Penh was less emotionally exhausting! The hotel I booked was one of my favorites I’ve ever stayed in – I had upgraded to have a private pool, and it was fantastic. The hotel was called Pavilion and I would absolutely consider going back to Phnom Penh just to stay there again.

I also spent some time walking near the Royal Palace, near the Wat Botum Park and the Sisowath Riverside Park. It was so pleasant – there were families, kids rollerblading, people walking dogs. I was just struck by how Phnom Penh has managed to move on from their history and rebuild. While the scars will always remain, I’m so impressed by their resilience as a country.

All in all, I loved Cambodia and would absolutely recommend it to anyone going to Southeast Asia. I spent six days there across Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and definitely could have enjoyed more time in both.

Categories
Asia Cambodia

Siem Reap and the Angkor Temple Complex

The Angkor temple complex is one of the most famous landmarks in Asia, and after spending a few days visiting Siem Reap, I can see why! I ended up spending about three and a half days in the city, two of which were in the temple complex itself, and had a great time.

Hello to Country #39!

Cambodia featured some of my favorite hotels I’ve ever stayed in! I was in the Mane Village Suites in Siem Reap, which was absolutely gorgeous and included a massage as part of my room reservation.

Something that surprised and delighted me about Siem Reap was the number of Cambodian-Mexican fusion restaurants. My hotel was an easy walk into town or an even easier tuk tuk ride, and it was nice to have the option to go get a frozen margarita after the long and hot days visiting temples. I also tried local Angkor beer! Not sure if my server did the best pour but I did enjoy it.

The focus of this part of the trip was obviously the Angkor temple complex. I booked a two day tour that included watching the sunrise at the complex on the second day. The first day started with four temples. Some first impressions – I was surprised at how much they let us access. Some of the more popular temples had more strict paths, with more areas roped off, but especially the less common ones more or less let us climb the towers and wander freely.

It sounds like they have had some significant problems with looting. Our guide would point out places where the statues have been replaced with replicas made with concrete, just so that the thieves couldn’t take the real versions. It is a massive area, so I could see where it’s hard to keep everything protected.

For our sunrise tour, it was brutal when my alarm went off. My hotel had packed me a boxed lunch, which was nice, and I left that on the bus while I followed my tour guide through the dark. We were heading to the most famous temple in the complex, Angkor Wat itself. Often, people refer to the whole complex as Angkor Wat, but that’s actually not correct. Anyway, we got to a good viewpoint and took a ton of pictures. This was the only place where it felt particularly touristy, for the record. Most of the other temples had other tour groups, but the site is so big and so spread out that it wasn’t that noticeable most of the time that there were lots of other people visiting. That sunrise was gorgeous, though! Definitely worth it.

One of the interesting things about some of the other temples was watching nature reclaim the area. In some areas, large trees were growing on top of the temples, or sending their roots over the ceilings and down into the floors. We saw scaffolding trying to hold up the buildings. The restoration efforts look quite significant.

We also saw bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge in one of the temples, which was pretty wild. I got much more of this history in Phnom Penh (stay tuned for that) but it was strange to imagine them hiding out this far into the rural areas as the regime started to crumble.

I would absolutely recommend visiting Siem Reap and the Angkor complex. I had high expectations, and it exceeded them! One of the cooler historical sites I’ve been to globally, and in conjunction with the hospitality I experienced in Cambodia, it’s on my list of favorite travel experiences.

Categories
Asia Vietnam

Hectic Hanoi

Coming from the calm and orderly Singapore, Hanoi felt even more chaotic. Honestly, if I was doing the trip again, I would have structured the order slightly differently. I feel like my first experience of wandering around Hanoi was so overwhelming that I didn’t get the best first impression. But I figured out dinner, and the next day I went to Ha Long Bay, and by the time I got back, I was ready to embrace the city!

I was staying in the Old Quarter, so a lot of my exploration of the city involved wandering around the winding streets and trying to cross streets (which felt very similar to the video game Frogger). It was walkable to most of the bigger tourist sites, but I did use Grab to call cabs for a few trips since it was fairly hot and humid, even in March.

The first monument I visited was the Hoa Lo Prison, which I found fascinating. It captures a lot of the important periods of history of Vietnam. It was built by the French when they were colonizing Vietnam, and was a location where they held the “radicals” who wanted an independent Vietnam. The first half or so was all about the awful conditions in the prison. From there, it talked about how the prison was used to hold American prisoners of war in the 1960s, where it got the name “Hanoi Hilton.” Famously, the American politician John McCain was held in this particular prison. I am always interested to see how different countries represent history, and this one didn’t disappoint. This period of history is spoken about rather differently in the United States, and when I return to Vietnam, I will definitely want to go see more of the sites in the south closer to HCMC.

There were a lot of beautiful temples and older architecture as well. My personal favorite was the Temple of Literature, which was really pleasant to wander around. I also visited the Imperial Citadel, but that one felt like it was more focused on the archeological and preservation aspects of the site. That was interesting but not really what I was expecting when I visited. That was also one I went to right before I was supposed to go to the airport so I spent my time there a bit stressed about making sure I left on time to go back to the hotel and pick up my luggage. Nonetheless, always cool to see some of the older sites in a country. The Imperial Citadel is from 1010 CE, which is almost unfathomably old coming from the United States!

Another relatively touristy activity that I did was the water puppet theater! This reminded me of the Sichuan opera in China, although that one had a greater percentage of locals to tourists. That said, they’re both performances designed to capture specific local traditions, and while I’m not sure how much the water puppet theater is still performed in Vietnam outside of the tourist centers, it was legitimately cool. The stories were apparently about the founding and myths around Vietnam, and while I didn’t follow the parts that were told in Vietnamese, the puppets were beautiful and the effects were pretty impressive. It was also a nice few hours in an air conditioned theater, so it is a worthy addition to any Hanoi itinerary.

I managed to accidentally save my favorite experience for last. One of the interesting aspects of communist countries is the instinct to embalm their leaders and put them in a mausoleum for all to see. I didn’t go see Mao while I was in Beijing, although in hindsight, I wish I had. So while I was here, I made sure I went to go see Ho Chi Minh. When I showed up to Ba Dinh Square, it was clear that I had managed to time it to overlap with a school’s field trip, as I found myself surrounded by tons of Vietnamese children. After going through security and walking through a grand yet foreboding square – it does rather feel like Tiananmen – I went through the freezing cold mausoleum, and stared down at the man who, in death, looked like a kindly old Vietnamese grandpa. The giant Vietnamese flag and hammer and sickle were present on the wall behind him.

All in all, Vietnam was fascinating. I wish I’d had time to travel to everywhere in the country that I wanted, but it was a great taste of the northern part and I look forward to returning for the other places on my list someday!

Categories
Asia Vietnam

A Cruise Through Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay was absolutely incredible! I took a two day one night cruise. It was my splurge of the trip, and it was so worth it. After a drive through the countryside from Hanoi, they took us out to the cruise on smaller boats and the adventure began.

En route to our ship

One of the things I’ve noticed about Vietnam’s tourism industry is that they have a very hands-on idea of how to give good customer service. As we transferred to the ship, the employees sprinkled rose petals on our head. We were immediately treated to a meal with so many courses I lost count, and when I went to bed, there was a handwritten note and a rose on my bed! I found that the employees had this same instinct at my hotel in Hanoi. It’s nice but also a bit overwhelming sometimes.

The view from my room’s balcony was stunning!

The highlight for me of the whole experience was kayaking in the bay! I was the second person out on the water, which meant that for a while, it felt as though I had the whole place to myself. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

We also did a tour to Dark Cave and Bright Cave, where someone rowed us through the cave and into a new section of the bay. Unfortunately, this area had some trash in the water, which is always a bummer. It was still cool, but I thought the kayaking was better. We did see monkeys in the trees above the caves, which our guide said was a rare treat!

The two days one night cruise was amazing, but if I was going to do it again, I might have gone for the three day and two night version. I didn’t want to leave the boat when it was time to take us back to Hanoi!

Anyway. Highly recommend Ha Long Bay. The company I went with, Elite of the Seas, did an incredible job showing us around this UNESCO site, and I would absolutely go on a cruise with them again. It was my favorite part of Vietnam that I’ve seen so far!

Categories
Asia Singapore

Singapore Stopovers

Singapore feels like this amazing Asian utopian melting pot, with the meticulous organization (and prices) of a Disney theme park. As one of the main flight hubs in Southeast Asia, I had a stopover at the beginning of my trip and another at the end, so I got about two days in Singapore to explore!

I did finally find the famous part of the Singapore airport on stopover #2!

My company has an office in Singapore, which is one of our main Asian hubs. Even though I wasn’t working on this trip, I did stop by the office to meet up with a few coworkers and see the amazing views of Marina Sands! It was so cool to meet up with people that I’ve spent years talking to on Zoom and Slack and email, and they had lots of recommendations for where I should go during my visit.

One of their top recommendations was Gardens by the Bay! It’s this amazing botanical garden, and they have the giant sculptures that look like trees that you’ve probably seen if you’ve seen any picture of Singapore. Or Crazy Rich Asians, which absolutely made Singapore look amazing and was some serious travel inspo. Anyway, every night they do a free light show where they play classical music and then project lights on the tree sculptures, and I thought it was going to be a little cheesy/touristy but it was amazing. I laid out on the grass and watched the sun set and it’s one of my favorite memories of my time in the city.

Singapore is also known for its ethnic neighborhoods! I stayed in Chinatown for my first night, and spent a lot of time wandering the Little India and Kampong Glam areas as well. Honestly, most of what I did during the day was just walk around, and it was such an incredible way to see the city. One of my coworkers told me that if you walked end to end in Singapore, it would be about one marathon of walking.

The other thing that really struck me while I was there was how futuristic it all felt! First of all, the metro was amazing and functional and so easy to use. The malls that I went into were incredibly fancy, like the Marina Sands one that had an actual canal with gondolas inside it? I low key wanted to ride one of the gondolas but they were done by the time I was in the right area.

I also did all the touristy things while I was there, like go to the Raffles Hotel and order a wildly overpriced Singapore Sling, and go take pictures of the Merlion. I ate lunch at a hawker center. As a warning, those do require cash, which was the only time I needed it while in the city. When I left the Gardens by the Bay, I came back out through Marina Sands and found that there was another dancing fountain show happening in front of the skyline. Sometimes it felt Disney, but in a way that just felt functional instead of fake.

I’ve been excited to visit Singapore for a long time, and it lived up to all my expectations! Such a cool city, and a great introduction to Southeast Asia. I’m looking forward to my next visit and will definitely add it to the itinerary on my next visit to the region.