Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.
So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.
So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:
I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:
- Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
- The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
- Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
- The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
- Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.
Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:
- The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
- Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
- I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
- Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
- Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.
Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.
If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.
As I come to the end of my three months exploring Southeast Asia, I’ve noticed a few things that the cities here seem to have in common.
1) Sidewalks are not for people. If sidewalks even exist, which is a big if, they are there for motorcycle parking and street stalls. Want a snack? T-shirt? Knock-off electronic? Souvenir knickknacks? Head to the sidewalks where you can find all you could ever want and not want blocking your path. Get used to walking on the road if you want to walk around most of these cities.
2) Traffic lights are few and far between. Once in a while you can get lucky and find a light, although being able to predict when you get to walk is not likely. Mostly though traffic lights or signs are absent. This contributes to the real life Frogger experience that is trying to cross the street. Walk forth with confidence and you will most likely make it. If you’re a thrill seeker you can try to ride through this chaos on a motorcycle.
3) Temples pop up out of nowhere. Unlike European cathedrals which tend to be surrounded by open space, temples and pagodas are in the middle of it all. One minute you’re walking past 7/11 and the next a shiny gold stupa or tiered-roofed wat has appeared alongside you. It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, although I’m guessing the temples were there first. And it’s never just one temple; these cities have tons of them. Just try to walk around a Southeast Asian city without running into one. I dare you.
4) No one minds being barefoot. Take off your shoes at the entrance to the temple. Take off your shoes to go into the tattoo parlor. Take off your shoes at the bar. Take off your shoes to enter your hostel. Take off your shoes to climb over 700 feet to the top of a hill because there’s half a dozen pagodas on the way. This is why cutting my foot on a rock in a river was such a problem.
5) Honking means everything. It’s hi I’m behind you. Watch out I’m going to pass you. Ok you can pass me. Thanks I’m past you. I’m going to turn in front of you. You turn first. Thanks for letting me turn first. I swear drivers from Southeast Asia must think New York City is full of the friendliest, most polite drivers.
6) If it’s from a cart, it’s probably cheap and delicious. Food carts are everywhere, and despite all the warnings about street food, they’re often the source of tasty cheap bites. It’s like the original food truck, just without the strict sanitary regulations. Eat at your own risk.
7) Someone made a killing in the beer sign industry. Plastered on the side of buildings or used to advertise an establishment, whether it’s a restaurant or hotel, there’s a good chance a sign will have the local beer logo above the name of whatever it is. I actually got used to looking for “Angkor” signs in Cambodia to find somewhere to eat. And it’s usually a beer named after where you are: Hanoi and Saigon, Angkor and Cambodia, Beerlao, and Mandalay and Myanmar are all beer names. If only Chang was spelled Chiang, then it could be linked to Northern Thailand.
8) Southeast Asia is in serious need of electrical engineers. Power lines hang like vines that have been allowed to grow wild, clinging to the corners of buildings in huge clusters. And while interior lighting and internet may be dim, sparkling, flashing lights adorn the exterior of hotels, restaurants and bars like year-long Christmas decorations.
Despite my quick departure from Vietnam, I still think it has the best cuisine of my trip so far.
First of all, I have a declaration to make: Vietnamese coffee is the best coffee in the world. There, I said it. I love Vietnamese coffee. I don’t just mean the proper “Vietnamese coffee,” the type on ice with tons of condensed milk, although I do love that too. I mean all coffee in Vietnam. It is STRONG. It has flavor. It is good alone, with condensed milk, in Espresso form, in drip coffee form, with whipped egg yolk… You name it it’s good. There’s a reason there’s a whole street in Hanoi dedicated to Ca Fe’s. Go to Vietnam, have coffee, bring some back for me. Thanks.
Then there’s the food. It’s all so fresh, clean, rarely is there oil or excess sauce. I had the best spring rolls of my life in Hoi An and then learned how to make them myself on my Halong Bay boat. That Halong Bay tour had some incredible food! From DIY spring rolls to sauteed vegetable dishes to hot pot lunch to barbecued oysters everything was fantastic. The street food is unbeatable. Before I went I was most looking forward to bun mi but it’s the pho that is the clear meal of Vietnam – it’s on every street corner for around US$1.50 and it’s all good – and the bun cha was my surprise favorite. These were the make-it-as-flavorful-as-you-like kind of meals, with chili sauce, fish sauce, garlic water, herbs, and chili’s all available to please your taste buds. I wish I could eat in Vietnam every day.
I realize at this point the timeline might be a bit confusing so let me lay it out. Here’s how my last week in Vietnam went: Ho Chi Minh City for 2 days, Hanoi for a day, Halong Bay and Lan Ha Bay for 3 days/2 nights, Hanoi for one night, flight back through Ho Chi Minh City on my way to Cambodia.
Basically what happened was that I knew I wanted to get up to North Vietnam and at least see Hanoi and Halong Bay. I had a good time in Hanoi and adored Halong Bay, but I realized while I was out in Lan Ha Bay that I needed to go to Cambodia. Nothing against Vietnam, there’s still plenty to see and do there (Sapa, Hue, Mekong Delta, to name a few) but if I stayed to go to those other places it felt like I was just filling time before I had to meet friends in Thailand for Christmas.
I was in a weird place. Between family leaving from HCMC and meeting up with people for Christmas I had 2 weeks. It was not enough and too much time all at the same time. I love meeting up with people, but sometimes it puts a lot of stress on the planning process. So the beautiful part about traveling alone is that I can make any last minute decisions that will alleviate this stress.
So the night I got back to Hanoi I booked a flight to HCMC, which departed 13 hours later. I didn’t have a bus ticket to Cambodia but was confident I would figure it out when I got to HCMC. I knew where it left from and the names of two companies, and I booked an early enough flight (6:45 am eesh) that I had all day to get to Phnom Penh. That’s the other thing about traveling this long – I’m not afraid to wing it. It would work out. This became the theme of Cambodia for me, and something that is still happening. I’ll get there eventually, if it’s last minute so be it, flexibility is king right now. And I got there: less than 24 hours after booking that flight I was playing pool at a hostel in Phnom Penh. I love it when it all comes together.
So why did I decide to leave Vietnam? It’s hard to explain. I just wasn’t feeling it. It felt anxious, it wasn’t working for me. Something in me told me I had to go to Cambodia. Angkor Wat was one of the reasons I came to Southeast Asia, and it felt like now was the time to go there. Plus I can always go back to Vietnam. If something isn’t sitting right for this trip then I should make a change so I do feel right. I’m not going to get everywhere right now anyway so why force it?
Maybe it had to do with everyone talking about getting together for Christmas and I needed to be somewhere that clearly reminded me why I’m not there with them. Maybe I had some residual feelings from the Amanoi. Or maybe I just don’t vibe with Vietnam like I expected and it was bumming me out. Whatever it was, I decided to go. It was one of those times where I just had to trust myself; it will all work out. And as always, it did.
I hit a wall when I tried to write about Halong Bay. I think it’s been so hard for me to write about because I’m torn between two posts: 1) The majestic place that is Halong Bay; 2) My mental state in Halong Bay. I’m very aware that what I’m writing goes out to the online world, so it can be hard to know how to approach these things. As I’ve written more, I have found myself wanting to portray the places and helpful tips on seeing them for other travelers, just in case someone stumbles across my blog when looking up a place (as I have with others), but I also have to be true to myself. Ultimately this blog is my record of my trip. So I’ll just have to include both posts somehow. I’ll start with Halong Bay itself.
Halong Bay is one of those places that is entirely deserving of all of its praise. It’s Vietnam’s answer to New Zealand’s fjordlands. It’s the end of the world. The way to visit Halong Bay is on a boat tour, which takes you in between soaring karst mountains that rise directly out of the water. I found myself just sitting at the front of the top deck staring in awe at the sight all around me.
I chose a quieter tour on purpose, opting to avoid any mention of “party boat.” I was picked up at my hostel and, with my four new travel companions, driven 3 hours to the dock. Our junk was an in-between: not new, but not falling apart. Since there were so few of us I was upgraded to a private first level room, complete with my own balcony! Luxury. Lunch was served as we departed for the cave, a main tourist attraction. The cave is overrated. It probably was cool before it was Disneyfied with colorful lights. We were herded around with all the other tours being shown the same rock formations and what they supposedly looked like; a couple, a lion, a boob.
The afternoon was dedicated to getting to where we would dock for the night, which was a perfect way to spend it really. It was such an enjoyable ride. Upon arrival we had some free time to kayak around wherever we pleased. The water was so calm and the mountains so huge around us. After dinner on the boat we all called it a night rather early, which was fine with me since we had an early morning for the next leg of the trip.
I chose to do a night in Lan Ha Bay on an island – based on a great recommendation from a friend – so after breakfast we took a bus across Cat Ba Island to board our next boat out into Lan Ha Bay. We puttered through the largest floating village in this area; an impressive array of houses and shops all bobbed on top of the water, and I wondered how the families raised kids somewhere where they had to balance on beams to walk around. It wasn’t much further through more karst mountains until we reached our private island: Monkey Island.
There is just one hotel on the island made up of bamboo bungalows set back from a small beach with a gorgeous view. I had my own bungalow just steps from the sand. Lunch was served – hot pot this time, a group activity – then free time for kayaking. This water, much closer to open ocean, fought back against me way more than in Halong Bay, but it made for a more rigorous kayaking adventure. Later that afternoon our guide led us on a hike up and over the mountain to a beach on the other side where the monkeys liked to hang out. Turns out monkeys really like white bread; we saw tons of them up close. They started out cute, but once a new group showed up and provoked them we saw their mean side.
The evening was another quiet one, and the next day we started the long journey home early. Boat to bus to boat to bus – it took all day to get back to Hanoi.
This three day trip was a peaceful getaway in amazing scenery. I definitely recommend spending a night in Lan Ha Bay. It was so much quieter than Halong Bay so it felt like a real escape, and it’s still stunningly beautiful. I felt so lucky to be there.
So the second part.
I started the Halong Bay adventure unsure of my tour decision. My resentment of tours upon leaving Australia carried over into Vietnam a little bit and I spent most of the ride there thinking I should have gone about this in a different way. But maybe there is no right way to do Halong Bay. Then as we were gliding through the rock formations I decided it was nothing to harbor over because look where I was. The thing that really mattered was that Halong Bay was worth it in every way, no matter how I got there.
All I could think was: “This is good for me, this is what I needed. I should really start believing in myself more. Isn’t that what the yogi said anyway? Just keep going, I’m strong, I can do it.”
Everything that I had experienced in Vietnam shook me in ways that are hard to talk about. I needed to get out of South Vietnam, I needed to get out of the craziness of Hanoi, and I needed to get into serene, gorgeous nature and be by myself. I spent a lot of time just thinking, admiring where I was, and working through what I was feeling. I meditated both mornings with pleasing results. I came around to travel decisions that felt right for me, most immediately that I needed to go to Cambodia.
I was sad to leave Lan Hay Bay but confident in the decision I had made to go to Cambodia. Sometimes I just need a little alone time in nature and everything feels right again.
Hanoi is insanity personified, if you replace person with city (is there such a term?). If you thought motorbikes in HCMC were a problem, try Hanoi. It’s utter chaos. Only some major streets have traffic lights so the area you mostly walk around – the Old Town – is just a free-for-all. I resumed my old NYC jaywalking awareness. Whenever it looked remotely ok, full speed ahead, confident that I would make it to the other side. Somehow this worked. It was when cars got involved that it all went wrong. Motorcycles move quickly, much like people, and as long as everyone kept the same speed we were able to time it right and not interfere with each other without missing a beat. As soon as a car appeared, looking like a huge beast compared to the rest of us, the dance was thrown off. Speeds had to change, caution had to be practiced. It made me wonder if we’d all be better off with just motorbikes and pedestrians, something that is impossible in our world.
Hanoi, former capitol of North Vietnam, is now the capitol of all of Vietnam. I started my visit with one of the most important sites: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It took a while to even find the entrance but I eventually fell into line with everyone else approaching the impressive structure. Then I got inside and holy shit there he is! I’m staring at a dead man! I can see his facial hair! For some reason I didn’t process the fact that YOU CAN SEE HO CHI MINH. He’s not in a coffin, he’s right there inside transparent glass. I started my day by circumnavigating a dead man. Yup, that happened.
I got over the shock by hovering next to some tour guides outside of the building listening to the history of Ho Chi Minh, the Uncle of Vietnam, main proponent for unification who never got to see his efforts come to fruition (he died in 1969, Vietnam was unified in 1971).
The other highlight of my tourist wanderings in Hanoi was wandering through the Temple of Literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucious and his teachings. It’s a procession through and around 5 courtyards and it’s beautiful. I spent a while making my way through the complex, pausing to take in a temple here or a bonsai tree there. 20,000 VND well spent.
By the time I made it back to the main part of the Old Town I was starving. A nice lady who was running a pho stand on a street corner caught my eye at the right time: “one?” Sure, this place looked as good as any. It was the best pho of my life. I love how they give you a bowl with the noodles, meat and broth, and the rest is up to you. You can make it as simple or as spicy as you want. Of course the way I make it my noise was running uncontrollably and I loved it.
My two nights in Hanoi were different but both enjoyable. Night one I met a friendly dormmate from Mexico who had been in Hanoi for a bit but whose friends had already moved on, so he took me to a cool bar that he’d been to once before, Bar Betta. This would be a place I’d frequent (especially the free Wednesday night beer hour) if I spent more time in Hanoi. It has a very chill retro vibe, huge beers, eclectic seating options, and an expansive rooftop. Of course the guy at the table next to us was from San Francisco.
Night two was my last night in Vietnam and I was alone, which is what I had wanted. I went to a bun cha place that some people on my Halong Bay boat had recommended and it was one of the tastiest meals of my trip. Bun cha is a do-it-yourself experience: you get some fried (I think?) pork and some white vegetable (I think?) in broth, with a side of more of the white stuff in broth, a plate of herbs and lettuce, and a bowl of chilis. Again, as spicy or as bland as you want. Wash it down with a Hanoi beer and it’s the most filling and delicious $4 dinner you’ve ever had. Also by recommendation I had an egg coffee for a nightcap. It sounds like Manhattan’s famous egg cream, which I have to admit I’ve never actually had, but if they’re at all similar I have to get one when I visit Manhattan next. Egg coffee is basically coffee with whipped egg white but it tastes like liquid tiramisu. It is rich, creamy, decidant, dessert-worthy, and delicious. And not the thing to have when you have to wake up at 4 am for a flight. Oops.
Quick shoutout to my hostel, Hanoi Hostel. It’s tiny, just 2 8-bed dorms and one more room that we think may have been private, but for just $5 a night you get breakfast – egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee – and an hour of free beer every day. Plus huge lockers under the bed, warm showers (bathroom is better in the girls room), and a lovely rooftop on which you can enjoy the freebies.
Ho Chi Minh City, land of the motorcycles. When we landed Mer and Lois told me to be ready, we were about to be surrounded. I don’t think there’s any way to be ready. The motorcycles swarmed around us like bees in a hive; the road was theirs, we were intruders made mercy to their whims. But more on them in a bit. It was an entertaining ride in to say the least.
It was my last night with Mer and Lois so we toasted to a great trip with prosecco, red wine, and a much-needed (for me at least) steak tenderloin. Yum. I still had another night at the hotel though, the end of my break from the backpacker life before I would return to cheap multiple bed dorm rooms and shared bathrooms. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Not like Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t great, but a plushy queen bed with movies on TV and a final massage was just what I needed to decompress from the Amanoi experience and get ready to take on the next part of my trip. Again, thank you Lois and Jack. Seriously. I feel so lucky.
So Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. It’s huge. It’s like any modern metropolis; constantly busy, too big to get everywhere on foot, with different neighborhoods all offering different experiences. There’s a lot of history in HCMC, former capital of South Vietnam (when it was still Saigon). I saw this walking around past the old train station, Cathedral, Imperial Palace, a visit to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, and the War Remnants Museum.
For starters, I’d like to elaborate on “walking around” for a minute. I like to walk around cities without headphones, hear the noises that come with it, but in HCMC you can’t hear anything over the buzz of motorcycles. At stoplights they look like an army ready to pounce as soon as the order is given. Green light, ATTACK! They don’t care if a car is coming or trying to turn, the car must wait until they let it ford the river; the bike is the king of the road here not the car. As a pedestrian you just have to take a breath and move forward with confidence, telling yourself the motorcycles will not hit you. It’s possible to walk around, but it’s not easy. More than once a motortaxi driver mounted his bike just to make sure I got across the street ok. I figured it out though and I started to see it like spiders in the Amazon: if you don’t attack them they won’t attack you; if you keep your pace then the motorcycles will keep theirs and everyone is safe. It ended up being good training ground for Hanoi (which is even worse with the bikes, if you can believe it).
I went to the Jade Emperor Pagoda on a Sunday, which I’m guessing had something to do with why it was so crowded. I enjoyed seeing it this way; instead of quietly walking around an empty temple, I saw people using it as it should be used, lighting incense and making motions in their prayers to Buddha. The smell of incense was overwhelming, unescapable, wafting around me as I roamed through the networks of rooms. From the appearance it’s easy to see that this temple has been around for a long time. I felt like I’d stepped back in time when I was in there.
The War Remnants Museum was a harder experience. It’s mostly dedicated to the American War, or what we refer to as the Vietnam War. The images and stories in this museum I could never imagine being present in a museum in the US. It was honestly a little uncomfortable to be in there as an American. On my way back to the hotel I encountered another American who had trained with forces that fought in Vietnam, the war ending before his own deployment by just a few months. The helicopter he was learning to fly was in the images. He felt obviously much worse than I did, and I already wasn’t feeling so good. It was interesting to see how the other perspective talks about the war. When we were touring around Dalat with Thanh he spoke to us about what was happening when the US entered into war with Vietnam, and we learned things we’d never heard before. We appreciated the honesty. All of this (and more in Cambodia) just made me question what else is left out of our history lessons. Tons, I’m sure.
When the time came to leave Ho Chi Minh City I was ready. I had been told in the past to skip it, but I think it’s worth a visit. On my way back through a week later (between Hanoi and Cambodia) I briefly encountered the backpacker area of the city and it seemed like a bustling fun place to stay. If I ever go back I’d try it out.