We’ve made it to our last big stop in our round-the-world adventure: Asilah, Morocco. Here we’ll stay for a month, at the edge of North Africa in a quiet artistic town with a fusion of Arab, French, and Spanish culture. It’s a good place to reflect.
What did I learn on this trip? (So many things.) What I’m most grateful for is…gratefulness. Because this trip was not perfect. I’m not perfect. But now I can appreciate the imperfections because they give life texture. And no matter where I am in the world, Today means Time. And Time means Opportunity to do-something-see-something-make-something.
I took some time off blogging as we transitioned from Asia to Europe to soak in the new lifestyle and surroundings and to gather info/make decisions about what comes after this round-the-world trip. Decisions, decisions…
Anyway, I read this thoughtful piece about taking time each day to appreciate what’s around you, specifically the pieces of nature, big or small. I found it relevant and grounding as both M and I are looking to the future, beyond this amazing trip that we’ve taken. As we think about what and where our next step will be, we’ve both found stillness in meditation and walks through Italian streets.
The pace of life here in Europe is one we both appreciate; work to live, don’t live to work. Even though our next year may take us back to the US, this year has given us invaluable insight into being present, appreciating what we have, and enjoying what’s in front of us.
As Herman Hesse writes,
All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
The last couple days M and I have spent about 3 hours each morning to plan for our upcoming travel: our journey from Luang Prabang, Laos to Singapore in two weeks, our first week in Europe (Amsterdam+London/Essex+Bruges) coming up in a month (!!) and now our month in Morocco in March (post-Italy, pre-NOLA for my friend’s wedding)…this shit takes time! Doing all this on a $50/day ($75/day in Europe) budget can be challenging.
But it leads to finding gems, such as staying in a small artsy town outside of the big city for less than $500 a month and renting a motorbike to explore more of the region — and local life.
Sometimes my soul is pulled forward: where will we be next year? What if my plan of applying to grad school in Italy falls through? What will we do if we run out of money? Or, on the flip side, look at all the possibilities! I could teach here, or there, or gain knowledge studying at this center, with that teacher…And sometimes my soul is so content exactly where it is: absorbing my surroundings with a good book and a cup of tea. Going to bed when I’m sleepy and waking up when I’m rested. Being in the moment, connected with my students during class. This is where the yoga practice comes in for me: understanding that life is about balancing and flowing with opposing forces. Prana and Apana. Drawing the outer left heel back but rotating the left hip forward. Letting there be “good” days and “bad” days, productive days and unproductive days, hard days and easy ones.
The bottom line is, whether I’m flying or falling, it’s all part of the yoga practice. It’s all part of life.
As much as I wanted to document each leg of my one year of travel around the world, I cannot resist soaking in the place that I am at the moment. I’m so appreciative of travelers that came before me who do due diligence in recording and sharing photos, stories, tips and prices of their journey: it makes it possible for me to Google what I want to do (and how I want to do it) and go!
The slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos was one of the defining experiences of my trip so far. Two days of breathtaking views on the Mekong: jungly mountains, buffalo/pigs/goats grazing on the banks, and untouched scenery dotted by small settlements. The weather was overcast and a bit rainy, which gave the ride a mystical feeling and made for some fantastic photos. It was the perfect time to enjoy some hot cup-o-noodles!
View from Pak Beng looking towards the Mekong
Puppy passenger on our boat on day 2 dances with a befuddled baby
Pak Beng at 7 am
Workers loading up the boats in the A.M.
Mekong and mountains
Pencil sketch hung up at the back of our first boat. So rad.
Clouds, mountains, river
Slow boats at the dock @ Pak Beng, the stopover town where we overnighted
I am doing my first Vipassana (silent meditation) retreat this January! I’ll be at the Dhamma Simanta retreat center in Lamphun, Thailand for 10 days to practice this ancient form of meditation passed down from the Buddha. It’s a pretty intense schedule: 4 am wake up and 10 hours of meditation a day. Silence is part of the practice, so that means no talking to co-meditators. Furthermore, no reading or writing, much less surfing the web. Phew. Dress code is loose, comfortable clothing and light meals and accommodation are provided. Oh, and it’s free!
But far from a free vacation, I’m looking forward to this time of deep reflection. I mean, there will literally be no distractions. No alcohol, drugs, sex, or even exercise beyond taking a stroll on the grounds.
I started training for the retreat this morning by meditating for 45 minutes, a good 20 minutes than my usual. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, knowing I’d be in it for awhile allowed me to relax into it and not think about whether I was getting close to finishing. Confidence boosted 🙂
I’d been pretty terrified of the idea of being stuck with my thoughts nonstop for 10 days, but as the days draw closer the fear is not so daunting and there’s excitement and hope for the experience that I’ll have.
I wrote this post while sitting on a bus from Ben Tre to Can Tho in the Mekong delta. Rain is pouring and we’ve stopped at the beginning of this journey to load at least 2 dozen boxes of stuff. There are also two woven handbags with live chickens, who I’m surprised aren’t more agitated in a dark confined space. Have I mentioned that the buses in Vietnam also double as delivery vehicles? Lucky for us, there’s A/C.
So we spent three weeks in Northern Vietnam based in Hanoi. M had enough Hilton points that we could stay there for free, and it was a great launching point for checking out the beautiful landscapes in the region.
But this post is about the next part of Vietnam we saw.
We did this via the local night train. There’s a significant distinction in quality between the local and express trains; more on that later. Tickets were 1.5 million Dong for 2, or about $65 USD. The train left at 7:30 pm and we arrived in Da Nang at around 5:30 am. Though food was served on the train, our online research told us that it wasn’t very good so we opted to bring a few banh mi on board, which cost about $4. Bonus: we picked up a bag of Munchies from an international food shop for $6. Treat yo’self!
The train ride was fine, though not very pleasant. It was full of locals smoking and chatting loudly, so it was basically a moving Vietnamese street experience, minus the motorbikes trying to squeeze between you and tables of people having dinner/drinking coffee/smoking cigarettes. The A/C was either blasting or off, which led to alternating between sweating and chills throughout the night. The bathroom in our car had toilet paper (hallelujah!), but only for the first couple hours. After the roll ran out, you were on your own. The custom of spraying everything down with water after you finish is alive and well here. There was a dirty mop hanging in the corner that the employees would “dry” the floor off with. All the surfaces of the bathroom looked like they could use a good power washing.
Each berth has 4 beds, which were fine comfort-wise. The bottom bunks are definitely better because they offer more head room to sit and chill when you’re not sleeping and also a table to set your things. I never felt unsafe sleeping with two strangers, though for Western standards there wasn’t much sense of personal space.
A beach town/the Vietnamese government’s pet city, it was an unremarkable experience for us. It was raining the two days we were there, and I was recovering from a cold that started on the train. The locals seemed to enjoy early morning swims. This is also where we watched the 2016 US presidential election results go down, which gave it a bit of an otherworldly experience for me.
Da Nang train station
Da Nang–>Hoi An:
Since I wasn’t quite at 100% yet, we took a cab directly to our homestay in Hoi An. A comfortable 30 minute ride for 300k Dong ($15 USD).
Many travelers we met spoke highly of Hoi An. Known for their UNESCO-grade Ancient Town, the city had its architectural and historical charms and was veer foreigner friendly. A little to touristy for our taste, but it was nice that more of the locals understood English. The town is also known for custom made clothes and accessories, and I got a tailored cotton dress at Bibi Silk for $35. Pretty damn good. I was going to get a bridesmaids dress made there, but they didn’t have the colors I needed. M got a custom made leather iPad case at Friendly Leather Bags for $38. He was very happy with their work. Both of our pieces took about a day to make, which was great for our travel schedule.
The place we stayed at, Pham Gia Boutique Homestay, was very nice and reasonably priced (though I paid with travel points). We had a big room with a sizable private balcony and hot showers. Breakfast was great: eggs your way and fresh baguette or toast, and plenty of fresh local fruit. Drip coffee and Lipton tea was also available, which is pretty standard in Vietnam.
We backtracked and took a bus back up north to Hue. Because there’s no train station in Hoi An, going back to Hue allowed us to take the train directly to Ho Chi Minh City afterwards.
The bus was arranged at one of the many travel agents in Hoi An. Tickets were 100k Dong or about $5 USD each. They picked us up by motorbike from our homestay and took us to the bus station, where we boarded a pretty standard bus. The ticket guy pushed us foreigners to the back of the bus and seated the locals up front, which is apparently not uncommon but it was the only time I personally experienced it here. It was a smooth ride.
Hue was cool for a launching point to the Vinh Moc tunnels, a series of tunnels the Vietnamese people made and lived in during the Vietnam War. We stayed at Hue Serene Palace Hotel, a highly rated hotel on Trip Advisor (paid with points again) that was located in an alley right by all the bars and restaurants. This was the first city where motorbike taxi drivers openly solicited us for weed, and we soon found out why: there’s a decent party scene here, with many restaurants and bars turning into clubs after dark. Promoters stood outside waving over groups of girls, and buses of young backpackers got off in front of the restaurant we were at and joined the river of imbibing foreigners. We had a drink at the aptly named DMZ Bar after dinner, complete with camouflage furniture and grenades used as trim.
We visited The Citadel, another UNESCO World Heritage Site (how many are there in Vietnam??) and enjoyed the Chinese architecture and ponds of colorful fish.
Just outside the Citadel
Doing a tree pose with the trees while our GPS was updating
Our main attraction was the Vinh Moc tunnels, about 100 km north of Hue. We rented a motorbike for $20 and took turns driving there and back. The drive itself was an adventure; it was our first time driving in Vietnam. It was exciting, exhausting, and we saw some breathtaking views of the countryside and the ocean. The back seat was pretty uncomfortable after 15 minutes, so we switched off driving. Other than Hue, there wasn’t much traffic, though it became clear that roads here are used for more than transportation. It’s where life happens: people taking a stroll, children play, dogs and chickens and cows hang out, rice is laid out to dry, snacks and drinks are sold, coffee is had. A way more happening place than a busy Manhattan street.
Entering the tunnels
View from the exit of one of the tunnels. A chance for those living in the tunnels to see daylight and maybe hope for a better future.
Pit stop on the way up to Vinh Moc. Beautiful, sunny, and completely empty
A reminder of war
The tunnels are a must see. It’s 40k Dong/$2 USD per ticket and includes a small museum with photos from the war and a map of the tunnels. It includes a guided tour of part of the tunnels too. Our guide was a friendly guy in his early 30s who didn’t understand much English but knew enough to point out the different uses of each part: bedroom, kitchen, meeting room, ventilation, toilet, hospital. Most of the tunnel requires ducking, and some parts were wet and a bit slippery. But it was pretty awesome to see how people survived the war.
We had lunch afterwards at the little food shop before the entrance. They had instant noodles jazzed up with veggies and your protein of choice (beef or egg), which held us over just find for the 3+ hour ride back to Hue.
That wraps up part II! The third and final part to Vietnam will be Saigon and the Mekong delta. We are leaving tomorrow on a 4-5 hour ride to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, so there will be down time to write. Woohoo!
I’m sitting in a hammock in Ben Tre, Vietnam, a small town in the Mekong delta. After an afternoon of exploring the neighboring island by bike (the ferry across was 10 cents!), it feels good to relax with a beer after giving my legs a nice workout.
Rain is pouring and I’ve yet to make dinner plans. And that’s fine by me. This trip has been about the practice of enjoying the present, exploring my individual yoga practice and finding my way as a yoga teacher. So far, so good.
Nature is awesome. It never fails to bring me closer to the present. When I practice yoga in nature, it’s like getting a zen boost. Chris Burkard really captures the AWE-someness of being surrounded in it. If you can’t make it out there yourself, this is the next best thing.
BAM. M and I have just finished our first month away from the US, two months of traveling total. In the past couple weeks, I’ve started feeling at ease in the groundlessness of traveling and being on the move. I realized that I was neglecting my yoga practice (noooooooooooooooooo) and not making enough time to pursue things that were important to me. I made these changes:
1. Daily asana practice first thing in the morning. Right now I’m working on core strengthening, and I’ve got my eye on parsvabakasana (side crow) next.
2. Reading more. I’m currently reading Pema Chodron’s Things Fall Apart, which is a great read for those feelings of transition or uncertainty. Also, I’ve been reading more yoga articles to get ideas on sequencing, brush up on anatomy, and stay connected to the rhythm of the yoga world.
3. Learning Italian and anatomy/physiology. Technology is a great thing. I’m using the Memrise app to learn both subjects. It takes about 15-20 minutes each day, and it’s great to stick to a routine and challenge my brain to learn something new. Hopefully I’ll be able to communicate with the locals when we reach Italy, our final destination, and have some background anatomy knowledge when I apply to a physical therapy program next spring.
4. Connecting. With myself via meditation and with others via yoga and mini trips we take.
Yoga gains are kinda like gains in weightlifting. I needed to change my workout to suit my new lifestyle and stay engaged. Mind/body/soul. What I did in the US wasn’t working for me on the road, so I started engaging my brain by reading and giving it more to chew on. I engaged my soul with some reading, journaling, photography and meditation. And I engaged my body by working out the muscles I wasn’t using as much. My goal is to check in with my mind/body/soul workout regularly and change it up to stay challenged.
Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are beautiful in very different ways. Hanoi is fascinating for its non-stop river of traffic (seriously, you just need to take a breath and go for it), its intimate relationship with making food (from killing the animal to serving it on a plate, you can see it all on the street), and its culture of pushing the limits (rules are made to be broken). It can be loud and overwhelming after awhile, but there’s so much to explore.
One of many quiet alleys where Hanoi’s people live. It’s hard to believe how quiet it is here, only a block away from the bustling main road.
Hanoi is no stranger to tourists, so postcards and sold everywhere, including the Temple of Literature.
Chinese-influenced architecture at the Temple of Literature
Bac siu, coffee with coconut milk (and a secret third ingredient: condensed milk. They seem to add it to all coffee drinks) Like sipping on a chocolate ice cream, it’s still pretty refreshing after a long morning of walking around.
Street vendors are everywhere, and more often than not they are women. She is selling flowers — the work hours are long and the pay is low, but these bikes filled with flowers bring bursts of color all over the city.
Ha Long Bay is big and breathtaking. We were there for three days and everything we did, kayaking, swimming, spelunking, climbing, even eating, was surrounded by amazing views. If you have the chance to go, I highly recommend at least two nights on a boat. Our full day exploring the bay was relaxing and there were no crowds. I was able to get the feeling of the place without distractions.
View from the top of Titop Island at the end of day 2.
Holy ding dongs, Batman, there’s a pearl in this one! (Or was there, really…)
View from our boat leaving the harbor.
Day 2 visiting a pearl farm
Day 1, cruising around the bay
We took photos and videos of kayaking and swimming with our GoPro too. We’ll see how those turned out!
Damn, time flies. These three weeks in Taiwan have gone quickly, thanks to my family showing M and I a great time.
Getting a shot before the tourists come
Spotted a rainbow while exploring Taipei
Arrived in Taichung!
My travel companions sans M
Enjoying some Ding Tai Fong soup dumplings
Riding the bus back to Taipei from Kaohsiung today — it’s finally cleared up!
Mom’s family on day 1
Quiet morning near Yongkang St. in Taipei
Grandma hug 🙂
M’s favorite breakfast place: a scallion pancake stall that often had a line 15+ people long. You can eat well for < $2 USD!
Here are some of the things we did:
Tuesday, 4 Oct||
Day trip to Yehliu Geopark to check out Queen’s Head rock (crowded and touristy) and the Twin Candlesticks at Shitoushan (great evening hike and awesome view right on the water, not touristy)
Queen’s Head at Yehliu: much smaller than when my dad went in 1973!
Twin candlesticks at Shitoushan. Gorgeous and tucked away from the crowds
Wednesday, 5 Oct||
Hung out at my cousin’s board game shop – yes they’re a thing here! Tried out a variety of games like Carcassonne, Ask Anything, and Tofu Princess…
Thursday, 6 Oct||
Checked out the Miaokou seafood night market in Keelung. Super accessible on Taipei’s train system directly from Taipei Main Station, and at Sankeng station there’s a sign in English (“Miaokou Night Market”) that points you to a tunnel that takes you a block from the market.
This little piggie went to the (night) market
Noodle lady killin’ it! She served us some yummy “oil noodles”
Friday, 7 Oct||
Went out with our Taipei Airbnb hosts and their AIT (the US consulate equivalent in Taiwan) friend one night for dinner at a local place, dessert at a popular “smoothie house”, and wine at Café de Vie, a hip and well-stocked wine bar owned by a French guy and his Taiwanese wine. They served us cheese and nacho cheese Doritos with the wine, which was delicious!
Sunday, 9 Oct||
Was invited by our new AIT friend to a movie night at her neighbor’s place. Turns out AIT puts their foreign service officers in a few apartment high rises around Taipei, so we got to check out the nice digs and meet some other officers and their families and friends. We had various Taiwanese snacks and watched Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Reefer Madness, and Killer Condoms. It was awesome.
Monday, 10 Oct||
Celebrated Taiwan’s National day by riding the glass floor Maokong Gondola in Taipei to a mountainside tea house. We had afternoon tea Taiwanese style, complete with all the tea-making tools and soup dumplings for a snack. Cribbage was also played 🙂 We found out on the way down that there were morning celebrations and a parade, but on this rainy day I think we made the right choice
Tuesday, 11 Oct||
Spent a night in Sun Moon lake with my uncle H and his fam – rode bikes around the lake, rode a boat across the lake, played a bit of rummy accompanied by some Japanese whisky we brought from Osaka. I got eaten alive by mosquitos here despite putting on bug spray.
Checking out traditional Shaoshing wine vessels in Puli
Cloudy (but dry) afternoon at Sun Moon Lake
Riding the boat across the lake. Aunt Kitty snaps a photo, I’m eyeing the gangsta toddler behind her
Cousins! One of us is enjoying the bike ride more than the other
One of many many many photos taken by Auntie
Wednesday, 12 Oct||
Took my first yoga class in Mandarin at my uncle’s health club in Taichung, followed by a late night swim/hot tub session in their outdoor pool.
Thursday, 13 Oct||
Took the bus down to Kaohsiung to my dad’s side of the fam. The sun feels hotter in southern Taiwan (but also it was raining much of the time we were in Taipei), so naps are a regular thing here. Yes please. We biked around Love River and stopped at an outdoor art exhibit where the Kaohsiung Film Festival will be held next week. For dinner my cousin took us around Kaohsiung’s big night market – this one was huge. We ate and checked out about half the stalls before calling it quits and heading home.
Kaohsiung from above
Golden rooster proudly overlooking the city
Hell…a mysterious door at the outdoor art exhibit
Friday, 14 Oct||
Drove with my big uncle, aunt and cousin to Shousan to check out the view of Kaohsiung from the top of a mountain. On the drive back we saw the effects of the three typhoons that passed through in the two weeks before we arrived: two boats were tipped over, blown in from offshore, and there were power lines down, trees blown over, and a sinking shoulder on one of the roads we drove on.
Saturday, 15 Oct||
The five of us took a day trip to Meinong, where my dad grew up. Our fam has property there, and every time I go back I stop by my dad’s piece. It was cool to show M where my dad spent his childhood. We climbed Linshan in the morning to get a view from above, and a lady noticed the many mosquito bites on my legs and offered me her cream for them. So grateful for her kindness – this stuff does wonders! We spent the afternoon at my cousin’s grandma’s place. We took a tour of her place, which was a sod and tobacco farm. She also had a few chickens, a rabbit, a peacock (!) and about five dogs – one of whom I fell in love with right away. He was a playful hound pup stuck in a cage during the day because he loves to chase the chickens. We also took a nap on traditional tatami mats during the hottest hours of the afternoon. Then we headed to a giant buddha museum on the way back to Kaohsiung – it felt like a really nice hotel with buddhist statues throughout. Spent the evening having dinner with everyone and then drinking tea that little uncle poured.
View of Meinong from Lin Shan
Drinking high mountain tea made by my uncle
Attitudinous at Fo Guang Shan
Walking away from giant Buddha at Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Museum
Dad’s land and childhood home in Meinong
Time to feed the chickens in Meinong
Funny carved wood sculpture at Fo Guang Shan buddha museum
Lovely evening for a stroll towards giant Buddha at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum
Now I’m on a Ho Hsin bus on the way back to Taipei. $20 gets you a business-class experience: cushy reclining seats with a blanket, an entertainment system, free wifi and USB charger, and a fridge with cold water. Definitely unexpected, and enjoying the ride. Looking forward to our last two days in Taiwan, and excited for our next stop: Vietnam.