Wednesday, May 29, 2013

10 Days in Southern Vietnam

So what does one do with 10 days in Vietnam? It's tempting to want to see everything and go everywhere, but unless you don't care to sleep and don't mind spending long hours on buses traversing the country, it makes much more sense to focus on one area - in my case it was a portion of the south.

Pho! (yum)
2 days: Ho Chi Minh City
I flew into Ho Chi Minh from Kuala Lumpur and decided to spend the first two days getting to know the city. From the airport I hopped in a cab to a hotel I had pre-booked, a budget-midrange option called Elegent Inn Hotel. The place gets great Tripadvisor reviews and I wasn't disappointed. Location is ideal, breakfast is included, rooms are large, clean and serviced daily and the staff is very friendly. They can also book onward travel and many tours.

My first taste of HCMC included lots of walking, lots of pho (vegetarian pho or "pho chay") at a place called Pho 24/24, not to be confused with the chain Pho 24, and lots of general exploring of the busy, chaotic streets.

2 days: Mue Ne
Mui Ne

About a four hour bus ride from HCMC is the beach town of Mui Ne, where I decided to spend a couple of days rather than book a two-day Mekong Delta tour that I had been thinking about. Mui Ne is very walkable and consists mostly of guesthouses, tour operators, bars and cafes. While it is known as a "beach town" there is very little beach to speak of (at least where I was staying), and the water is very rough. If you like kite boarding and wind surfing this is the place to visit.

The town is also known for a few attractions, including the ferry stream and white and red sand dunes. You can easily book a package tour that lasts about three hours (in the morning or afternoon) that will combine all three. The "ferry stream" is basically a trickle of a stream you walk down while looking at some really surreal scenery, like something you might imagine finding on Mars - red sand and rock formations.

The white sand dunes are pretty spectacular and look like a vast expanse of desert - great photos to be taken here, and it's lots of fun to run down the dunes (you can also slide down them if you're so inclined). The red sand dunes weren't much compared to the white and could be skipped, in my opinion.

If you haven't booked your accommodations ahead there will be numerous touts when you get off the bus eager to show you their resort (or the one they're working for). But really, with so many options you can just walk the main street until you find a suitable spot to stay.

4 days: Dalat
A five hour bus ride from Mui Ne gets you to Dalat, a place I could have spent more time in. It's a quirky town in the hills with a very European feel also known as one of the most "romantic" spots in Vietnam. It's very popular with honeymooners and does boast its fair share of kitsch (fancy a paddle around the lake in a swan-shaped pedal boat?)

Crazy House
Other than the aforementioned pedal boating, you can catch a cable car ride over stunning views (highly recommended, unless you hate heights), check out the "Crazy House" - a surreal wonderland of wacky staircases, bridges, oddly-shaped rooms and architecture heavily inspired by Gaudi but much more playful (you need to see it to believe it). You can also book a room here. I didn't but I peeked into some and they are very cool. If outdoor adventure is your thing, you can book hiking and mountain biking tours though numerous operators. The night market is also well worth checking out for the food and happy, carnival-like atmosphere.

If you can, rest your head at the ultra-friendly, clean and well-located Thien An Hotel. The breakfast (included in the room price) is awesome. Fresh fruit, fresh baguettes, cheese, cold cuts, fresh squeezed juice (passion fruit when I was there) and eggs how you want them - it's a great way to start the day.

2 days: Ho Chi Minh City
Chaotic HCMC
Since I was flying back out of HCMC I wanted to end my stay in Vietnam there and two days at the start just wasn't enough. I booked another two nights at Elegant Inn Hotel. My time was spent heading  back to Pho 24/24 a couple of times, going to Chinatown to explore, doing some shopping at the Ben Thanh Market (I got me a hat) and checking out the War Remnants Museum, which was interesting but depressing (which is to be expected).

Have you been to Vietnam? Where did your visit take you?

Friday, May 3, 2013

On Making the Switch to Solo Travel

Times change (if you let them)
I've traveled on my own before. A few times, and as scary as it seemed to start with, I did it. And I loved it. But for the past four years of travel, I've been doing it as part of a couple. I've become accustomed to relying on someone, leaning on them when things get rough, or stressful, or just when I want to talk excitedly non-stop about something we've seen, done or ate. Traveling as a twosome became my norm and I got really comfortable with it.

And then there was one
Recently, things changed. It wasn't something I saw coming or that I had expected. But, three weeks following a two-month trip I went from being part of a couple to being on my own. Well, not really since we're still (awkwardly) sharing a space, but aside from that minor detail, my days of traveling as a couple have (for now) come to an end. As much as the whole breakup thing sucks in general (and oh, it does), it also got me thinking about the way I travel and how that, along with several other things in my life, will require a re-boot.

There will no longer be someone to plan a trip with, to pore over guide books with, to debate routes, choose must-see spots or pack with. There will be no one to travel with. And that feels really weird. Change feels really weird. But does change need to be bad? A breakup forces a lot of change, and more often than not, it was probably necessary (even if, like me, you just can't see it yet). So now, along with where I'm living and how I define myself, I'll be changing how I travel.

Solo travel, take two
It's been a while since I traveled without someone to lean on (literally and figuratively) or someone to defer to when big decision need to be made. But that doesn't mean I'm not up for the job. It's just that right now, the idea of solo travel, after so much couples travel lately, is a little terrifying. I think I need to get reacquainted with the idea, remember the rush of taking a trip alone, refocus on what I stand to gain from the experience as a traveler and as a person. 

I'm not rushing out the door tomorrow, but the next trip I plan and that I take will be much different than the trips I've taken lately. My travel experience will be changed, I will be changed - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Have you made the switch from couples to solo travel? How was it?