How I Fell in Love With Cape Town

Table Mountain

Cape Town had been on my list of cities to visit for a long time. Over the past year, I got lots of inspiration from friends who had either lived in or had traveled to South Africa. Everyone I knew who had been always talked so highly of it. In fact, one of my closest friends, who lived in Cape Town for a time, talked about it literally all the time, to the point where it got annoying sometimes. With all this uptalk, I had pretty high expectations going there and seeing what it was all about. Normally I try to keep my expectations low, but Cape Town just sounded too good to be true.

On day 1, I find myself watching my first African sunset from the top of Lion’s Head with a group of new friends from the hostel, a prominent peak jutting out between the sea and the city, and right there I could see what everyone was talking about all along. This place is beautiful. And I had fallen in love with it right from the start.

Lion's Head

There are only a handful of cities in the world I can really see myself living in: Sydney, Paris, Vancouver, to name a few. I spent nearly 3 weeks in Cape Town and by the time I left, I knew for sure that I could potentially see myself living here. And I’m not alone on that one–I was surprised to see so many expats living here. Many from other commonwealth countries, but also so many immigrants from all over Africa and Asia as well. Like any great cosmopolitan city, Cape Town is very diverse and has so much to offer. Here are some of the things I loved about the city.

City Meets Nature
Sea Point
Like many of my favorite cities in the world, Cape Town is in a unique position where you can be in a cafe downtown one minute and then feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere 20 minutes later. The city is nestled right at the foot of Table Mountain, one of the most iconic landmarks in Africa. While you can take an easy cable car ride to the top, there are also several trails of varying degrees of difficulty to chose from. Lion’s Head, another iconic Cape Town landmark, was my favorite hike. Come up here for sunset and you have outstanding 360 degree views of the city, the Atlantic Ocean, and Table Mountain. Watching the city come alive with lights and hiking back down under the moonlight was one of my favorite memories there. There is even a national park, about an hour south of the city, where wild ostrich, zebras, and baboons roam around, and you can visit the famous Cape Hope.

The Modern, Urban Edge
Cape Town is a fast-growing city, and with growth comes new developments. I was surprised at how cool and edgy some neighborhoods of the city were, with modern buildings and designs. The Waterfront area especially, but there are a lot of trendy cafes and shops tucked around all corners of the city: Oranjezicht, Hout Bay, Sea Point, to name a few. There are a lot of colorful and artistic murals scattered around the city, lots of green space, lots of neat markets. Bo Kaap is a must visit, with it’s bright and colorful houses. Beautiful promenades along the sea. By no means is it the pinnacle of modern society, but for an African city I was pleasantly surprised. The city definitely is full of life and energy.

The Beaches
Camps Bay
Aside from the spectacular aerial viewpoints you can get from around the city, Cape Town has many beautiful beaches to offer:

Camps Bay – Bougie, upscale, touristy, lots of shops of restaurants lining the street opposite the beach. Still, very beautiful and no wonder why it’s the city’s most popular beach!
Clifton Beaches – Series of beaches just north of Camps Bay. Quieter that Camps Bay, but still gets quite busy. No car traffic (you only get there by taking winding staircases down from the main road), white sand and clear blue water, beaches are bordered with huge beautiful granite borders.
Llandudno Beach – South of Camps Bay, a lot less busy that the previous two, but just as beautiful!
Sandy Bay – A wide, white sand beach that requires a little hiking to get to, but that just means you avoid the crowds. Beautiful clear water, we watched seals play in the surf here. Also the city’s only nude beach.
Boulder Beach – Technically you can’t swim here, but it’s where Cape Town’s famous penguin colony resides! What else could be better than penguins at the beach?
Windmill Beach – A lesser known beach, pretty close to Boulder Beach, but without the penguins. Small little cove sheltered by gigantic granite boulders and turquoise blue water. Definitely worth checking out after seeing the penguins.

Postcard Perfect Scenery
Chapman's Peak Drive
I suppose this could still fall under the “City Meets Nature” category, but literally everywhere you look here it’s absolutely beautiful! Driving around here is a dream, especially doing the famous Chapman’s Peak Drive (pictured above)

The Wineries
Glen Carlou Vineyard
Another reason why I fell in love with Cape Town–the wine. I’m not really sure why we don’t hear too much about South African wines in the US (maybe it’s because we’re so far away), but they’re pretty fantastic. The Western Cape is South Africa’s premiere wine-growing region, especially whites (Chenin Blanc, Savignon Blanc, Chardonnay), but reds are also becoming more popular among the scene (Pinot Noir, Shiraz).

Constantia is a suburb of Cape Town and is home to South Africa’s oldest wine estate. Located just 20 minutes from the city center on the back side of Table Mountain, having wineries this close to a major urban metropolis is too good to be true. Best of all, you don’t feel as if you aren’t anywhere near the city! My two favorites here would be Beau Constantia, for their beautiful terrace view of the vineyards, and Eagle’s Nest for their relaxing garden area where you can do wine and cheese tasting.

Further outside of Cape Town, you’ll find two of the Western Cape’s more famous wine areas–Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Both are around 40-60 minutes (respectively) outside of the city by car–again within easy reach. Stellenbosch is the larger of the two, being a large university town. Franschhoek is much more rural, but has a wonderfully quaint feel to it. The area around Franschhoek was first settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century, and their legacy still remains–the town in a lot of ways has a very French feel, nestled among a wild and dramatic mountain range. If I were to retire in South Africa, I’d live here and drink wine for the rest of my days! One very touristy, but still fun, way of seeing the wineries around Franschhoek is to take the Wine Tram, which is basically a hop on-hop off experience by both bus and rail. They offer several different routes to different wineries, all categorized by colors. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of them to be honest, but we hopped on the next available tour which was the Purple Line. This route gives you 8 or so wineries to choose from, but realistically you only have time for 5 or 6 for the day. Personally, I thought the first and last stops were the best. Vrede en Lust I thought had the best tasting wines, but finishing off the day with a sweeping view of the beautiful Franschhoek valley from the deck at Glen Carlou could not be beat. I guess it’s a good thing South Africa is so far away, otherwise I’d be a wineholic!

The Multicultural Diversity
Cape Town is home to 3.7 million residents and is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Dozens of ethnic groups make up a population of not just Cape Town, but all of South Africa (the country has 11 official languages, 9 of which are from African tribal groups). Aside from the local African groups, there is also a population of people who are considered “colored” (what people in South Africa who are mixed race are called), people with British decent, Afrikaners (Dutch decent), Cape Malay (Southeast Asian descent), and a population of Indians. Not to mention the expat community from around the world and the people who emigrate there from other parts of Africa. This wide range of diversity is perhaps why South Africa is also known as the “Rainbow Nation”.

The Food
I never really had any thoughts prior to going that South Africa would be a foodie destination, but with so much diversity there there’s actually little surprise that you’ll find such a wide variety of different kinds of food. Aside from local African dishes, you’ll find pretty much anything there. I even had very decent Thai and Mexican food while in Cape Town. There are very good restaurants all around the city, and the markets can be wonderful opportunities to sample all sorts of different foods.

All in all, I was blown away by Cape Town. By it’s beauty, by it’s people, by the food and culture. Now no city is perfect–every one on my list has it’s pros and cons. Corruption and crime rates here are very high. It’s not really safe to walk around at night, especially alone. I even witnessed some serious violence on the streets first hand while I was there. Severe drought has also undertaken the city in recent years–just in a few months, Cape Town is forcasted to become the first major city in the world to completely run out of water. If it weren’t for these things, I’d highly consider moving there. But for now it will always be one of my new favorite cities to visit!


How To Go on a Safari in Kruger National Park


No trip to Africa is complete without going on a safari. South Africa alone boasts 21 national parks and a large number of game reserves, each with something different to offer. There is no shortage of wildlife viewing opportunities here. The most famous park in South Africa is Kruger National Park, which is the oldest national park in the country and one of the largest in all of Africa. At 7,523 square miles (19,485 square km), Kruger is slightly smaller than Israel. At this size, there’s no wonder why it’s home to the largest variety of different animal species in the country. It’s one of the best places to see all of the Big 5 animals (elephant, rhino, water buffalo, lion, and leopard).

I first heard about this park back in 2008, when the famous YouTube video, Battle at Kruger, was becoming an internet sensation. Ever since then I made it a goal to go there when I made it to Africa one day. While most of my time in South Africa was just spent in and around Cape Town, I wanted to make sure to tick this bucket list item off the list, even if it was clear across the country.

I spent two days in the park itself and it was beyond what I would have imagined. I saw tons of animals, watched an amazing sunset out in the African bush, and even explored some other areas outside of the park such as beautiful Blyde River Canyon (pictured below). On the first day in the park, I was pretty much seeing animals left and right every 5 minutes as I drove along and I kept thinking in my head, “this is just like the Lion King!”

Blyde River Canyon

Most of all, I was amazed at how easy it is to come here and discover the park on your own! Many people come and visit the Kruger with a guided safari, but for independent travelers like myself, I found it totally doable. In a lot of ways it was just like visiting an African version of Yellowstone National Park in the US. The park has a good road network that is well signed, and lots of places you can camp or stay in.  I originally had planned on going with a tour company, but after meeting a number of people who had done it on their own, I was convinced to do a self-driven safari. Here are a few practicalities for those who wish to do the same:

Getting There
There are a number of ways to get to the Kruger. Coming from Cape Town, I flew into Lanseria Airport in Johannesbug and rented a car from there (much less crowded and busy than the main airport, O.R. Tambo International). From Joburg (that’s what the locals call Johannesburg), it’s about a 4.5 hour drive to the park’s western border. There are other alternatives that are much closer. Nelspruit is the largest city near the park with an airport, about one hour away. You can also fly directly to the Kruger into Skukuza, the largest camp within the park. Although quicker to get to from those two places, it’s about 3-4 times more expensive using these options than flying into Johannesburg from Cape Town. These could be good options though if you’re short on time.

Where To Stay
There is a wide range of different options when it comes to accommodation both in and around the park, ranging from humble tent sites to luxury 5 star safari lodges. Many of the camps are self-sufficient and operate like small towns, with restaurants, cafes, gas stations, and even markets to stock up on food and supplies. If you wish to stay in the park in one of the camps, it’s wise to book ahead especially in the busy season. You can find a wide variety of different accommodations and book through the park’s website.

Entry Fees
Whether you’re staying outside the park and driving in every day or staying within the park itself, you’ll need to pay an entree fee for each day. For foreigners, it’s R328 (about $27 USD) per day. If you decide to to a sunset or night drive with a ranger (which I highly recommend!), it’s also a good idea to sign up for those early when you set out for the day as they can fill up quickly.

The Kruger is the only part of South Africa where malaria is a concern, so keep this in mind if you decide to venture here. Your risk of getting the disease is during the dry season (May-September) is fairly low when the mosquitoes are more dormant, but  precautions are especially necessary during the wet season (October-April). While malaria pills may not be necessary if you are only visiting a few days, it’s smart to spray yourself with insect repellent throughout the day and keep covered by wearing long sleeve shirts and pants.

Some other important things to point out in terms of safety if you do a Kruger self-drive safari:

  • You’re not allowed to get out of your vehicle at all while out in the park, except for in signed areas where it says it’s allowed, usually at high viewpoints.
  • You cannot drive at night. This is especially important as anyone who arrives at camp or at the gate too late may be imposed with a hefty fine. Be sure to double check the park closure times listed on your permit and leave plenty of time to get back to camp or the gate.
  • Speed limits are 50 km/h on the paved roads and 40 km/h on the gravel roads and are strongly enforced, but since you’ll be looking out for animals you shouldn’t be going too fast anyway!

Rhinos at Sunset

I spent 2 full days exploring the park on my own and pretty much saw most of the major wildlife. I was a little worried that without a guide I might not see as much since I didn’t have the local knowledge or insight in animal behavior, but I didn’t find this to be a problem at all. It’s amazing seeing the sheer number of animals that live here and are wandering about right next to the road. I swore David Attenborough was just going to walk out of the bushes and narrate the scene–just like in the wildlife documentaries.


Oftentimes other cars pulled over on the side of the road will give away the presence of an animal hiding nearby. I came across a group of cars parked on the side of the road only 20 minutes after entering the park and stopped to see what it was. I was pleased to find a leopard just casually lounging in the grass, the most elusive of the big cats!

More common sights around the park are springbok (South Africa’s national animal), zebra, giraffe, elephants, kudu, wildebeest, baboons, water buffalo, among others. Especially during the dry season when water is scarce, animal sightings are common around watering holes. It’s also a good spot to see hippos and crocodiles. Sunset and night drives are also a good opportunity to see animals that are more active at night like lions, hyenas, jackal, civets, and if you’re really lucky the elusive honey badger. There is a complete list of animals you can find in the park on the Kruger National Park website.

ElephantAt first I wasn’t so sure about doing a self-drive safari of the Kruger, especially since I had never been there before, but once I got there and started exploring I realized how easy it is! Of course, there are always tour operators, which can be an enriching experience. Intrepid Travel was the one I was thinking on going with before I decided to do it all on my own, and they offer numerous itineraries to the Kruger as well as throughout southern Africa.

15 Reasons Why You Should Go to South Africa in 2018

Has South Africa ever been on your bucket list? If it hasn’t then it really should be! Although it is really far from pretty much everywhere else in the world, don’t let the long distance deter you–it’s worth the journey. I recently traveled there after hearing so many good things about it from friends, and now it’s one of my favorite places in the world! Here are 15 reasons why you should consider adding it to your travel plans for 2018:

1. They have penguins on their beaches.
Boulder Beach
This should be enough of a reason to go! Who knew they had penguins in Africa?

2. It’s an ideal winter getaway.
As a mostly dry and arid region, South Africa gets abundant sunshine throughout most of the year in many places. Being in the southern hemisphere, they enjoy summer between mid-October up through March, so if you’re from North America or Europe it’s a great place to get away from a cold and gloomy winter.

3. The wine is world class.
Vrede en Lust
Although not quite as famous as the French, Italian, or other wine regions scattered across the globe, South Africa’s underappreciated wines have a growing reputation. Most of the country’s wines are made in the Western Cape, where the cooler coastal climate and variety of soils makes it an ideal corner for grape growing. There are several wine areas just within a one-hour drive from Cape Town, including Constantia, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek. Even if you don’t like wine, just seeing the vineyards and rows of grape vines reaching out to the nearby mountain peaks is worth coming for. Most wineries also have restaurants where you can enjoy a really nice meal and fantastic scenery!

4. Your dollar goes a long way here.
For the US and many other western nations, a weak rand and a stronger dollar means you can get a lot for your buck here. The cost of living can vary depending on where you are at. Cape Town is much more expensive than the rest of the country, but it’s still a relatively cheap destination. A decent bottle of wine costs around $5 and a nice 3-course dinner with an alcoholic drink can range from $14-18. You can rent a car for as little as $12 a day. A shark cage diving trip can cost just over $100, a fraction of the cost of having the same experience in other places, like Australia. Flying domestically can also be very inexpensive–I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg for only $60.

5. The food is amazing.
The food in South Africa is top notch. I don’t know what it is, but I never had a bad meal there and many others I know who have been have had similar experiences. And it’s not only just local dishes that are really tasty, every meal I had on my trip there was fantastic and really fresh. From steakhouses, to seafood in local markets, to Thai, and even Mexican! Aside from restaurants, the markets are also a great place to try a variety of different eats.

6. The diversity is incredible.
With over 11 different official languages and a melting pot of cultures, it’s incredible to see amount of cultural and ethnic diversity here. Aside from the native African groups and those with British and Dutch backgrounds, I was really surprised to see so many Asian influences here, especially from India. There is a reason why South Africa is also known as the “Rainbow Nation”.

7. The beaches are amazing.
West Coast National Park
With over 1,600 miles of coastline, South Africa has plenty of beaches to go around. The best part is in a lot of places most of the time you can have a beautiful beach all to yourself!

8. Braais are a major part of the culture.
Afrikaans for “grilled meat”, South Africans are really serious when it comes to braai (bbq). It’s a social custom that has become a national staple–they even have a national braai day (September 24 for anyone curious). If you happen to get invited to one, be sure to bring your own meat and drinks to share!

9. The people.
Cape Town Braii
While the nation has had a turbulent history with high levels of corruption and crime, I found the South African people to be wonderfully warm and very proud of their country. Everyone I met was friendly, welcoming, and enthusiastic about sharing their culture with me–I even got invited to someone’s birthday party and a backyard braii!

10. Biltong. Enough said.

South Africans love their meat and this is another must-try staple food. Kind of like an African version of beef jerky, but more tender and way better than the American kind! You can find it everywhere, from roadside stands, to stalls in the food markets, as well as pre-packaged in grocery stores. You can’t leave South Africa without trying this!

11. Springbokkies.
This is a super delicious cocktail shooter made from creme de menthe and Amarula, which is a South African creamy liqueur that’s made from a native fruit and somewhat tastes like Bailey’s Irish Cream. Named after the national animal and national rugby team mascot, the springbok, it’s another staple that you have to try while you’re here!

12. You’ll feel like you’re in the Lion King.
Giraffe Crossing
With more than 20 national parks, as well as several other regional parks and private game reserves, South Africa offers some of the world’s best wildlife spotting and ecotourism opportunities. Taking a drive through one of Africa’s most famous national parks, Kruger National Park, will literally make you feel like you’re in the Lion King as you can watch giraffe, elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and many more African critters casually roaming about from your car.

13. That accent.
Out of all the English accents out there, the South African English accent has always been the hardest one for me to pin down. I always thought it resembled the Kiwi accent with the flattening of the vowels (e.g. South Africa = “Seth Efrikeh”), but with a lot of influence from Afrikaans (which is a Dutch-based language). Either way, I just love the way it sounds!

14. The political climate is changing.
In December 2017, the ANC (African National Congress) elected Cyril Ramaphosa as their new leader, paving the way for him to potentially become the next president of South Africa in the 2019 elections. With the current administration being so heavily accused with scandal and corruption, as well as being responsible for years of a stagnant economy, this shift in the political climate of South Africa may be a big game-changer for the country. For travelers, this can be an interesting opportunity to witness South African history in the making first hand.

15. It’s stunningly beautiful.
Blyde River Canyon
No matter where you go in South Africa, its land is bound to leave you in wonder. Ranging from a wide variety of different micro-climates and terrain, the landscapes here rank among the most beautiful in the world.

Why You Should Always Stretch During Long-Haul Flights

Flying Over AfricaYou know how they always say on long flights you should stand, stretch, and walk around every few hours? Well, I recently learned how important it is to take that advice. Last month during a flight home from South Africa (which was nearly 24 hours of being up in the air!), I developed a small cramp within my left calf muscle. Nothing too out of the ordinary, sitting in any position for an extended period of time can give you aches but this time it just felt a little off. It wasn’t really all that painful, just felt uncomfortable and made walking a little awkward. Although even after getting home and trying to walk it off, it still wouldn’t go away. I read online on WebMD and other various websites about leg pain after flying and kept encountering the same three letters: DVT. Otherwise known as “Deep Vein Thrombosis”, it’s when a blood clot forms within the deep veins of your body, usually in the legs. Most people who get DVTs are generally older, have had major surgery, are overweight, pregnant, or have a family history of blood clots. I don’t match up with any of those risk factors at all, but at the bottom of the list, a small percentage of those who get them are from sitting for long periods of time, such as when flying or driving. Truthfully, I’ve never even really heard about it until then.

Considering I didn’t have any of the symptoms other than leg pain (shortness of breath, chest pain, redness on skin, swelling), I thought it was just a stubborn cramp that would take a few days to go away. Still, I had a hunch that I should have a doctor check it out first, so 24 hours after arriving at home I made a trip to the hospital. One ultrasound and four hours of waiting later, the diagnosis was confirmed and sure enough: I had DVT in my leg! Even the doctor and nurses were surprised–it’s uncommon for a young, fairly fit, and physically active person to get DVTs. It’s not unheard of however, as even endurance racers and marathon runners can get it.

So what happens when you are diagnosed with DVT? Well, for the first few days I was given shots that I had to administer myself to help stop the clot from spreading. Not an overly exciting task for someone who doesn’t like needles. They also gave me coumadin, which is a blood thinning medicine to control the rate your blood clots. Unfortunately, DVT is not something that resolves quickly. Even now, a month later, I’m still on the meds on a daily basis and am told I’ll likely continue to do so for a couple more months. I get blood drawn at the clinic twice a week (although as time goes on, the visits become less frequent) to determine what my INR levels are, which is basically a number that describes how quickly your blood clots. 2-3 is the normal target range, anything below that means your blood is “thick” and clots easier, anything above that means your blood is “thin” and it takes longer to clot. The amount of coumadin you take on a daily basis depends on what your INR level is.

DVTs are particularly dangerous because an untreated blood clot can spread to other parts of your body and lead to a pulmonary embolism, where your lungs fill with blood, or to your brain and cause a stroke–both of which can be deadly. Depending on the severity of the clot, the effects can become severe. Thousands of people die from DVT each year, some even while at the airport immediately after landing. Ways to prevent getting one while traveling include:

  • Regularly stretching and standing on flights longer than 4 hours (move around every few hours).
  • Do heel-toe exercises or circle your feet if you’re unable to move around.
  • Don’t wear tight clothing.
  • Drink lots of water and stay hydrated.

In my case, I didn’t do any of these things. Luckily (although I suppose in this case, unluckily) for me, I can sleep fine on most flights and managed to sleep in the same sitting position for nearly 5 hours without getting up or moving around. On top of that, I hadn’t had much water that day (but happily had 3 glasses of complimentary wine during the flight, which can further dehydrate you) and wore a pair of skinny fit jeans. I believe all of these factors played a role in developing DVT, so these are things I’ll be more wary and proactive about in the future.

So next time you fly or just sit down for long periods of time in general, make sure you get up every now and then and move around! Even if you are young and fit; anyone is vulnerable to getting DVT. Doing simple little exercises every few hours can save your life.

Vamos a España!


It’s been a long time since my last posting, so it’s about time for an update! I’m back on the road again and have been traveling through Europe for the past few weeks doing some tours with Rick Steves’ Europe! I had good intentions on writing new posts when I started out a couple weeks ago on the Best of the Adriatics tour, but with dodgy WiFi and just plain old laziness, I’ll have to catch up on that another time. For now, I’m currently doing the 14 Day Best of Spain tour and writing from the capital city of Madrid.

On previous trips to Europe, I’ve always finished off in Spain at the very end and never made enough time to experience it properly. Back in 2014 I had my first taste of the country on a two night visit to Barcelona. I didn’t get to see very much of the city at all, tired and broke after a summer traveling around the continent, but I did participate in the correfoc (fire run) during La Fiesta a la Merce, where locals parade through the streets dressed up as diablos shooting off fireworks in every direction, which is still among my favorite travel memories ever. The second time was in 2016, with just a couple days on the opposite side of the country in Sevilla. Despite the short visits, I’ve always been fascinated by Spanish culture and obsessed with the food, so I knew one day I’d have to return to do a proper visit.

On this tour, we start out in Barcelona for a few days. Despite a few years of absence, I felt at ease wandering down familiar streets and wide boulevards lined with cervecerias packed with chatty locals indulging themselves with beer and tapas. I fell in love with Barcelona last time I was here. It’s not the prettiest city in the world. Like LA, it’s a huge metropolis sprawled between the sea and the mountains. I just love the energy that’s here–there always seems to be some sort of party or festival happening. It’s a city that is always alive–no matter what time of day or night it is, there are always people out on the streets. Situated right on the coast, there are big beaches where you can lay on the sand with a nice Estrella Damm beer (drinking in public is allowed) and soak up that Catalonian sun. Being on the water also means you can get some seriously fresh seafood!

Placa de CatalunyaRight from the beginning of this trip, things were getting interesting as I entered Spain during a fairly interesting time in its history. Catalonia, the country’s most northeastern state (where Barcelona is located), is seriously considering breaking away from Spain. Catalonian independence has always been a controversial subject  here for decades now, but has only seriously been considered recently. According to recent polls, many Catalonians support independence, but on the other hand many people within Catalonia and throughout the country wish to keep Spain unified. Right outside of my hotel on the day I arrived in Barcelona, an enormous rally of hundreds of thousands of people were marching in support of keeping Spain united. I’ve never seen a march of any sort of this size and the sheer volume of people shouting “Viva España!” while waving thousands of national flags gave me the chills!

Since I didn’t really get to experience many of the sights in the city last time I was here, I made it a goal to hit up some of the big ones. La Boqueria market was one of the first places on my to do list. A huge public market under a covered roof, the market offers a huge selection of foods and goods, from spices to meats, seafood, wine, produce, and even a few eateries where you can enjoy an array of tapas. Situated right off Las Ramblas, the main shopping and tourist drag that runs through the heart of the city, it’s a very popular market and is often very crowded. A better alternative is at Santa Caterina Market–a lot less crowded and touristy with an equally impressive amount of things to eat!

La Sagrada Famlia

One morning we did a very nice walking tour of the old parts of the city, lead by a local guide, who did a wonderful job at orientating us to the city’s past and present, wandering through the narrow streets of the historic Barri Gothic and the trendy El Born neighborhoods. At the end of the walk, we took the metro over to La Sagrada Familia, which was another big sight that I skimped out on last time. The city’s biggest icon, this remarkable cathedral still remains unfinished since the first foundations were laid in 1882, 135 years ago. They believe it will finally be finished in 9-10 years from now, but looking at the ambitious designs of the project, that seems pretty optimistic. After having seen so many churches throughout Europe I honestly couldn’t care less seeing another one, but this one was remarkable and very much worth a visit. From the outside, it looks like a massive hodgepodge of sculptures and carvings featuring people, plants, and animals, but if you look closely you’ll find that the detail that went into it is significant. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a cavernous room with columns supporting the structure like giant tree trunks. With huge stained glass windows, the interior is illuminated with brilliant greens, blues, reds, yellows, and oranges and somewhat resembles both morning and afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees of a forest. It was mesmerizing.

Park Guell After Sagrada Familia, we all had some free time to ourselves so I took the bus up the hill to check out another one of Gaudí’s projects that I failed to see on my last trip to Barcelona: Park Güell (pronounced “parkway”). Much of the park is free to enter, but to see the famous mosaic Gaudí features it costs 7 euro to enter, which must be reserved online in advance for specific entry times (we failed to do so last time, so we never were able to get in). Park Güell was actually a failed upscale housing development project that never got fully off the ground after stalling during WWI. Only two houses were built and they very much resemble gingerbread houses with whimsical features on both interior and exterior. I found the park to be fairly small and a little overrated to be honest. A large section of the upper terrace, where you get the nice views overlooking the park and the city, was closed off due to some sort of construction/refurbishment project. It’s considered a “must do” in Barcelona however, so if you have the time it’s a spot with some nice views of the city, but I think there are other sights that are more worth seeing if you’re short on time.

MontserratIf you have extra time in Barcelona and looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, going to Montserrat makes for an excellent day trip. This mountain dramatically rises outside of an otherwise bland landscape like the serrated edges of a saw (Montserrat literally means “serrated mountain”). Only 1.5 hours away by train and cable car from Barcelona’s city center, it’s quite easy to get to. It’s home to an old monastery and is an important religious and cultural site for the Catalan people. Aside from the monastery, a black statue of the Virgin Mary, and other religious sites, there are lots of trails leading into the mountain. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing. After taking a short but steep cable ride from the train station to the mountain, I decided to forgo the monastery and headed straight up the trail to the highest peak. The trail starts out steeply going up a series of stairs, but is also flat enough in places where you can cool off in the sheltered forest. In October, it was perfect hiking weather–about 72 degrees F with a light breeze. I can imagine during the summer it can get incredibly hot, so during that time of year it’s best to start early in the morning if possible. At the top of the mountain, you’re given amazing 360 degree views of the mountain and surrounding landscape. On the day I went up there, it was clear enough to see the Pyrenees, the mountain range which makes a natural border with Spain and France.

Perhaps the best thing about Barcelona, and Spain in general really, is the amazing food! The variety of different dishes and cuisines here seem endless–I’ve never had something here that I didn’t like. Rich in olive oil, fish, breads, meats, pastries, and wines, Spain’s culinary experiences never disappoint. It’s one of my favorite countries in the world to eat in, and I always seem to gain a few pounds here with every visit. We explored a few different places for tapas, eating late into the night as the Spanish do. Some favorite spots were at Loft, a casual tapas place in the hip and trendy neighborhood of El Born. Onofre is also worth mentioning, a small and humble family-run tapas bar with some amazing dishes. La Xampanyeria is a great spot for cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. It’s very small and due to it’s popularity gets very crowded and loud with people sipping on cava and chatting over tapas.

Last but not least, going to the beach is part of the Barcelona experience! Although they are man made, you can still spend a very nice and relaxing day at the beach, having cold beers on the sand, swimming in the Mediterranean, and hitting up some of the nearby bars and nightclubs in the evening.

Having been twice now and with a much better perspective, Barcelona continues to be one of my favorite cities in the world. The energetic vibes of the city alone, makes it so appealing and I’m sure I’ll be back here again someday.

10 Quirky Things About America That I Learned From Traveling Abroad

Lady Liberty

Today marks my 1 year anniversary since being back in the United States! It was bittersweet coming to the decision to conclude my long-term travels and returning to my home country, but after a year of being back I’ve slowly adjusted from a life living out of a backpack and being somewhat settled. I’ve been fortunate enough to work for a great company that gets me out and traveling a few weeks out of the year in Europe, so I’ve managed to find a compromise! Although I’ve gotten back into the routine of working 9-5, paying rent, and being able to hang out with friends and family again, one thing that’s different is now I notice things that I never did here before. Oftentimes we don’t think a whole lot about the little quirks and behaviors that we encounter everyday, but after being away so long I began to notice things that I was so accustomed to before:

1. We Sell Cigarettes and Alcohol in Pharmacies
During my first weekend back in the US, I walked into a Walgreen’s in New York City with some British friends and they pointed this out to me. I never thought of it before, but it really is pretty silly that we sell alcohol, cigarettes, candy, chips, and other unhealthy foods at the same place where you go to get medicine! In other countries, you go to the pharmacy specifically for prescription drugs. Although pharmacies here are really more like convenience stores than a true drugstore, it is a bit of a medical paradox!

2. We’re Super Casual When It Comes to Dress
In other countries, especially in Europe, I’ve noticed people seem to be more well dressed while they’re out and about. Not necessarily fancy dress, but overall it seems people are more mindful in presenting themselves in a fashionable way when in public. In the US, especially in smaller towns like the one I grew up in, it’s not uncommon to see people shopping at the store in their pajamas or gym clothes (even if they didn’t actually just come from the gym). Baseball, football, and other sport related apparel for men, yoga pants for women, and tacky graphic t-shirts are also more common here than most other places.

3. We’re Behind In Credit Card Technology
Does anyone else think it’s weird that we’re okay with letting our server walk away from the table with our credit cards in hand? Or that we simply authorize the transaction with an illegible scribbled signature? I never thought it was until I moved abroad and started using foreign banks and credit cards. In pretty much every other modern country, your card has a chip in it and you verify a transaction using a personalized pin number. Oftentimes at the restaurant, the waiter will actually bring a wireless card reader to your table. While I noticed we are starting to see more cards with chips in them here in the US, nearly all of them still require a signature. Pin numbers clearly seem more secure.

4. We Tend to Wear Shoes Indoors
This doesn’t apply to every household, but it’s not unusual to walk in and around the house with shoes on. Which when you think about it is super unsanitary, especially after walking around in who knows what is on the ground outside! There are exceptions though, usually it’s polite to take your shoes off when you’re a guest at someone else’s home or if it’s been raining. But generally I’ve noticed we don’t always take shoes off in our own homes.

5. We’re Obsessed With Gift Cards
Again, something I never really thought about much before, until I walked into a Walmart the first few days back in the States and saw an entire shelf stocked full of hundreds of gift cards–all for random things! Gift cards for restaurants and retail stores are the most common, but we even have gift cards for airlines now. I have even seen gift cards for Harley Davidson–just a little something to go towards your next motorcycle purchase!

6. We Don’t Include Tax In Our Prices
This is probably one of the little Americanisms that irks me the most. Every other country I’ve been (except maybe Canada) includes VAT (value-added tax) in the price. It was pretty convenient in other countries knowing that a $5 box of cookies is going to cost $5, not $5.52. I’d rather know the total price I’m paying for something before I buy it, rather than having to guess or calculate how much tax will be added on later.

7. It’s Necessary to Own A Car
Unless you live in a big city, it’s pretty much necessary to have a car in order to get around here. Especially out west, where communities are sparser and farther in between. I was amazed in Europe especially at how well connected everything is by train and bus–even between small rural towns.

8. Our Country Is Huge
It’s no secret that the US is a big country, but I never realized how vast it really was until I started visiting others. I once took a train from Amsterdam in the west of Holland to Arnhem near the eastern border and it took 1 hour to cross the entire country. To compare to the US, a cross country rail journey can take nearly 3 days (or 5-6 hours of flying time)! Even France, the largest country in the EU, takes about 10 hours to drive from end to end. My home state of Washington takes about 8.5 hours to drive from the westernmost point to the border of Idaho, and we’re not even among the biggest states!

9. Our Vacation Times Are Short
The average American gets 2 weeks of vacation–and it doesn’t necessarily mean paid time off since we’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require employers even a day of paid leave. Even working a modest job as a bartender in both Australia and New Zealand, I had 4 weeks of paid holiday time per year. In France it’s 5 weeks. Pretty much every other developed country guarantees some sort of paid vacation time.

10. We Pronounce Our Z’s Differently
We’re the only English-speaking country where we pronounce the last letter of the alphabet as “zee”. Everywhere else (neighboring Canada included) it’s pronounced as “zed”, which blew my mind when I learned everyone else pronounces it this way! Even in other non-English languages, such as French, German , and Spanish it’s “zed”. How and why Americans ended up pronouncing Z this way I have no idea, but I’ve found that we like to be a little different from everyone else sometimes.

10 Things I Hate (and Love) About Seattle

Emerald City

Having been back to living in Seattle again for 8 months now (after being away 5 years), I’ve noticed that there have been both a lot of big changes in the city and there are things that still remain the same. It’s definitely not the same place it was even 5 years ago, and as much as I love being back here again, there are also a few things I love to complain about (because that’s what Seattleites do best). Here are some of the best and worst things I’ve found about living here:

1. The Weather
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first, although it really goes two ways. Seattle has a reputation of being “the rainy city”. We do get a good amount of gray, overcast days that gives the city a moody, dreary vibe for several months of the year, but in terms of actual rainfall we don’t get all that much (New York and Miami actually get more rainfall). That being said, the lack of sunshine throughout the winter and spring can get quite depressing. Seasonal affection disorder (SAD) is a thing here, which is a type of depression that is influenced by the changing of seasons. There is even a special type of lamp or “happy light” that some Seattleites use for therapeutic remedy. Personally, during those long spells without sunshine, I find myself thinking, “why on earth did I choose to move back here?”

But then comes the silver lining.  Summers here are absolutely stunning–when the rest of the country is suffering with intense heat and humidity, we enjoy beautifully warm, long days (the sun goes down around 9:30 at night on June 21st). In the warmer months, typically May-September, the entire mood of the city changes with the changing of the seasons. People become so much more friendlier, and like furry woodland critters emerging from their long winter hibernation, everyone in the city is suddenly out and about, staying active and indulging in a vast array of outdoor activities. This is the time of year when I find myself thinking, “there isn’t any where else I’d rather be.”

2. The Neverending Construction
Since the arrival of Amazon’s headquarters in South Lake Union and the massive tech boom that is still well underway here, Seattle has become one of the fastest growing cities in North America. With it has come a tremendous amount of new high-rise condos and office buildings popping up around the city, with many more on the way. With this “Manhattanization”, the city is now littered with construction cranes reshaping the skyline (58 as of summer of 2016). Going up isn’t the only direction the city is going in–on the ground, there are endless construction projects on the roadways that make getting around the city like an enormous obstacle course.

3. The “Big Town” Feel
Despite being among the largest cities in the United States, Seattle’s relaxed and laid-back vibe makes it stand out from most other major cities with a distinct “big town” feeling. The city is divided into several distinct urban neighborhoods that all have their own flair and personality, making this big city feel like a smaller place than it really is. Even the downtown area is quite small, taking only 20 minutes or so to walk across. Despite all this, Seattle still offers what every great major city does–a robust bar and restaurant scene, lots of green space, and a plethora of major music and cultural events that take place year-around.

4. Asian Food Here Is Amazing
Although seafood and coffee are the classic and most well-known fares here, Seattle also has a diverse international food scene here, particularly from Asia. With a large Vietnamese population, pho (beef noodle soup) is to Seattle as Turkish döner kebabs are to Germany, and Indian curry is to London. There are also a healthy amount of great Korean, Japanese, and Thai restaurants all around. I can personally vouch that the Thai food in Seattle competes pretty closely with the food I tried in Thailand–it’s good stuff. Best of all, they’re usually great places to go if you want to eat cheaply. A lot of the good Asian restaurants and eateries are found in the International District (Chinatown) or U-District neighborhoods, although you can find them scattered about around the city. Some of my favorites include Jai Tai (Thai – Fremont), Pho Than Brothers (Vietnamese – U-District), and Musashi’s (Japanese – Wallingford).

5. The Terrible Drivers & Traffic
I suppose everyone would suggest that their city would boast the worst drivers, but Seattle’s motorists are by far the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s not so much that people are reckless or aggressive like they are in other parts of the country, but just the opposite. Seattle drivers are super passive aggressive, oblivious, and clearly must have bribed their driving instructors in passing their driver’s test. The number of people on the roads here who fail to use their indicators before switching lanes or drive slowly in the left-hand passing lane (and then suddenly match your speed when you try to pass them–super frustrating) is astounding.

Or the “you go, no you go” game that’s played at 4-way intersections everywhere. Although I think people are generally trying to be polite and have good intentions, it becomes awkward and confusing forfeiting your right of way when it’s your turn to go. All of this, in addition to the horrendous traffic (listed as the #4 city with the worst traffic in the US), makes driving here a major headache. And forget snow days–the whole city shuts down since no one can handle driving in it. (see link for video)

6. Lack of Train System
Unlike our neighboring cities, Vancouver, B.C, and Portland, Oregon, Seattle is way behind in having a good rail network. We only received our single-line light rail in 2009, which stretches from the airport in the south to the University of Washington in the north. For the most part the public transportation system here is mostly made up of bus routes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so thankful for the light rail (especially now that I can get from the university to downtown in a matter of minutes) and the bus network is quite extensive (you can get to pretty much anywhere you need to by bus). The only thing is 1. getting around primarily on a bus system is painfully slow (especially when there are a few connections involved) and 2. less trains means more traffic on the road (buses make up part of the traffic as well) and as mentioned before, the traffic in Seattle is already bad enough and will only get worse as more people move here. Fortunately, as of November 2016, Seattleites voted to expand our rail system with a new network of both underground and overground light rail routes. The only catch is it’s not projected to be finished until 2041–25 years from now. So I guess I’ll just have to be content with the bus network for the time being.

7. Dogs Are Everywhere
As a lover of dogs, this is something I absolutely love about Seattle. It’s a very dog-friendly city, several designated off leash parks and beaches throughout. There are lots of dog-friendly hotels and shops around, and they’re allowed to ride on the bus with you! Many restaurants even now allowing dogs to dine with you on their outdoor terraces and patios. It’s also quite common seeing dogs out on the lake with their owners riding in kayaks and stand-up paddle boards during the summer. In fact, there are actually more dogs within the city limits then there are children. This craze for dogs here is huge and is one of the funnily odd things that make Seattle a great place to live (for dog lovers).

8. Clean and Green
When it comes to good air and water quality, Seattle ranks high on the list among US cities. Thanks to fresh snow that falls every year in the surrounding mountain ranges, we’re lucky enough to have clean, great tasting water that you can drink right from the tap. People here tend to be quite mindful of the environment, where many people choose to bike to work, plastic bags are banned in retail shops, and people vote for eco-friendly initiatives. Recycling is taken seriously here–our recycling and compost bins are larger than our regular garbage containers.

Even the city’s nickname as the Emerald City reflects the vast amount of forests that are found throughout the region. There are several large green spaces scattered about throughout the city limits, including Gasworks Park, Discovery Park, and Warren G. Magnuson Park–all of which were either former gas plants or military installations. The Cascade mountains are just a 30 minute drive from the city center, where there are endless opportunities for hiking and climbing. Getting close to nature is incredibly easy here.

9. Seattle Freeze
One of the most annoying realities of living in Seattle is dealing with a phenomena known as Seattle Freeze. This term was coined in an article of the Seattle Times back in 2005, which describes the belief that it’s difficult for newcomers and transplants from elsewhere to make new friends. Although very polite and easy to talk to, people from Seattle aren’t particularly friendly and are sometimes described as cold, standoffish, snobby, flaky, superficial, introverted, and passive aggressive. For example–I can sit alone at a bar anywhere else in America and eventually someone will come over and spark off a friendly conversation. That’s never happened to me here. There are exceptions of course, but these were people who had moved here or were visiting from somewhere else and had made similar observations. To contrast to a direct nature of communicating, as New Yorkers are so famous for, Seattle is the exact opposite–people here are quite indirect. Seattleites are also notorious for not following up on plans. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “let’s hang out sometime” and got bailed on at the last minute, I’d be rich enough to have a house on Lake Washington next to Bill Gates. There are a number of theories on why Seattleites seem to be more indifferent socially than your average American, but I can only hope that things will get better there as more people move into the city and bring better attitudes from elsewhere. The exception is during the summer when it’s warm and sunny and suddenly everyone becomes super happy and friendly (another reason why Seattle is so great in summer!)

10. Spectacular Scenery
Probably one of the best things about living here is the fact that Seattle is surrounded by water and mountains. There aren’t many places in the world where you can ski in the morning and hang out on the beach in the afternoon, nor are there many places where a massive snow-capped volcano graces the city skyline. To the east of the city lies several lakes. To the west, you can watch the ferries sail out into the hundreds of inlets and waterways of Puget Sound.  Winter or summer, Seattle is green year around with lush forests. The hiking, cycling, paddling, climbing, and the opportunities for pretty much any outdoor activity you can think of is endless.

The truth is that we’re all actually really spoiled and lucky to live in such a gorgeous corner of the world.

My Top 10 Destinations for 2016

St. Mark's Summit

Although 2016 is a year I’d rather forget for the most part, there were still so many good things that happened to be thankful for. I rang in the year in Paris, one of my favorite cities in the world. While traveling through Europe and North America, I was able to reunite with old friends and meet many new ones. I revisited some of my favorite places in the world and also discovered places I hadn’t been before. Upon moving back to the US, I got a new job that allows me to travel and share my passion for travel with others. I moved to Seattle and have, for now, readjusted to a more settled life living in the US again, being closer to friends and family. To finish off the year, I’ve decided to write one last blog post for 2016 highlighting some of my favorite places I went to this year.

London Bridge

Despite being horrendously sick my first few days here, I finally made it to the British capital that I had missed during my first trip to Europe in 2014. While England wasn’t my favorite country, I loved London. Aside from catching up with a lot of friends who live here, it was amazing finally making it to this world-class city and seeing it in person. In some ways, London reminded me a lot of New York—the vibe and energy here is astounding. People here walk with purpose and there seems to be a lot of things going on.

Old Town Tallinn

When I heard that some of my good friends from Estonia had temporarily moved back to their hometown of Tallinn from Australia, I couldn’t pass the opportunity to see them again and check out this relatively little-visited corner of Europe. Although there are still some things here remaining from the former Soviet Union days, this little country has come a long way in just the past 30 years or so and is now quite modern and well-established. In fact, Tallinn is one of the most tech savvy capitals in Europe, with a booming market for tech companies and startups. While also very modern, the city also retains its medieval heritage–walking through the city’s snow-laden Old Town at night was absolutely breathtaking.


Like London, Copenhagen was a city I had really wanted to visit during my first summer trip to Europe, but just never got around to going so I made it my goal to finally make it this year. Copenhagen is a wonderfully old and charming capital, yet also very modern and beautifully designed. Having some local friends to show me around, I learned quite a bit about Danish culture, fashion, design & architecture, and other quintessential Danish things I hadn’t really known about. Even in the middle of snowy January, I loved wandering the streets and canals here. It’s definitely a place I’d love to come back to again in the summer time.


While in Germany, someone had suggested that I take a trip out to the little city of Salzburg in Austria, just across the border from Munich. So I made a day trip out of it and I wish I had decided to stay longer! Situated alongside a river, crowned by a massive old fortress on top of a hill overlooking the city, Salzburg may as well be something you would hear about in fairy tales. Simply getting lost among the city’s charming narrow streets is enough of a reason to come here.


While it’s not as glamorous and glitzy as Paris, Lyon is a very overlooked destination in France. Despite being the 2nd largest city in the country, it isn’t overwhelmed with tourists or feel overly crowded like other major European cities. The relaxed vibe here was very appealing. It’s also the foodie capital of France–the gastronomic selection here is enormous. And being within driving distance to the mountains, it’s also a good base to explore some of the stunning mountain scenery that France has to offer.

Exploring the Algarve Coast

If you’ve already seen my other blog posts about Portugal, you’d know that it’s one of my favorite countries in the world. Since I loved everything about it, I couldn’t just decide on one place that stuck out to me the most! From sipping on Port wine in Porto, to wandering through the beautiful streets of Lisbon, to exploring hilltop castles in Sintra, to kayaking along the country’s stunning Algarve Coast, visiting Portugal was the biggest surprise I had while traveling in 2016. It’s definitely a place I’ll be back again!

Ring of Kerry

Like Portugal, there really wasn’t one place in Ireland that stuck out above the rest, so I’m listing it here as a country. Ireland was rugged, beautiful, populated with some of the friendliest and chattiest people I’ve met on my travels. Some of my favorite memories here were chatting with the locals in the pubs in the evenings, something that I found very easy to do here compared to other places.

Washington, D.C.
The National Mall

I’ve been to DC a few times before on day trips with the family when when I was younger, but had never been as an adult until this year. Staying here for a week gave me a chance to explore and see the city more. I spent the week exploring museums, going for runs around the mall, taking a tour of the Capitol Building, watching the sunset from the top of the Washington Monument, and even checked out some of the embassies that are based here. Even after a week, I still don’t think I saw everything—there’s just too much to see and do.

Cannon Beach

Despite having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and having passed through it several times, I’ve never made a proper trip to Portland until this year! Portland has a good reputation for being a nature city and a great foodie scene. In a lot of ways it reminded me of a smaller version of Seattle (just with a lot more bridges). It’s easy to get close to nature here as the Columbia River Gorge is only a 30 minute drive away, home to so many waterfalls. It’s also within easy driving distance of the famous Oregon Coast, making the city an ideal spot for a base to explore other parts of Oregon.

Vancouver Sunset

Another one of my favorite cities in the world, Vancouver is always a fun place to visit. Situated right between the mountains and the sea, it’s highly picturesque (when it’s not raining at least). There aren’t many places in the world where you can go skiing 20 minutes from a major city center and then walk on the beach in the same day. With so much nature around, there’s always a reason to be outside and active. Some of my favorite things to do here include strolling through the large public market on Granville Island, riding a bike along the Seawall around Stanley Park (a huge park just north of downtown, like a big Canadian version of Central Park), or going on a hike in the mountains just outside of the city. Within easy reach of Seattle, I’ve already been up 3 times this year!


Nepal: My Journey to Everest

EBC Trek

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Mount Everest. It was on day three of my trek to Everest Base Camp, on a ridge high above the Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. We had arrived in Namche the day before, socked in by a thick cloud cover. Nearly all trekkers making their way to Everest stay at least two nights here to rest and acclimatize. To better adjust to the altitude, people make the most of their free day by making a popular day hike to Khumjung, a smaller village above Namche. We set out for the day after breakfast and started the steep uphill climb from right outside our guesthouse.

The day was an absolute stunner. Being December, the air was cold and crisp, but the skies were unbelievably clear and so deeply blue. I recall being able to make out every ridge and crevice on the snowy mountains in the distance as we made our ascent. Weather-wise, it couldn’t have been any better. Together with two fellow solo travelers I had met on the first day of the trek, we marched our way up the steepest section. Eventually the slope transitioned into a more gentle climb through yak pastures and the odd little stone house. After about an hour, we made our way over the last small knoll–and there it was. From this viewpoint, you have a remarkable sweeping panoramic view of the Khumbu Valley, home to some of the highest mountains in the world. Peaking out behind Lhotse, another Himalayan giant and the fourth highest point on Earth, the summit of Everest rose high into the dark blue sky. It didn’t tower over the other nearby peaks like I thought it would, but one could still easily point it out. On this day, the winds were calm and gentle from where we were standing. But at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet), the jet stream was slamming into the mountain’s distinct black pyramid-shaped summit, leaving a long wispy trail of snow and ice being blasted off by hundred mile an hour winds. It was hard to believe I was actually standing in the shadow of the highest point on Earth–the roof of the world. I’ll never forget that moment.

Kathmandu (elev. 4953 ft/1400 m)

My journey in Nepal began in the bustling capital city of Kathmandu. Having been just traveling through Southeast Asia for the past three months, the crazy driving, congested streets, and hazy air pollution that hung over the city was nothing new to me. What was new was the slight chill in the air. Being early December in the foothills of the Himalayas, I had left behind the the heat and humidity of the tropics. Instead the days were cool and dry–and I was freezing. By cool, I mean it was probably still 70 degrees (21 C) during the day, dipping down into the low 50s in the evenings. But after 2 years of chasing summers, this was the coldest I’d felt in a long time. Living the past year in Australia, my wardrobe mostly consisted of shorts, tank tops, and a pair of flip flops. It was time to trade it all in for some warmer clothes.

Luckily, Kathmandu is a backpacker’s dream when it comes to shopping for trekking gear and clothing. Particularly in the district known as Thamel, which is one of the main tourist areas in the city, where the narrow dusty streets are lined with shops selling backpacks, sleeping bags, trekking gear, wool hats, scarves, and knock-off North Face jackets. I spent a few days in the city getting adjusted and prepared, shopping around for some new warm clothes and getting some things I needed before starting my trek. Since I was going alone without the assistance of a trekking company, I had to organize my permits and flights on my own, which turned out to be easy enough.

In order to do any trek in Nepal, tourists must first obtain a tourist card (TIMS card) from a either a travel agency or from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu, which essentially is a record of your travel plans. In case of an emergency, the government can keep track of your whereabouts in the country. I went to the Nepal Tourism Board for this since I could also get my national park entry permit there. Between the two, the TIMS card was 2400 rupees (about $22) and the park permit came out to be 3000 rupees ($28). Not the cheapest, considering how cheap everything is in Nepal (which is pretty dirt cheap), but it’s necessary for anyone wishing to go trekking.


Some other miscellaneous things I shopped around for to prepare for the trip included Diamox (altitude sickness pills), baby wipes (because there are no warm showers up in the mountains, and being gone for two weeks you gotta stay clean somehow!), heaps of Snickers bars (gotta load up on the sugars and protein when you’re burning all those calories), trekking poles (only $8 for a pair!), and best of all a nice big puffy down jacket I scored at a shop for only $50 (to this day it’s still the warmest jacket I own, and I still happily wear it on cold winter days). Also since there are no ATM machines on the trail nor any means to pay for anything by card, you have to take a ton of cash with you on the trek. I took out about 32000 rupees, or roughly $300. Enough for 2 weeks worth of food and accommodation (which gets expensive the higher and more isolated you get). For 14 days of trekking, I averaged out at about $18/day for everything, not including the cost of the flights. I also packed my handy water bottle, which has a strong filter straw to purify the tap water that I could at tea houses along the way. This not only saved money on buying plastic water bottles (again, things get expensive the higher up you go as it all has to be carried in on someone’s back) but also reduced the amount of litter I was bringing.

Having gathered all the essentials for the trip, packing and repacking to make sure I had everything prepared, I only felt somewhat ready. I had to wake up at 4:30 the following morning to catch my flight to Lukla, but I found difficulty sleeping that last night in Kathmandu. Deciding to go on this trek independently without a guide or tour group was a choice I knew was a bit unconventional, but I was counting on finding other solo travelers to join. Having only been 9 months since the devastating 2015 earthquake that rocked the country, tourism in Nepal had fallen drastically. My hotel was nearly empty. During my first few days in Kathmandu, I hadn’t really met any other backpackers, other than a nice Canadian I had dinner with on my last night. He had just finished his trek and insisted that there were lots of solo travelers taking on the EBC to meet. This was at least assuring to hear.

Day 1: The Crazy Flight to Lukla and the Walk to Phakding (elev. 8562 ft/2610 m)
Lukla Airport

Getting in a whopping 3 hours of sleep, I actually somehow felt quite energized when I woke up. With no one out on the streets at that hour, getting to the airport took no time at all. Before I knew it, I was boarding a tiny de Havilland Twin Otter aircraft, crammed in with about 15 other people. Soon enough we were climbing out of Kathmandu into the thin mountain air and set a heading for our destination about 30 minutes away: Lukla. Having read articles and seen Youtube videos about this flight titled “World’s Scariest Airport“, this was a major portion of the trip that I was both really excited and nervous about.

Lukla is a busy little village right at the start of the EBC trek and serves as the gateway to the Everest region. Walking there from the nearest road takes 5 days, so most people opt to fly in to the town’s tiny airport. The runway itself is only 1730 ft (527 m) long and is not flat at all–it’s literally perched on the side of a mountain on an 11.7% gradient. With a wall of rock sitting at the far end of the landing strip, planes can only fly in and out in one direction, using the forces of gravity from the slope to speed up for take off and slow down for landing. Due to several crashes in the past, flights only take place when the weather conditions are favorable and visibility is good. Rising out of the cloud of smog hanging over Kathmandu, the morning skies were crisp and clear. The view from my window of the sunrise over the Himalayas  was breathtaking. We passed over hilltops, deep ravines and valleys, roaring rivers, and in the distance massive snow covered peaks lined the horizon and seemed to go on forever. A wondrous sight that distracted me from the nerves I had earlier upon take off wondering if I’d ever get back on the ground again safely.

Cruising Over the Himalaya

Our 30 minutes in the air flew by quickly and before long we were on final approach to Lukla Airport. From my seat, I could see through the cockpit window–it literally looked like we were going to fly straight into the side of the mountain. Eventually what looked like the shortest runway in the world came into view. Touching down, the pilot immediately threw on the brakes and within 5 seconds we came to a near stop before the rock wall and rolled onto the tarmac. As we exited the aircraft, 2 other planes arrived behind us. Within 10 minutes, the planes were unloaded, reloaded with new passengers and cargo, and were rumbling down the runway back to Kathmandu. Incredible. The noise of the prop engines soon faded out and we were left to nothing but silent mountain air.

Somehow my backpack and that of a fellow American from Alaska were the only ones that ended up on the last plane in, so we had to hang around the airport until the next fleet of planes arrived and dropped them off. He was also traveling solo and we clicked pretty well, so from the start I had a hiking buddy and didn’t have to walk by myself! In fact on that first day we met a couple other people who were doing the trail independently, and throughout the duration of the trek I was never really alone. Since everyone is going in the same direction at the same pace, you see familiar faces day by day. After the first few days, our group had grown to include a Dutch guy, a woman from Jordan, an Australian couple, a Thai guy and his guide, among several others we saw frequently. It was quite the international crowd!

EBC Trek

Passing through the shops of Lukla (which was so touristy it even had it’s own unofficial Starbucks), the walk to Mount Everest began with a gentle downhill stroll. Even without a guide, following the trail was easy enough to navigate on our own. For the most part it was pretty straightforward, but at forks and other spots where you needed them, there were signs pointing out the right direction. After three hours of following the milky blue waters of a mountain river, we arrived in the village of Phakding and found a guesthouse to stay the night in for only 300 rupees (less than $3).  That first night was the best night of sleep I had on the trip. From that point on the higher we went,  between the thinning of the air and freezing temperatures at night, it became much more difficult to get rest.

Day 2: Namche Bazaar (elev. 11,286 ft/3440 m)
High Bridge

The following morning after a breakfast of tea and Sherpa bread, we carried on with our first hill day. During the night clouds had rolled in so the warm sunny valley we had walked through the day prior was now cool and misty. We continued following the river upstream, occasionally crisscrossing our way to the other side via long metal rope bridges. After a couple hours, we arrived at the park border and checked in with the officer. While he was processing my information, I noticed on the wall in the back of the office a chart that listed visitor numbers month by month, year by year. The number of people visiting the park had been steadily increasing throughout the years, but this year, following the massive earthquake that had taken place that April, the numbers had tanked to nearly half. It was pretty staggering to see how much the earthquake had influenced tourism in the country, even in areas like the Khumbu Valley where the effects weren’t as severe.

EBC Trek

After passing through the park gate, we walked onward toward the base of Namche Hill. All along the way since we had left Lukla the day before, we had been passing numerous Sherpa people carrying heavy loads up and down the trail. Since there are no roads here, everything has to be carried in by yak or on the backs of human beings. Some of these porters were carrying ridiculous loads–bundles of 2x4s, metal doors, and even once we saw a guy carrying a porcelain toilet. On average, porters carry up to 80 pounds strapped to their heads and backs delivering supplies and materials to villages and communities all throughout the region. This made my 14 pound backpack look like a little handbag.

Namche Stupa

After about two hours of steep climbing through the forested mountainside, we finally stumbled into a very foggy Namche Bazaar. This is the largest settlement in the Khumbu region and Sherpa capital. The narrow stone streets are all lined with hotels and guesthouses, shops selling more trekking gear, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. During the busy peak season the town can accommodate several thousand people, but in cold December post-quake, the town was quite. We booked ourselves a couple of nights into a big three story guesthouse that was pretty much empty for about $2 a night.

Day 3: “Rest” Day – First View of Everest (12,401 ft/3780 m)
Tenzing Sherpa Memorial

As previously stated, nearly everyone on the EBC who makes it to Namche Bazaar and wishes to go higher stays an extra day to acclimatise. If you go up too quickly, you risk getting altitude sickness which is no fun (I had it once before while in the Andes in Ecuador and it’s no fun. Imagine having the worst hangover for three days). It’s best to acclimatize by going up high during the day and then sleeping at a lower altitude at night, so we decided to climb further up the hill behind town to visit the nearby village of Khumjung.

Namche From Above

The cool, misty clouds from the day before had lifted so when we woke up we were greeted with an amazingly clear blue sky and visibility was absolutely perfect. It took a little while getting up the hill–not because we were too tired, but because we were constantly distracted by the view the whole way up. Eventually we arrived at the top of the plateau where we were greeted with our first view of Everest as well as other notable Himalayan giants, including the very prominent and beautiful Ama Dablam. Nearby was the Everest View Hotel, which at 12,400 feet claims to be the highest in the world. We stopped here to have a quick lunch and warm up a bit while enjoying the views on the back patio.

Afterwards we carried on doing a loop through the nearby Khumjung village. I had heard rumors that there was a monastery somewhere around the village that housed a supposed yeti scalp, but we never found it. We had spent most of the day out hiking around so we were pretty beat by the time we wandered back into Namche. So much for a rest day. We walked into a bar that was showing reruns of Everest documentaries and movies. It was also the only place I found on the trail that had free WiFi so I sent off a few last messages to friends and loved ones back home.

Day 4: Tengboche (12,700 ft/3870 m)
Ama Dablam

After a “restful” two nights in Namche, we carried on to the next village–Tengboche. This was meant to be a long day, with 6.4 miles (10.4 km) of walking up and down mountains. The distance wasn’t too bad, the annoying thing was that to get to Tengboche we had to hike back downhill to the river and then climb all the way back up to the top of the ridge where the village sits. It was a long day that took about 6-7 hours.

Shortly after leaving Namche, we soon came upon a stupa (a dome-shaped structure serving as a Bhuddist shrine) memorializing Tensing Norgay, a Nepalese citizen from the Khumbu region who, along with New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, led the first successful ascent of Mount Everest in May 1953. The memorial was adorned in lines of colorful prayer flags, slowly flapping in the gentle breeze, in plain view of Everest’s summit. It was a peaceful place for a break.

Tensing Norgay Memorial

The first portion of the day was actually really nice. The descent back to the river was mostly gentle–more of a traverse across the ridge. Being above the tree line, we had stunning views of the Khumbu Valley for a good portion of the walk. Eventually we got to a fork in the road and we steeply descended downhill  toward the river. Along the way, we encountered several groups of trekkers returning from Everest. Their faces showed signs of utter fatigue and weariness–a foretelling reminder of what was to come and that about a week later we’d be making the same grueling uphill climb back.

EBC Trail

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived at the river and took a long break eating lunch at a little cafe in the village. Crossing the river was yet another classic Nepali-style swing bridge (we had crossed several the first few days). We bathed in the sun, we watched a yak train, a common sight along the trail, make its way over the bridge. I thought all the swinging rope bridges looked sketchy, but it was assuring to know that if the bridge could hold up all those yaks it could certainly hold 150 pound me.

After lunch and lazing about in the sun a lot longer than we probably should have, we crossed the river and started the slow uphill climb for the next hour and a half. Despite being December, when the sun was out it actually got quite warm, especially going up hill. We peeled off our layers and slowly made the dusty, sweaty climb up the hill stopping occasionally to snack on Snickers. By the time we made it to the top, the clouds had started to move in again and what was a mostly warm sunny, blue sky day quickly turned into a cold mist. We each booked a room in one of the big guesthouses where everyone else was staying at. My room was north facing and absolutely freezing, so I piled on all the layers I could find in my pack.

Tengboche Monastery

The hill-top village is well-known to be the home of the largest Bhuddist monastery in the Khumbu region, Tengboche Monastery. Joining the rest of the group outside, we all walked over to the large monastery to watch the monks do a meditation ceremony. We all sat down along the wall of a large room, the air heavy with the scent of incense. In the middle of the room were dozens of monks sitting in rows slightly hunched over while they chanted and played their instruments. The vibe and atmosphere was somewhat haunting, but in a good way. It was an intriguing spectacle to watch. The room didn’t have any heating however, and it was absolutely freezing. Since we had to take our boots off and leave them outside, my feet felt like bricks. It also appeared that a few of the monks were sick. One had a horrible cough. It made me feel a little sorry for them that they were exposed to the damp and cold all the time.

Day 5: Dingboche (14,469 ft/4410 m)
Ama Dablam

Day 5. Woke up from the coldest night yet (and it only got colder from there). There’s no heating in the rooms in any of the guesthouses along the way. It was hard getting out of my sleeping bag as my room felt absolutely frigid when I got up. My water bottle actually had little bits of ice floating around in it. The only place to warm up was around the stove in the dining area downstairs, which we all would huddle around and socialize while waiting for breakfast. Once breakfast was done, we headed out for another long day of walking. The morning fog broke just in time as we were leaving, the sky opening to another crystal clear blue day. On this day, we’d wander up further into the valley, right in the shadow of Ama Dablam. Everest may be the highest in the world, but Ama Dablam is seriously one of the most majestic mountains in the Himalayas.

Crossing the 4000 meter mark, I could definitely notice a difference in my breathing and overall energy levels. I’m naturally a fairly fast walker and at sea level I can walk for hours and hours without getting tired. Up here, my pace was much slower and I needed to take a break every mile or so. But given the remarkable views everywhere, a break was really necessary to take it all in properly! Aside from being wide-eyed and in awe of the scenery and making a new “friend” with a stray dog that had followed us all the way from Tengboche, the rest of the day was pretty mundane. Nearly 7 miles (11 kms) later, we rolled into Dingboche later in the afternoon than we usually did. Luckily Dingboche is wide out in the open on the valley floor, so with the sun still up we had some time to warm up a bit and relax before sunset.

Day 6: “Rest” Day 
Himalayan Companion

Now having ascended 3500 feet (1000 m) over the past two days, it was time for another rest day to acclimatize. We still spent a portion of the day going out and hiking up to the top of one of the nearby hills, but it was not nearly has strenuous as we did on our rest day in Namche. When I arrived at the top of the hill, I found the little black dog that had followed us from Tengboche the day before. That little guy was everywhere! I was finished with my morning hike before noon and spent the rest of the day actually getting some well needed rest, hanging out in the common room and catching up on some reading (I had bought a copy of Into Thin Air while in Namche, a fitting book to read while hiking to Everest).

Sunset in Dingboche

I forget what the name of the guesthouse we stayed in was called, but it by far had the warmest stove of anywhere on the trek, which we all happily huddled around. There really wasn’t much to do in the in the evening except talking and playing card games (I became really good after spending endless hours playing card games like President in the evenings in Nepalese guesthouses). With no Internet, it was actually quite liberating being disconnected and off the grid for a few weeks. Everyone was actually interacting with another rather than sitting off in a corner somewhere glued to the screens of their phones. The camaraderie between my fellow trekkers and Sherpas is something I really miss about Nepal.

Day 7: Lobuche (16,210 ft/4940 m)
On the way to Dingboche

Trying to catch up on as much sleep as possible, I had a late start on this day and ended up walking alone for half the day. The first portion of the trek was pretty easy, crossing a big plateau through grassy fields where yaks roamed and grazed. Eventually I caught up with my friend from Alaska that I had met at the airport and we trudged onward to our lunch spot at a guesthouse settled right at the base of a big steep hill that we’d have to climb. I was already feeling a headache coming on that that day from the altitude so I had started taking Diamox pills to ward it off. We took an extra long lunch break, drinking mint tea and eating garlic soup (which apparently also helps with the altitude).

The rest of the day was exhausting. Now at over 15,000 feet (4600 meters), my 14 pound backpack seemed to weigh like a ton. My steps became slower and breathing heavier. We slowly trudged up the hill. Not wanting to overdo ourselves with the altitude, we took a short break every few minutes. After about an hour we finally reached the crest of the hill and took a break. Nearby I noticed several stones decorated with prayer flags, painted and engraved with names of those who had lost their lives on Everest. Among the names were some I had recognized from the book I was currently reading, including Seattle climber Scott Fischer who was one of 12 people who died in a single night during a blizzard in May 1996.

Everest Memorial

Beyond the Everest Memorial, we reached the toe of the Khumbu Glacier, which flows down the valley from somewhere around the 25,000 foot level on Everest, making it the highest glacier in the world. The last 45 minutes or so of the day was spent following the glacier to the pit stop of the day, Lobuche. The clouds had moved in again around this time and aside from the sound of our breathing and footsteps, everything was eerily silent.  Occasionally you could hear the thunderous rumble and groans of ice breaking and shifting, which echoed through the valley. By the time we reached Lobuche, I was dead tired. I tried to refuel on Snickers bars and momos (Nepalese dumplings) while rehydrating on tea, but was starting to lose my appetite (especially when you’ve been eating the same meals for a whole week). I didn’t stick around for long in the evening playing cards with everyone else. Instead I went to bed pretty early, bundled up in all the clothes I had to keep warm.

Day 8: The High Point – Kala Patthar (18,514 ft/5643 m)
View from Kala Patthar

Today was the day when we would reach the highest point and spend the night in the small village of Gorak Shep. After another cold, unrestful night’s sleep the night before, I had another late start getting out the door. Despite being on Diamox, I still had a headache and I tried to stay rehydrated on several cups of tea. Everyone else had left by the time I finally started walking.

I made the effort not to overdo myself on the last day of gaining altitude. My Alaskan friend was feeling pretty ill so he went back down that day. The pace was pretty slow going. For the past several days helicopters had been flying overhead occasionally. None of us were really sure if they were just transporting supplies or evacuating injured trekkers, but according to one of the Sherpas we met along the way, the latter wasn’t all that uncommon. Altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness) is commonly experienced by visitors who aren’t accustomed to the lack of oxygen at altitude. In rarer cases, high-altitude pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) also poses a risk to even the healthiest of climbers. Deaths on the EBC itself are uncommon, but not unheard of. This is why rest days and acclimitization is so important.

I arrived in Gorak Shep around 2:00 pm and dropped my bag off at one of the guesthouses and rested for about an hour after lunch. Gorak Shep, one of the highest settlements in the world, was more like a few buildings scattered across a big dusty field. On the opopsite side of the field is the base of Kala Patthar, a large hill that is usually the highest point that trekkers go on the EBC trek. When I felt rested and energized again, I set off across the field and began the final ascent.

Kala Patthar

In contrast to the surrounding giants Kala Patthar looks fairly small, but from Gorak Shep it’s another 500 meter (1,600 foot) push. At sea level, another 500 meters would have been a piece of cake. But when you’re enduring the effects of altitude, it was a struggle. My pace was very slow–I’d take a few steps up and then pause for a second to catch up on breathing. It’s a weird sensation, experiencing the thinness of air. Not that I was gasping for it, but it just never felt like my lungs ever got full no matter how much I breathed in. The other thing about this particular hill were the false summits. Right when you thought you were nearing the top, you’d come over the ridge and find the true summit was still high above. It was disheartening as it seemed so far away. The silver lining to my slow progress however was by the time I actually had made it to the top, it was right around sunset and it was a perfect clear day. I climbed up onto to the summit block decorated in colorful prayer flags–at 18,514 ft (5643 m) it was the highest I’ve ever been. Even at this height, I was still a solid 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) below the top of Everest. From here you get a 360 degree panoramic view of the valley. Far down below, somewhere on the Khumbu Glacier, was the site of Everest Base Camp. And far up above, so close yet so seemingly far away, the summit of Everest basking in the orangish-pink alpenglow. Being lost in the moment, I barely noticed the heavy fatigue or biting cold of the strong winds whipping across in my face. A few of the others I had been walking with the past few days were also at the top and we shared the moment together.


After about 20 minutes of summit time, we headed back down. Going down was much quicker than going up, but at this point I had a throbbing headache and my legs were killing me. Stumbling back into the guesthouse, I went and threw on some more layers of clothes to keep warm and ordered some dinner in the dining area. From that point, things started going downhill from there. Aside from the headache and loss of appetite, my stomach also felt a bit off. I tried to force myself to eat and drink up some tea but it was no use. I felt terrible. I got really nauseous at one point and went outside and got sick. When I came back in, the guesthouse owner came over to check in on me and said he was a little worried about my condition. He suggested that if I didn’t get any better by the next morning, he’d offer to call in a helicopter. Although I had travel insurance, a $10,000 helicopter evacuation wasn’t something I was really keen on dealing with. I drank a couple cups of tea and headed off to bed for a much needed rest.

Day 9-13: Back to Civilization 

Luckily, aside from another night of not getting a whole lot of sleep, I didn’t get sick again and managed to eat a small breakfast the next morning. The original plan was to wake up early and do the final stretch of the walk to the actual site of Everest Base Camp, but I opted to start heading back instead, satisfied that I had at least made it to the top of Kala Patthar (which is much higher than EBC and actually has a view of the summit). Initially the walk was a bit rough considering the condition I was in, stumbling over stones through the boulder field just outside Gorak Shep. I spent the whole day walking back from Gorak Shep to Dingboche, happy to return to that warm guesthouse and thaw out by the stove. I got a restful night sleep there and continued on the next day, all the way to Namche Bazaar. By now I was feeling much better. The oxygen-rich air of the lower valleys was so rejuvenating–I felt stronger with each step I took. It was amazing how much my overall mood and state of health had changed in just a day. After one last night in Namche, I walked the remainder of the way back to Lukla. What took 9 days to walk up only took 3 days to walk down, a total of 89 miles (124 km) to Everest and back.

My flight back to Kathmandu the following day got cancelled due to heavy fog that never lifted until the next day. I didn’t mind since I could at least relax and socialize with some of the other people I had been walking with the past two weeks. Luckily we were only “stranded” in Lukla for the one extra day. The day after that the weather was clear enough to fly and we were back in Kathmandu in no time at all.

One week after finding myself face-to-face with the highest mountain in the world, I found myself a world away in Paris. It was a weird sensation to be back in a western society after three and a half months of Asia. The last few weeks of clear, clean air and the silence of nature was replaced with crowded streets and hazy skies. I was very thankful however to be able to take a proper shower again and have a nice warm bed to sleep in. Ever since Nepal, I’ve never taken having a soft, warm bed to sleep in every night for granted again.

Doing the trek to Everest was something I had dreamed about doing for years and I was very happy to finally tick it off the bucket list. What a challenge. It was by definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally, but it was all worth it.


Culturally and aesthetically, Nepal is one of the most beautiful and amazing countries I’ve ever been to. As a lover of hiking and the mountain, it’s no surprise that it’s on my top 10 favorite places I’ve been to so far. Even today from time to time, I still daydream about those deep blue clear skies, the giant craggy snow-capped peaks, and the warm hospitality of the Sherpa people.


Hoi An

Now that I’m more settled back to life in the United States, I’m finally getting around to posting more about my travels from the past year. There’s so much to catch up on! It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year already since I left Australia and began my journey through Asia and Europe. This post is written to reflect on my time in Vietnam.

From what I had heard from friends and fellow travelers, Vietnam was always one of those places that you either loved or hated. While the general consensus was mostly positive, regarding Vietnam as a place not to be missed, there were the few I came into contact with who would say otherwise. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was one of the countries I was most looking forward to visiting during my time in Asia.

Luckily, it lived up to the reputation that lots of people had talked about. In fact, it’s one of my favorite countries that I’ve been to thus far! Finding the allure in Vietnam I think takes a certain type of traveler and personality to appreciate. Compared to other SE Asian countries, it doesn’t really have the best beaches. The cities are crowded, polluted, and chaotic. Petty theft and scams are common. Street vendors and touts are constantly buzzing around trying to sell you something. The people have a reputation of being unfriendly to tourists. The heat and humidity is drains you. Despite all these groans that many travelers have when they visit Vietnam, some of these negatives where actually positives for me. I loved the crowded, chaotic streets buzzing with endless motorbike traffic and honking horns. I’d never seen such chaos and activity like that before. It was absolutely crazy and there was always something interesting going on around the next corner. And ever since Vietnam, I’ve never worried too much about crossing the street in traffic anywhere else in the world!

Hanoi LocalsAs an American in Vietnam, I wasn’t sure what the reception would be to locals I’d meet considering my country’s bloody history and involvement there in the past. While I didn’t find people there as friendly as those in nearby countries (mostly people from older generations), I generally got that the resentment was because I was a tourist not just because I was American. However, there were several times where I had positive interactions with people who seemed genuinely curious in where I was from and what I was doing in Vietnam. Oftentimes, especially while hanging out in city parks, university students would come up and politely ask if I could talk with them to help practice their English. I remember one particular group of college students who went out of their way to buy me ice cream (for those who know me, nothing makes my day more than free ice cream)! There will always be bad apples anywhere you go, but I like to think that there are more than enough good ones around to make up for it.

Vietnamese CuisineThe thing I loved most about Vietnam by far was the food. With over 500 traditional dishes varying region by region across the country, there was such a multitude of flavors and culinary wonders to try everywhere you go. With the mix of the French, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences, Vietnam is a melting pot of different cooking styles. Being in tropical Asia, there are also plenty of strange and exotic fruits to try. Best of all, eating is extremely cheap and there’s always something yummy cooking somewhere.

There is also a lot of natural beauty packed into this country, with lush jungles and rain forest, wondrous caves, steep misty mountains, stunning karst landscapes, and vibrant green rice paddies that cover entire hillsides. Although the scars of war and modern-day industrialization have altered the environment in negative ways, Vietnam is still a stunning place visually.

Trying to pack in as much as I could, I spent nearly a month traveling through this marvelous country. Here were some of my favorite places:

Ho Chi Minh City Ho Chi Minh

My favorite of the two major cities in the country, Ho Chi Minh (called Saigon by the locals) is bustling, crowded, and the streets are chaotic, amok with endless motorbike traffic (fun fact, Vietnam has more motorbike drivers per capita than any other place on Earth). Even crossing the street here is an adventure—the traffic rarely ever stops so you just have to bravely and confidently just keep walking as everyone drives around you like the parting of the Red Sea. We stayed at an amazing hostel in a high-rise building for just $6 a night, which had a pretty cool rooftop bar with fab views of the city.

Ho Chi Minh at Night

One thing I noticed about Ho Chi Minh, as well as several other Vietnamese cities, were that they were very green despite being so polluted. Hoi Chi Minh especially was full of parks and green spaces where people could go out and enjoy the nature. It was often a place where people gathered in the morning for group exercise and in the evening to socialize.

You can also learn quite a bit about the history of the Vietnam War here. The War Remnants Museum gives an interesting perspective on the war, and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels allows you to see and experience how the Viet Cong carried out their military campaigns using their extensive underground network of tunnels.

Mui Ne
White Dunes at Mui Ne

Mui Ne was originally a sleepy fishing village, but now most tourists come here to windsurf and check out the nearby sand dunes. The hostel I stayed at, was one of the nicest I had been to in Asia, was right on the beach for only $6 a night! The whole town is very spread out, all along the coast with accommodations and restaurants catering to tourists. We took a tour in an old US Army jeep for the day that made several stops around the area, including the village where we could see how the fishermen make their catch with nets and a little round boat that resembles a soup bowl. That part of beach was really polluted however, with trash strewn everywhere and the air was thick with the smell of dead fish. Not super interesting really. We also stopped by this really unique place called Fairy Creek, a little stream flowing through reddish/orange rock and sand formations. But the big attraction here are the sand dunes. Far out of town are mountains of sand that resemble more of a Saharan landscape than one in Southeast Asia. Not as impressive as the ones in New Zealand, but still very cool to see and worth the visit! Also Mui Ne was where we had the best bahn mi in all of Vietnam, right from this little old lady’s street cart.

Da Lat
Cayoning at Da Lat

Farther inland and high up in the cool, misty mountains, is the city of Da Lat. Also known as the “Paris of Vietnam”, Da Lat is not your average Vietnamese city, full of French-style bakeries, well manicured parks, and Parisian-esque architecture (the town even has it’s own version the Eiffel Tower). Situated in the Vietnamese highlands, the climate here is much cooler than what you would normally expect in Vietnam. The city is popular among Vietnmese tourists and newlyweds as a honeymoon destination. We came here for a few days to get a relief from the heat and humidity that Vietnam is so well known for, and to  check out the several waterfalls that are located around the region. The waterfalls and surrounding mountainous terrain make the area ideal for adventure sports, including canyoning, which involves the exploring a canyon by a range of different activities such as rappelling and cliff jumping. I had never done it before so I decided to give it a go and had a blast scaling waterfalls, floating down the river, and jumping off a 40 foot cliff with a diverse group of fellow travelers.

Hoi An
Evening In Hoi An

Oh Hoi An. Easily one of my favorite places that I went to in Southeast Asia. This ancient town by the river is incredibly atmospheric and fantasy-like, almost something like you might see in a Miyazaki film. The Old Town is so well preserved, with colorful old weathered buildings evoking French, Japanese, and Chinese influences during its heyday as a major port city and cultural melting pot. Unlike other cities in Vietnam, the pace of life in Hoi An is taken back a notch. As a UNESECO world heritage site, some of the streets are pedestrian only, and what a difference a place makes without the constant buzz of motorbikes.The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. At night the whole city lights up with beautifully decorated lanterns lining the streets and floating serenely down the river. It vaguely reminded me of a scene from a Miyazaki film. Aside from lanterns and old buildings, the town is also known for its tailor shops where can get a custom made suit or dress made for you for a really good deal. Being situated near the coast, the beach is an easy bike ride away as well, making it a relaxing place to hang out at for the afternoon. I ended up staying here for five days with a group of friends and would still go back if I ever find myself in Vietnam again.

Hue Hue

I was only in Hue for less than a day, but I thought what I saw there was really impressive. The city was the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors and is home to a massive complex known as the Imperial City. Located in central Vietnam near where the north and south halves of the country meet, it was also the spot where one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war took place. I spent a good portion of the day wandering around the city, a lot of which was damaged during the war but now restored.

Ha Long Bay
Ha Long Bay

A UNESCO Heritage Site, everyone who comes to Vietnam inevitably ends up here at some point of their trip. It’s well known for it’s emerald green waters and the thousands of stunning limestone rock formations and islands that rise straight out of the sea. Given the sheer size of the bay and the fact that’s only accessible by boat, the best way to see it is to do an overnight cruise, which we did. Our itinerary included a visit to the cathedral-like Thien Cung Cave, kayaking in the bay at sunset, an on-board Vietnamese cooking class, and hiking on the famous Cat Ba Island. It was super touristy, but given it’s status as one of the great natural wonders of the world it was so worth going to!

Tam Coc & Trang An
Tam Coc

Just outside of the industrial and not-so-attractive city of Ninh Binh lies one of Vietnam’s lesser known gems. From here rice farmers make their living working the fields and paddies in the shadow of a dramatic karst mountain range, resembling somewhat of a terrestrial version of Ha Long Bay. Here slow moving rivers lazily meander their way through the steep mountain valleys and cave systems, which also harbor old sacred temples and pagodas. Low-lying wooden boats gently glide down the river, typically rowed by local women. While the stunning scenery rivals Vietnam’s other natural wonder, Ha Long Bay, the atmosphere here is much more relaxed and you gain a sense of what rural Vietnamese life is like. Aside from taking a cruise down the river, I fondly remember renting a bicycle and riding deep into the countryside, past villages, waving kids, farm animals, stray dogs, and vibrant rice terraces. It was here that I felt like I had somewhat left the main tourist trail and was seeing the real Veitnam. I’d take Tam Coc & Trang An (the two rivers that flow through this region) over the hyper-touristy Ha Long Bay any day.

Sa Pa
Sa Pa

Sa Pa was a highlight of my trip to SE Asia. The town itself is just a pretty little mountain station, perched high on a hilltop in Vietnam’s northern highlands near the Chinese border. The town faces across the valley towards Fansipan, the nation’s highest peak at over 3100 meters (10,312 feet). The valley below is beautifully sculpted by rice terraces that seem to go on forever, built and taken care of the the various hill tribe communities that make their home here. The region is known as a prime spot for trekking, which becomes apparent as you walk down the streets with shops full of North Face backpacks, trekking poles, jackets, and other mountain gear. You can have a trek arranged through your hotel or travel agency, but we decided to just go along with these two little Hmong ladies who convinced us to go on a walk with them to their village (one of which was 8 months pregnant–such troopers!). They guided us through the rice terraces, showed us which plants they use to make dye for their clothing, how to extract and process it using their traditional methods, as well as making the material for their clothing from hemp, which grows naturally on the mountainsides. I even did a home stay in one of their homes and got to see how they live on a daily basis. It was an eye-opening experience and incredible seeing this lifestyle still existing in the 21st century. Something I will never forget!

Although I spent nearly a month here, I still feel like I only scratched the tip of the iceberg so to speak in Vietnam. There’s so much packed into this country, I don’t think it’s possible to see it all for what it is in just a single trip, or even multiple ones for that matter. I’ve heard so many stories and experiences from friends and fellow travelers of incredible places they went to that I never had the time to see. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back to Vietnam again any time soon (so many other places in the world left to see) but if I do, it’s assuring to know that I can come back here again with so much more to discover.