At the beginning of each year, we sit down together and start planning our travels for the next 12 months. It's become somewhat of a ritual for us - discussing our trips from the previous year, dreaming up vacations for the year to come, and deciding how exactly we'll make these adventures happen.
The 2018 recap
We covered a lot of ground in 2018. From a weekend getaway to Budapest, to a group running adventure in Ibiza, to two trips to jolly ‘ol England. There was a summer road trip to Strasbourg, France, south through Switzerland, Lake Como and Piedmont in Italy, and with a relaxing stop in Provence before our long drive home to Spain. A surprise birthday trip to Mallorca, family travels to Granada and Costa Blanca here in Spain, a two-night friendo vacay in Porto, Portugal, and back home to San Francisco for the holidays.
We made it to seven countries in all last year, getting to know our new continent on the eastern side of the Atlantic just a little bit better. But we missed out on a few 2018 goal destinations, including Galicia and Basque Country here in Spain, and Sardinia, Italy. (Guess you just can’t have it all…). All three have been added to either this year’s travel wish list or our long-term goals list, so alas, we’ll make it there in time.
2019: Sure things, hopefuls, & long-shots
We’ve barely made it to February and our 2019 travels are off to a roarin’ start. A week visiting friends and hanging on the beach in Maui at the beginning of January and two quick excursions to Italy (Lucca and Rome) over the past few weeks, and we already have the itch again.
So, what’s next for 2019? Here are our sure things, hopefuls, and long shots for the rest of the year:
Mallorca (sure thing) - We’re barely off the runway in Valencia before the flight starts descending onto this incredible island. It’ll be a late June trip this year, before the July and August tourist throngs envelop the island.
San Sebastian or Sevilla (sure thing) - Fallas in Valencia is truly an amazing spectacle. It’s also amazingly loud. And long. This March, instead of submitting our pup Mac to a week’s worth of torture, we’ll hit the road for San Sebastian (the front runner) or Sevilla for the first time since moving to Spain.
Scotland (sure thing) - When your friends are expats and they get married, you get to go places for their wedding. So it’s Scotland in July for us. Kicking it at a castle and celebrating two wonderful people. Hopefully to be followed with some Northern Scotland exploration.
Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and… (hopeful) - Our travels through Southeast Asia in 2015 were some of the best months of our lives. We often dream about the fresh spring rolls, tasty pho and banh mi of Vietnam, and the khao soy, pad thai, and tom yum in Thailand. And not only is the food in this region unbeatable, the people and landscapes are incredible as well. This time around, we’re looking forward to exploring Laos and possibly another nearby destination too...
Canary Islands (hopeful) - Set off the coast of Morocco, smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, these volcanic islands are packed full of amazing beaches and beautiful scenery. We aren’t sure whether we’ll go to Gran Canaria, Tenerife, or Lanzarote, yet, but the possibility of an early Spring beach vacation may be just too tempting to pass up.
Amsterdam, Prague, Krakow (hopeful) - Megan hasn’t been to Amsterdam or Prague yet, so these two incredible European cities are high on our list. Poland has been tempting us both for years now, and we’ve heard Krakow’s historic architecture and food scene give it the leg up on Warsaw. A visit to one, if not two or three of these cities will definitely happen this year.
Greece (hopeful) - We want to go to Greece with plenty of time (at least a week, hopefully two) to explore the islands. We still need to figure out whether we’ll go to the Ionian Islands, Cyclades, or even further east, to Rhodes...
South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Rwanda (longshot) - An African safari is finally in the works. If we don’t make it back to Southeast Asia in 2019, we’ll head to Africa instead. With a visit to Cape Town a definite, we’re still looking into the myriad of southern African countries for a semi-independent safari, then hopefully swing east to Tanzania and the amazing beaches of Zanzibar, and again further northwest to resurgent Rwanda, gathering insight and making contacts along the way for future Cohica Africa safaris.
Sri Lanka (longshot) - Sri Lanka seems to be on every travel website’s “Best country’s to visit” or “Off the radar places to visit” lists, and we’re pretty sure it’s for good reason. Boasting an insane combination of natural beauty, wildlife, beaches, food and culture, it’s easily made it’s way onto our list as well.
Estonia (longshot) - We think Estonia is a hidden gem in northern Europe, sharing much of the gorgeous landscapes of the Scandinavian countries just across the Baltic, yet with Eastern European prices. Full of old castles, hilltop fortresses, and with a coastline dotted with over 1500 islands, we’re definitely headed there soon.
New Zealand (longshot) - A campervan road trip around New Zealand will happen for us one day. Whether it’s this year, next, or the one after, we’re not sure.
Sardinia (longshot) - We didn’t get to Italy’s second largest island last year, but hopefully this will be the year. If not, we will 100% be there next year. Why? Towering cliffs, beautiful beaches, and crystal clear Mediterranean sea.
With new travel experiences come new Cohica Designed Trips, and new contacts to make our Custom Designed Trips even more culturally-rich and locally-inspired. Here's to another amazing year of exploration!
Do you ever fall in love with a place then, when it comes to planning your next trip, struggle with the decision of returning or exploring somewhere new? This is a constant conversation in our house. We always want to explore the world and experience new cultures, but then there are those memories - sharing a bottle of red wine on warm stone steps overlooking ancient Rome; jumping off a 20-foot cliff into the clear water and swimming to the next cove to do it all over again; hiking along the narrow ridge of a volcanic crater surrounded by wild hydrangeas with the ocean on one side and a lake on the other - that we just want to go back and do all over again.
After nearly three months of traveling across Southeast Asia, it’s time to wrap things up. We’ve traveled through 4 countries, 23 cities, slept in an endless number of hotel/guesthouse/homestay beds (26 to be exact) and have taken 10 flights, 8 bus rides, 6 ferries, 1 train ride, and a seemingly endless motorbike ride. We’ve covered a lot of miles and had some awesome and not-so-awesome moments along the way. Here’s a list of the best, and most forgettable, moments from our 79 days in Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand (in no particular order).
The best moments in Southeast Asia
The most forgettable moments in Southeast Asia
So, obviously there are quite a few things about Southeast Asia we won’t miss. Some examples, you ask? Well, we definitely won’t miss constantly smelling like 100% Deet bug spray in a desperate attempt to avoid malaria and dengue fever. We won’t miss all-in-one bathroom/showers. We won’t miss the (pardon our French) shitty roads and ridiculously long bus rides, or having to buy bottled water everywhere. We also won’t miss the bland, monotonous Asian lagers and pilsners, the presence of very large rats and poisonous SNAKES, and least of all, super sketchy ferry rides.
But there’s plenty more parts of Asia that we will truly miss. First and foremost, the food! It’s delicious, accessible, and super cheap. The way these countries balance flavors, especially hot and cold, spicy and sweet, is unbelievable. It’s difficult to find authentic food of this quality in the United States. Southeast Asia is also a really, really beautiful part of the world where natural wonders seem to pop up out of nowhere. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, the mountains of Northeast Thailand, Koh Phi Phi, and Ubud, Indonesia are just a few of the truly amazing places we will never forget. We’ll also miss the people, who so often were incredibly gracious, humble, and welcoming to us. We made some great friends along the way that we’ll stay in touch with for a very long time.
We’ll miss our favorite snacks, like green tea Cornetto ice cream cones, Paddle Pop popsicles, Milka Crackers and banana chips. We’ll miss the motorbikes that are EVERYWHERE in SE Asia, sometimes with entire families (up to 5 or 6 people) all riding together. We’ll miss Buddhism, Hinduism, and the beautiful temples that dot the tropical landscapes across these countries. We’ll miss 50 cent bottles of beer, Vietnamese coffee, Indonesian Arak, one dollar smoothies, and fresh fruit (mangoes, coconuts, passion fruit and apple bananas) everywhere. We stayed in some very beautiful hotels and homestays for very little money, which we’ll definitely miss. But most of all, we’ll miss the feeling of freedom; of being unattached to the pressures and stress of the western world. Life exists in a different way there, with a stronger connection to the very simple, but very important, parts of life. There’s such beauty in this simplicity, which is found everywhere in Southeast Asia. This way of living, unattached to the western version of “success” and grounded in family and tradition, is something we won’t only miss, we’ll do our best to take home with us.
Traveling to places less popular among tourists and backpackers has its benefits. Can Tho, the largest city in the south of the Mekong Delta, is not a stop on the Saigon day tour route. This means low prices and a more realistic glimpse of everyday life. A city of over a million people, it is an agricultural mecca, the natural waterways and lush soil providing the perfect recipe for produce.
We've had the chance to try Vietnam's fresh fruit and vegetables along our journey, including many types of juice (everything from carrot to dragon fruit to passion fruit) and "fruit shakes" (aka smoothies, think mango and papaya, as well as adventurous options like avocado and tomato). We've sampled nearly every flavor. Most are very good, but many still miss the mark. Then, just as we're about to leave Vietnam, on our last stop, we find the perfect smoothie.
Cafe XAY is a non-descript, blink-and-you'll-miss-it cafe offering a couple local dishes, coffee drinks, and Vietnam's best smoothies. Small potted plants hang in the entrance and white bistro tables with "Ristorante" written in red cursive make up the open-air seating. Blended scoops of papaya and ice create a smoothie of the perfect consistency. The strawberry smoothie includes ice, yogurt and strawberries, complete with flecks of green (proof of a fresh strawberry base). And the best part? Each smoothie is about 75 cents. Daily mid morning Can Tho snack... check.
Raindrops barrage the water’s surface as our small boat rocks from side to side. Our Captain, a local Vietnamese man who we’ve paid $25 to guide us through the famous Cai Rang floating markets, desperately yanks the pull cord on the Honda motor but it continues to putter. A good 500 feet of murky brown water separates us from either side of the shoreline. We glance at one another, acknowledging that this is actually happening. We're stranded on a tiny wooden boat in the middle of the Song Hau River... in a monsoon.
Five hours earlier, the little vessel is successfully chugging along up the river, passing riverfront homes on stilts and boats carrying everything from fish to produce to motorbikes. Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the Mekong Delta, where locals from the surrounding web of rivers sell goods and produce, easily identified by the samples hanging atop poles on their boats. All of them stacked top to bottom with every fruit, vegetable and variety of fresh water seafood imaginable. Kids lay on the top deck, quietly eating pho as their normal morning routine plays out. The engine cut, our boat snakes through the market, quiet observers in everyday life.
A sharp turn off the main river narrows into a neighborhood of "side streets," or waterways, that twist through fruit orchards and around homes.
We stop at a small farm where jackfruits grow on the trunks of trees and happy fish perform aquaculture. The sun is still shining after an hour spent laying side by side in hammocks and sipping coconuts and mango juice (while our captain kicks it in a nearby hammock, opting for the 10am beer instead).
We're reaching the end of a seemingly perfect day as we embark on our two hour trip back to the pier. In true monsoon fashion, the rain makes a surprise attack. Within seconds of us saying "it's sprinkling," sheets of rain fall from the sky. Our captain struggles against the wind and rain to hoist up the small boat cover, tossing his jacket to us for added protection. The pounding rain combined with the river current and the wake of large passing boats result in a bumpy ride as we calculate the remaining hour or so back to Can Tho. We're the only small boat that is braving the storm on the wide river.
Just as we're nervously laughing, adventurous attitudes in full force, the engine dies. The captain manages to turn it over a couple of times and we momentarily celebrate, only for it to die again. Drifting down the river, rain pouring down, we finally reach a small dock where a friend/mechanic with a wrench and screwdriver in hand works on the wavering motor. It takes 45 minutes, a couple of false starts and a lot of Vietnamese banter, but it finally turns over and we're heading home.
Having weathered the storm we arrive back in Can Tho, say goodbye to the captain, and hope that our tip will contribute to a new motor for the next couple that braves the Mekong on the brink of rainy season in Vietnam.
One of the best gifts of traveling is that of perspective. At home, in our modern, democratic and economically stable society, we still somehow struggle with inequality and extreme income disparity. Yet standing here, on the corner of a crowded Hanoi street, watching hordes of female street vendors try desperately to sell goods, it’s impossible not to have that word creep into your mind. Perspective.
The most striking thing we’ve noticed about women in Vietnam is their strength. Whether speeding past on a motorbike or grilling meat at a roadside stand, they exude a silent, yet incredible, confidence. Maybe it’s because they’ve been through so much, tragically lost so many loved ones, so many sons and husbands gone following the still recent war.
We’re sitting in a small room in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, surrounded by portraits of the Heroic Mothers of Vietnam. This title was given by the National Assembly to over 50,000 women, all of whom had lost more than two children, their only child, their husband and child, or their own life, during the war. In the center of the room, sits the Chally scooter ridden by artist Dang Ai Viet, who traveled more than 35 thousand kilometers across the country to paint many of the women. All stories of incredible resolve, through incomparable tragedy and loss.
Later, at a nearby coffee shop, we talk about what it means to travel responsibly; to give back to the place we visit. We’ve purposefully been staying in locally-owned homestays and hotels, buying food and products made in Vietnam, and have sought out local shops to ensure what we spend goes back to the communities we visit. But with our newly gained knowledge of the struggle that many Vietnamese women face to support their families, it doesn't feel like enough. There’s no simple answer. No true or false questions, no multiple choice. This is an essay question that has to be answered thoughtfully and thoroughly, with details and examples. Part of this trip, this website, is about finding those details, providing those examples, sharing the information and continuing to look for opportunities to help.
In another room of the quiet museum, a small screen loops a 5 minute film, documenting the lives of street vendors near Hanoi. In Vietnamese society, men traditionally stay home to run the farm, or small plot of land, and watch over the children. They earn extremely little money doing this, forcing wives and mothers to move to the city and earn the money necessary for their families to survive. These women typically live together in a dorm-like apartment, as many as 10 to a room. They wake at 4am for the market and work throughout the day, often until 7pm, in hopes they'll make enough to return home every two weeks with $20.
We sit in silence, moved and saddened. We’ve been approached by street vendors throughout our time in Vietnam and nearly all have been women; persistently trying to sell everything from donuts to banh mi, clothing to conical hats. Now we’re itching to get outside and hand over a $20 bill to the first vendor we see so she can go home to her family.
Made up of nearly 2,000 islets within 1,500 square kilometers, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is just a few hours drive from Hanoi. The islets, a product of 20 million years of formation (the limestone itself, 500 million years in the making) from the wet, tropical climate. In Vietnamese, Ha Long means descending dragon, perhaps from a recent flight from Hanoi; it's meaning, ascending dragon. While there are various local legends describing how the bay came to be, its history is legend enough, as people have lived here dating back to 16,000 BC.
It’s the quiet that stands out more than anything. The stillness of the water and lack of wind, or really any weather at all. Once the clouds part and the sun casts its light on the steep limestone cliffs covered in green, the realization that this is not a dream starts to sink in. Images of Ha Long Bay have floated through our minds for years, drifting through the scattered islands in a place we likely couldn’t point to on a map. Always half a world away, but now we’re here.
Atop the roof deck of our 14 room imperial junk boat, we stand staring, jaws dropped, at the sheer beauty of this place. Within an hour we’re anchored in the central part of the bay, preparing to kayak through a floating fishing village, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Rowing slowly, praying for a way to truly stop time and hold this moment forever, we flow through the gray and green karsts. Hawks float in the sky above as we pass pearl farms, a few small huts on the islets, and caves to the larger bay around us. Soon we’re diving off the boat and floating in the bay, eyes closed, the moment burying itself deep in our minds.
Daylight fades and the sun sets magnificently behind an assortment of cliffs as we push further into the bay. By midnight we’re enveloped by darkness, drinking beers and playing cards with new friends from all over the world.
It’s hard to describe the sensation of hopes or dreams being fulfilled. Very often, we build expectations that can never be met. But not here. Here, every promise is met. Each sudden cliff, a moment permanently engraved in our memory.
We turn down a small alley in Hanoi’s old quarter in search of some good, local food. Our destination is Minh Thuy's Family Restaurant, which comes highly recommended by a certain travel review website. Minh’s is small and narrow, with only a half dozen tables, so we share a table just across from another young couple. Within a few minutes we’re deep in conversation with the two young Brits, sharing stories from our collective travels around Southeast Asia. Hours, and many beers later, we part ways and head home for the night.
In the time after meeting these cool young kids and before the beers (only 10,000 dong for large Tiger bottles!) were done, we had some great food at Minh’s. It turns out, she’s a pretty well known lady in this town, having made it halfway through the reality cooking show, MasterChef Vietnam. And the food definitely proves worthy of the fame.
Indulging our recently created addiction to fresh spring rolls, we share a plate, as well as some truly awesome ‘fried pho’ topped with crispy shallots and bean sprouts, and egg fried rice that is good, but has trouble standing up against the other plates. It’s tasty enough that we circle back for more the following night, because who can resist some delicious eats and $.50 beers served up by a local celebrity.
The bass of the gong rumbles through the dark theater. Our knees are pressed against the seats in front of us as we sit, surrounded by tourists and a handful of local mothers with their kids, all waiting in anticipation for the show to begin. The self-made happy hour we've just enjoyed on a bench next to the lake has resulted in an optimal buzz, perfect for the Thanh Long water puppet show.
Dating back to the 11th century, water puppetry is one of Vietnam's most treasured forms of folk art and entertainment. When the rice fields of the Red River Delta would flood, villagers would break out their wooden puppets and hold a show inside the rice paddy. A pagoda was put up to hide up to eight puppeteers, who stood in waist-high water and controlled the puppets with long strings and wooden rods. In modern theaters, a Vietnamese orchestra with vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, monochords, gongs, and bamboo flutes, along with lighting, fire and dry ice, now adds to the show. we quickly realize that this is not your local public library puppet show. It's both a traditional art form and a major production. And it's impressive.
The 3 to 4 foot lacquered wood puppets glide across the water's surface in perfect choreographed unison, much like an Olympic synchronized swimming team. Each scene tells a different story, all in Vietnamese, forcing us to quietly spitball what's going down on stage. Dragons breathe fire from the water, birds fly in from the ceiling, a monkey scurries up a tree and we're having a blast.
After this classic performance that dates back centuries, we step out into the bustling Hanoi streets. From the ancient to the modern, the streets are filled with hip hop dance troupes, roaming roosters, musicians, and vendors selling cocktails from carts. The energy is buzzing and this is clearly the local choice for a Saturday night out.
Art, music and culture, the old and the new, all in one night in Hanoi.
P.s. Did we mention the hip hop dancing...
Ear splitting squeals pierce through the gentle swarm of motorbike engines, as sparks cascade like fireworks in the humid afternoon air. Straddling the edge of the scooter occupied sidewalk, desperately attempting to navigate the rush hour street traffic, we twist and turn though what might be called the 'metalworks' district of Hanoi’s old quarter.
Vietnam's capital city is a mishmash of specialized neighborhoods, minuscule streets sewed through the wide avenues and palatial buildings left behind by the French. As we've learned by now, America left nothing but destruction in Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam. In contrast, much of this city feels European. Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the returned sword in Vietnamese) is the heart of Hanoi, with avenues splitting off like arteries to the south, narrow side streets like veins to the north. Each block has its own identity; some filled completely with flowers, others packed to the brim with silk and cloth. Others with paintings, trinkets, bamboo (mostly crafted into bongs, strangely enough), and metal crafted into household goods.
After some time spent in Vietnam, Hanoi’s differences from the south, although a bit subtle, are easy to notice. The honking of motorbikes is slightly louder and more aggressive. The chaotic traffic feels less organized. The food, less spicy. It might be where we’re staying (the old quarter is notoriously touristy), but Hanoi feels like a city that caters to foreigners. Menus are written in English, there are women hawking donuts and other trinkets everywhere, and hotel staff are relentless in their offers for trips to Ha Long Bay. Regardless, it’s a beautiful city, full of treelined streets, architectural details, and tributes to “Uncle Ho.” A marriage of ancient Vietnam and colonial France, being reinvented by the young, modern, and enterprising Vietnamese.
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