Planet Earth

Click a button to go to space…

…well, not exactly, but almost.

Are you too broke or busy to travel?

Do you like staring at moving pictures on computer screens?

Can’t stand repetitive rhetorical questions?

You’re in luck: My latest Listverse article shows you how to “travel” for free by using your laptop and the power of the Internet.

So fly, my lovelies. Fly freely. Soar through virtual skies like eagles, without a care in the world. Lift yourselves above the…okay, you know what? Just go read the article. Here: 10 Exotic Places You Can Visit From Your Couch.

Nuclear Symbol Black Yellow

7 Off-Limits Places You Can Finally Visit

An now, for something a little different. This is an article I’d written for a travel site, but they ended up not running it. So here, with only a few tweaks, is the original submission. This time you may actually learn something new on this blog.

“Been there, done that!”

Are you the type who says this a lot? Maybe you’re a devoted traveler and have been to each continent at least once. Maybe you live by the “Try everything once” motto.

Still, I bet you haven’t been to any of the places below in your life. No, not because you’re a lazy couch potato. I’m not being cheeky. The reason is simple: All of these places have been completely off-limits to tourists until recently. So hurry up, you may get to be one of the first people to visit…

7. Merak & Sakten: Play hide-and-seek with a Yeti

Merak Sakten Trail People

Image Source: Bhutanmice

Merak and Sakten settlements are home to the indigenous Brokpa people of eastern Bhutan. The Brokpa lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle, relying on yaks to do much of their heavy lifting. Theirs is a truly unique culture, not found elsewhere in the world.

The Merak Sakten region was completely closed to tourists until 2010. Now, a moderate trek takes you to this remote, as-yet-untouristed area, where you can experience the culture of the Brokpa “highlanders” firsthand. The journey itself is filled with magnificent sights: gushing waterfalls, endless hills and valleys, dazzling forests. A fortunate traveler may even spot the incredibly rare red panda up in a tree.

Who knows, you may also stumble upon the elusive Yeti, if you’re lucky. Don’t forget to bring a camera for this occasion!

6. Thrihnukagigur Volcano: Where did all the lava go?

Thrihnukagigur Volcano

Image Source: National Geographic

Thrihnukagigur is a volcano in Iceland. Don’t worry, it’s been dormant for millennia. Its name is a tricky tongue-twister that translates as “Three Peaks Crater.” This volcano is quite exceptional. The crater here wasn’t clogged up by the lava as it usually happens. Instead, the lava retreated, leaving the volcano open for exploration.

Tourists weren’t allowed inside until 2012. Today, you can descend 120 meters to the bottom of the crater…in an open cable lift, so it’s not for the faint of heart! Inside you’ll see a mesmerizing fusion of colors. The retreating lava painted the walls of the crater in complementary shades of dark red and bright orange.

Getting there and back takes a bit of time—a one-hour hike each way. If you’re not a huge fan of walking, a helicopter gets you there with less hassle.

5. Jaffna Peninsula: War and—at last—peace!

Stupas Of Kadurugoda

Image Source: Sri Lanka For 91 Days

The Jaffna Peninsula saw unprecedented devastation during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war. After the conflict ended in 2009, Jaffna began its rebirth. The peninsula is rising from the ashes, and tourists are finally allowed to come here.

If you’re an adventurous soul and aren’t fazed by the strict checkpoint upon entering the peninsula, you’re in for a truly unforgettable experience. Sure, the streets may look poor (they’re recovering from a war, remember?), but there are lots of unique sights to absorb. Make sure to visit Kantharodai Viharaya—an ancient Buddhist site—with its oddly-shaped domes, called “stupas.”

Don’t leave the peninsula without thoroughly exploring the nearby cluster of islands: Kayts, Karaitivu, and a handful of others. Spend the night in the old, Portuguese-built Fort Hammenheil—now a well-reviewed hotel. Finally, take a rickety wooden ferry to the remote island of Neduntheevu, where time almost stands still. Mingle with the locals, watch their horses lazily graze in the fields, and cherish the thought that you’re one of the very few to have come here. For now.

4. Bocana Copalita Eco-Archaeological Park: Is Indiana Jones around?

Image Source: University Of Bremen

Image Source: University Of Bremen

This archaeological site on Mexico’s Oaxaca coast has only opened to visitors in 2010. Some of the structures here date all the way back to 500 B.C. The site houses a museum, where many of the archaeological finds are on display. Excavations are still ongoing, so you may come across a few enthusiastic men in fedoras digging up timeworn relics.

But what if you’re not into ancient trinkets found deep beneath the ground? In that case, you can enjoy a leisurely walk along the forest trail, where birds and butterflies are rumored to outnumber people. You will pass a calm lagoon. You’ll see herons’ nests in the nearby trees.

Finally, the trail will bring you to a lookout that offers stunning views of the Copalita river flowing into the sea. Linger here for a moment to enjoy the soothing sounds of water.

3. Chernobyl: Spooky and surreal? Definitely!

Chernobyl Ferris Wheel

Image Source: Rough Guides

The site of the worst nuclear disaster in history doesn’t exactly scream “vacation,” does it? Yet, to the intrepid adventurer, Chernobyl offers an inimitable, haunting glimpse into a post-apocalyptic world. Ukraine decided to open the site to tourists in 2011, 25 years after the tragic accident.

Now you can find multiple tour operators willing to take you on an eerie expedition into the heart of Pripyat, a ghost town in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Walking around the town’s abandoned amusement park—complete with a decrepit Ferris wheel—is probably the closest you will ever get to teleporting into a horror movie. Empty buildings and the general sense of unease are enough to make your skin crawl.

You’ll have to be a bit of a risk taker to sign up for this tour. Right from the start, you must sign a waiver stating you won’t hold the tour operator accountable for any radiation-induced health problems. Reassuring, isn’t it? However, if your goal is to turn up the danger dial to “extreme,” Chernobyl is unmatched.

2. Turtuk: Got a sweet tooth for apricots?

Turtuk River

Image Source: Gokul Photography

This sublimely picturesque village is tucked away at the edge of Shyok Valley, north India. Until 2010, no foreign tourists were ever allowed here. Today, you’ll need a special Inner Line Permit to visit Turtuk and its 4,000 residents.

You can get there by bus, or—if you’re feeling fancy—share a jeep with some friends. Turtuk is truly one of the least touristed places in India, if not the world. The village is split in two by a spouting glacier-stream. There are 300 families living on each side of the stream. It’s supremely quiet, if you don’t count the roaring Shyok River making its way past the village.

The town’s awe-inspiring scenery is made up of blooming vegetable plantations and Turtuk’s trademark apricot trees. You simply must try their apricots—they’re the sweetest in the entire region, the locals insist!

1. Son Doong Cave: A cave with its own private jungle

Son Doong Cave

Image Source: Doc Bao

When you descend into the Son Doong Cave, you quite literally enter another world. The cave has its own ecosystem, complete with a lake, a fast-flowing river, and…a jungle. That’s right: When you have more than five kilometers at your disposal, it’s easy to fit a jungle in there.

The Son Doong Cave is located in the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam, on the border with Laos. It has the honor of being the largest explored cave on Earth. The views that open up inside are truly breathtaking—from the deep-green trees to the seemingly unending caverns to the giant, 80-meter-high stalagmites submerged in thick mist. Each photo taken in the cave makes it look like an alien planet from a Hollywood movie.

Son Doong first opened to tourists in late 2013. Six lucky explorers spent seven days inside the cave and took loads of envy-inducing photos. If you hurry, you can be one of only 220 people to get a visiting permit in 2014. You’ll need to cough up $3,000 for the privilege. But the photos you’ll snap inside? Those are priceless!

Earth With Green Continents

A Girl Who Travels

I saw this post on Facebook. It’s called “Don’t date a girl who travels.”

It’s a charming post by a young woman named Adi, who loves to travel. It received some well-deserved attention. It spawned a “rebuttal” post, called—wait for it—“Date a girl that travels” and yet another post that asked whether you’d even want to date a girl who travels.

Thing is, these posts mostly focus on the extreme example of a girl who travels: the archetypal “free spirit” who won’t be tied down and refuses to live by society’s traditional rules. And sure, there are plenty of women like that. Yet there’s another kind of girl who travels. One who loves adventure, but also has a place to call home.

I know a girl like that.

I dated a girl who travels. I went to Vietnam with her. We sat side by side on two makeshift plastic chairs in the aisle of a train speeding toward Da Nang. We climbed a muddy, slippery mountain on Cat Ba, with only flip-flops on our feet. We slept on the floor in the house of a Hmong family in Sapa, under the cover of mosquito nets. We biked the roads of Hue, walked the streets of Hanoi, ate at a low-key riverside cafe in Hoi An. We took a rickety boat to the remote village of Viet Hai. We spent a night under the stars on the open waters of Ha Long Bay. We hiked a lot, swam a little, visited historic sites, got lost, struggled to communicate with the locals, laughed, got exhausted, rested, did it all over again.

Then we came home with lots of shared memories.

I dated a girl who travels. We went to Australia together. We sat side by side on the Greyhound bus that carried us from Sydney to Cairns. We stopped at Port Macquarie, Brisbane, Hervey Bay, and other places along the way. We hiked in the forests, petted koalas, fed kangaroos, saw a wild dingo, chased after an echidna to get that perfect shot. We held hands while snorkelling among the fish of the Great Barrier Reef, taking care to avoid nasty jellyfish stings. We swam in ice-cold waterfall pools, cooked a “barbie” in a park, struggled helplessly against the wind to set up a sun tent on a beach. We rode the quaint trams of Melbourne. We joined a crowd of locals in Federation Square to watch Australian Open, while the sun mercilessly scorched our pale skin.

There, in Australia, after the clock struck midnight on the 31st of December, 2012 (or was it the 1st of January, 2013?) and the Sydney fireworks were in full swing, I proposed to a girl who travels.

When we returned home, we were engaged.

I married a girl who travels. For our honeymoon, we flew to Hawaii. We aimed, for once, to relax and take things easy. We failed. There’s too much to see, too many places to visit, too many new things to try. So we did it all once more. We sat side by side in our rental car as we drove the winding road to the summit of Mount Haleakala to watch the sunset. We hiked the Kukui and Kalalau trails of Kauai (that’s a lot of K’s). We drove the famous road to Hana, exploring waterfalls, trails, and parks. We went to a traditional Hawaiian luau, learned to surf, and snorkelled the Molokini crater. We got lost and yelled at our treacherous GPS, got soaked in the rain, wandered aimlessly around a mall while looking for a place to buy groceries. We watched the sunset at Poipu beach and laughed at roosters by the Spouting Horn.

Then, as always, we went home, back to our daily lives.

We love our home. We love our dinners with friends, our cats, our separate hobbies, and our lazy evenings together. We do love to travel, but we also love all that other stuff we do in between the trips, while planning our next big adventure. We love whatever we do together. But that’s just because we simply love each other, I guess.

So, do you date a girl who travels?

For me, there is no doubt: Don’t just date a girl who travels. Travel with her. Explore the world with her. Do stupid stuff and laugh with her. Fall in love with a girl who travels. Marry the girl who travels. Then count yourself the luckiest boy in the world.

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 4th – Ha Long Bay

We have breakfast downstairs at the restaurant shortly after 7AM – mango pancakes with honey, because honey is the root of all good things in life. You can quote me on that.

It appears Mr. Tuan managed to arrange for another couple to join us on an overnight boat sleepover at Ha Long Bay, so we’re all set. A mini-bus picks up our “day group” at the hotel. Very soon we run out of space as we’re joined by a Vietnamese couple, two Italian guys, two Spanish guys, four French girls, an English couple and a lone English girl. Our luggage is stacked up at the front seat. Everyone knows riding shotgun is how luggage rolls. At the main pier we are all transferred to a boat that takes us out to Ha Long Bay.

Soon we reach a small bay with a few floating houses scattered around. Our boat is parked and we’re all given kayaks to use for the next hour. We do a few circles around the area through the majestic view of karsts and the arguably less majestic piles of garbage discarded by floating-houses residents.

Aaah, the untouched beauty of floating trash

One hour later everyone returns to the boat and we continue our journey through Ha Long Bay, taking in the scenery and enjoying the perfect weather with clear blue skies. After some time our boat stops again in another small bay, without any floating houses around. The water is a lot clearer and there’s no garbage in sight. Everyone goes for a swim, jumping into the water from the boat’s upper deck.

One of the French girls is stung by a jellyfish, which immediately prompts a drawn out discussion about whether or not anyone should pee on her hand. After a surprisingly urine-free resolution to the discussion we’re served lunch in the lower deck of the boat.

After lunch the boat arrives to Dau Go Cave and everyone disembarks to go on a cave excursion. The cave is huge and the walk takes us through its many smaller chambers. We make our way slowly through the cave, stopping to take pictures. One of the open spaces within the cave is filled with penis-shaped stalagmites. People linger long enough to exhaust their library of dick jokes.

“Look everybody! The cave is happy to see us!”

After the cave the boat makes a short stop at Viet Hai to pick up around 10 tourists travelling back to Cat Ba. They pile up on the upper deck and our boat starts to feel seriously crowded. Three of the French girls are happily living up to the “French smoke a lot” stereotype, chain smoking on outside area of the lower deck. We reach a place called “Monkey Island”, where we’re dropped off and told to enjoy ourselves for 30 minutes, while our boat leaves with all of our belongings. Wait a second…isn’t this how many horror movies start?

The only real cover from the scorching sun on this small island is a nearby cafe on stilts. Everyone immediately makes a beeline for it. Cafe is crowded so we stand around waiting for some tables to clear up. Katka and myself are waved over by an American couple and we join their table. Their names are Dax and Mary and they have apparently kayaked here all the way from Cat Ba. Show offs! After a brief chat they take their two single-kayaks and start making their way back to Cat Ba.

Once our boat returns Katka and I are transferred over to another boat that we’ll be staying on overnight. Here we are joined by the English – Ian and Angela. After leaving our luggage on the lower deck where we’ll be sleeping, we all grab a few lounge chairs on the upper deck and settle to enjoy what’s left of the sun for today.

Ian and Angela have been travelling across South East Asia for almost half a year, after having quit their jobs to embark on this trip. Angela doesn’t appear to be particularly enthusiastic about their travels. She’s continuously telling us horror stories about their experiences with thieves, scams, bribes and so on from their time in Cambodia and Laos. I can’t help but wonder how Angela got convinced to quit her job for this adventure, when she’s clearly so negative about it. Who knows, maybe she likes being upset about stuff?

“WORST trip of my entire life! Let’s do it again!”

There are two showers downstairs, but only one of them has sufficient water pressure. We all take turns to shower. Angela gets into an argument about the shower situation with one of the Vietnamese guides accompanying us on this overnight stay. Well, I guess this story is also going into her black book! Katka and I share the tiny shower booth, amazingly avoiding elbowing each other to death.

Once we return to the upper deck we’re served a delicious dinner. It even includes some western food – namely French fries and fried chicken. After dinner Angela’s not feeling well so she goes downstairs to sleep. The rest of us stay up for a while. The boat is anchored in open sea. We can see a few distant lights from the floating houses and the sky is sprinkled with lots of stars. We start identifying the constellations we know: there’s the Big Dipper, and there’s the…aaahm…yeah well, that was fun.

Around nine in the evening one of the guides brings a mattress to the upper deck – he’ll be sleeping here tonight. We return to the lower deck and are soon asleep, despite the snores coming from the boat’s driver sleeping nearby.

The remaining diaries will soon come. For now, remember you can check out Katka’s pictures of the whole trip on her Flickr profile.

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: August 3rd – Viet Hai & Cat Ba

It’s 6:00 in the morning. Stop, propaganda time! The nearby propaganda speakers spit out a man’s monotonous words interspersed with high pitched patriotic songs. This continues until almost 7:00 at which point falling asleep is no longer an option. Why? You try sleeping after a musical indoctrination session.

Katka is apparently immune to patriotic brainwashing and sleeps until 8:00, at which point we head out to have breakfast. Afterwards we pack our stuff and settle the bill for our stay with Zoam. Turns out they have it pretty sweet here. We’re charged 120,000 dong per person per each meal excluding drinks, which is easily the most we’ve paid for a single meal in Vietnam.

We’re also charged for the motorbike ride to and from the shore, which is the only realistic way of getting to and from Viet Hai. Well, I guess that’s what happens when you have a local monopoly in the middle of an almost deserted island?

“Come on, buddy, where else are you gonna go?”

We’re driven back to the pier where we hop onto a small motor boat, just like the one that brought us here in the first place. This time around the sea is calmer and it’s a lot sunnier. Katka goes back to her paparazzi mode, snapping picture after picture.

After a bit over an hour we’re back to the pier in Cat Ba. Here we get two motorbike drivers to take us to the creatively named Duc Tuan Hotel, owned by Mr. Tuan (the same guy who really helped us out a few days ago). He offers us a room for 20 dollars on the 4th floor. That’s 10 dollars less than our ultra-basic Viet Hai bungalow and probably home to a lot fewer insects. We take it!

The room looks brand new, has two double beds, air-conditioning, TV and a fridge. Most importantly it offers a fantastic view over the water. Although let’s face it, more time will be spent staring into that damn TV.

“Reality is overrated, human! I am your only true friend!”

We head for the beach, on our way arranging with Mr. Tuan to book a 2 day boat trip to Halong Bay with a sleepover at sea. After a 15 minute walk we find ourselves on one of the smaller Cat Ba beaches which is currently completely empty. We pay 100,000 dong for two benches under an umbrella.

For the next few hours we do the old “swim-read-swim” routine. The weather’s fantastic without any clouds and zero rain (well, those two tend to go hand in hand).

There’s a small group of men whose job it is to fish out any garbage floating in the water. The problem is the inflow of garbage is more than they can handle. Residents of the floating villages seem to discard most of their household trash straight into the water. As soon as the workers get the water relatively clean the waves bring in more trash. This Sisyphusian* cycle continues throughout the day.

*yeah, it’s “sisyphean”, but I like to occasionally make up words that sound weird and funny, so suefy me!

Once the beach starts to slowly get more crowded we decide to find ourselves a tandem bike. There are many tourists and locals riding on these, so why not try it out for ourselves?

Like this, but twice as good!

We find a woman renting out tandem bikes. She sends her son to unlock a bike for us. All bikes are attached to a long metal wire with a lock at the end. In order for the son to reach our tandem bike he has to first pull out a bunch of kids bikes to make space. After that ordeal he pulls out a tandem bike with a flat tire. Then he takes out another one and “tests” it by spinning the wheel once. Satisfied with this thorough examination he hands the bike to us.

As soon as we start to pedal it becomes clear that the bike is living its own life and doesn’t much care about our furious pedalling. Having comically struggled with the bike for a few minutes we return to the guy and ask for another one. This one seems a bit better, but after a minute or two of riding we discover that it’s permanently stuck in the lowest gear. The seats are set too low and cannot be adjusted.

Resolved to goddamn try and enjoy our first tandem bike experience no matter what we stubbornly continue for another 10 minutes. After a tiring and embarrassing uphill ride we finally accept our fate – tandem-bike Gods aren’t smiling upon us today.

Tandem bike Gods?

We return the bike and head to the hotel for a shower and a short break (from all that tiring lounging around). Around dinner time we wander into one of the many floating restaurants found here. The restaurant doubles as home for the family who owns it. While waiting for our food the “waitress” disappears in the shower to wash her hair. There are a few kids running around. Finally, the family of at least ten sits down for a dinner of their own in a nearby room.

We enjoy a delicious meal on the terrace. From here we can see almost the entirety of Cat Ba city. It’s very clear that the city is divided into two distinct sections. One side of the main road is lined with hotels and…well, essentially nothing else. On the other side are scattered numerous by-the-sea cafes and floating restaurants.

Which can almost, but not really, be seen here

The next challenge is to find an ATM to replenish our liquid financial assets for barter facilitation. What? I mean cash, we need cash. This proves surprisingly difficult in a town built exclusively on tourism. The flashy ATM across the street isn’t open. The “ATM” by our hotel is an empty box in the wall. No other ATM in sight.

Giving up on ATM search we decide to find a place that serves alcohol. We haven’t had a proper drink in a while. We stop by Queen’s Cafe (no affiliation with any known royalty), but no booze is to be found here. We order two cold shakes and then continue our booze hunt. Finally we find a restaurant owned by a guy from New Zealand, called Flightless Bird (the restaurant, not the guy).

They have plenty of boozified (refer to “*” above) cocktails and we go absolutely crazy! By that I mean we order literally one cocktail each, after which we decide we’re too tired to continue. We finish up our drinks and make our way home, making a detour in another attempt to find an ATM. We find one inside a building that houses Saigon Bank and Harbour View Hotel.

This concludes our second lazy day in a row. Life’s good.

We’re getting close to the end of the trip. The next day is found here. Remember to visit Katka’s Flickr for some awesome pictures from the trip.

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 31st – Tam Coc, Mua Cave, Hoa Lu, Trang An

At 2:30 in the morning I wake up to find Katka sitting on the bed with her legs up, hugging her knees. The light in the room is on. This is either a popular Czech night-time game yet unknown to me, or something is wrong…

Turns out it’s the latter, namely a giant cockroach that Katka saw in the bed. Katka’s ability to spot bed monsters is evolving. I organise a quick “search and eliminate” mission, but can’t find the infamous cockroach anywhere. After a while we manage to fall asleep, even with the knowledge that a cockroach may be lurking somewhere in our bed.

At 7:30 in the morning we go down for breakfast. Trying to keep things as simple as possible for the staff to avoid yesterday’s breakfast train wreck we order the same dish for both of us – two pineapple pancakes. There are almost no people in the restaurant, so our breakfast arrives fast and without errors this time.

Afterwards the tour guy calls up his driver and we set off on what promises to be a busy trip. We’ve got a whole four landmarks to cover today, which is twice as many as the two landmarks we saw yesterday, if my math is correct.

Mathematical equation

Incidentally, the above represents the exact calculations I’ve used to arrive at that number

The first stop is Tam Coc-Bich Dong (make your own dirty jokes here, you pervert). Here we’ll be going on a boat trip through a bunch of karst grottoes and caves set in rice paddies. If you don’t know how that looks, it’s basically the rice paddy version of Ha Long Bay. If you don’t know how Ha Long Bay looks, then I can’t do much more for you, I’m only one man.

We’ve read some horror stories (thanks, Lonely Planet) about tourists being ambushed after the last cave by merchants aggressively selling everything from food to T-shirts to jewellery. Apparently the rowers sometimes even refuse to take you back until you buy something. In order to avoid ending up in a force-sell situation we only take 50,000 dong with us to tip the rowers. The rest of the stuff stays in the car with our driver.

We get one boat and two rowers…which is twice as many as one rower. OK, I’ll stop. It’s quite cloudy, although luckily it’s not raining (so far). As the boat winds through the rice paddies we’re hit with a beautiful view of different karst formations, temples resting atop mountains and…ducks. Lots and lots of ducks.

No, seriously. Like, many freaking ducks.

We also notice mountain goats perched at the top of the karst. How they get to the top without teleportation is beyond me. Our rower switches to using his feet for rowing. Many other rowers we see are doing the same. We’ve read about this technique in the Lonely Planet, but it’s much more impressive to witness in person, especially since they make it look so easy.

It’s just like riding a bike. Except it’s a boat. And the oars don’t have a fixed range of motion. And you’re on water. OK, so it’s not at all like riding a bike.

We reach the first (and longest) cave and dip into the darkness. Our rowers are skilfully navigating the narrow passage through the cave. The ceiling hangs only a few centimetres above our heads and it’s quite a claustrophobic experience. Soon we reach the next strip of the river before entering another cave. Why hello there, flower selling ladies, fancy meeting you here.

Women selling flowers from their boat by a Tam Coc Cave, Vietnam

Nothing unusual here. Just some women selling flowers from their boat by a cave.

As we’re heading into the 3rd and last cave we brace ourselves for the imminent ambush of the mad merchants. The “ambush” takes the form of an elderly lady unenthusiastically making her way to us in her boat. She makes a feeble attempt to sell us some water, but gives up without an argument. So much for the horror stories.

We turn around and start making our way back through the same three caves. Close to the end of the journey the female rower suddenly takes out some pictures and shirts to try and sell us. You’re never truly safe from salesmen when you’re in Vietnam. But then again, are you anywhere? No, no you’re not, it was a rhetorical question. We politely decline the shirts and pictures and instead leave both our rowers with a generous tip at the end of the tour.

Next on the agenda – Mua Cave Pagoda. Our driver drops us off near the 500 stairs that lead up to the top of the mountain, where Mua Cave Pagoda rests. Just as we step out of the car we get caught in the heaviest rainfall we’ve experienced in Vietnam. Instead of doing the rational thing and returning back to the car, we stick to our usual stubborn approach and proceed to the mountain.

At the bottom of the mountain we find a group of tourists huddled inside the Mua Cave itself, hiding from the rain. Ha, sissies! Or, sane people, depending on who you ask. After the first few dozen stairs we’re suddenly face to face with a mountain goat. He’s taking refuge from the rain, while simultaneously doing a great job of blending in with his environment, ninja style.

“Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just doing my best chameleon impression!”

The goat stands looking impassively at us, while Katka takes his (her?) picture. Then he quickly make his way up the stairs, while going “baaa” repeatedly. We hear other goats respond and begin to wonder whether he’s called up his posse to deal with the amateur paparazzi invading his privacy. When the anticipated attack by an enraged mountain goat gang doesn’t happen we continue climbing up the stairs.

After a while we get to the top of the mountain. By the end of the climb we’re completely soaked and discover that so is the Lonely Planet in my backpack. At the top lies a small covered alter to the Goddess of Mercy (Quan Âm). I say a silent prayer and ask her to have mercy on the poor book and help it dry painlessly.

We stay at the top for a while, enjoying a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. On one side we can see a multitude of boats making their way through the Tam Coc caves, just like we did earlier today. All around are rice paddies, pagodas and temples.

Once we’re relatively dry we make the journey back to our car, meeting no more goats or hiding tourists on the way. Hoa Lu, here we come! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 30th – Cuc Phuong and Kenh Ga

We wake up at 7:00 and head down for breakfast at 7:50. We’re getting picked up at 8:30 so we should have plenty of time, right? Wrong!

As we enter the restaurant area it’s immediately clear that breakfast management is a complete disaster. There are around 30 tourists here and they all seem exasperated. Three hotel employees are running aimlessly between the tables. These three include the “chi-cken” guy and the “my home” lady from yesterday. They speak ten words of English between them, can’t remember who ordered what, and are acting panicky and helpless.

We go through the familiar process of trying to order fresh milk in Katka’s coffee. I attempt writing the request down on paper and pantomiming cow-milking process (don’t ask). I consider doing a tap dance during which I tap out the request in Morse code, but there’s a good chance that knowledge of Morse code is not in the standard skill-set of a hotel employee.

Plus I’m afraid of getting my limbs hilariously intertwined

Of course all attempts are fruitless and Katka never gets her coffee with regular milk. Half an hour later we haven’t gotten any food and our pick-up is only a few minutes away. When we inquire as to our order the staff ask about our room number again and seem even more confused than they were to begin with, if that’s possible. Other customers are now audibly complaining (and I believe one guy is actually performing an angry tap dance). I start to feel sorry for the staff as it’s very clear that they’re genuinely doing their best.

I’m not a hotel manager, but something tells me that when your employees do not speak English and can’t keep track of what was ordered there are easier ways to arrange for breakfast. How about a buffet with a few simple choices? Your staff doesn’t need to know any foreign languages, tourists can still get some degree of variety and pick out their own dishes – everybody is happy. Hell, you’d improve on today’s service if you simply gave every guest a muffin and told them to shut up and enjoy it.

By the time we’re picked up we’ve only split a small omelet between us, because most of our order doesn’t arrive. We pile into a Jeep with a Spanish couple from Barcelona. Our first destination of the day is the Cuc Phuong National Park.

A place where trees think they’re ropes…

The drive to Cuc Phuong is quite relaxing. Our driver speaks better English than all of the Queen Hotel staff combined and gives us a quick summary of the upcoming trip.

We soon arrive to Cuc Phuong. The park is huge. After passing its main gates we still drive for 20 minutes before our driver drops us off by a narrow stone path. This is the beginning of a 6km walking tour.

It’s raining, but the journey takes place under the cover of trees, so we’re well protected. After a bit of walking and taking pictures we notice a side path that leads to the first official landmark of the tour – the Palace Cave. We follow the side path, climb a few stone stairs and get to the cave itself. Since it’s raining the visibility is quite low and the cave entrance is slippery.

I step inside to explore the cave. Katka tells me to be careful. Just as she’s wrapping up the “careful” part of her sentence I slip, fall down on my ass and slide down into the cave. Classic Daniel. In addition, my fall disturbs a minor colony of wasp-like insects, one of which expresses its disapproval by stinging the thumb of my right hand.

If you ever see this guy, tell him he’s a douchebag!

I’m treated to an emergency disinfectant round by Katka. Once I’m patched up we proceed to the main destination of the trip – the Thousand Year Old Tree.

When we get to the tree we can see that it’s been ambushed by a group of Vietnamese younglings. They’ve climbed over the protective fence and are up on the tree. They’re taking pictures and yelling joyfully. The moral of the story is: you can stand proudly for a thousand years only to have a bunch of loud teenagers stomp on you eventually. We’ve all learned a valuable lesson here today. I’m not sure what it is.

“Those damn kids better get off my lawn!”

We make our way back as the rain intensifies. I’m soaked by the time we get back as I’m the only one not wearing any rain-gear, again. Our driver picks us up and drives us back to the park’s entrance, where we finally have our first proper meal of the day. After lunch we go on a quick tour of the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. We’re accompanied by a local guide who tells us a bit about the different species they have. There are two primary species here – langur and gibbon.

Also: Red Whatchamacallit Long-Arm Dude

Our guide explains the process of caring for the primates, gradually letting them out into the wild and monitoring whether they can adapt. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 26th – Da Nang & Hoi An

We get up at 8:00 and head for breakfast. Remember how I’ve talked about the mysteries of fresh milk in Vietnam? Well, this is our first experience with it.

We order our breakfast and coffee with milk (neither of us drink black coffee). To my delight and to Katka’s disappointment both of our coffees are brought with sweet condensed milk in them, Vietnam style. You see, as crazy as that may sound, Katka doesn’t like sugar in her tea or coffee. We’re all allowed our bizarre quirks, so nobody holds this against her.

In order to let Katka enjoy her weird sugarless coffee, I ask the polite young guy from yesterday (who is now also our waiter) to bring us another cup of coffee, this time without sugar. To make sure I get it right, I make my request in several variations – “no sugar”, “without sugar”, “just milk”, “regular milk”. He looks at me and probably wonders whether I’m playing a new thesaurus-game that’s unknown to him. In the end he nods, smiles, says “OK, OK” and leaves to fetch the coffee. He brings us two more cups of coffee, both with the same sweet milk in them.

This is not what I meant when I said "Please don't invite more people"!

Alright, time for a different strategy. An English-speaking lady at a table next to us tells me to ask for a cup of black coffee and “fresh milk” on the side. Apparently it has worked for her. Good suggestion, thanks random lady! I tell our waiter that we’d like a cup of plain black coffee and a glass of fresh milk on the side, please. He says “OK” even more times this time, smiles even wider and leaves. He returns with a tray that has two cups of black coffee on it and two cups of…wait for it…condensed sweet milk!

At this stage we have eight cups at our table and a very confused waiter trying to look like he’s totally in control of the situation. He can see this wasn’t what we were looking for, but he doesn’t seem to know what else he could do. Luckily, before he runs off to bring us 10 more cups of coffee, his mother passes by our table and comes to the rescue. She asks whether we want “fresh milk” to which we nod “yes” enthusiastically. At last, Katka gets not one, but two cups of fresh milk brought for her.

As we eat our breakfast the tour agent of the hotel drops by and informs us that the regular seats on the 11:00 train to Da Nang are all booked. He suggests we take the 19:00 train instead. Since that would make us lose a day, we ask whether it’s possible to still get “non-regular seats” (whatever the hell those are)  on the 11:00 train. The guy is so utterly shocked that he loses his ability to construct whole sentences, saying: “Extra seats, no air conditioning, terrible!”. It’s a 2,5 hour train ride to Da Nang, how horrible can it be? If locals can do it, so can we! (rhyming was entirely unintentional, but pretty wicked regardless). We ask him to go ahead and get the “extra seats”.

In the worst-case scenario we'll just imagine ourselves some seats

We finish packing, pick up the clean laundry and check out. The hotel calls a cab for us and we’re taken to the station. We are early, so we settle inside a small waiting room filled with people. The room has one air conditioning unit and a number of regular ceiling fans, struggling to keep everyone cool.

There are two TVs fixed up to the walls. One of them is playing some golfing movie with Kevin Costner (“Tin Cup“?). The other one is playing (on loop) the same 3 minute clip of Mr. Bean attempting to take a picture with a British Royal Guard. The fascinating thing about this is that every 30 seconds (exactly, I counted) the clip is interrupted by a commercial break that lasts 1 minute 20 seconds (exactly, I counted). Even more fascinating is the fact that I’m on vacation in Vietnam and the most entertaining thing I can find to do is to count the duration of TV commercial breaks. Although you’ve got to admit – that’s a pretty crazy commercial-to-content ratio!

The train is 30 minutes delayed and we all end up waiting on the platform. When the train arrives we make our way to coach number 6 (our tickets state 6P). We cannot locate our exact seats, so we turn to some locals for help. We are sent to carriage number 5, then back to number 6 again. Exasperated, we finally find a train conductor and show him our tickets. He nods, disappears inside his cabin, then returns carrying two tiny plastic chairs. He places these chairs directly in the train aisle, points at them and smiles. I guess now we know why they call them “extra seats”.

Still way better than those imaginary seats!

The coach is well air-conditioned and we’re sitting right by a window, which makes the plastic chairs quite bearable. Except for a small issue: every 10-15 minutes a cart has to be pushed through the train aisle. There are carts with food, soup, water and snacks. Each one of them makes a regular trip through the train. Every time a cart goes through we have to get up, grab all of our things, move our chairs out the way and jump either into an adjacent cabin or the toilet or the space between two carriages. Take a look:

This fun game of not-very-musical-chairs occurs no less than ten times throughout the 2,5 hour trip to Da Nang. Our train conductor brings us two bottles of water and then gets intrigued by the Viet Cong helmet I bought in Hanoi. He takes off his blue cap, puts on the helmet, makes a posing “serious face” and gives me a thumbs up. Who knew that a cheap knock-off helmet I bought in Vietnam would catch the interest of a Vietnamese train conductor?

In between all of the interruptions we absorb the beautiful coastline whizzing by outside. It’s an especially sunny day and visibility is great. We can see distant cities disappear into the horizon as our train leaves them behind. Upon approach to Da Nang we discuss whether to take a cab or a bus to Hoi An.

When we arrive to Da Nang we’re ambushed by a swarm of taxi drivers, who offer drives to Hoi An. We see another backpacker in a similar predicament and I ask him whether he wants to share a cab to Hoi An with us. Turns out he does, because he has basic knowledge of math and knows that one-third of the cab fare is less than the full fare. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 25th – Hue

I’m up at 6:00 and, immediately continuing yesterday’s train of thought, my first move is to check whether my phone is somewhere in the cabin. The French couple is already awake and are out in the train aisle. I climb down and search for my phone on the floor. No luck.

Once Katka is awake we pack our things and wait for the arrival to Hue. After the train stops we let the French couple leave first and I make one final sweep of the cabin, hanging on to the last bit of hope of finding the phone. Chances are slim that…HALLELUJAH…the phone is lodged between a lower bunk and the wall! I kiss and hug my phone, shed a few tears, and promise to never let it go again. Katka frowns and shakes her head, but that’s because she just doesn’t understand our relationship (mine and the phone’s, that is).

We take a cab to our hotel, the price of which I masterfully talk down from 60,000 to 40,000 dong (in case any prospective employers of professional negotiators are reading). Ancient House Hotel is a cosy and clean family-run hotel, with only a few guest rooms.

We arrive there at 7:30, which is well before our scheduled check-in time of 12:00. A polite and constantly smiling young guy leads us to a small dining room, where we get to pick a dish from the free breakfast menu. While we eat our breakfast and drink coffee I take a look around the room. Walls are line with pictures of the family and tasteful paintings of some workers planting rice and tending  to their crops. The outside door is open and several small birds fly in and out of the dining room, circling and chirping above our heads.

An artist’s approximate rendering of said birds…

At 8:00 a young lady walks in and tells us the room is ready! We were initially just hoping to leave our bags at the hotel and go exploring, but they’ve gone to the trouble of preparing our room well ahead of schedule. If this level of hospitality and service continues we may never adjust to Denmark again. Our room is spacious, with two King-sized beds, high-tech air conditioning unit and a huge flat screen TV mounted on a wall. Most importantly, there’s a proper bathtub in the bathroom (also a rarity in Denmark).

We unpack and rest in the room for a while, plotting our following moves. Later, we hand in our laundry to be done and then we’re given free bicycles to explore the city. The weather outside is beautiful – clear blue sky without a single cloud, the air is dry and hot. For almost thirty minutes we just bike around the city without a clear direction, hoping to eventually get to the Perfume River.

Our ultimate destination for the day is Hue’s main attraction – the Citadel. The Citadel is a huge complex on the Northern bank of the Perfume River (our hotel is on the Southern bank). Inside the Citadel itself lies the Imperial City, which in turn houses the so-called Forbidden Purple City. So, to recap – inside the city of Hue lies the Citadel, inside which lies the Imperial City, inside which lies the Forbidden Purple City. It’s the Matryoshka-style of city building.

When in Hue, do as the Russians do

The Forbidden Purple City used to be where the Nguyen imperial family lived. It was naturally forbidden to outsiders, something its subtle name hints at. Nowadays, crowds of tourists can gain access to the site for a token fee. The site has withstood many years of termite and cyclone damage, only to be completely flattened by the French and the Americans during periods of war in the 1940s and 1960s. Right now most of the former buildings exist only as outlines with signs, indicating where they used to stand. However, reconstruction work is actively ongoing and replacement temples and palaces are being erected in their place.

Back to Katka and I. After enjoying the bicycle ride, yet not getting any closer to the Perfume River, we stop by a church (later we’ll find out that it was the Redeemer Church) to get our bearings. We eventually get to a park by the Perfume River, where we sit down for a drink at an outside cafe. Before we order Katka snaps a few pictures of some curious artwork found nearby:


We order two ice teas. The order is treated quite literally here: the tea is brought hot, but with a bowl of ice on the side, so that we can regulate the desired temperature ourselves. We discuss our battle plan for the following day. We decide to leave Hue for Hoi Ann early tomorrow, giving us a good part of the day to explore the city itself. Then we’ll have time the day after for a trip to the nearby ruins of Hindu temples at My Son (pronounced “meeson” – mind blowing, I know) and departure to Dong Hoi.

When we want to leave we cannot find any waiters to summon for a while. Then a guy with a tray and without any English skills shows up. For a long time we attempt to get the “we’d like to pay for our drinks” message across, and only succeed after utilising some complex sign language.

We take our bikes across the Truong Tien Bridge to the Northern bank of the Perfume River. On approach to the Citadel we take pictures of the Flag Tower by the Citadel entrance, which is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. There’s a big open square in front of the Flag Tower, lined on both sides by the Nine Holy Cannons – five on one side and four on the other.

Before we enter the interior grounds of the Imperial City we park our bikes at a “parking lot” behind a food vendor. An older man by the lot writes numbers on our bike seats with chalk. Then he gives us two pieces of paper with pen-written numbers corresponding to these. With such a sophisticated tracking system, we know we’re in good hands! (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 24th – Hanoi

We arrive back to Hanoi shortly after 4:00 in the morning. Our cab ride back costs 50,000 dong, which is also the maximum price our hotel staff have instructed us to pay (and we obviously don’t want to look like schmucks in front of them). The cab driver speeds through red lights and breaks a couple of other traffic rules. But it’s early in the morning and there are few other cars, so that makes it legal, right?

It’s pitch dark inside the hotel and the doors are locked. We knock and wake a few of the hotel workers, who have been asleep on improvised beds assembled out of the lobby chairs. A male receptionist zombie-walks to the front desk and fishes out our room key. We’re given a room on the top floor with a good view over Hanoi.

Our room is on the 9th floor, but the elevator only goes to the 7th. This is because, according to an ancient Vietnamese prophecy, taking elevators to higher floors summons the ghosts of evil building contractors, which is a rather bad omen. The other possible explanation is that extra floors have been added after the elevator’s completion, but how likely is that?!

“Who dares travel up here?! Got spare change?”

The room is smaller than our original one and is almost fully taken up by a huge bed. We make full use of this bed, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we sleep like two bricks until 9:30.

We go down for breakfast. The hotel staff ask us about our impressions from the Sapa trip. They also tell us we’ll be picked up from the hotel at 14:30, so that we can make it to the 15:45 train to Hue. They continue to spoil us (and we’re loving it). After breakfast we return to the room. Katka takes a nap, while I surf the Internet to catch up on latest developments (most of them sombre – Utoja shootings, bullet trains colliding in China, Amy Winehouse is dead). After this refreshing look at the world of news headlines we plan our last shopping tour to stock up for the long train ride to Hue.

I have already told you about our futile attempts to find Fivimart, a big supermarket described in Lonely Planet. Since we’re both rather stubborn people we decide to go for yet another shop-finding adventure. This time we enlist the help of our receptionist, who gives us a detailed map of the area along with equally detailed directions. You’d think we should have no problem finding it now. You’d be wrong!

We run a full circle around the Hoan Kiem Lake without finding the store. Then we try again to follow the street indicated in Lonely Planet. We find a flashy place called “Civilize”, which is either a nightclub or a casino (or both?). We ask a man standing outside about how to find Fivimart. He points vaguely in the direction of where we came from. He may as well have told us it’s “somewhere in Hanoi”.

He also mockingly tries to sell us this sign as a souvenir…

At this stage we finally give up and decide to shop elsewhere. We find a small mini market and stock up on some canned food, bread, and hand wipes. Suspiciously, the lady at the cash register doesn’t use the product scanner and instead punches in some numbers into an old calculator, before presenting us with the total cost. She most likely overcharges us, but the end sum is modest enough to not warrant any arguments.

On the way back to the hotel we decide to walk a new street to mix things up. What can I say, we love living on the edge! Half way through the street we notice a giant supermarket ahead of us. As we get closer, we are shocked to discover that we’re standing in front of the infamous Fivimart. It’s like finding an oasis in a desert, except after having already drunk some ostrich blood instead (and paid for it).

Nevertheless, we want to use the opportunity to buy up more things for the trip. Inside we’re told that Fivimart rules demand that we leave our bags in a locker. At the same time a sign on the locker says that Fivimart bears no responsibility if our stuff goes missing. How convenient! I see they’re learning from the comparably bullshit coat-check disclaimers.

We buy some cold cuts, apples, instant noodles, yoghurt and yomost (uuuuhm, yomost!). We have definitely gotten more stuff than we bought at the mini market and we’re charged less for it. So the calculator-woman has indeed overcharged us, but I don’t care because YOMOST! Mind-blowingly good, see for yourself:

On the way back Katka starts feeling weak and dizzy. My guess is it’s Yomost-deficiency, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate medical diagnosis. We get to the hotel just as it suddenly starts pouring down. Katka drinks a lot of cold water, eats a yoghurt and some hastily made sandwiches and immediately feels better. Katka and I play doctor, if you know what I mean. That’s right, we browse some online medical advice sites to help us diagnose her symptoms. We conclude she has heat exhaustion. Decision is made to keep her well rested, cool at all times and out of direct sunlight (sort of like you have to do with Yomost).

At 14:30 we go down to the lobby to say goodbye to our friendly hotel staff. We give them a box of candy and leave a generous tip in the “tip box” by the reception. Mr. Son, the manager, gives us final walk-through of the trip to Hue and tells us to get in touch in case we need any help once we’re back in Hanoi. He hands us some business cards to pass on to friends and encourages us to give Rising Dragon III a review on Booking.con and His boss apparently bases the employee bonus on the ratings they get. We were planning to do so in the first place, so we promise we will. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)