South by Southeast: Hit and run Hanoi

You don’t just visit Hanoi. Hanoi visits you. Take a walk down any street of this fast-paced Vietnamese capital of commerce and communism and prepare to be overwhelmed by sensory delights (and annoyances). Motorbikes buzz around intersections like nests of angry hornets. Your feet trip over small plastic stools at street-side noodle shops. Vendors chase you down the street like used car salesmen, endlessly peddling a mish-mash of boat trips, tropical fruits and Lonely Planet guidebooks. It’s enough to make a Southeast Asian traveler go mad. But beneath this cacophony of life and movement lies an emerging must-see destination of achingly beautiful architecture, vibrant street life and cutting-edge culture. Get out of the way – we’re taking a “hit and run” tour of Hanoi.

For many years, getting to Hanoi was more of a roadblock than a green light. Situated in Vietnam’s furthest northern reaches, it was a capital both hard to get to and literally hard to enter. Veiled behind a curtain of communism and painful memories from decades of war, it was a destination most American travelers couldn’t and didn’t visit. But with the normalization of relations in 1994 and Vietnam’s admission to the WTO in 2007, tourism has been on the move. Nowhere is the “new Vietnam” more evident than in rapidly changing Hanoi. Where infamous prisons once stood, there are now luxury high rises. And in place of guns and grenades, you’ll find fashion boutiques and trendy coffee shops.

Ready to take another look at this on-the-move Vietnamese capital? Keep reading below for the ins and outs of a proper Hanoi visit.Getting In
Getting to the furthest northern reaches of Vietnam has never been easier or more inexpensive. Thanks to cheap budget airlines like Air Asia and Jetstar, flying into Hanoi from other Southeast Asia capitals is a snap. If you’re coming direct from the U.S., consider United Airlines and Delta, both of which now fly to Vietnam (with a layover in Asia) from the United States. For those arriving from points south in Vietnam, the country’s competent rail system offers sleeper trains for around $30-40 depending on the point of origin.

What to See
Hanoi is a city with a rich history. Anyone interested in the history of the Cold War will find lots to explore at the city’s many war monuments and museums, covering Vietnam’s struggle for independence as well as the conflict between North and South. In addition, Hanoi is increasingly home to a thriving arts, food and nightlife scene.

  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – The body of “Uncle Ho,” architect of modern Vietnam, is entombed at this vast complex. There’s no more surreal (and creepy) sight in Hanoi than paying a visit to Ho’s preserved body. Surrounding the mausoleum visitors can investigate a large museum and complex of buildings where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked.
  • Old Quarter – To see where old and new Hanoi collide, head to the city’s Old Quarter. Just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, the area is home to a growing collection of trendy art galleries, bohemian coffee shops and happening bars. These businesses mix effortlessly with the area’s chaotic array of merchants, selling everything from textiles to fruit shakes to motorbike parts.
  • Beer, Ahoy! – Hanoi’s street food is legendary. Stumble down any street and you’re likely to find delicious local specialties like Bun Cha and savory bowls of Pho noodle soup all accompanied by Vietnam’s infamous brew, Bia Hoi (draught beer). And for 25 cents a glass, you can afford to buy a few rounds for your pals.
  • Temple of Literature – Take a trip back in time to ancient Vietnam at this well-preserved monument to the teachings of Confucius and Vietnamese scholarly works. The Temple of Literature represents an oasis of serene Chinese-style pagodas in the city’s chaotic traffic-choked center.

Where to Stay
A stay in Hanoi is incredibly friendly on the wallet. Considering the range of amenities like free WiFi and satellite TV available at most hotels and guest houses, a budget traveler will find themselves spoiled for choice starting at around $15 per night. Great options include the Especen Hotel situated just west of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake. Shoestring travelers should check out Hanoi Backpackers, which attracts a happening crowd for its daily happy hours and is a great bargain at $7.50/night for a dorm bed. High rollers frequent the Sofitel Metropole, a grand dame of Asian colonial elegance, with rooms starting at just over $200/night.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Leaf peeping in the northern hemisphere

Let’s face it: autumn is here. But why not embrace the fall by heading to the hills and enjoying the turning of the leaves from green to fiery red?

It’s no secret that New England is one of the world’s top fall foliage destinations, but I bet you didn’t know that there are several other places in the northern Hemisphere where you can see the trees in their autumn glory. An additional bonus? Fewer people travel in the fall, and prices tend to be cheaper too!

Here are a few of the world’s best places to check out fall foliage:

In the USA:
Arizona Highlands — Arizona might have deserts and canyons, but the higher elevations around Flagstaff and its White Mountains have really photo-worthy foliage.

The Great Lakes Region — The Lakes region is famous for its huge expanse of fresh water, but the trees in fall paired with the blue of the water makes fall a great time to travel north.

Maine — This whole state is ablaze with fall colors come October. Just ride the I-95 north and breathe in the New England air. It’s no wonder the state slogan is, “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.”

In Canada:
Vancouver Island — Canada’s western isle is teeming with fall colors — from the city of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, to the wilderness of Strathcona Provincial Park.

Prince Edward Island — Leaf peepers can hike, bike or take a horseback ride through the uncrowded trails on Prince Edward Island. Additionally, Charlottetown rings in the fall with its Fall Flavours food and wine festival.

In Europe:
High Tatras, Poland — Poland’s eastern mountains are great for skiing in the winter, but the fall offers fantastic opportunities for hiking. Zakopane makes a good base for fall excursions.

Lot Valley, France — Walk, bike, or drive around Lot Valley’s orchards and vineyards, which glow with autumn colors. The region is great for active bird watching or just a quiet weekend retreat.

Bruges, Belgium
— Take a stroll around Bruges’s canals or drink a Belgian beer while admiring the trees. This is one of the few places where the city offers just as many photo-worthy fall shots as the outskirts.

The Swiss Alps — While this mountain range is famous for its skiing, fall offers great opportunities for multi-day hiking or road tripping along winding mountain roads as you admire the warm colors of the hills.

Lake Bled, Slovenia — Take a boat onto Lake Bled and take in the perfect blend of the area’s clear waters and the trees’ fiery hues.


Band on the Run: The Swelling of Art in Wells, BC

The little town of Wells, BC is as cute as they come. It’s snug in the valley between several mountains, (one of which is mysteriously called “Island Mountain”), and it’s a eastward turn off of highway 97 that connects Prince George, BC with Williams Lake, BC. I had never made that turn until this weekend and it took me along highway 26 for about 90kms into what is an historic hotbed.

Here’s some history: Wells, BC is really close to what is known as “historic Barkerville.” This area was bursting with activity during the mid 1800’s with the Cariboo gold rush. During its heyday, Barkerville was the largest town west of Chicago and north of San Francisco. However, with the death of the gold mining prospects there, the town died and sat abandoned for seventy years until the provincial government decided to restore it and bring it back to life as a tourist centre.

That was obviously the definition of a ghost town. I’d love some of those stories!

Wells, BC, on the other hand, was built in the 1930s as a company town for the Cariboo Gold-Quartz Mine. This mine was discovered long after things had died for Barkerville and represented yet another modest boom for the area. Wells enjoyed about a thirty-year burst of activity and prosperity before, as it always happens, the Earth could not sustain such abuse, gave up the last of her jewellrey in disgust and then forced the mines down.

Everywhere in Wells are mining or panning-for-gold references and old-fashioned images of the Wild West. By that, I mean rickety but colourful storefronts, paintings of covered wagons, and lots of puns about nuggets and gold dust finding their way into the names of restaurants and shops.

The people there welcomed us with big grins, hippie beads and sun-kissed shoulders.

The festival we performed at is called “Arts Wells Festival.” I love the double meaning when it’s said fast, although the logo doesn’t highlight the “swells” part of the festival name so I never did ask if it was intentional… but, I’m going to assume so. After all, in an area that has experienced significant swells in growth for destructive reasons, why not encourage the swelling of arts and community — constructive swells in Wells. (Well, that’s where my mind took me, anyhow!)

We arrived at around four o’clock on the last day of this long weekend festival. That was the soonest we could get there and it felt as though we arrived to a house party that was long underway. People were comfortably hanging out front of the century-old Sunset Theatre that was a wood frame building no bigger than a one-room school house with a stage and a front lobby and a tiny backstage tucked behind a musty old curtain. It reminded me of the school/church from Little House on the Prairie.

Everyone was either dusty from a long weekend of barefoot dancing at the main festival site (the local school down the road) or was damp from having just taken a dip in the river that ran right behind the theatre.

I wandered into the crowd unnoticed and found my way to the inside and the merchandise area looking for someone who could let us know where we needed to be and when. I found two smiling women selling CDs and eager to check in our items before the four o’clock show ended. We were scheduled to perform at five o’clock and were the final performance of the festival. It didn’t take me long to see the lay of the place and know that it would be a simple set-up and easy load-in.

I returned with a stack of CDs and was awarded two wooden festival badges with strings to hang around our necks. They are, by far, the coolest festival badges I have ever seen. Handmade and completely in tune with the vibe of this place; it was a family atmosphere and “homemade” seems to define everything that this festival is about.

I walked back outside then to get my gear and introduced myself to a couple of funky looking guys sitting on the outside steps. Turns out that most people here for the event were from Victoria or Vancouver, but a few were locals and everyone was super friendly – so friendly, in fact, that someone offered to go home to his house to get his amp for me to borrow. He hopped in his station wagon and was gone and back within five minutes. The tube amp under his generous arm as he made his way backstage made me smile immediately. There’s nothing better than tubes with my electric! (And of course, his smile to return my smile made me smile even wider.)

Just before four-thirty, I had myself organized enough to take in the last fifteen minutes of an amazing four-piece, spoken-word, beat-boxing group from Victoria called “Odditory Presence.” They were amazing. In the few songs I caught, they made me laugh, think and want to dance… and there was no instrument on stage besides their mouths and their minds. The mouth is an extremely important instrument for change. They’ve certainly got that covered.

When we stepped on stage, the place was full and looking onwards expectantly. Microphones were hardly needed thanks to the fact that it was built for optimum acoustics from a time when microphones weren’t even a consideration. It was intimate, to say the least. We laughed and were really casual on stage, playing a few old songs (“Goldilox” from our 2000 “The Wage is the Stage” release as our encore!), lots of new songs and telling long-winded stories. All told, the place embraced us and when we finished our encore, we were invited into that established group of friends that had long forgiven us for our late arrival.

The evening wore down then into dinner and drinks and a late-night jam. Well, it wasn’t too late, really. We headed back to our billet’s house before midnight knowing the long drive back to Edmonton the next day was going to hurt if we kept drinking wine and “scream singing” cover tunes!

A sunny-smiled woman named Kate who lives in a log home and is a massage therapist there in Wells put us up for the night. Her house smelled of cedar and incense. We both stepped in and knew we’d have a hard time leaving. Even the soap in the bathroom was handmade and all natural. And, the fact that her backyard is the foot of a mountain doesn’t hurt either. Her spices lined the kitchen counters in jars – counters that are homemade with tile tops and framed by pine – and the old fashioned stove top kettle reminded me of my grandma, its spout ornate and swooping upwards like a raised eyebrow lifts a question.

When we pulled out of Wells the next morning, I really didn’t want to leave. Just a taste of this warm community was a tease. My heart swelled with fondness when the drivers of two pick-up trucks that passed us coming out of the café in the morning as we were balancing steaming travel mugs honked and waved, the driver of one leaning out the window with “great show last night” catching the wind and making its way to our ears. Maybe next year (if they’ll have us back), we’ll plan a longer stay.

Yes, I think that’s in order.

The “Sweet Tea” Mason-Dixon Line

If you’ve spent any time in the southern US, you know about “sweet tea.” Pre-sweetened — sometimes mouth-puckeringly so — sweet tea is a staple throughout the south. But what do we mean when we say “the south”?

Historically, the line of separation between the north and the south has been the Mason-Dixon line. This line, set by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon on October 9, 1767, settled a border dispute and defined Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. During the civil war, the line stood as a separation between free and slave states.

Today, Virginia seems to have an internal conflict — a split personality, if you will — in which the northern area of the state does not generally offer sweet tea; in the southern part of the state, sweet tea is far more common. Perhaps the line of of change in sweet tea availability — a Sweet Tea Mason-Dixon line — may be the most realistic line of demarcation separating the North from the South today.

[Via Neatorama]