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Washington D. C. 9 January 2013

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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After San Francisco, I started my trip towards London. Having a bit of time six weeks before the next engagement there, however, I decided to meander my way via a few places I always really wanted to see. First stop, Washington DC.

I conveniently know a couple of people there, which I sincerely recommend. Travel to places where you know someone. And I don’t say this to make you all into moochers, because I don’t mean for free accommodation. But experience tells me that even in cities like Warsaw, which can be cold and its history sad and oppressing, you can end up with fantastic memories if you have someone to show you the sights, tell you what they like about it, and feed you in their favourite restaurants.

And ask questions – about their lives, what it’s like to live there, where to go. If they know you, they are also able to recommend things specifically for you.

And if you know people somewhere, contact them on advance and tell them you’d like to take them out for a coffee/ beer/ meal (depending on their budget) to pick their brains. I have found this to be a more valuable investment than a Lonely Planet. Although of I travel somewhere where I don’t know someone, I don’t go without one, of course.

So, Washington was… At the risk of sounding corny… Grand.

There’s a real sense of the importance of politics, democracy, and the people behind it all in the capital. The wonderful sense of the processes and indeed the celebrations of freedom.

The massive buildings, the memorials. The institutions (I took a picture of the IRS offices for a friend, as I think she’s spoken to every single person in that building at one point) and museums.

I was lucky with the weather, too. Mild, almost warm. Blue skies. And grey squirrels everywhere.

One of the highlights for me was Alexandria, an old town outside of Washington which was supposed to have been part of District of Columbia, but ended up as part of Virginia. It is quaint, pretty, and somehow quintessentially American. I enjoyed walking the little streets with my friends, soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. I had Mac and cheese for the first time in my life and felt like I was having an all round American experience.

I also loved walking everywhere. I thought the city very manageable, and although the distances are not for the faint hearted (the mall is 3 km from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol) there is plenty to see. I took lots of photos, and simply enjoyed seeing all those sights I have seen in movies; Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny runs through the water in the mall.

The museums are clearly among the best in the world and far too plentiful for me to sample all of them. So, I simply chose things that sounded interesting to me. I went to a miniature train exhibition at the Botanical Gardens which was probably meant for kids more than me. Little train sets were set up in a fairy land with mosses and mushrooms. I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but I loved it.

I also went to the Museum of Natural History for the dinosaurs and got completely drawn in by their gems and precious stones exhibit. And the Air and Space Museum! I swear I should have been born a boy, because between the trains, dinosaurs, fossils, rocks and space shuttles, I was in heaven. I could have spent days in these museums alone, so I only scratched the surface of what was on offer.

The nerd in me also had its fancy tickled as I went to the National Archives and saw the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its many amendments.

I loved Washington. It was a fun, manageable city. I had delicious winter cocktails with Asian-Mexican fusion food (it strangely worked really well) and good friends to keep me company in the evenings. I went to an improv theatre performance and generally had a wonderful time.

As I left on the train to go to New York, I genuinely wanted to come back to Washington some time. Perhaps even to live!

These holidays were going well indeed.

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San Francisco 6 January 2013

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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I am on the road again.

2012 was a busy year for me, tourism-wise.

At the end of November I had a family occasion in San Francisco, and another one lined up in the middle of January in London. I could thus either fly from Australia, where I am currently based, to San Francisco, stay for a week, fly back, then fly to London in January and then back, or, travel around the world.

After a slight moment of hesitation (slight in this case being about a split second) I thus chose to take six weeks off and travel. As you do.

First stop San Francisco!

I have always wanted to see San Francisco, but instead of flowers, I spent most of it with rain in my hair. I have a few friends there, although they conveniently were away while I was in town… Apparently, Ghana and Japan are far more interesting than sticking around to show me around.

But, having said that, San Francisco was magnificent. It had everything to tickle my fancy.

I went to the cable car museum for the nerd in me. It is a small, central museum where the engine rooms for the cables that run the famous cable cars are. It stunk like engines and oil the moment we walked in, but the massive cogs and wheels turning and the sheer old school awesomeness of the place made it completely worth it! If you are into steam punk, cogs and old school, this is totally up your ally. If you are not into that, you should still go.

I went to Alcatraz because of the must-see nature of the place. I was a bit worried that I might be disappointed, as everyone was talking it up so much, but the morning that I decided to go, the sun came up and it was a glorious day. And frankly, I would recommend it myself. The prison part is really well done, with an audio guide literally telling you where to go and what you are looking at. It does create a weird non-interaction between the tourists who all walk around intently listening and looking, with only footsteps heard when you take the headphones off. I also experienced that if you, like me, run off to look at something outside of the audio tour, the tour was inflexible and didn’t really allow any fast forwarding or rewinding. Stick to the script and you won’t get lost! The surrounds are also worth having a look at, and the historic occupation of the island by Indian tribes had a special interest for me, as I am currently working on Indigenous issues in Australia. All in all, it was a really nice morning.

I also was lucky enough to be asked along to a bike ride of the bay, which went across the Golden Gate Bridge. Yay for lovely people who take pitty on a lone traveller, and invite them to things. It is one of my absolute top advice if you travel: when travelling alone, be open for experiences when they arise, or if travelling with people, take heed of the lone traveller and befriend them! Again, we had amazing weather that day, and cycling across the bridge was an experience I will not soon forget. It was leisurely, but with amazing views.

Food-wise, San Francisco did not disappoint. I went down memory lane with fantastic Vietnamese banh mi (sandwiches), Argentinian steaks that melt in the mouth and wash down well with Argentinian wine, and a Dutch pancake cafe. I tried Asian fusion and a wonderful 7 course meal with great company and wine.

All in all, I think I drank as much in San Francisco as I probably have for a long time. But holidays must be kicked off in style, right?

So I recommend the hilly city. Walk it as much as you can. Jump on a cable car even though it is horrendously tacky and touristy. Go for a bike ride and eat. Then eat some more.

Next stop – Washington DC.

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Ha Giang – lovelier, the second time around 8 March 2011

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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I have, of course, completely stolen the above headline from my partner, who pointed out that it was indeed lovelier, the second time around. Which hard to believe, if you saw our reports on our original trip.

We were a group of six travellers this time, keen for adventure and the country side. We took an overnight sleeper bus to Ha Giang, which was actually not too bad, but sleeper buses designed for Vietnamese (where men are on average 22 cm shorter than me) is never going to be extremely comfortable.

Arriving in Ha Giang at 3 am, we had called ahead to a hotel and booked rooms, so we could sleep the rest of the morning in beds before getting started on the day.

Friday morning, we rented bikes, organised the appropriate licences required to travel in the region (as the Vietnamese like to know who is loitering in the border area with China) and set off into the mountains.

Unfortunately, it was raining and rather cold, and we soon also hit the mist which covered the mountains, so we were soon chilled to the bone. But riding through it was still beautiful and spectacular, with villages and mountains poking through the misty landscape. The roads were twisting and winding along the mountain passes, through valleys and onto mountain passes, with gigantic trucks and buses coming around corners in the mist.

On the first day we did not get very far, we stopped off at Tam Son for lunch (about 45 km), and then on to Yen Minh (another 44 km) for the night. I found the landscapes we passed through (when we could see further than 20 metres ahead) fascinating, and they varied almost per valley. Sometimes, they were dry and wintry, other times green and lush, almost spring like. We’d pass through pine forest or leafy tropical forests with palm trees and birds screeching above.

On Saturday, we set off for Pho Bang (about 19 km), a traditional Chinese style village near the border of China, where we were received with smiles and waves. The local school also had just had a break, and we had a sticky beak into the class room when it resumed as the toddlers were reciting Vietnamese proverbs. They were so adorable! The landscape was yet again amazing, and you could practically see China from where we stood.

In Pho Bang, we stopped for a coffee, and watched the locals set up for a wedding. Everyone brought the tables and chairs from their houses, and there was a giant tarpaulin stretched right across the road for the revellers. The karaoke system was already installed before they had finished setting up the tent, so it looked like they were gearing up for a big party. The groom had gone early that morning to fetch his bride, so we did not get to congratulate them, and we needed to push on.

I was pleased to come across a game of Mah-Jong, too, clearly indicating that China and Chinese customs were not far away!

As we reached the turn off for the northernmost point of Vietnam, the group split up, with some going to Lung Cu (the northernmost point where there is a giant flag tower) and the others going to Sa Phin, where there is a restored mansion that used to belong to the Mong King which looked amazing. But just as I pulled up outside of the castle, I changed my mind and drove after the guys who went north.

It was a lovely drive, with amazing views, and apart from the fact that one of the guys had a small accident with his bike and came off it (slightly scraping his knee) and subsequently also had a flat tire, it was a beautiful side trip. I thought we would swing by the castle on the way home, however, due to the time lost to the accident and the tire, we chose a different route (which cut the distance to Dong Van in half) which I now thoroughly regret. I would have loved to see the Royal House! I thought I would get to do both, and I think if I had known that I would have to do either the flag tower or the royal house, I would have chosen the latter, especially as the mist shrouded the surrounding countryside, and we could hear the flag before we could see it as we were climbing the stairs.

On Sunday, we got up early to see the Dong Van market, which was still misty and smokey, but warmer than before. By the time we had explored the stalls and had some local pho, the sun came peaking through, and when we stepped on the bikes, it was almost warm!

We stopped off in Meo Vac for their markets as well, where we got to see all the beautiful ethnic minority people buying and selling their goods. It was intriguing to ride along the roads, where driving out of Dong Van all the minority peoples were walking towards you, heading to the town you had just left, and then, further on, they were all walking in the same direction as you, heading towards the town you were going to.

We also fit in the markets at Lung Phin, which are held every 6 days, and, luckily, we had worked out that they would also be on that Sunday. The locals were intrigued by our presence, and looked as much at us as we did at them. We soon headed back in the direction of Yen Minh, hoping to get there in good time.

Along the way on the last day, the mist had lifted, and we could truly see the landscapes that the north of Vietnam is famous for. All the peach blossoms were also out, and at one point, I came upon a mountain road where the clouds literally tumbled over the edge. You could see the movement of the clouds, rolling over the road, and I sat there, with my engine turned off, listening to the quiet and watching the marvellous picture nature was offering.

As we were all nicely warmed up, and driving through the mountains at ease, we managed to get to Yen Minh by lunch time! We had done 70 km in one morning! So we decided to get back to Tam Son, and then see if we wanted to keep going. In Tam Son, we were all doing so well, that we rode the entire rest of the journey back to Ha Giang (total of 170 km in one day!) to find some dinner there.

It was an exhausting day, but well worth the effort, because that meant that we did not need to leave early again the next morning to make it to the bus station.

Some of us went to a village near Ha Giang on Monday morning to have a look around, and were again pleased with what we found, riding along little paths, watching the locals go about their daily lives with their buffaloes.

When we arrived at the bus station, however, we were told the bus would not leave at 10am, as expected, but at 1pm. After trying to find a solution, everyone went to sit down, thinking we had a big wait ahead of us. I was a bit slow, and the guy in charge of the bus asked me whether we could wait until 1. I said no, we need to go now.

“Ok.” he says.

I just stand there, not knowing what he means.

“Hurry up, get on the bus. We will leave now.” He tells me.

He calls the driver over who is having a cigarette and a coffee. “You need to leave immediately!”

So somehow, we got to go at 10am after all! We made it back to Hanoi tired, and happy, utterly pleased with the trip we had made. To anyone who wants to explore Vietnam by motorbike: do!