I’m sitting in the dining room of my parent’s house in Nebraska. My month-long trip to Asia is over and I’m trying to catch up on sleep and prepare for moving across the other half of the country. But before I shift into a the next mode, a few words, no?
My first stop was a long weekend in Singapore to see my brother. He still had to work, but while he was doing that I got to walk around, explore the botanical garden(s) and meet his lovely friends! I could see how it was easy for Ben to move there: good public transport, bustling business, diverse community, and they speak English . Probably the only barrier is that it’s expensive (4th most expensive in the world!).
It was really lovely to get to meet his friends. Since both of our birthdays are in June, we had a joint birthday party with them, complete with temporary tattoos for everyone.
Then we were off to Viet Nam. The plan was 2 days in Sa Pa, 2 days in Hanoi, and 3 days in the Ha Long Bay area. Ben was coming with me to the Sa Pa trek. Right after landing in Ha Noi, we took the night train (very comfy) Sa Pa and began our journey. We had a pretty small group, just eleven people. Sa Pa is in the North of Viet Nam in the mountains where one of the 53 minority groups of Viet Nam live. We would be spending time with the H’Mong people. We met our guide was 19-years-old and had a baby that she carried on her back most of the time. On the first day we had a 4-5 hour hike up and down hills, crossing small creeks, and often on slippery mud. It was more difficult that I was expecting from the reviews, but lots of fun! A group of the H’Mong women travel with the tourist and help them across. It’s pretty incredible that they’re walk all over the terrain on nothing but foam pool sliders (their top choice of footwear, everyone had them!).
After the first day, we stayed in a very large homestay. I honestly wasn’t expecting to stay with the whole group, but it kind of made sense. We talked, my brother slept, and the next day we had a short 2.5 hour hike through light rain to a waterfall. This wasn’t on so much of a path as hopping up and down hills on rocks over some pretty perilous streams. I liked this a lot better than just hiking on trails because you’re focused so much on where to put your foot next you don’t have time to think about how heavy your backpack is or whether or not you’re tired.
Then it was another overnight train back to Ha Noi. My brother took off and I was left to my own devices. I’ll have to be honest with you and say that I had a pretty long moment where I was like “what am I going to do now?” Viet Nam wasn’t like the other cities I visited where people are going about their own business. People are focused on you and trying to get money from you. They’re watching for tourist to see what they can sell them. People just lingering on street corners heckling you for motobike rides. It was really exhausting for me and I was not looking forward to it. I mustered the courage to walk around Ha Noi. I went to H? Hoàn Ki?m lake (and the little temple on it) and the Temple of Literature. I met up with another traveler in Ha Noi for a street food tour of the city. Delicious and I wouldn’t want it any other way. The best (and the cheapest) food was made by street vendors and that’s where everyone ate.
One of the most fun things I did in the city was go on a motorbike tour with her the next day. We just rode on the back of motorcycles. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. All the motorbikes in Hanoi are insane and there are apparently no rules so I thought it would be a lot more scary that it was. But I felt totally save with my motorbike driver and wished we could have just spent more time driving around!
Then, my last trip in Viet Nam was to Ha Long & Bai Tu Long bays on boat. A UNESCO World Heritage site! Also very gorgeous. We had terrific weather the whole time. We road out through Bai Tu Long Bay, kayaked, visited one of the bay’s caves, landed on Cat Ba Island, road bikes, hiked through the national forest (saw plenty of enormous spiders), and then road back through Ha Long Bay. Basically. I ended up going with the girl that I met in Ha Noi, so I didn’t feel so alone. And besides that, we had a pretty good group of 10 people.
Something unique to our tour group was that someone dropped their GoPro in the water and a local mussel diver came to look for it. He dove 6 meters with nothing but goggles and rubber hose for air! You can see a woman passed by on a boat to see what was going on. The incredible part: within 15 minutes he found both the GoPro and the pair of goggles that someone had dropped in the water!
Next was Beijing to meet with my dear friend Carissa. Meeting up with her on the first day was kind of a debacle since I got lost for three hours. I think I could have resolved the situation sooner, but my indecisiveness and my stubbornness independence somehow spread out the situation for three hours. It happens. The first thing I managed to organize was exploring the very beautiful Temple of Heaven. One of my favorite parts was watching this very enthusiastic conductor lead a band and impromptu choir in the park.
Apart from that, it was interesting to see people doing their own things. There were people playing games like majong, cards, some hybrid game that looked like hacky sack with bad mitton tools, and many ladies crocheting.
Carissa also took the day off one day and we walked the Great Wall of China (the less touristy part! I highly recommend) and went to the Forbidden City. We left at 5:30 in the morning and there was almost no one there when we started. It was really neat to feel like we had the whole wall to ourselves. What was most surprising to me was how steep it was to go up and down. On the part closest to Beijing, it’s been restored to be easier to walk and much wider, but this was a part that hasn’t been changed as much and much few people go to. What was unique about this section was that it still had the watchtowers. (all of my pictures at the great wall turned out terribly, unfortunately).
Next we went to Shanghai, Carissa’s stomping grounds. Lots of good food, art, and some necessary shopping in order to prepare for Japan. It was really nice meeting Carissa’s friends and boyfriend! It was neat seeing her fancy city life. Shanghai was also mainly like a modern city with interesting architecture. And it felt like no one spoke any English.
We divided our time in Japan between Kyoto and Tokyo. I’ll admit we weren’t the best planners. It was pretty impossible to try to play things during my final weeks at CMU so we mostly just had to wing it while we were there. In Kyoto we saw a lot of temples and walked around a lot. We stayed at the cutest AirBNB with the nicest host, who I strongly recommend: Tu Casa.
At the Fushimi Inari Shrine
At the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Then we were off to Tokyo via the 2.5 hour high speed train. I looked at a map later and realize that we went over 8x the distance from Osaka to Kyoto (56 km) as we did Kyoto to Tokyo (456.5 km) in the same amount of time. Crazy. And I won’t lie to you (I never would), the vast majority of pictures of Tokyo are of the owl cafe we went to. My heart overfloweth with joy.
But besides that, I also went to Akihabra, the fish market, toured Google complex, crossed the scramble street, saw the Hachik? statue at Shibuya station (::tear::), went to the National Art Center to see the Magritte exhibit (really wonderful) and the walked the gardens of the Meiji Jingu shrine. Again, very few pictures though.
All in all, glad I went and happy to be back in the states too. Getting for my next big step!