Posts Tagged With: Travel Tips

Da Nang, Vietnam – Where Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

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Time to party in Hoi An, Vietnam

Sometimes in travel – as in life – it’s not always a question of this and that, but rather this or that. But as opposed to those unpleasant times when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, there are times when you can see or do most of what you’d like, even if it isn’t everything. It may not be ideal, but as the song goes: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.

Not too long ago I was faced with one such situation. Our ship was docking in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang (technically Chan May), and from there we had a choice of visiting two of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites within striking distance of a one-day tour: The ancient capital of Hue, the ancient ruins of My Son, and the former trading village of Hoi An. With limited time available, we opted for the latter two on a whirlwind tour that gave us a taste – though not a full mouthful – of all that’s on offer in central Vietnam. It wasn’t an ideal way of visiting this fascinating region, but as I said before, two out of three ain’t bad.

My Son

My Son

Let the past (and rain) wash over you at My Son, Vietnam

My Son (pronounced mee- sahn) is an ancient site of worship tucked well inland from the emerald waters of the coast. Though a good portion of the site was reduced to rubble courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, there are various temples, halls and other religious buildings that either escaped bombardment or are in the process of reconstruction.

At the entrance, you’ll need to take a stretch golf cart up the winding road to the visitor center proper. I wasn’t looking at the odometer but I figure it was at least a mile if not more. Given the fact that we were experiencing a full-on torrential downpour, the golf cart seemed the best option.

The cluster of ruins that awaited us looked like a scene right out of every adventure movie ever made. There were artifacts, strange writing carved in stone, and various figures represented – not to mention the most gigantic centipede I’ve ever seen scuttling through the undergrowth outside. Surrounding the complex is thick jungle, and on the day of my visit there rivers were swollen to capacity and at times our feet were underwater. So if it’s a rainy day, I recommend that you wear foot gear that you wouldn’t mind getting wet. Don’t let that discourage you though – sloshing through the jungles of Vietnam really fleshed out the experience.

Unless you really care about every temple and building, a few hours here will suffice. And if the weather is clear, it should be a photographer’s playground.

Hoi An

Hoi An Riverside

Follow the River in Hoi An World Heritage Site

The ancient trading post of Hoi An is a colorful amalgam of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese culture and architecture. Once a major port for international trade, the town has been reborn as a tourist destination for its scenic riverfront and charming ambiance. In town you can busy yourself with a visit to the intricate Japanese Bridge or even more elaborate Chinese Temple. But most of all, take some time to wander the vibrant side streets which are filled with souvenir shops, a small museum and some of the most delicious Vietnamese food to be found anywhere. On the day of my visit, they were gearing up for a festival, so the streets and trees were decked out with colorful lanterns of all colors, shapes and sizes. Not only did I leave wishing I could see what it looked like at night, but also wishing I had at least five to seven days to fully explore the town and all the activities around it.

Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains

Scene from the Marble Mountains, near Da Nang, Vietnam

The Marble Mountains are close to the coast and not far out of the city of Da Nang proper – which, incidentally, is a city undergoing rapid modernization. These five mountains rise almost vertically from the relatively level coastal plain, and host a number of temples that can be visited by those who have more time at their disposition. Below are numerous artisans that sculpt the marble into all sorts of beautiful figures, fountains and statues. If you’re on a guided tour, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop to see ‘how things are made’ which is code for: tourist trap, please buy something. Despite the obvious commercialism, this would be the place to buy that giant marble elephant you’ve always wanted.

Final Thoughts

The most obvious observation of a day tour from Danang is that you really need more than a day tour to do the area justice. With the royal city of Hue not too far away, and one of the largest cave systems in the world within range, you can easily spend an exciting week of discovery in this Southeast Asian playground. So if you can do so, stay for awhile. If you’re on limited time like I was, content yourself with the wonders you’ve seen, and accept that in reality – you guessed it – two out of three ain’t bad.

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Safety Tips for the Skittish Traveler

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Be safe wherever you go.

The world is a crazy, unsafe place. At times I too wish I could just bury myself in a hole in the ground and shut out all the insanity and insecurity. But the inherent problem with holes in the ground – the Grand Canyon not withstanding – is that they usually don’t offer a very good view. For that, it requires the courage to get out there and explore. Below I’ve listed 8 steps on how to travel safely and still maintain relative peace of mind.

1) The World is Just as Crazy Where You Live

Crime, terrorism and natural disasters are not limited to those on vacation. Sadly, such risks are part of the global human experience. This goes for visiting popular tourist attractions and traveling by air just as much as going to and from your job or school. Yes, it is possible something bad might happen while traveling, but statistically it is far more likely that you’ll have a car accident on the way home from the store than experience a terrorist attack while traveling abroad. By gaining some perspective on the risks involved, you can ease your worries and take comfort in knowing that you’re likely not at any greater risk than you are in your own hometown. That is, unless you’re visiting Falluja.

2) Be Shrewd, Dude

Taking practical precautions before embarking on your trip can do much to allay anxiety. Travel insurance is an increasingly good idea, not just for its practicality but also for the peace of mind. Thoroughly researching your intended destination can alert you to potential threats or dangers, both health and safety-wise, and buying a money belt or similar products can help lessen the your odds of being a victim.

3) Here’s Looking At You, Punk

Imagine for a second that you’re a pickpocket or any other variation of street criminal. Would you rather target the oblivious tourist that’s so engrossed in looking at the sights that they don’t even notice you’re there, or the wary tourist with the shifty eyes that are constantly scanning the surroundings? If you didn’t choose the former, then maybe you’re just not cut out for a life of petty crime. Yes, criminals prey on the easiest targets, and nothing says “I see you, punk. Try someone else” better than being aware of those around you and making eye contact. Sure, you might come off as paranoid but at least your message won’t be missed.

4) You’ve Got A Brain. Use It.

What you wear, bring, do and say can all have a direct bearing on your safety. Wearing expensive jewelry in poor cities is an invitation to potential muggers. Flashing costly electronics and camera equipment at inappropriate places and times can have the same effect as well. Even traveling through relatively safe areas and neighborhoods after nightfall may increase your risk, as might talking loudly in your native tongue, as nothing screams “tourist!” more than asking for directions. This is not to say that you should stay in your hotel room and not speak to anyone. Just use your head and the risks will be much lower.

5) If You’ve Got It, Don’t Flaunt It

Standards of dress and conduct vary wildly worldwide and to keep things on the up and up with the local populous it’s a good idea to learn what they are and then follow them. In many places in Latin America and India for example, women will at times draw unwanted male attention in direct proportion to the amount of skin they show. So ladies, be prepared to cover up if you don’t feel like being stared at by often not-too-subtle men. And don’t get me started on the Italians….

6) Make Friends, Not Mistakes

One of the best things about travel is the possibility of interacting with so many different people. While I heartily encourage all to mingle with the locals, this doesn’t mean drop your guard. Be mindful that some in bars and restaurants frequented by tourists may have their own agenda and be wary about what it is in (and how much) you drink. And sometimes (not all) that friendly local that just happens to strike up a conversation with you will eventually reveal that they want to take you to a “friend’s” shop where you can get bargains unheard of elsewhere. Again, you’ve got a brain, and don’t be afraid to say no. Most of all, don’t let the few bad eggs ruin the joys of cultural exchange.

7) Don’t Forget What Your Mommy Told You

As it turns out, your mom was right about a lot of things. While traveling, many of her adages still hold true if you want to come home safely: Look both ways before crossing the street (especially in London), be careful after dark, don’t walk through the woods by yourself and many more I’m sure. About the only one I would openly contest is the prohibition on going swimming for at least an hour after eating (An hour. A good hour).

8) Face Your Fears & Get Out There

With all the rampant insecurity in today’s society, it may be hard to overcome your fears to get out there and explore. But identifying your fears is a necessary step if you’re to experience peace of mind in travel or anything else. As I said in my 2015 humor/travel guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper, “finding the root of your fears is like giving a prostate exam–uncomfortable even if you do manage to put your finger on it.” But once you do, and you’re willing to challenge yourself, enjoying the world – risks and all – will become a whole lot easier.

Summary

Of course, despite taking all these precautions you can still get hit by a bus, but hey, a meteor strike is a possibility as well. My point is that it is impossible to eliminate all risk in this world, so you’ll just have to do your best and relax. By taking practical steps you can lower your risk of danger while traveling, and I say that  if you have to accept a level of risk, it might as well be on vacation.

Do you have any safety tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment below!

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Straight Lines are Overrated in Punta del Este

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Check your straight-edge at the door at Casapueblo

You know how most buildings have a lot of those straight lines everywhere? If there’s a wall, it’s straight. Windows – same thing. Sure, every once and a while you’ll run across a diagonal line, or the occasional rounded edge of a curve, but by and large straight lines and right angles make up the bulk of modern architecture. But in the sun-kissed region of Uruguay’s resort haven of Punta del Este, there’s a building that mocks such vertical/horizontal symmetry with every fiber of its construction. You can even spend the night there, too. It’s called Casapueblo, and if you’re a lover of all things non-conformist you’ll find yourself right at home.

About Casapueblo

Built by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró as a summer home, this sprawling whitewashed structure of anything but straight lines now serves as a hotel, art gallery and point of interest for visitors to the area. A maze of lopsided and dream-like walkways evoke images of Santorini – that is, if you visited the Greek Island and decided to immediately drop acid. I’m pretty sure my three-year-old niece drew a picture that now hangs on the fridge which closely resembles its architecture. And if The Lorax ever decided to visit Uruguay, you can be sure that this is where he’d stay.

The Casapueblo, for all it’s quirkiness, is highly rated as a hotel. With unique rooms that each bear a different name and commanding views of the South Atlantic, it has plenty of appeal beyond just the surreal aesthetics. While my visit there was strictly for the architecture, I can’t deny that I lamented not being about to fully explore every abstract nook and cranny at the more leisurely pace of a paying guest. It was here that I truly appreciated that straight lines are highly overrated, and its a lesson I haven’t forgotten.

Getting There

Casapueblo is just a few miles outside the resort town of Punta del Este, situated on a high bluff called Punta Ballena. Punta del Este is a happening beach town, and if there were a such thing as the Uruguayan Riviera, I suppose this would be it. The inviting green water attracts locals and jet-setters alike, and the silhouette of smaller-class cruise ships frequently surround the peninsula. Punta del Este is also about a 1.5 hour drive east from the capital Montevideo, and is the most famous of numerous beach towns that line the Rio de la Plata to where it meets the Atlantic.

Curves Ahead

One of the basic precepts of leisure travel is the desire to see something different; something you can’t experience at home. I can sincerely assure you that unless you live in a Dr. Seuss book, you are unlikely to see any building even remotely resembling Casapueblo. That splash of diversity along with a world-class beach destination nearby is enough to inspire anyone to leave the straight and narrow. So bring your camera, swimsuit and leave your protractors at home. There be curves ahead, and that is what makes it worth visiting.

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The halls of Casapueblo, Punta del Este, Uruguay

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Elevator Appreciation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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What goes down, must come up – Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. That always seemed a bit of an understatement to me, especially with certain select nouns such as: life, an oxygen supply, or an extra ten pounds. While on a recent trip to New Mexico, U.S.A. I quickly recognized another one – elevator access.

The inspiration behind my epiphany stemmed from a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for visitors to the US Southwest. This subterranean wonderland is an amazing natural gem. The thing is, it’s underground. WAY underground. And those elevators that we all take for granted in our everyday life were undergoing renovation. In practical terms, that meant a hike of over a mile to descend 750 feet below the surface. And what goes down, must come up, so it also meant a 750 foot ascent back to the visitors center. That’s like taking the stairs down a 75 story building and remembering that you left your car keys back at the penthouse. Forget about using a Stairmaster machine – at that point you become the Stair Master.

So while my party was eager to see the sights beneath our feet, our calves and glutes were a bit reluctant. But we didn’t drive all that way just to stare at the big entrance hole (though it was pretty cool), so we resigned ourselves to guaranteed soreness and made our way past the impressive bat-watching amphitheater (they didn’t yet arrive for the season so there were no bats to see) to the large yawning maw dissolving into blackness. Sounds appealing, right?

Going Down

The Natural Entrance trail is a series of switchbacks that were easy enough to navigate while going downhill. The trick is not letting your mind dwell on what it’s going to be like coming back up. And even though you’re going with gravity at this point, you will still get a tremendous lower-body workout, as your trembling knees and heavy breathing will remind you. The good part, is that if the walk doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery most certainly will. Discreet lighting illuminates surreal formations of all types of stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, draperies and other cave-related formations – all on a huge scale, with chambers taller than your average cathedral. After about an hour of walking (more if you’re stopping like I did to take pictures) you will make it to what is appropriately called “The Big Room”. Even more importantly, you will reach a rest area where you can use the bathrooms, buy some snacks and drinks or even a souvenir t-shirt. You can also look longingly at the silent elevators with the “Closed for Renovation” sign stationed out front.

The Big Room

This series of interconnecting chambers some 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide is thankfully rather flat, winding you on a route past imaginatively-named formations such as ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Hall of the Giants’. I had my fun coming up with names of my own like ‘The Gates of Hell’ and ‘The Uvula’ (Tell me that’s not a great name for a cave formation!). There are small pools of water dotting the area and some great panoramas. The only thing that won’t have you gushing with praise is the prospect of climbing your way back out.

The Ascent

Before you start the long climb up, I recommend three things: 1) Use the bathroom, as both guests and park staff alike frown on unauthorized ‘erosion’ activities 2) Take a rest on the provided chairs and buy a reasonably priced bottle of water and a granola bar. You’re going to need the energy. 3) Resist the temptation to pry the elevator doors open with your bare hands, and take your time going up; preferably slow enough to catch your breath and take in a different angle of the formations you saw before. Eventually, you’ll see daylight again, and as you double over from exhaustion, you will still feel that it was well worth the effort.

Things to Know

All kidding aside, if you have health or mobility problems I strongly recommend that you wait until the elevators are working again. At the time of writing they have a tentative date of May 31, 2016 to be back in operation – the operative word there being “tentative”. For real-time information, you can and should check the park website before planning your trip.

There aren’t a ton of lodging, eating or shopping options in the immediate area of the park, which has some scenic wilderness surrounding it and is good for some mountain goat watching and lovely turn-offs. The city of Carlsbad is many miles away and while tiny Whites City is literally at the gates, there isn’t much there.

The visitor center is large and modern, with excellent educational displays detailing the park’s history along with theories on how the caves were formed. There’s also an extensive and very reasonably priced gift shop and cafeteria, so feel free to treat yourself to a hoodie and a hot dog upon completing your trek. I’m pretty certain you will have burned off enough calories to indulge.

You should also keep in mind that temperatures in the caves are a steady 56 degrees, so a light jacket or sweatshirt will come in handy until you sweat so much from the hikes up and down you’ll want to take it off. Also, you’re going to be asked if you have worn your same shoes to any other cave systems in the past ten years. Apparently, certain cave systems are home to microbes that are harmful to the bats and whatnot in Carlsbad Caverns, so if you’ve been off spelunking somewhere in the recent past, bring some fresh footwear.

One last note about cell phones and photography. You’ll want to put your cell phone on ‘Airplane’ setting, as you will definitely not be getting any service while in the caverns. Also, it is possible to get some decent photos using your cell phone camera. Whether it’s your phone or a real camera the same basic rule applies – in low light you need to keep the camera very steady, preferably on a tripod so that you don’t wind up with a memory card full of blurry shots. And whenever possible, include people in your photos, as depicting the enormous scale of the formations is difficult without a point of reference.

Summary

Carlsbad Caverns is a world-class site, worthy of its accolades and international recognition. It is worth the trip wherever you’re coming from, with or without elevators. It will take your breath away and help you appreciate the wonders of creation. And if you go before the elevators get fixed, it will also give you the leg workout of a lifetime.

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The persistence of stalactites – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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